“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

“Design Vision” – A conversation by 4 designers

Design Vision
The beginning of 2006 a group of 4 pretty awesome designers got together and published a virtual conversation on their mutual blogs. Luke Wroblewski, Jim Leftwitch, Dirk Knemeyer, and Bob Baxley (in reverse alphabetical order, b/c Luke is almost always mentioned last otherwise) represent very different backgrounds sometimes within the same individual. They also have different focuses in their design careers. You can get a PDF of the conversation at Functioning Form.

The conversation should be required reading for anyone wanting to move their design career up a notch, make their design teams more influential, and most importantly improve the final quality of their designs, themselves.

The overall salient point of the conversation is that design succeeds best when there is a coherent vision attached to a project. Some of the group focused on this meaning that the vision is owned and directed by a single individual, while others balanced that with a more collaborative approach.

Another salient point of the conversation is that communication is a central component of many facets of a design process. Bob Baxley in particular did a great job of focusing the conversation from communicating solutions to really communicating a design vision. These are two very distinct tasks and both vital to a final solution.

Every conversation has a few holes, and I’m the one to point out the ones that I care about.

While for the most part their conversations hit almost everything right on the head, I am concerned about some of what might be construed from the conversation as generalism for generalism’s sake.

What I got from the conversation is that a great design leader (a visionary) is someone who understands the general over the particular. While I agree that general knowledge is needed by a good leader, I’m not so sure that the shunning of the specialization of design is really the right direction.

My co-director at IxDA surprised me sorta with this quote. Now since I know Luke W. I know that he “gets it”. So this isn’t so much a challenge of Luke, but a challenge of an idea that Luke leaves unexplained. It is an idea that is at the center of the work I have been doing in founding IxDA and leading in UXNet. Shoot, its about everything I believe in design. First, here is Luke’s quote:

The problem is design is being segmented into too many specialties … which leaves designers without a complete understanding of their medium(s). If you don’t know your medium, how can you communicate through it? How can you give your products the market differentiation …?

Now I first have to totally agree with the spirit of what Luke is alluding to in this quote. I think unfortunately though as it is unexplained, it takes the message a bit too far. What is important is that designers have a strong cross-section of understanding the different components that make up their individual medium. So for someone working on a software solution (web or otherwise) it is crucial for that designer to have a strong balance across different disciplines: IA, IxD, Visual Design, HCI (cognitive science), usability & heuristic analsyis, technical understanding, strategy, etc.

The issue though is that to have a broad understanding of as an established product designer or user experience design, someone somewhere had to specialize in order to teach you the generalist what you need to know for you path. These “experts” can’t solely exist in the research arena of academia or corporate research. People directly involved in practice need to be these experts as well, they need to be in discourse with the the “pure research” crowd for sure, and they need to be in dialog with the experts of different disciplines.

To make these experts exist needs to happen in a dynamic and organic method and that is where the “splinter group” organization craze has been coming into play. This reality of organizing in order to create mentoring centers, and opportunities for discourse and dialog around specialization is not a great plan to say only ixD is needed to complete a software project, but only IA is needed for an intranet (or other information portal). But it doesn’t mean that it isn’t a necessary part of making that greater whole better.

I feel I’m not being clear so maybe an example will help. …

I design web-based content management systems. I am a generalist, in so far as I have a broad understanding of what it takes to create these systems in much the way that Luke describes in the “Design Vision” conversation. He’s dangerous enough in any one primary discipline in order to contribute at a high level. It is true that a design visionary is often a manager and can have “specialists” working for them, so their craft of these different ideas is not so necessary. But many are still doing hands-on work, and are most certainly doing evaluation of other people’s work and so being “too” broad will put a design visionary/manager at a strong disadvantage. If you are a lone wolf type like Jim has been, then you definitely need the real craft skills that go along with true specialization.

But back to our scenario here. While it might be easy to see that IxD is a core problem piece of my work, I am nothing without a solid understanding of visual/graphic design. When I say solid, I mean that. Understanding the core foundations of graphic design is a requirement for someone doing the work I do. Type, color, negative space, line, spacing, texture, etc. are all part of how an interaction design gets finally communicated out to the user. For me to learn this information requires that someone out there has previously specialized in this and further its application to the world of web-based applications. In fact, what is interesting is that Luke is such a specialist on this very topic, and I rely on his communication of that expertise as a core source of mentorship (indirectly) for my own work.

If there was not a disciplined focus on graphic communication design over the last century, and practitioners following that specialization then we would be less than what we are today.

A more viable sustainable reality over the generalist is what Peter Boersman from Amsterdam calls the T-shaped designer. Basically, a good designer is broad (the top of the T) in their understanding of all the necessary disciplines, but in one discipline they retain depth of understanding (the vertical stem of the T).

The reason I describe this approach as sustainable, is because we need to have people of depth in practice in order to sustain the growth and advancement of those individual disciplines but especially as we reach higher levels in a design organization or in our career we need to balance that depth with broad understanding so that we are successful because at the core of Luke’s statement is a real truth.

When applying this to thinking about the many organizations out there, I really believe more and more in what IxDA is about and how we have done a tremendous job of separating out the difference between IxD and user experience design or experience design. Recently, while in the UK I had an opportunity to have a conversation with some alumni of the Ivrea school of Interaction Design. All very smart people and were able to articulate well their own vision for what IxD is all about. A common theme came out that while they can see IxD as a separate discipline the way IxDA has been defining it, their education being called an IxD masters has had to focus on the totality of their projects (their thesis) and thus, IxD became for them to mean both the generic of experience design and the specific of behavioral design. The education process itself by a possible necessity has had to create a blurring of the lines where there are still real distinctions.

I know that not all IxD programs have this same outcome, but I can respect how difficult it could be to manage that line in a single program that has to develop practioners for the real world, where as noted in the Design Vision conversations really are about understanding broad design ideas (“Big D Design”) and cannot be totally grounded in a single discipline.

Education was definitely one of the pieces mentioned a few times in the conversation. Either informal education such as mentorship, or even talk of the design programs that some of the participants are graduates of themselves. Again, there is a need for masters level education that is broad and directed at practice, but this needs to happen within a balanced environment where deep exploration of specific disciplines can occur as well so that the entirety can advance.

Jim Leftwich mentioned a quote from a renaissance architect, which I’ll repeat here:

Beauty will result from the most beautiful form and from the correspondence of the whole to the parts; of the parts among themselves, and of these again to the whole; so that the structures may appear an entire and complete body, wherein each member agree with the others and all members are necessary for the accomplishment of the building.
      — Andreas Pallado (1508-1580); Renaissance Architect

This quote is beautiful if you ignore that it is a long run-on sentence. It is relevant to the point I’m building here, in that just like the beauty of a final solution is really the beauty of both the totality and the individual components all at the same time. The choreography of a dance performance for example is only successful when the music, costume, and lighting are also beautiful independently. The same is true about the relationship of different design disciplines. In essence you need strong and perfect IxD with Visual Design, with perfect usability, etc. to create a beautifully designed user experience as well.

So now that we are speaking about education, how do we create a framework for such an educational endeavor, where some are working towards broad understanding of the totality of UX practice and others are working towards a strong and deep understanding of the separate disciplines, so that that knowledge can be passed back to the generalists in their education? This to me is a core project of the UXNet movement. Whether it is educational programs, or relationship management with the current institutions teaching design and other related disciplines.

Another theme I’d like to address from the Design Vision conversations is around the very definition of Design (big or little d definitions). Bob Baxley puts out the following definition of design:

Def.: Design is a rigorous, analytical, and disciplined form of problem solving. Its peers include other such forms of problem solving such as Art, Science, Engineering, Law, and Government. Further, as a form of problem solving, Design is optimized for innovation in the same way that Engineering is optimized for construction, Science for discovery, and Art for emotive communication.

That definition is hard to disagree with. It is good in that it focuses the definition of design on the process used as opposed to the result. Design as verb (or at least gerund) instead of as noun. But I feel as in most conversations going around the world about Design & Innovation it falls short in the details. I guess this goes to the point about communication is in the details. For me to say that it is a form of problem solving does not direct people to what makes design so special. So what we have been seeing more and more is that business folks are being “taught” design in their MBA programs as if it can be done as an ‘add-on” elective like “Writing for Business”.

Design is not just a “form of problem solving”, it is indeed rigorous, as Bob says, but he doesn’t say how it is rigorous and what makes it unique. I also think that focusing on “innovation” as the valuable “outcome” of Design as comparing it to “construction” for engineering is also leading people astray. I don’t think that a good design solution needs to be innovative. I don’t believe that “innovation” as it has been tallied about most recently from BusinessWeek to Design Management Institute is anything more than a buzzword. What makes design useful is that it has a specific—not just rigorous, but specific—methods and processes for developing the “right” solution. Sometimes “innovation” is the wrong solution. And not everything “new” is an “innovation”.

But my real point is not about the word “innovation”; that might be a red-herring of sorts. What I’m really interested in pointing out is what makes design unique compared to the other methods of problem solving mentioned by Bob, and that is divergent and non-linear thinking. This to me is the crux of the story and really the value of Design with a big D. It relates to the core of why MBA programs won’t get “design” right, and why the Design Visionary can really only come from a person raised in design thinking in some way.

The design school teaches non-linear, divergent creativity, and then analysis, evaluation and validation (well if it is any good) through the studio. Design is about exploration of both breadth and depth along the path of final evaluation towards a solution. Design works by bridging the absurdly progressive with the annoyingly conservative.

The other special attribute of design is that being intrinsically connected to art, it is also connected to emotional manipulation. Emotions are a personal phenomena and to manipulate them requires a strong empathy for some generalized understanding of the “consumer” of a solution. This to some degree makes all designers “user-centered”, which I think Dirk in the conversation alludes to as one of the core reasons that designers should own the design vision.

I’ll use this thought to transition into another point. The group seems to look down upon what are called “artificial” processes (I’m not sure what isn’t artificial in design) such as user-centered design systems. It was never detailed what they meant by this, and possibly it was only tangential to their core discussion, but I felt that this idea, which permeates the entire conversation doesn’t really go deep enough and again might leave the reader thinking that all 4 of these speakers don’t have any appreciation for UCD processes at all.

I agree that in the UX community we are focused a tad too much on usability as a pervasive almost overriding selling point of what design firms and groups can offer their conspirator stakeholders. Reasons for this abound, but I am afraid that our 4-some are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Some of the processes that have been developed over the last decade or so are actually great tools for researching, applying, and communicating empathy for those whom we are creating for. While the processes themselves may have reached some level of marketingware for those that tout them, there are nuggets of diamonds in that rough, so to speak and in reading some of the more detailed processes that are mentioned in the discussion, they allude to such “artificial” methods indirectly, showing that there is a dialog going on that is quite valuable.

Which brings me to my last area of discussion, but to be honest, it is more filled with questions. I am reading this conversation on my flight to the IA Summit in Vancouver. I am going to present on various topics. One such presentation is about wireframes (or more generally prototypes). I am feeling ambiguous about the content of my presentation at this point in time. (This is something that always happens to me. I create a presentation and in the process of its creation I form new and more complex ideas challenging my original assumptions.)

But Jim in one of the conversations centered on communication spoke of his methods and practice. How because of his long history of designing highly interactive systems before there were good interactive tools for doing prototyping, he developed his own combination of flat deliverables. He goes further to say that his current experience with these deliverables is that they are more powerful than interactive prototypes (he highlights many reasons in the conversation). Dirk also explains how low-fi deliverables help create a more collaborative environment.

The twist for me is that for both flat and low-fi prototypes I have found deep problems when trying to communicate a solution to core stakeholders and evaluators. The primary issue has been that stakeholder-evaluators of a design get very distracted by lack of detail. They start focusing on the wrong areas.

On the other hand stakeholders will feel left out if deliverables are too detailed. We have to assume that not all stakeholders can be fully collaborated with as they have other duties that require their attention more than doing design—i.e. sales. So when they are engaged with, and a prototype looks “too done”, they don’t fully participate.

In spirit I agree with everything said, I’m just not seeing it map against my reality as a designer. I think that an exploration of the details that Jim, Luke, Dirk, and Bob (OK, is it just coincidence that all 4 of them have 1 syllable names?) is really necessary to get to the bottom of this area of their conversation.

To conclude I want to say that to do such a conversation with the intention of publishing it as they have and in the manner that they did so is truly design leadership—leading the community, their peers, and within their organizations. I want to express my gratitude for the extra efforts they all made to make this happen. I think that most people really underestimate how hard it is to constantly put yourself out there for public scrutiny. I know I appreciate this and their other big contributions.

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