I’ve always believed that a good designer shouldn’t “work in a vacuum” – this design statement is often thought of as a pleasantry, but rarely becomes a mantra or philosophy of action for most designers. Reflecting upon this statement certainly yields insights that influence the way we design, and some designers may find that such reasoning challenges their predispositions of what “design” should be; if you shouldn’t design alone in isolation, then what should you do?
If designing isn’t an act of working alone, then it must be an act that involves multiple persons (stakeholders). This is the conclusion where designers get to before panic sets in and they become short of breath. We know we should involve others, we just don’t know how to do it! How often do we hear that “designers are hard to work with”? How often do designers say that others “don’t get it”? As designers, we know that we can’t work in isolation, but the evidence of our inability to work with non-designers has become commonplace. I propose three principles that give direction, that offer a “to-do” framework for anyone inclined to embrace and believe that designing shouldn’t take place in a vacuum.
Design Language: designing needs to include a language of design. A design language is more than just words – it’s the syntax and processes which lead to understanding. When someone comes to a designer with sketch on a napkin or an idea from a management meeting, it would afford the participants to have a knowledge of the design processes which lies before them. Tools, methods, processes – all are languages of design. It is important for interaction designers to understand that these tools can be used to create a language of design that is shared collectively by an organization, and not just to be used by design-keepers. Organizations that have a thoughtful design language, better mediate risks and expectations. When processes and design tools are transparent, participants can understand the rational behind design ideas (including their own), and can be accountable for design solutions.
Design Rationale: designing involves critical thinking – and critical decisions. The power to act within a design space is directly related to an understanding of the constraints of that space and risk of navigating through it. If the design language is a system of transportation with routes and signals, then design rationale is the vehicle that moves participants towards the desired (and unknown) destination. All people have philosophies, understanding and constraints that form the basis of their individual rationale. Designers often have well-developed rationale for the organization, but if they are used to being a design-keeper, then will likely struggle with expressing the reasons for their actions. Having an environment where multiple stakeholders can safely express and negotiate design rational helps all participants learn about their ideas – becoming critics (thinking critically) of ideas.
Design Accountability: designers and design participants (I like the sound of that!) will quickly find out that just because there are transparent design tools and processes that are used in an environment where ideas can safely be externalized and criticized, there will still be a healthy amount of “unknown”. This is where all design participants need to celebrate “design agency” and the accountability that comes from making design decisions in an imperfect appointment of creation. Creation comes with risk. It means placing an unknown variable in a sometimes unknown situation. Organizations that embrace design accountability mediate risks by creating a culture of understanding: documenting failure, testing ideas, and reflecting upon outcomes. Most people don’t want to acknowledge the accountability afforded in “creation”.
The specific implications of these three design principles lies outside of a simple blog post. I really do believe that designers need more than just a trite statement of “how not to design” (not in a box) in order to affect the needed change within high-bandwidth organizations. Design rigor and design thinking is more than a bag of gypsy tricks or clever ideas. I really believe it has the ability to change businesses and the world we live in. Designing shouldn’t happen alone. Not unless the only person who will encounter it, speak of it, or clean up after it is the individual creating it. For all other situations, I thoughtfully leave you with the above principles.