In truth we all judge and criticize

by on November 23, 2009
in design

Your design work will be scrutinized. It will be held up to the work of your peers, to experts in the field, to precedent, to previous variations or iterations, to market competitors, and if you’re not adequately prepared for this, it can be extremely frustrating and even terrifying. Also realize that it is precisely because people judge, that they value good design. Obviously this works in your favor if you design things for a living. People are intrinsically visual, we’re hardwired, and it is biological, so get over it.

The cold hard reality is that people will judge your design work. People will do this whether you want them to or not. If you put a design down in front of a person the first thing that person will do (either consciously or subconsciously) is judge it, or by another definition, try to understand what they like and dislike about the concept and there is nothing more painful that sitting through a design review and watching a designer get defensive, visibly uncomfortable, red-in-the-face, and progressively angry as project stakeholders clumsily attempt to communicate their thoughts.

Over time this judgment of your design work, will eventually formulate into a judgment about your ability as a designer, into judgment about you. That’s right, now it’s personal. If your designs are consistently good, you are clearly a good designer. If your designs are consistently questionable, then you are at best questionable designer. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. This remains the largest misconception outside of the design discipline.
Time and time again this all comes down to communication. Typically it’s a failure on the behalf of the designer to appropriately frame their design appropriately. All too often half-baked designs get put up for review and expectations are never set. So the review goes less favorably and good designers get burned.

Two simple rules to get valuable feedback on design solutions:

  1. Qualify designs appropriately before review
  2. Pro actively seek out unvarnished (yes even subjective) feedback

Qualify designs appropriately before review

Designers, the next time you have to review a design with a project stakeholder or client. Take an hour before the review and think about the state of your proposal. Ask yourself the following questions and write down the answers:

  • How far along are you?
  • What goals have you met, what goals haven’t you met, or are no longer relevant?
  • What are the goals of the intended design? Have they changed?
  • What are the known constraints and affordances?
  • What are your own assumptions?
  • What specific type of feedback are you looking for?

What you are doing by taking this simple pro-active step is qualifying the review and setting everyone’s expectations ahead of time. This will ensure you identify any issues early (usually a conflict of goals, which isn’t about the design at all) and get the appropriate feedback that you’re looking for.

Pro actively seek out unvarnished (yes even subjective) feedback

Accept then, that you are not your design. You are not what you do. To survive a career in design you must learn to thrive on feedback and separate your own self-value from your design work. This is different than not caring about your designs. Indeed you care so much that you are pro-actively involving as many people as possible to gather feedback.

Once you’re able to separate your own ego from your work (you are not what you create) you begin to see feedback and criticism in a very new way. I had this sudden realization while on vacation about six years into my career and the core of the realization was this; ‘the whole world is only trying to help you, to make you better, you just have to get yourself out of the way.’ If you have the courage and conviction to accept that it’s not all about you, this single shift in perspective, has the potential to completely change your outlook on your work, and your life as a creative problem solver.

The very next day back at work, I started walking the hallways with concept sketches, asking everyone, and anyone that would listen. I was surprised how much I learned about people, how similar we all are, how we say the same things, just in different way, and how everyone has enormously valuable perspective, regardless of their discipline or education. By collecting and focusing this perspective on your work, you realize the true role of the designer is to ‘funnel, filter, and focus’ perspective on concepts.

If you’re honest with yourself and think back to even your most inspired work, how many of the ideas, concepts, and sources of inspiration were uniquely your own? There’s a great quote from Pablo Picasso that’s stuck with me from my days in art school that speaks to this, ‘If there is something to steal, I steal it’ or ‘good artists steal ideas, great artists plagiarize.’ In summary, you’re only as capable as the sources you expose yourself to, and your ability to collect ideas, and focus then in new and create ways.

Every honest judgment, every honest criticism, ever honest perspective, and every honest idea is valuable, valid, is truth and it’s all there just waiting to help you, if you ask for it.

How to design like an architect

by on November 16, 2009
in design

Just happened upon this one…

I love how well it artculates the value of iteration and that you must discover both the potential challenges/constraints and design solutions of projects by actually moving through the work.

It would be a great conversation to hear folks thoughts on how to better incorporate iteration into the all up design planning process. How do you accomodate the lurking unknown? The secrets in each project that are there waiting to be discovered?

This smells of agile development, but something more closely linked to design. Any thoughts?

A lesson in late accesibility

by on November 12, 2009
in design

I was getting gas the other morning and saw this which reminded me of how poorly organizations sometimes seem to consider the needs of the disabled.


I’d be willing to bet that this is the direct result of poor planning and prioritization. It’s amazing how seemingly reactionary business are to the actual need of human beings. It sometimes almost seems like the customer is nothing but an afterthought.

I wonder how much this cost the companies involved to respond to, communicate, resource, redesign, install, and maintain?

Everyone is a designer

by on November 8, 2009
in design

People are always asking me, ‘how do I become a designer?’ What I consistently tell people is that they already are a designer, they’re just not consciously aware of it.

In Norman Potter’s classic ‘What is a Designer: Things, Places, Messages’ Norm makes the very clever observation that ‘everyone is a designer.’ This is truth. Everyone makes decisions. Everyone has opinions related to everything from how to get dressed in the morning to making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Everyone ‘designs their life.’ We spend time arranging furniture, the cheese plate, we decide intricate ratios of how much cream and sugar to put into our coffee and we’re all different.

So what then separates the decisions of a designer from everyone else? How are designers different, special?

The truth is we’re not special, designers simply work hard and practice systematic decision making. We do this so frequently and so often that it becomes second nature. Basically we are willing to make enough bad decisions to eventually make good ones. Indeed looking through any designer’s early work, this trend toward improved decision making is clearly evident.

Designers facilitate controlled trial-and-error and intentionally seek out failure as the source of human learning. The same way a mathematician has a natural affinity with numbers, an engineer can leverage materials to solve problems, or a programmer can rationalize the organic with an algorithm, with this practice designers develop the ability to ‘see truth’ and solve problems.

Designers see what works, and what doesn’t, and it is this ability which empowers the decisions of the designer from those of others that don’t (perhaps smartly) subscribe to this somewhat, masochistic practice. For some designers this talent surfaces as a nervous tick that can’t be turned off, for others it’s a complex understanding of common fundamental principles and applying them consistently to decision making, and for others it’s purely instinctual.

It is the whitespace between practicing trial-and-error creation and observation that empowers designer’s decisions. So I’ll answer your question with a question. Are you willing to be bad at it long enough to get good at it?