The Lone Designer

Much of the design advice given today speaks to personal growth. In Brian Hoff’s post “In a sea of Designers: My ‘best’ advice,” he explains how, as a young designer, you have to be able to speak to your value and meet that level with your work. There is great advice here about learning design and understanding what you bring to the table.1 In another post by Frank Chimero, he gives some great advice to design students everywhere. He eloquently breaks down the experience of learning about design and in this process gives a glimpse into what design means to him.2

There is a certain feeling created about design when reading these thoughts. It is seen as a very singular act. Which generally speaking is true. People convene, discuss, and disband to their corners of the office (or globe) to work alone.

Without the involvement of others we can only reach a certain level with design. The thing we need to make design great is to be more aware of what other perspectives bring and how each of them can make design better.

Design Today

Everyone nods their head when asked how important a user is. “Of course they are,” says the client. “It’s all about the user,” says the agency. Then, they both go into their corners and work. Meanwhile Jane, the person the product is meant for is struggling. The greatest Dribbble shot, an awesome CSS trick, and a “fantastic” feature set don’t help out Jane with her needs. This continues to happen every day in design.

We shouldn’t just design for people, we need to be designing *with* people. Peter Merholz from Adaptive Path talks about his frustration with advertising and marketing agencies that have taken on UX roles on projects.3 He concludes that the foundation that these agencies are built on and the core of their work is not user-focused.

The initial approach known as “the pitch” is heavily invested in with time and money to win the client through demonstrating that the agency knows the best solution. This process only reinforces the fact that design is seen as a sales tool to sell “the sizzle” and continue to impress the client along the way. A complex problem cannot be solved through such a process, even if they claim something different.

“Responsible user experience practice has to take a more balanced approach, trying to simultaneously serve both client and end-user, and look for those opportunities where their desires align.” — Peter Merhol

Millions of Chairs, Thousands of Miles Apart

In “An Examined Life,” philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah says when walking only a few minutes through an airport we’ll have passed by more people than our remote ancestors would ever have seen in their entire lifetime. He says we’re good at face-to-face stuff with small groups of people, since it’s how we’re programmed.4

Our global community is immense, and separated by a large distance. Yet, we’re able to connect instantly with each other. There are a complete range of tools that we can use to communicate and never be out of reach. However this global community has a challenge ahead of it to find a way to interact in a close and meaningful way.

Design can happen spending 100-percent of time alone and behind a screen. This is a bit like a doctor putting a patient in a room and reaching in with mechanical arms to help. Never really touching, directly speaking to, or interacting with the person they are helping. Sure, it’s possible to do it that way, but it’s neither efficient nor completely accurate way to operate. We need to find more meaningful connections.

Empathy Isn’t Everything

One of the core values of a designer is that they are able to empathize well with others. This can be helpful up to a point. In some cases though the gap between you and the user could be immense. We can only approach situations within our own limited frame of reference. Sure, with experience we can get to a very solid place with a design solution. Creating personas of the potential users is also a great step and good way to empathize. This can’t account for how someone else thinks though.

Christopher Roosen, the founder of an interactive book company, gives an anecdotal story about creating an interactive children’s book. They tested a single screen which contained planets in space that reacted to touch by playing a sound. From the adult perspective of testing a screen of the experience it seemed to look nice and react to their interaction well.

When they showed it to a child they explored it different. The children touched many planets at once and the sounds meshed together and it “sounded awful.” The resulting interaction was unexpected so they adjusted for this by creating a more pleasing sound when multiple planets were interacted with at the same time.5

Design Is Bigger Than You

Design is in a phase of its evolution where it takes more than one person to create the experience. This does not just refer to the givens, like having a technologist and project manager. This means reaching out to subject matter experts in the field. We can’t all be experts in everything. Companies that output some of the best design thinking in products are not just made up of the traditionally trained designers. Design becomes an approach, and the people with a variety of skills are the catalyst.

In an interview with IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown, he talks about what keeps design small today:6

“Design used to be big. But then designers got preoccupied with creating small, nifty objects. […] If the service around the product was no good, or if the brand or communications were no good, you have to start thinking of them all together as an experience.”

Consider how many little apps are put out there and the very small attention spans that we have in this now bite-sized entertainment filled world. As designers we have to be able to step away from this mindset and always take a holistic approach with design problems.

Collaboration and thinking on a bigger level with design means that we go outside of the way we think about relationships. If you are still stuck in the client and vendor way of working, you are bound to the same kind of projects and same kind of results. The client and designer(s) need to collaborate as one team. The same thinking should be applied to the end-user. Solutions should never be built up in a silo and force fed to an end-user. No one would ever design and build a custom house for someone, then reveal it to them for the first time.

Design is bigger than you (and me). It will take more than a single person, sitting in a dark corner lit only with a glowing monitor, to get to next phase. It’s time to reach out and really start designing.

1) In a sea of Designers: My ‘best’ advice – Brian Hoff on The Design Cubicle

2) Advice to a Design Student – Frank Chimero

3) The Pernicious Effects of Advertising and Marketing Agencies Trying To Deliver User Experience Design – Peter Merholz on Adaptive Path

4) An Examined Life – Kwame Anthony Appiah

5) The Renaissance of the Interactive Book – Christopher Roosen for UX Magazine

6) How to Make Design Big Again – Tim Brown interview with Design Taxi