Posted Mar.15.06 :: As part of the conversation Design Vision
I’ve spent a great deal of my career working alone, or with one or two other collaborators (not counting periodic working sessions with engineers and executives), and have enjoyed a great deal of freedom and empowerment from this configuration. However, I’ve evolved in what I feel is the most effective working configuration for today’s design world, which is a somewhat, overlapping team of experienced generalists who as a group cover design (all aspects), strategy, business, marketing, engineering, and manufacturing/implementation.
This shift comes from two driving factors. First is that at the beginning of my career I was mostly isolated from others in the field of design, and having been trained in a very European style of broad generalist industrial design, I felt comfortable being a one-man band. Plus, I often didn’t have a choice. I had aggressive and broadly encompassing design strategies, and had to devise ways to document and get them implemented without the help of a larger collaborative group. Through experience I learned what worked and what didn’t, and built on my successes and discarded failed strategies.
As time went on though, I met and began to collaborate with others that shared my generalist approach and broad design philosophy. Over time it became easier to find others to collaborate with on consulting projects, and this in turn enabled the scale of my projects to increase.
But another factor throughout the 1980s and 1990s also made group collaboration increasingly valuable, and that was the acceleration and compression of development schedules. A project that may have taken one to two years in the early 1990s (for example a medical device, or an electronic program guide system for television) was shortened to a year, and then six months, and today perhaps three months! A designer that wishes to maintain the same level of detail and breadth of solution is faced with two possibilities – eighteen-hour days or collaborate.
Fortunately, collaboration is not only more efficient and faster, but it’s also more enjoyable, if the team chemistry is positive and compatible. My most enjoyable design experiences have been intense white boarding and development sessions with groups of similarly broad-based generalists, together covering an amazingly wide field of criteria and interrelated needs.
With such teams of generalists, very complex and detailed design projects can be undertaken and successfully completed in very short time frames. Not all designers are cut out for such intense and often demanding initiatives. But for those that are, great achievements and the rewards of knowing how much was accomplished are often a strong motivating factor.
More and more it’s becoming apparent that the design world, and particular the field of interaction design and information architecture, need real world examples to lead the way. Our field is now beginning to mature and learn what the older and more mature fields of architecture and industrial design have shown for a long time – that it’s not about the talking, but about showing what’s been done. Therein lie the real lessons for our field.
Bottom line? It’s all about less pie-in-the-sky and more rubber-meeting-the-road.
I want to go back to something Dirk said at the outset, “Contrary to currently-accepted dogma, great design is often driven by one key individual.” I didn’t take issue with that in the first segment but given Luke and Jim’s comments here is worth exploring a bit.
While I agree that great design *can* be driven by a single, key individual, such a situation should be considered both risky and unhealthy. I manage a team of nearly 20 designers and it is a critical part of my job to make sure everybody has a design buddy. Although we can’t always dedicate the resources, it is clear that both the designers and the work product benefit when people work in two-man teams. We are social animals by Nature and rare is the individual who can continually and happily face the creative challenge entirely alone. That’s not to say that there aren’t some unusually talented polymath designers floating around out there – Jim and Luke are obvious examples – but these people are as rare as Hayao Miyazaki.
But more specifically to the question of getting it done, the single most important factor is establishing and maintaining a rhythm. There is nothing like daily stand-up meetings or weekly review meetings to keep things moving forward. Without such a rhythm is all to easy to slip into a pattern of procrastination and fear, further compressing schedules that were unrealistic to start with and robbing the designer of the necessary time for exploration, failure, and recovery.
It goes back to what I said when we started this thing, Design is a rigorous and disciplined form of problem solving and like any discipline it requires repetition, rhythm, and resolve.