Actually it’s pretty damn expensive. Often, conversations take a lot of time to reach a productive conclusion. And in many cases they never do.
It’s not that talking is bad. It’s necessary. But what’s important is that we take the time to think about how we talk to each other and what we talk about.
Is the meeting or the phone call you’re about to have going to be productive? How so? What are your goals for it? Do you have the necessary materials, done the appropriate things or thought about the relevant topics before going into it? Or are you just hoping that your conversation will magically solve the problems or questions you have?
Today’s thought brought to you from The Department of Duh
One thing I LOVE about design: there are so many ways to think about and approach it.
One thing I DON’T LOVE about design (or specifically, the rhetoric around design): the arguments that “approach A is better than approach B.” or that we should “stop doing X…”
Context is everything, and chances are most tools have their time and place in some effort somewhere. Just because in your own work they haven’t been needed or used doesn’t mean that in someone else’s they haven’t been useful or even vital to making progress.
Instead, I think the smart designer is the one who understands the overal principles of design, the design process and creativity/creation. They have a philosophy, approach and tools that they often utilize but are familiar enough with other approaches and tools to understand their benefits and uses. They recognize when a particular design challenge’s context would benefit from their inclusion.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with our community critiquing the tools and approaches we employ. But recognizing that our own context affects those critiques is important. And to dismiss something outright in this way is often nearsighted, as is positing an alternative as entirely superior.
As designers we of all people should be aware of the subtleties of context. The usefulness of a tool lies not just in the problem we’ll solve with it, but in the environment where that solving will take place and the people we’ll solve it with.
Yes, you bet your sweet bippy I’ve read One Size Fits None. It’s a great read. Much more practical, pragmatic and less ranty than my outburst here.If you haven’t read it, you should.
And, as the title suggests, I’m fully aware that this article teeters on the edge of doing the very thing it says shouldn’t be done by saying we should “stop doing something…” I’m just waiting to see who, if anyone, will be the first to school me on it.
Note: There are no keen design insights to blow your mind in this post. This is merely a personal post that I’m making public for various reasons including accountability. Unless you’re a good friend or for some creepy reason have taken a keen interest in my life, it’s likely to not be anything you care about.
I’m damn lucky. I’m 32 years old and I’ve already accomplished many of the career goals I set for myself over the past 10 years. I’m a Design Director and part of an amazingly talented design studio (Mad*Pow) that is hell bent on making people’s lives better by improving the experiences they have when dealing with their health.
I get to travel all over the country and talk about topics I’m passionate about. And I get to work from my home which allows me to stay very involved in my kids’ lives and keep my family firmly rooted in a location that I can’t ever see myself leaving.
On top of that, thanks to the encouragement of my family and good friends, I’ve started a teeny, tiny career as an illustrator, an interest that at one point I thought I would need to abandon forever.
I’ve done a lot. And over the past 3 months I’ve been asking myself, “what’s next?” In the year leading up until now I was able to set very clear goals for myself and then work towards them. But for the first time in a long time now, all of my goals are fuzzy and there are so many of them that it makes it difficult to focus. I’ll admit that much of my previous success stemmed from being in situations that I disliked, and so my drive was based on making things better for me and my family. But right now, I can’t find a damn thing wrong with our situation. It is everything I want it to be.
I’m not bitching, mind you. Nor am I trying to brag. If you find yourself cursing at me under your breath or visualizing your fist firmly planted in between my eyes with my face caved in around it, I understand. It’s probably a good idea for you to stop reading now.
So back to my question. What do I do now? I still don’t know, but I have narrowed it down or at least i’ve organized my ideas.
I’m sure some of my friends thought based on the premise of this post that I’m announcing a major career change or a move to a new organization.
I will remain a Mad*Powian for as long as it makes sense to them and to me. I can’t imagine a better fit. They have been supportive of allowing me to explore and pursue my interests to whatever extent they can, and that’s what I need right now.
These topics have been the focus of a lot of my thinking over the past 3 years. I am in love with the “creative process” from conceptualization to creation, regardless of medium. I love observing it, reading about it, and sharing my own observations on it. Some people believe it to be a miraculous occurrence while others believe it is a concrete process that can be followed. I believe it’s somewhere in between. And I plan to continue to study it as much as I can and share what I learn.
Almost hand-in-hand with that goes my interest with helping people work better together. As both an in-house designer and as a consultant, I’ve found helping teams come up with, share and make decisions about ideas to be my favorite part of my job. It almost doesn’t matter what it is we’re designing, it’s seeing teams work to create something together that I find satisfying. This is what has driven me to be such a strong component of critique, something that I feel is vital to collaboration and teamwork. It is also the cause for my focus on studying and sharing ideas on how best to create and facilitate environments for collaboration.
Going forward I plan to remain and even increase my focus on these two topics. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll continue to stay involved in the technical aspects of design, but this will be where my focus stays.
While helping teams work together in the context of a project is great. I’ve found that I prefer to help them understand the aspects that make for strong collaboration at a broader level. Organizations suffer from a number of challenges to collaboration; everything from their infrastructure and org charts, to project management, to deep rooted cultural issues. I’ve seen first-hand how taking time to step back and understand and address the challenges teams face can make for a more productive, creative and happy staff.
Mad*Pow has been very supportive of my desires to play more of an education role. Through them I’ll be looking to take that even further and looking for outside opportunities as well.
And now back to one of my first loves, stories.
To all you designers who just did an eye-roll thinking about the whole story-telling in design thing - hold on a minute.
Yes. I do think that storytelling is an important part of design and I’m sure I’ll be sharing my thoughts on that soon enough, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about telling actual stories.
When I first started college I had every intention of being an animator and filmmaker. That changed for a number of reasons, but the interest never went away.
Now that I’ve proven to myself that here is the possibility of me having some form of art career, it’s time to decide what I want to do with it. And that’s telling stories. Until now I’ve focused mostly on stand alone illustrations. Single pieces that illustrate one concept or emotion. But longer stories have been stuck in my head for years and I plan to start telling, or more specifically, drawing them.
On top of that, I still love film and filmmaking, and I see a number of opportunities to combine it with my interests in creativity and collaboration. And if I can find ways to weave storytelling and film into my work with Mad*Pow, you damn well believe I’m going to pursue it.
So that’s it. That’s me in a nutshell. Clear goals? Nope. Not yet. But I think I have a better understanding of where those goals could lie when they emerge. For right now, I can just enjoy what I have and do my thing.
Like I said, I’m damn lucky.
If you’re someone who has decision making authority on a project and are likely to use it, then you aren’t someone who just needs to be “kept in the loop” you need to be actively involved.
So make room on your calendar. You’ve got work to do.
If you aren’t at least considering people’s emotions, you probably aren’t designing for an experience.
In order to maintain a collaborative spirit and culture in your team members it’s important to remain in communication with them even after their tasks are done or their roles and responsibilities lead them away from the project.
Ending communication with collaborators too soon can lead to weakened collaboration in future efforts.
Now in most ideal situations, people would be involved in some capacity during an entire project. But being realistic, it’s important to recognize that that’s not always possible in the environments some of us work in.
But just because someone’s work leads them away from the project, does not mean that you should stop communicating with them about it.
Over the life of your project, your designs will need to change. New constraints and information will arise and you’ll have to rethink some of the decisions you’ve previously made.
If those decisions were made with the help of people that are no longer actively engaged in the project (not because they don’t want to be) it is still be a good idea to consult with them on how and why the decision may need to be changed. They may have additional insights on what changes should be made given the new information. Or at the very least they’re made aware of the changes and the rationale for why they’re being made, so that at the end of the project, when the product is released, they aren’t left wondering where their contributions went and why they were even involved in the first place.
And this gets at the core of a good collaborative environment. Participants have to feel like they’ve contributed. Like their thoughts, ideas, and insights added value and helped shape the final result. By dropping communication with team members too soon, you run the risk of those members not seeing their value or questioning why they we’re even asked to help in the first place. And next time they’re called on to collaborate with you, they may not feel as willing to do so.
Over the past few years “sketching” has become an often talked about activity in the web/ux design space. I don’t think there’s a question as to whether or not sketching is a valuable exercise. But I do think that over time we’ve begun to fetishize the act of sketching, or maybe more precisely the sketches themselves.
At one point I was the curator of Johnny Holland’s (the online interaction design magazine) flickr groups, one of which was dedicated to sketches. The more sketches that I saw being submitted, the more I became curious about the patterns I was seeing. These “sketches” were often pristine documents, lines meticulously placed, with precise edges and indicating elements like rounded corners, drop shadows, I even saw some that seemed to indicate font selections like serif vs san-serif. It was obvious that the creators had taken a great bit of care in creating them.
The more I saw, the more I wondered, why were the creators doing this. Is this what sketching is about?
I’ve studied art and illustration since I was 14; when I was 19 I also started studying animation. Sketching plays a huge part in these practices and in my time studying them I’ve come to understand two distinct but connected purposes for sketching.
Particularly in commercial applications of art, sketches themselves are used to communicate a basic idea, such as composition. Often this is done in the context of getting approval to move ahead form an art director or client. For example, sometimes when I do commissions, I get a clients OK on a sketch prior to starting on what will be the final piece.
A lot has been said about the ability of a sketch to quickly communicate an idea and to serve as a catalyst for productive conversation on the elements of a design. Where many ux and web designers used to lean on wireframes, sketches have been seen as a potentially faster tool that has less of a tendency to be turned into “documentation”.
Sketches are a great vehicle for communicating basic aspects and concepts within a piece without having to spend time to create something final or near final, or spending time thinking through detailed decisions that aren’t, at the point in time, important.
It’s clear to me that, in the sketches I was seeing on Flickr, this was the main purpose the creators were striving for. They were looking for a way to communicate their ideas to others. But what was concerning was the level of detail to which they were going. At the point in a process where sketching is useful do things like drop shadows and line weight matter? Were they really saving much in the way of time?
And there was something else that seemed to be missing…
The other purpose of sketching, and to me the primary purpose of any sketch, is to explore an idea. By sketching something out on paper we are able to quickly see how the pieces of our idea will actually fit together when assembled. Gaps quickly make themselves evident and we start to see opportunities for variations and entirely different paths and approaches.
Sketches start a stream of thinking that produces curves, branches, redirections and all sorts of changes to our thought process around possible solutions. All of this tends to happen rapidly and so sketches take on a “messy” and sometimes jumbled quality. This is a major component of what I felt was missing. There was no evidence in the “sketches” I was seeing that an evolution in thought was taking place.
So was it that messy quality that I’m missing? Yes and no. What I wasn’t seeing was evidence that ideas were being explored and that the creators were investigating the numerous variations that their sketches made apparent were possible. Instead they appeared as if the creator had a very precise image of what they wanted to put on the page and then did so with great precision. And took extra time to embellish their rendering with details that likely didn’t matter much.
How much time did they really save? How much more time could they have saved? How many other ideas could they have explored as part of their sketching?
If you look at the sketchbooks of an industrial designer or character designer, you’ll see essentially the same objects or characters drawn over and over again, but differently. Sometimes it’ll just be subtle changes from picture to picture, sometimes it will look almost completely different, but the sketches show an evolution of thought and the exploration down those paths.
Maybe all this is present in the things I didn’t see in the photographs. Maybe I was just seeing pictures of one sketch out of many. It’s completely possible. But only being able to judge by what I could see in the photos and photo streams, I was left to wonder. And I’ve seen this pattern show up outside of those flickr submissions as well.
The two purposes are closely tied. A designer may explore an idea and then use the sketches generated to share their ideas with others. Additionally, A sketch may serve as a catalyst, used to to communicate an initial idea to a group who will then together explore that idea likely through successive sketching.
Is it OK to sketch with the sole purpose of communicating? I suppose. Not sure I could say it isn’t. But I do think it’s important to fully understand what sketching is good for and when to do it.
Is this a discussion of semantics: What does it mean to “sketch”? Maybe. But as I’ve mentioned before, I think semantics are important. What we call things matters, particularly because we are expected to communicate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it quite often, especially in cases of collaboration.
So when you sketch, are you exploring an idea? How many variations or alternatives are you sketching out so that you can compare and contrast to find the best choice? How much detail are you putting in? Are those details important right now?
I miss filmmaking. It’s no secret. Nearly anyone who gives me an opening to talk about it in a conversation ends up with an earful. I miss it so much, that right now I’m putting together plans for two small film projects that I’ll be working on over the course of the next year or so.
One of my favorite things about my job as a designer has been the way it’s allowed me to hold on to and re-explore the things I learned as a film student. The parallels between filmmaking and experience design are undeniable. And as my view on experience design has developed, I’ve come to see filmmaking as experience design in the medium of moving pictures and sound.
In other words, to me good filmmaking is experience design at work.
It’s a process of determining how something, a story, should feel to an audience and then choosing the right components and techniques to create that feeling (I’m using feeling very broadly here it encompasses emotion, thinking, reaction, etc). It starts with a story, moves through screenwriting, into set and costume design, cinematography, editing, and finally previewing and release (There are many more elements too, but I didn’t want to write out the whole list here)
This week Peter Merholz came to a very similar conclusion, and many other people are talking about it as well. This is so friggin’ awesome!
But here’s the thing; let’s not stop at just thinking about the fact that they are analogous. There’s more to it than that.
Two years ago at Interactions in Boulder I gave a talk on applying filmmaking tools to design. Of all the content I’ve ever put together it’s one of my favorites. And I’m hoping to give a more expanded version of it a few times in the coming year.
Beyond just the similarities in structure, there are similarities in process and technique that we can learn from. For example:
Cinematography can teach us about the meaning behind how things move. There are cinematic patterns that have been used over and over again that help subtly communicate messages in a story.
And there are animation principles originally developed by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas that can help us better understand motion when dealing with non-physical elements like pixels on a screen.
Screenwriting can help us think about our content differently. Though I haven’t had as many opportunities to do this as I’d like, I have had a few occasions where I’ve been able to get project teams to think about the product we’re designing as a character. Even going to the lengths of writing a character sheet (persona) for it and then using it to write out a dialogue/scene/scenario between it and a user. Often I’ve done this with comics and it’s worked really well.
Thinking of a product this way can help better define a voice for it. And when done collaboratively, it does it in a way that a whole team can come to understand and refer to as we move through the design process.
Also from screenwriting comes the idea of the beat sheet. I talked about this in my Interactions talk. It’s primarily taught as a screenwriting tool, but as I learned in school, it can also be a great tool for directors in helping to keep all the moving parts of a film, and all the people involved, working toward the same goals for the story. I won’t get into it too much here, but in my experimenting with task flows, I’ve found it to fit really nicely, especially in interactions that involve strong emotions.
Then there is the aspect of editing. Now, when it comes to tools and techniques, this one is a bit more nebulous. In my experience both in design and filmmaking, this often comes down to philosophy and the editor’s eye and intuition. When I was in school, the biggest and most reiterated lesson in editing was “Everything in service to the story.” If what the audience was seeing or hearing on screen doesn’t move the story forward, then it isn’t needed. This could mean that you keep the footage of one scene playing while the audio from the next scene starts, because those are the elements moving the story forward.
Editing is a key skill in design. I’d love to see teams dedicate time in their process to step back and say, “OK, what can we get rid of.”
And lastly, there is the aspect of sound. In the digital world I feel like sound is the red-headed stepchild. Most designers ignore it, citing that we can’t rely on it, and that if we do, we run into accessibility issues.
And it’s not that that isn’t true. But as computing becomes more and more ubiquitous and not just localized to the machine you’ve got sitting on your desk, I can’t help but wonder if there are things we’re missing here. Just as many of the elements of cinematography and motion are additive, strengthening messages and information is subtle ways, so is sound design.
I LOVE this topic. And I’m so excited to see more people thinking about it. If any of you want to talk and share ideas on it with me directly, please get in touch. leave a comment, email me at adam at adamconnor.com or hit me up on twitter.
And if anyone is interested in my talk from Interactions, here it is:
Life is a story (some more entertaining than others). If you want to design things that people use, rely on, trust, enjoy, appreciate, love, then you need to, not just know but, be able to describe how it fits in and changes their life (story).
Good content requires good design. Good design requires good content. Never believe anyone who tells you they have one without having done any of the other.