“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

Intention vs. Thoughtfulness … or … Design vs. Good Design

This week a colleague of mine challenged me to tell him if I can (and if so how can I) tell the difference between something that was designed and something that wasn’t.

Of course, the real answer is that I can’t 100% of the time be right, but standing in the Rackspace (@rackspace) HQ, which we call The Castle (a former mall converted into a Tech Corp’s digs) I felt I had the answer right in front of me.

Cubes @ Rackspace The Slide and Gondolas

This is definitely a designed space. And what came to me was that it was clear that there was human intention in so much of what was built. It didn’t feel haphazard at all. Things fit well together. There was a sense of humor (note the slide; and yes it is fun and people use it all the time). There are many functional pieces as well. For example, the top display of desks shows the open layout that makes the work areas of Rackspace one of it’s cultural values: transparency. It is modeled this way because like a trading floor an organization dedicated to support needs to have audible transparency to increase efficiency and collaboration.

So this is clearly designed, and arguable and in many levels designed really well. But how do I know it is done well vs. just done intentionally. Because as we know intentions don’t always get us to the fruit we were hoping for. There is a specific type of intentionality that ups the level of design from OK, to good and maybe even great–thoughtfulness.

For me, in my mind the difference between intentional and thoughtful just seemed to make sense, and it made sense when used in context with my peer during the conversation. I pointed out to him that a failing in the design of the Castle is wayfinding. Like most malls from the 70’s, the way finding is just horrible. I’m still lost when I go there. It demonstrates for me a lack of thoughtfulness about how people would engage the space besides whimsy and core utility like the previous examples above. It didn’t make that extra effort.

So today when it occurred to me that intentional vs. thoughtful wasn’t going to stand on its own, I decided I needed a better example to demonstrate the difference, or at least the continuum.

Intentional is buying an anniversary present for your wife.
Better is buying her something that you think she would like.
Thoughtful is buying her that thing she mentioned 6 months ago, sizing it perfectly (if relevant) and presenting it in a romantic context that will be remembered for years to come.

Basically, anyone can buy your wife a gift. Her friends can even buy her something that she would like. But only YOU could do the last option due to the level of intimacy in your relationship. That’s the designer’s job. The designer is there to make the system feel like it was meant only for you (and your 1million other customers). It’s not leaving any detail forgotten. It is about going for whimsy and humor yes, for that human touch, but never at the expense of getting every functional detail more than right, but with “German engineered tolerances” (the sound of a Mercedes Benz door closing is just that perfect).

So, design is definitely about being intentional. But great design takes intentional up a few notches and adds in thoughtfulness through exploring the intimacy that is only achieved through contextual connections with the audience of the design. So go out there, and be the best darn thoughtful designer you can be.

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  • http://designaday.tumblr.com/ Jack L. Moffett

    Dave, I’m just getting around to reading this now. I really like the analogy you used at the end . Very well put.


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