“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

Being able to take abstract direction is a key to being a great designer. True or False

I’ve been teaching design now for a bit over 3 years. By teaching I mean in a higher-ed institution. I’ve been doing design for close to 20 years. I feel it makes me a bit of an expert in the field. But even experts have questions from time to time so here is my question for y’all:

True or false: “Being able to take abstract direction is a key to being a great designer.”

Or is it just interaction and service designers that need this? My gut says all designers need it, if not in the past than definitely in the present.

But what I’m also noticing is that the bulk of the students I teach have issues with taking abstract direction. What does this mean? It means that the directions being given for a task are incomplete or have a ton of room for interpretation. In fact, a great designer would probably revel in the fact of having room for interpretation, no?

A couple of my peers and I have had a discussion and the only interpretation is some mix of the following:

  • (my favorite) We have killed the spirit of risk and the excitement of creativity by raising a generation of children to be educated to the “test” and nothing more.
  • Disciplines like interaction design and service design that are abstract by their very nature require a higher level of maturity than other design disciplines that are fine “just taking orders” in their junior praxis.

Most likely it is some combination of the two, but what are your thoughts?

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  • http://twitter.com/uxemily Emily Holmes

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Dave. I see this from two  angles on a daily basis: I manage a UX team, and we work on software for high school students.

    On my team, designers regularly have to take something fairly ambiguous and make sense out of it, deciding on the best way to implement an idea, how to keep it realistic without limiting their creativity too much, etc. Or, sometimes they might be presented with a requirement or idea that is just fundamentally flawed – but it’s presented as “final.” We have to be able to see through the veneer, back up the project, question all the underlying assumptions and make sure we solve the right problem rather than simply doing what is asked of us. It is very hard to find people who have this skill set – many designers I interview just simply can’t do it. I think your second bullet hit this one on the head.

    With students, I agree completely with your first bullet point. Students are increasingly having difficulty seeing connections between ideas. From a cognitive science standpoint, this could very well be due to the relatively recent practice of “teaching to the test.” It’s well established that the human mind stores information in an interconnected neocortical network, and that the more connections you have in your LTM, the more able you are to recall and synthesize information. To form these connections effectively you need to be exposed to a range of ideas; if a student hears a song about something, then paints a picture of it, then reads an article, they can establish multiple ways of recalling that information later or connecting it to other things they see, hear, read, or do. I am oversimplifying a bit, but that’s the general idea. This can be especially effective during childhood and adolescence. Since schools have cut out so many of the “extra” programs like arts and music in favor of teaching “real” stuff that will be on the test, we’re producing less well-rounded kids who just don’t have the cognitive ability to make these connections.

    This isn’t just happening in design. I had a fascinating conversation with an oceanography professor recently who bemoaned his students’ inability to relate basic concepts from high school science to things he was teaching in his class. He said he is having to back up and teach almost remedial content to help students establish some of these connections. This should not be happening in college – it’s too little, too late.

    Back to your original question, I do think the truly great designers are the ones who can innately make sense out of abstract content. The rest may be capable designers, very good illustrators, etc. but without the tools for synthesizing abstract information they don’t have what it takes to see into the heart of a problem and find a way to solve it. To me, that critical skill is what makes a great interaction or service designer.

  • Mark Eberman

    I feel like abstract direction is most tolerable/workable when the problem you’re solving is well nailed down. 

    That’s what design is, as far as I’m concerned–solving the problem. If things get abstract in discussions of how the solution looks, or “feels” then I think that’s fine. But we do need to have at least one concrete constraint: The problem we’re trying to solve. If that’s there, then talking more abstractly about feelings, impression and flow seem much more comfortable.

    The skill of a designer has to be not just in dealing with abstract direction, but also in recognizing when that direction comes from a poorly defined problem, and knowing how to get to proper definition. If you can get a strong problem definition, abstract direction won’t seem like useless non-information–it’ll seem like attempts to convey some far less concrete but still important reactions and desires. And that’s a good place.

  • http://twitter.com/jseiden Josh Seiden

    At some level, all design requires making the abstract concrete. This is why making is so central to the practice. This is why sketching works. At the end of the day, if we can’t embody the abstract, we fail.

    So I think it’s bigger than taking direction. I think abstraction is always our starting point.

  • http://twitter.com/jseiden Josh Seiden

    To build on this–designers need to be able to *create* good problem definitions when none exist. (Not just “get” them from others.) This is what the (much maligned) practices of design thinking are good for. Again, it’s all about going from abstract to concrete.

  • Mark Eberman

    I agree as long as your creation of a problem definition doesn’t rise to the level of allowing clients (or critics) to get away with “I’ll know it when I see it” behavior. If you can’t get SOME advance definition from the person whose approval you ultimately need, you’re going down that road.


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