Weekly Learning: Thought Leadership, Teaching Design, and the Strategic Designer

Thought Leadership

Internal Design Teams and Thought Leadership explores the challenges in-house design teams face, especially when it comes to thought leadership and “lost potential.”

Specifically:

…internal design roles are structurally misaligned with public thought leadership.

And the career growth options don’t favour the craft side of things:

Thought leadership and mastery are correlated. An internal designer on an upward path must choose between mastery of design craft and mastery of management. This might be changing, but for now most current internal team structures incentivize the latter.

And internal design effort often has a different priority:

…doing the work more efficiently isn’t the same as doing it more effectively. Operationalizing design is more about the former than the latter.

And this thing called thought leadership often doesn’t align with business:

The exceptions — i.e., public thought leaders in internal design organizations — are mostly in companies that offer design tools and services. (E.g., Adobe, Autodesk, Mural, InVision, Figma.) In these cases, design thought leadership aligns with the organizations’ business goals.

Fascinating streams of thought throughout the article, and it answers some of the questions I had been pondering.

Slower, Better

Teach Slower to Teach Better takes a sobering look at “the landscape of non-traditional design education.”

Specifically:

These new models of education take many forms: day-long or week-long workshops, meetups and brown bags, online, offline, or hybrid. What connects many of these models is their immediate vocational emphasis. The majority intend to train practitioners, not academics, so the focus is on preparing people to do design and get jobs.

Expectedly:

To deliver on the promise of cheap, fast, and employable, something’s got to give. And I’m concerned that the “something” is quality.

And there’s something critical missing:

There are exceptions to any rule, but the overarching lack with an overly fast education model is that students have not developed a pattern language for design problems.

But what are patterns?

…patterns are the backbone of how a professional, well-practiced designer reacts to a situation.

Here’s the nuance:

A pattern is not a template. It’s a way to approach solving a problem.

And there are two types of patterning:

…we can think about them in two conceptual spaces. One is in the actual solving of the design problem: patterning in the problem. The other is in the context of the exploration: patterning around the problem.

Patterning in the problem reveals how designers work:

When designers work on solving problems, they continually move back and forth between doing things, reflecting on their actions, and making adjustments. Throughout this process, the work artifact “talks back” to them. They see their drawing made real and can then respond to and iterate on it.

And the expertise lies in the accumulation and application of patterns:

Patterning in the context of a problem means having a readily available set of moves, the instinct and muscle memory to select the most appropriate moves for the particular problem component, the competence to select a move effortlessly in the flow of problem solving, and the appreciative system to almost instantly see how that move has impacted the emergent design decision and course-correct if the outcome isn’t desirable.

Patterning around the problem is equally critical:

Patterning also exists in the political, organizational, logistical, and cultural context of design. Just like patterning in the problem, patterning around the problem is about “moves”—just longer ones. Rather than changing a drawing, these patterns are about recognizing the need to change the actual project demeanor, cadence, or approach.

The problem is, “pattern knowledge is tacit”:

Experts often have a hard time explaining their expertise around pattern usage.

But how to acquire those patterns?

To begin building a foundation of patterning, a designer needs to have worked through enough problems to start seeing similarities and differences. They need a body of work from which to see the overlap of examples.

So building those patterns is not as easy as some might think it is:

…a good pattern is established with guidance and critique, and that’s hard to get on your own. Posting work on social media is a disaster for real problem-solving strategy development, as the echo chamber of “good job!” reinforces cosmetic patterning and features that are seen in many other designs—similar product dashboards, button gradients, and parallax scrolling, for example.

And, my favourite quote:

Education—good education—builds patterning skills through an ongoing set of mentor/apprentice experiences, and implicit in the patterning is critical thinking about the pattern selection, use, and most importantly, adaptation.

So what is a design student to do?

Design students need to learn ways to think about solving problems.A design curriculum needs to provide students with enough concrete experiences that they can start to build muscle memory around problems so they can start to say to themselves, “I’ve previously experienced a problem that was kind of like this, and I tried to solve it.” Building those experiences means they are starting to develop a foundation of design abilities.

All that goes back the problem of the design programs nowadays:

My biggest concern with workshops and bootcamps and hack days and the majority of the non-traditional learning programs is that they are just too short. And the unfortunate reality is that many people who need the vocational training and want the jobs and should be employable and are transitioning to a design career aren’t given enough time to learn. They don’t have the economic luxury to take a year or two off for a longer program, or if they do, the economic logistics of running a school means that a one-year program costs more—a lot more—than a 10-week program.

As the author summarizes:

So, there’s the crux of the problem I see with the landscape of non-traditional design education. The value proposition promises speed, low cost, and employability. It is impossible for it to consistently deliver on all three fronts. It is disingenuous, even with the best of intentions, to claim that someone can become a designer in 10 weeks, and claims like this are harmful to the profession.

What do you think? Can someone become a designer in 10 weeks?

What’s more: is the title of “designer” really that important? When you hop on a design program, what is it that you’re trying to achieve, getting a title no matter what, or actually learning something to be actually competent?

Semiotics

What is semiotics and why it’s crucial for designers offers a concise entry into the topic, with a few great resources.

It seems easy:

For semiotics design, what we should be focusing on first and foremost is comprehension — either by meeting our users’ knowledge or by proactively teaching them.

But not really. Better learn more.

Designer as Strategic Partner

In a recent newsletter, Jorge Arango explores the meaning of “strategy” and design’s relation to it:

Many designers can’t effectively speak to the value they create. Instead, they mostly focus on the beautiful, elegant, user-centered, screen-level artifacts they make.

As a result, many stakeholders — who would like design to be more valuable — don’t see designers as strategic partners but as implementors whose role is designing products right (more engaging, usable, attractive, etc.) rather than designing the right products. Ironically, it’s in the latter where design can make a real difference.

And that:

…designers must see their work through a more strategic lens.

But strategy is not just a plan about what to do:

…a strategy is a coherent set of decisions about how we’ll win — whether we’re talking about the marketplace or the football field. This requires choosing what we’ll do and (critically) what we won’t do.

When you have no coherence in making decisions, it’s probably a sign that you don’t really have a strategy.

Sounds familiar? Yup.

Bad Office

Your Environment Shapes Your Decisions exposes what we perhaps already know:

Most of us make decisions in an environment where it is very hard for us to behave rationally.

You can’t design a worse environment for good decisions than the modern office.

With great tips on getting better.

The Limits of Human-Centred Design

Beyond HCD: Do we need a new approach for designing with AI? explores the challenges in designing AI by assessing HCD’s limits, respectively:

The first limitation is that HCD is focused on understanding and solving the problems of an individual person with elegant, scalable solutions that can be used by other individuals with similar needs.

Even if you’re not so sure about the first one, you definitely agree with the second:

The second limitation is that most of the time users aren’t actually centered, the business model is.

And there’s an even finer, more fascinating point:

Most of the time, designers in commercial settings lack the resources, time, and expertise needed to do the type of participatory research that would enable them to actually engage and empathise with the people using their designs. Working within these constraints, designers are often forced to reduce people- who inevitably have messy, multiple, overlapping, historically and contextually situated identities and behaviours- to two dimentional ‘users’.

Yup.

Body, Memory, and Architecture

Pure knowledge and profound insights can be found in the iconic book, Body, Memory, and Architecture.

If this book is not mind-blowing to you, consider reading Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order.

almanac.computer

almanac.computer is a publication by the Institute of Diagram Studies.

Indigenous Arts

There must be something for you on IndigenArtsy.

And if you’re a willing designer, please help them improve their website usability. Please.

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