To Undo or Not Undo

by Susan Mavor

October 4, 2017

The unacknowledged power of going backwards


Photo © Johnny Jet/Flickr


“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”—Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back


I think these words are meant to be encouraging, or even enlightening, more than daunting. But in my Jedi mind, Yoda is just plain wrong. Of course there is a third way. There is Undo—or Command-Z, as Mac users know it best.


It always felt completely appropriate that the letter Z was bestowed with the awesome power to Undo. Think about it: if the X-axis represents a horizontal plane, and Y-axis a vertical plane, Z is, naturally, a completely new dimension. Command-Z is like turning back the clock. It’s a digital time machine. How on earth would a humdrum “Command-M” possibly be good enough for something that special?


Undo is a command that has seeped into my consciousness in real life in strange and subtle ways. Sometimes I feel compelled to hit Command-Z for things in real life that I wish could be undone. Surely I’m not the only person who has reflexively reached for the cosmic Command-Z after, say, spilling red wine on a white broadloom, or adding salt instead of sugar to a cookie recipe. This game-changing little command, ubiquitous in software, is a fact of everyday functionality in our tech-dependent lives. But because Undo is everywhere in the digital realm, it’s possible that we take its power for granted.


I clearly remember the first time I used design software that had the ability to Undo. It felt so liberating that I no longer had to carefully erase or trash a whole concept in development or start again because of one wrong move. Depending on the project, one wrong move could make the difference between sleeping that night or not. I’ve been a designer for 25 years and I know and appreciate how Undo affords me experimentation in my work.


As designers, we are trained to continually seek new answers to old questions and develop creative approaches to new challenges. We take risks; we find new angles; we test hypotheses and endless iterations of colour and form. Undo is a friendly safety net underneath us the whole way. The ability to retreat to safer or more successful design ground allows us to try all manner of iterations without the spectre of perfection hemming us in. Designers can twist and mash their ideas in any which way they please, always comfortable in the knowledge that Undo allows us to go back and fix our missteps if we take a wrong turn.


But like most tools, Undo has a dark side. Being able to Undo can lead a designer down the troubled path of aiming for the creation of one perfect version. When you’re in idea-generation mode, keeping a record of tests, variations, and different attempts gives you the opportunity to stand back later and evaluate what has merit and what doesn’t, especially when you’re working with a team that wants to see all the flawed iterations you’ve tried. A sketchbook and pen force you to do this. Undo lets you off the hook. And this is sometimes a trap, especially for new designers. Saving iterations and experiments is easily done—with other key commands—you just have to remember to do it.


This ability to test awkward or messy new ideas is precisely what we need to feel safe doing. And by making decisions and acting on them—by doing—we learn. It doesn’t matter if we Undo or not. We still learn something. And what’s interesting to me is that it often works this way outside the digital realm, too.


Certainly, the act of doing, in real life, comes with a whole set of additional concerns, such as consequences, regret, ethical questions and the potential need for forgiveness or remorse, to name a few. And, of course, there is the fact that some things cannot be undone no matter what. Considering the role of doing and undoing, however, allows us to walk the tightrope between growing more rash in our actions and taking risks that are necessary to solve difficult and new problems. As a superpower used with care, Undo is freeing. For designers, it allows us to be bold in our digital work and learn from our experiments. Should we any be different in real life?


Take action, be bold, and do. May the force be with you.


Susan Mavor, SEGD, CGD, is principal, communication design at PUBLIC. 



James Bothroyd

October 6, 2017


I enjoyed your existentialist treatise! You write lucidly, without editing no doubt. Kiss hug. J


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