I like to think that I became a designer through working hard and listening. Listening was probably the challenging bit. Along the way I had the pleasure of working alongside all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Sometimes these relationships were great and sometimes they were less so.
The 'less so' relationships were usually the ones where I was either arrogant enough to think my work would speak for itself, or dumbfounded that some of the people I was working with weren't as knowledgable or passionate about the same things I was. I was working with Notdesigners. Sometimes we didn't understand one another. And that was mostly my fault.
The nub of the problem
During the Rogers Commission investigation into the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, the late theoretical physicist Richard Feynman made it his business to explain how the catastrophic failure of the O-rings on the solid fuel boosters could have occurred.
At the hearing, he conducted a live demonstration with the O-ring material. "I took this stuff that I got out of your seal and I put it in ice water, and I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for a while and then undo it, it does not stretch back ... For a few seconds at least ... there is no resilience in this particular material when it is at a temperature of 32 degrees."
Simple. Feynman didn't even have to refer to the material by name, he just called it "stuff". He knew that the audience didn't need to understand the science, but they absolutely needed to get the nub of the problem. With the aid of a clear demonstration and uncomplicated language, Feynman achieved that.
The language of design
Feynman was an expert in his field. He had a talent for breaking unwieldy subjects down into bite-sized, easily masticated chunks. In 1999 his peers ranked him as one of the 10 greatest physicists of all time.
What we're engaged in is not rocket science. But to many Notdesigners, we might as well be involved with putting objects into orbit. As participants in an esoteric field, we have a responsibility to be able to articulate our output, workings and methods to those around us.
If we cannot guide clients through our creative process – from "Hello, come in, let's solve a problem together", through to "It's live, let's see how it performs" – then we're not doing our jobs properly.
Because we're so deeply immersed in our world - where navigating convoluted and complex interfaces comes as second nature - our judgement can sometimes be clouded. Sometimes it's difficult to imagine knowing Notdesign and being a Notdesigner.
In creating products and services, we often find ourselves sliding down a treacherous embankment; having the decison-making process heavily biased towards our own design-led culture.
It's worth watching a Feynman lecture or two to see how he tackles this problem. In 1964 he gave a talk to students at Cornell University explaining the double-slit paradox. This is a thought experiment; a hypothesis. Schrödinger's cat is an example of another such experiment.
Feynman took something of a tricky quantum mechanics concept, and within a few minutes had it sketched out and annotated on a blackboard in such a way that not only were the assembled audience satiated, but anyone else who had a passing interest might readily grasp the topic, too.
Master of the art
It's interesting to note how stilted Feynman's introduction to the talk is. He's having to read from notes, and his body language is awkward. As soon as he's away from the lectern, drawing on the blackboard and
explaining the thing he knows so well, his personality is unlocked. He becomes the master of his art.
We've all been guilty of boring clients with convoluted, just stick to the notes' presentations. Worse still is not knowing the material sufficiently well, drying up and retreating into a design language of our devising. This dialect is a flowery mish-mash of business-speak, design flimflam and pseudo-scientific nonsense.
Making a hash of a meeting when you know your material, and resorting to bluff and bluster when you're ignorant, are two quite different things. Imagine how many people like me there are out there, who at one time or another have failed to communicate effectively with Notdesigners. Imagine how those Notdesigners must have felt walking away from those sessions.
Our work hangs off empathy and insight. Because we're not engaged in rocket science, and our work doesn't tend to have the potential to end lives, it's safe to bring Notdesigners into our world. To have them roll up their sleeves and get up-close and personal with our processes. It's odd that in many agencies it's still not common practise to allow Notdesigners (clients or not) near the design process; what with all their empathy and insight.
Most Notdesigners are as capable at rationalising and solving problems as we are. Unfortunately for them, we designers can be biased and our communities cliquey. If you can't speak the language and you've not got the right uniform, then you're not coming in.
Our inclination is to allow our decisions to be affected by a design-led past, a design-led team and a process that's pretty much geared to satiate designers. Who do we ask for an opinion when we're working? If we're all designers, who's going to alert us when we have our heads up our collective bottoms?
Behind the curtain
Some years ago I had the opportunity to work with a global banking and financial services company. There was a commonality between the traders: they didn't want their tools simplified. It wasn't that they didn't want their software to be easier to use, they just didn't like the idea of it being decipherable by non-traders.
Their reaction has stuck with me ever since, and it's a behaviour I push back against whenever I see it rear its ugly head. This desperate attempt to act out the role of the mysterious person behind the curtain not only smacks of arrogance and hubris but is also a dangerous and infectious trope.
It's worth considering this marvelous quote from Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall's The Universal Traveler:
"[Creativity] is not a gift or quirk of birth. Some people don't just have it' while others do not. Nor does it come from luck or magic. Creativity is a learnable behaviour requiring steady and determined effort"
Any Notdesigner can join our ranks and become one of us. Our skills are learnable. Our differential can be acquired with dedication, a strong resolve and a willingness to listen.
By being self-aware enough to realise that we as designers are in the minority, and perhaps those who have only known Notdesign aren't that far removed from ourselves, we push to design better and more popular products.
We can also enjoy the empathies and insights that Notdesigners bring to our exciting, if somewhat sheltered, design world. Just so long as we're happy to share our stuff' with them.
Words: Jonty Sharples
Jonty Sharples is the co-founder and CDO at Hactar, a London-based agency bringing world-class design thinking to organisations that want to make the world a better place. Follow him on Twitter @Gringomoses.
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