Tips on how to be a more thoughtful designer
Compiled, edited, and enhanced by James Robert Watson, PhD
Intelligence is your capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding and mastery. It's your aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts and meanings.
"Knowing a great deal is not the same as being intelligent; intelligence is not information “alone,” but also judgment, the manner in which information is collected and used." - Dr. Carl Sagan
Richard Saul Wurman states that all problems in our society and culture are due to stupidity - a lack of understanding among those who make judgments on issues. Many people are like sheep. They form their beliefs on what they have been told to believe by their parents, friends, politicians, religious leaders, etc. Avoid falling into the trap of obeying other's values, thoughts, and beliefs. Acknowledge that you are a unique, free-thinking individual capable of clarifying your own personal thoughts, beliefs, and values. Avoid confusing what you believe with what you know. They are not the same.
Interviewers look for intelligent people. Commit to becoming more intelligent. More thoughtful. And a better designer.
Two important things you can do
Believe that you are intelligent.
Affirm that you are intelligent.
Be a participant
Practice living with a neurobic attitude:
Embrace change. Adapt and respond. Avoid feeling threatened by change.
Strive to maintain an open mind. Feel secure enough to take risks. Open up, let go.
Travel, go places, see new things
Eat new foods.
Get out of your rut: take risks, try new things, experiment, try, explore.
Solve mind games, sudoku puzzles, and crossword puzzles.
Stay active: get out and do things; spend less time with digital games, web surfing, and Facebook.
Fear less: increase confidence and esteem.
Take a day trip someplace - anyplace, just get outta town.
Go to a live performance of dance, music, theater, concerts.
Take a nature walk.
Get a paper, electronic PDA, or smartphone and use it to help you organize your tasks, thoughts, deadlines, etc. Get the mundane stuff out of your head.
Spend an afternoon in Barnes & Noble: peruse design/culture zines (Wallpaper*, GOOD, Adbusters), puzzles, blank book journals.
Write notes to yourself in your new Idea Journal.
Organize your workspace, browse Target for containers, boards, bins, etc.
Meet and spend some time with people from different cultures.
Strike up a conversation with people: discuss issues and ideas, not people.
Watch better television. Shows on A&E, Biography, The Discovery Channel, and The History Channel can enhance your capacity for learning, reasoning, and understanding.
Experience a performance by Cirque du Soleil. These are people who excel at what they do - totally dedicated and committed to pushing themselves to do their very best.
Do something. To better understand a subject, put it into practice. Example: don't just watch the Cooking Channel and don't just tell someone how to cook; master cooking by actually cooking. You will understand things better when you do them yourself. Knowledge gives you the pieces of the puzzle; understanding helps you put the puzzle together.
Read. Anything, just read - novels, newspapers, magazines, blogs, textbooks. Reading not only informs, it also increases your capacity for learning, thereby increasing your intelligence. Knowledge is the foundation of intelligence, so it's crucial to cultivate the joy of reading.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Susan Jeffers
The Cheese Monkeys, Chip Kidd
The Learners, Chip Kidd
Blink, The Tipping Point, or The Outliers, anything by Malcolm Gladwell
The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman
Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
Re-Imagine, Tom Peters
Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized by Gary Hustwit
A trilogy of documentary films about a typeface, product design, and cities. Great info, great interviews, great films.
Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, & Naqoyqatsi
From the director: In the globalized world of high technology, all one can see is one layer of commodity piled upon another. The 'original' is the proliferation of the standardized. It is an animated object, an object in moving time, the meaning of which is up to the viewer. Art has no intrinsic meaning - this is its mystery and its attraction. Any meaning or value Koyaanisqatsi might have comes exclusively from the beholder. The film's role is to provoke, to raise questions that only the viewer can answer. This is the highest value of any work of art, not predetermined meaning, but meaning gleaned from the experience of the encounter. The encounter is my interest, not the meaning - the meaning of Koyaanisqatsi is whatever you wish to make of it. This is its power.
By Catharine Fishel, MS. who interviewed more than 40 designers
Allow events to change you. You have to be willing to grow. Growth is different from something that happens to you. You produce it. You live it. The prerequisites for growth: the openness to experience events and the willingness to be changed by them.
Forget about good. Good is a known quantity. Good is what we all agree on. Growth is not necessarily good. Growth is an exploration of unlit recesses that may or may not yield to our research. As long as you stick to just good you'll never have real growth.
Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we've already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we're going, but we will know we want to be there.
Love your experiments (as you would an ugly child). Exploit the liberty in casting your work as beautiful experiments, iterations, attempts, trials, and errors. Take the long view and allow yourself the fun of failure every day.
Go deep. The deeper you go the more likely you will discover something of value.
Capture accidents. The wrong answer is the right answer in search of a different question. Collect wrong answers as part of the process. Ask different questions.
Drift. Allow yourself to wander aimlessly. Explore adjacencies. Lack judgment. Postpone criticism.
Begin anywhere. John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: Begin anywhere.
Don't be cool. Cool is conservative fear dressed in black. Free yourself from limits of this sort.
Ask stupid questions. Growth is fueled by desire and innocence. Assess the answer, not the question. Imagine learning throughout your life at the rate of an infant.
Collaborate. The space between people working together is filled with conflict, friction, strife, exhilaration, delight, and vast creative potential.
Work the metaphor. Every object has the capacity to stand for something other than what is apparent. Work on what it stands for.
Make your own tools. Hybridize your tools in order to build unique things. Even simple tools that are your own can yield entirely new avenues of exploration. Remember, tools amplify our capacities, so even a small tool can make a big difference.
Don't enter awards competitions. Just don't. It's not good for you.
Make new words. Expand the lexicon. The new conditions demand a new way of thinking. The thinking demands new forms of expression. The expression generates new conditions.
Listen carefully. Every collaborator who enters our orbit brings with him or her a world more strange and complex than any we could ever hope to imagine. By listening to the details and the subtlety of their needs, desires, or ambitions, we fold their world onto our own. Neither party will ever be the same.
Take field trips. The bandwidth of the world is greater than that of your TV set, or the Internet, or even a totally immersive, interactive, dynamically rendered, object-oriented, real-time, computer graphic-simulated environment.
Make mistakes faster. This isn't my idea - I borrowed it. I think it belongs to Andy Grove.
Coffee breaks, cab rides, green rooms. Real growth often happens outside of where we intend it to, in the interstitial spaces - what Dr. Seuss calls "the waiting place." Hans Ulrich Obrist once organized a science and art conference with all of the infrastructure of a conference - the parties, chats, lunches, airport arrivals - but with no actual conference. Apparently it was hugely successful and spawned many ongoing collaborations.
Jump fences. Disciplinary boundaries and regulatory regimes are attempts to control the wilding of creative life. They are often understandable efforts to order what are manifold, complex, evolutionary processes. Our job is to jump the fences and cross the fields.
How to Think.
By E.S. Boyden, Technology Review
Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read, even when you're reading what you conceive to be introductory stuff. That way, you will always aim towards understanding things at a resolution fine enough for you to be creative.
Learn how to learn (rapidly). One of the most important talents for the 21st century is the ability to learn almost anything instantly, so cultivate this talent. Be able to rapidly prototype ideas. Know how your brain works. (I often need a 20-minute power nap after loading a lot into my brain, followed by half a cup of coffee. Knowing how my brain operates enables me to use it well.)
Work backward from your goal. Or else you may never get there. If you work forward, you may invent something profound - or you might not. If you work backward, then you have at least directed your efforts at something important to you.
Have a long-term plan. Even if you change it every day. The act of making the plan alone is worth it. And even if you revise it often, you're guaranteed to be learning something.
Make contingency maps. Draw all the things you need to do on a big piece of paper, and find out which things depend on other things. Then, find the things that are not dependent on anything but have the most dependents, and finish them first.
Make your mistakes quickly. You may mess things up on the first try, but do it fast, and then move on. Document what led to the error so that you learn what to recognize, and then move on. Get the mistakes out of the way. As Shakespeare put it, "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt."
As you develop skills, write up best-practices protocols. That way, when you return to something you've done, you can make it routine. Instinctualize conscious control.
Document everything obsessively. If you don't record it, it may never have an impact on the world. Much of creativity is learning how to see things properly. Most profound scientific discoveries are surprises. But if you don't document and digest every observation and learn to trust your eyes, then you may not know when you have seen a surprise.
Keep it simple. If it looks like something hard to engineer, it probably is. If you can spend two days thinking of ways to make it 10 times simpler, do it. It will work better, be more reliable, and have a bigger impact on the world. And learn, if only to know what has failed before.
By Laura Sergeant Richardson, from GOOD magazine
Write, blog, or speak on a topic that interests you
You're an expert once you feel comfortable calling yourself an expert. Take Jakob Nielsen, who began blogging about usability back in the late 1990s. He became recognized as the source on usability because he was consistently churning out information on the topic. Were there other experts on usability? Sure. But Nielsen developed the early point of view, and wrote provocatively about the subject. Designers must constantly be able to promote their ideas - whether on an internal team, to a client, or on the podium. When I run through a presentation, I generally visualize the entire presentation in my mind. You need to get incredibly comfortable with the articulation of, the presentation of, and the defense of ideas. I would also recommend improv training because nothing ever goes as expected.
Learn something new every day
Every designer should be on a quest to see the world with fresh eyes every day. This might be learning something - a bit of trivia, perhaps - that helps you see the world a little differently. For example, today I learned that cats can't taste sugar. This may sound trivial, but it could lead to a whole host of ideas. And so could the fact that they have hooks on their tongue to lap up water. You should never stop learning. What would you learn and how would your view change if you went to 1,000 meet ups? As designers, our minds need to be as flexible as possible. Learning something new helps us see more and more possibilities and make connections that previously weren't there.
Create a new idea every day
At one point I was twittering a new idea every day. (Example: “Product Idea #1: Skin Pens > did you ever write notes on your hand? i still do. i want a pen for skin writing on the go.”) Now I file them manually. People will say that ideas are a dime a dozen, but I think they're wrong: I think the first 10 might be worth a dime, but the last two could be worth their weight in gold. I would suggest that the designer without an idea isn't a designer. Record them, capture them, and go back to them.
Good designers experiment. I've experimented with measuring emotion through sound, and a scent alphabet, to name a few. When you do experiment, push the edges. Being naïve that means to believe anything is possible. That ability to suspend our disbelief is key to innovation and design. I remember a co-creation session with teenagers and their ideal group game. Somehow the topic of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory came up and the idea of lickable walls. Rather than discard that idea as ridiculous, the alternative is to use it is a catalyst for design possibilities. We use this type of thinking in our frogTHINK ideation as provocation. What do you believe is definitive and what would you gain from pretending it wasn't? The only limits are in our minds. We learn through trial and error, through mistakes. There is no such thing as “perfect” in design. There are different viewpoints, more than one solution and opportunities everywhere. Let go of the word “perfect” and focus on what really matters – designing for people the best that you can and the ability to be easy on yourself. There are no SATs for design (or the presidency, for that matter). If there were, every answer would be “D, All of the Above.”
Know you are good enough now. If you don't trust yourself, no one else will. This doesn't mean be a prima donna, but it does mean that your opinions matter and your viewpoints are extremely valuable. Your design process, your design thinking and the embodiment of that (the end product) is your voice. Use it. I am most impressed by junior designers who reach out and ask for my input or opinion because just the act of reaching out speaks volumes - it is risky. Remember, if you don't reach your hand out, there will never be anyone to grab it.
Know the designer's paradox: Hurry up and think
Every year, I see the design cycle shrinking. As a discipline (of design) we have reached the inner limits of our creative gestation – in other words, the minimum time it takes to innovate. Creativity = Area of Focus (Existing Knowledge + New Discovery) * Time. The time in this equation is used to think. We are often expected to do more with less time. While you may have had the luxury of time in school and occasionally in the design industry, get ready for a much faster paced process. And to keep the insanity at bay, read Carl Honore's In Praise of Slowness.
Try to find the most unusual or obscure angle. We call these outliers.
My path was set the day I received the “Anti-Coloring Book” for my fifth birthday. I started to really enjoy extremes and took creative risks in school. I've translated this into design, for example, by developing ideas for the WTC memorial through analyzing hundreds of photographs and the artifacts they contained. This obscure approach led to the idea of the largest blood bank in the world located at the WTC site. In research, we specifically look to outliers for unique thinking and things not considered. Here you'll find your inspiration. Here you'll find design.
Train your brain (to think like a designer)
In the last five years the concept of neuroplasticity (a malleable brain) has taken the medical field by storm. Experiments have revealed that playing the piano and imagining playing the piano have the same neurological effect. Additionally, rats in an “enriched environment” (toys and exercise wheels) have a substantially enlarged brain and more neural connections. We should strive to play the imagined piano, we should strive to be in an enriched environment. Buy Crayola's 3D glasses (with chalk) and play.
One final, but important note
We are all designers. Without taking anything away from the design industry, we need more people in all industries to recognize the impact that comes from their “designs” - whether it's a doctor's diagnosis or a teacher's curriculum or a government employee - every human is a designer. As a discipline, we are trained to creatively solve challenges, to consider the future implications, to consider those other than ourselves. Our world is by design and we need more designers than ever before to handle the evolving world. I ask one thing of you in closing - teach one child design thinking or empower an adult by telling them they are a designer. We can all make a difference.
Places to go to get ideas
By Daniel Wallen & Jim Watson
Libraries and bookstores
Words are a wonderful thing. You could rearrange the same 26 letters to create an endless array of words that will surely tickle somebody's fancy. Become so curious that you want to read everything you get your hands on. Observe how things like the weight or texture of a book could offer clues for what's hiding under the cover. A heavy book could symbolize a significant time investment for the writer (and you, the reader). A light book could be seen as a short-and-sweet escape perfect for a beach, cruise ship, or even your lunch hour.
Highway sights, c-store stops, sightseeing, highway food.
Hotels are kind of like the purgatory of living arrangements. It is an in-between place that is hard to feel comfortable in despite the fact that you do "home-like" activities such as sleeping, bathing, and brushing. The drastic change in living arrangements could shake you out of auto-pilot from your daily routine and increase your awareness and ability to live in the present.
Bars and coffee houses
If you're a writer looking to sharpen your ability to write conversational pieces that click with your audience, go bar-hopping (but not to one of the annoying ones with loud music). Alcohol has a way of breaking the barriers to authenticity, so have a drink and enjoy some plain and simple truth with fellow patrons. Caffeine can also help break barriers and push us to see differently.
Conversation with friends
Ideas happen when you stop talking about them and start making them happen. Have you ever had an idea in your brain or written in a notebook that just felt like it was missing something, but then you talked it over with a friend and the missing pieces weren't far behind? Your friends will have perspectives totally different from yours, so don't underestimate the power of a simple conversation.
Parks and hiking trails
It's easy to forget that we humans are a small part of the life bustling throughout this world. Explore a trail while keeping an eye out for animal life. Observe the unique quirks and behaviors of each animal friend you come across. Turn off your inner-chatter, crank up your listening ear, and enjoy the sounds of the whole other world you are now a part of.
A bench in a busy downtown area
Plop down on a park bench with a notebook and coffee, watch the busy city life unfold before you. You are but one person in this big, crazy world - check in with the rest for a fresh hit of human inspiration that will help you relate to the people around you.
Whether you're a movie buff or not, there is no denying that films are the preferred art form for most people, so catching some flicks could offer you a hint about what people react to (not to mention it will be fun).
Art, history, science. Learn, experience other cultures, transcend.
Live concerts and performances
There is something amazing about seeing a band or theater troupe that perform with complete harmony.
There are few places more neat and tidy than your area supermarket. Check out the nifty food packaging, the attractive (and efficient) shelf placement, the magazine section, the floral selection, and anything else that jumps out at you. If you're feeling sweet, buy a balloon or flower for someone special.
Early mornings or late nights
Being awake with no sound but birds chirping and an ever-so-slight morning glow overhead while the lazy sun opens its eyes for a brand new day. But maybe you'd be more inspired by a hooting owl, glowing moon, and the sound of crickets. Morning or night, the same fact holds true: there is something innately inspiring about getting work done while the rest of the world sleeps.
Argue. Discuss. Argue. Discuss.
You need a healthy amount of heated discussion, even arguing. It's not debate because there are no opposing sides trying to "win". Rather, it's about working together to solve a problem and create new ideas. So argue. And discuss. And argue.
Breaking down hierarchy is essential to creating a space where everyone can truly contribute. During one session, the principal looked me in the eye and said, "You should know that you're not doing your job if you don't disagree with me at least once a day." He gave me permission to voice my opinion openly, regardless of my seniority. This breakdown of hierarchy creates a space where ideas can be invented and challenged without fear.
"No, BECAUSE" is a critical part of the process; if you say no, also be able to say why. Backing up an argument is integral in any deliberative discourse. And that "because" should be grounded in real people other than ourselves. Conduct ethnographic research to inform your intuition, so you can understand people's needs, problems, and values. This research informs your intuitive "guts" giving you both inspiration for ideas and rationale to defend or critique them. During ideation, ask one another if your ideas are solving a real need. Be accountable to something other than your own opinions. Push back on colleagues' ideas without getting personal.
Multidisciplinary teams work because deliberative discourse requires a multiplicity of perspectives to shape ideas. Curate teams to create diversity: an artist-turned-strategist, a biologist-turned-product designer, and a professor-turned-innovation guru all hashing it out together. When arguing and discussing, bring to the table different ways of looking at the world and solving problems.
Develop a statement of purpose at the outset of each project and post it. The statement establishes the rules: it reminds you that you are working together to move the ball down the field. As much as you may argue and disagree, anything that happens in the room should count toward the shared goal.