Posted Mar.17.06 :: As part of the conversation Design Vision
Bob, you mentioned that “unusually talented polymath designers” are extremely hard to find. Throughout this discussion, I’ve been defining these mythological creatures as designers that understand and implement iterative holistic communication.
You mentioned that “what gets created” is ultimately the responsibility of every designer because they are the ones that make ideas visible. Sounds like the perfect role for our mythological polymath, no? So why don’t we find more of these elusive creatures in the wild? I’ll put two ideas out there:
1. Many design organizations and their processes don’t provide opportunities for mentorship. Projects move very fast and junior designers are quickly dropped into a rapidly moving timeline to “sink or swim”. Those that can hold their breadth for a while might learn to do relays but most just keep treading water. Instead of real mentoring, junior designers get the “artificial process tools” Dirk described at the start if this conversation. These methodologies often enforce how design fits into business and engineering constraints more than they provide education in real-world design vision. Designers aren’t taught to be communicators, they’re taught to be implementers.
2. Design education and design critics are rooted in theory. My experiences setting up and teaching graduate and undergraduate level interface design courses gave me a detailed view into how ill-equipped higher education is to provide relevant, holistic design education. I struggled for months to bring together professors from Computer Science, Library & Information Sciences, Human Factors, and Graphic Design to create an interface design sequence that would develop the kind of broad principles required for real world product design. Most departments are seeped in their own theory and not in “rubber meets the road” approaches to education. I have further evidence of this in the emails I receive from aspiring or novice designers that seek direction: “where can I go to learn more?”.
What I think this all boils down to is what I hope comes out of our conversation: a recognition and ongoing discussion of the role of design vision within organizations and product development processes. And perhaps, more importantly, an effort to seed and grow the skills and approaches that define design vision in the next generation of designers.
Throughout this Design Conversations series, one difference between us has become clear, and I believe it’s formed the context from which our individual comments, judgments, ideas, and pronouncements have come. This difference is in where our design careers have taken us, the nature of our projects, and the ways and approaches we’ve developed for solving very different kinds of problems. For this reason, I don’t think we can talk about “Design” as though it’s some kind of monolithic thing. The issues inside large internal, permanent design groups are extremely different from consultancies and skunkworks. It’s as different as regular Army infantry and Special Forces.
My career experiences have taught me a lot about “getting it done,” as this is more important in consulting and skunkworks projects than anything else. You’re not there for an indefinite period of time. You’re there to make it happen successfully in a short period of time, and in a way that will insure continued success afterward.
I don’t buy the notion that design by individuals or two or three broad-based individuals covering design, engineering, and marketing/business angles is inherently “risky” let alone “unhealthy.” It would be unwise to give the steering wheel to designers that hadn’t previously and successfully undertaken projects of similar scale and scope to what’s being considered. But if the designer or small team has been building experience and success on aggressive and large-scale projects, then giving them a similar or slightly larger responsibility is not inherently or significantly risky whatsoever. And furthermore, I believe a lot more designers are capable of pushing themselves far further than conventional wisdom generally admits. There’s so much self-limiting talk in the design and development fields. Broad declarations such as, “Designers aren’t much good at this or that,” or “While some braniacs from the planet Krell are capable of doing large-scale breakthrough design, most designers aren’t.”
Such beliefs and statements strike me as dismissive and unnecessarily limiting. Fear-based risk aversion is poisonous to Capital D Design, in my view.
One thing I’ve noticed in the design community is that at first you hear designers or individuals can’t do some particular thing. Then if alternative evidence is presented, the claim then gets changed to, “Well, okay, but that’s just these special individuals, and they’re an exception.” Why would such a sentiment be expressed, if not to try to warn other designers that they shouldn’t be getting any wild ideas that they might be able to do something like that. (insert scowling emoticon here) Grrrrr.
More designers should take more risks. Instead of limiting themselves, or listening to those that claim they can only do so much, they should think expansively. They should try to do things beyond what’s merely asked of them. They should realize that they can learn about business, and realize why any design that’s not concerned with making profit for the company, is a design that’s failing. They should know that they can very well be inventors, in addition to being innovators. And design is an excellent field in which to invent, as it’s in a prime position for recognizing intersections between fields, technologies, methodologies, and financial structures. This is what I’d like to say to the next generation of designers.
My experience has been in small and fast-paced skunkworks teams of three to five people. The individual team-members are brought in on a project-by-project basis. My loose confederacy of collaborators tackle everything from industrial design and mechanical engineering, to software development, to user experience, to marketing and business strategies, to intellectual property strategies and patent support. Some of these skills were not learned formally, but picked along the way, by doing a little of it, and striving always to learn more and do more. It’s a long process, but over our careers, we each accumulated a wide range of interrelated skills and experience putting them into practice. And we’re mentoring younger team-members, so that they’ll eventually be able to do more and more. Luke’s right on with his comments on the importance of mentoring. It’s the key to developing larger numbers of broad-based, experienced, and visionary designers capable of pushing us farther forward and faster.
This approach has evolved so that we can drop into a wide range of challenging technology and business situations at all scales from small to very large, and deliver a highly integrated, multi-dimensional design solution. When all is said and done, it always comes down to getting it done. We just want to do it successfully, with fewer people, and as fast as possible. This is a model I’d like to think could become more common in the next generation of designers. It fits with an ever-expanding realm of technology and systems needing effective design solutions.