Monday, September 3, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 5, How Design Begins, Pt. 2

Download Episode 5

Design Guy, here. Welcome to the show.

This is the program that offers a pause from our technical manuals: all the keeping up we do with tools, technologies, the state of the art. Now, we've got to keep up, of course. It's essential we stay current. But it also can be overwhelming. There is so much to keep up with, it's like drinking from a firehose. We get cognitive overload. And it's hard to retain things that we know are going to continue to change.

On the other hand, we want to learn principles. The good news about principles is that they don't really change. We can learn them with confidence that our time investment is not wasted. We'll know that at least this part of our knowledge base will not erode. Software will come and go, but principles remain. And I think that sends a message to our brains that this is stuff we should latch on to, that we ought to retain. At least that's my theory, and my experience. And that's where this show comes in. Hopefully, we can offer a bit of white space or margin from other concerns, by setting aside the transient information, and speaking to timeless things - things we can commit to long term memory.

Now, we spoke last time about how design begins, and today I'd like to amplify those thoughts and add a few suggestions. We said that listening is key. Or as Hillman Curtis says, listening is an activity, wherein we ask the right questions in the right way, and then fine tune our reception to the answer, however buried it may be.(1)

In other words, we query our clients to learn what they really want. We want to excavate their core message, their story, so we can identify the thematic drivers of our project. But to do this effectively requires skill in the art of questioning. Questions are to this process, what picks and shovels are to archaealogical digs. To carry the analogy further, questions also act like sifters that filter sand and rock from the stuff we're after. And we want the bones. We want the DNA - the genetic blueprint of our project, so to speak.

The lazy thing to do is to just "get requirements." If we run with requirements we've gotten passively, rather than interactively probing, even challenging our client at times, then we risk informing our work with junk information. In our gusto to get going, we'll start off with a lot of zeal, but soon realize with a creeping dread that there is something rotten in Denmark. We'll find ourselves going back to the drawing board on things we thought were resolved. Or the client, sensing that something is amiss, will suggest too many changes at review milestones. The scenario is all too common. We can sidestep that messiness by laying the foundation of understanding. And, once again, we do that by carefully questioning, and then listening.

We ended the last show on a cautionary note. We said that once we've gotten the right answers, we've got to watch out that we don't go wrong. It's actually possible to make a proper diagnosis, then execute the wrong solution. We safeguard against this by asking ourselves, as designers, a number of questions. We've queried our client. Now we turn the line of inquiry on ourselves. And this ought to start as early as possible. It even runs parallel to the client inquiry. We just want to prevent ourselves from jumping to conclusions or to specific solutions too early.

The idea is to avoid being rash, by suspending our internal biases and avoiding the ruts that we naturally fall into. We all have comfort zones or favorite tools that, truth be told, may not be ideal for a project, and we need to be self-aware enough to realize this. We want to start with a blank slate. Just throw out assumptions as much as we can. It may not be appropriate to ask ourselves, right out of the gate, "What style of website should this be?" We've already assumed it's a website. Don't ask these presumptive questions. A better question is "Which format might address this design problem best?" And then think through the advantages and disadvantages of a variety of different approaches or formats. You want to broaden your horizons at this stage.

We want to do research. What is research but just another form of asking and answering your own questions. Camp out at a search engine for a while and gather information.
Learn what you can about your client and their industry. Try to discover their strengths, weaknesses, market opportunities, and market threats.

Find out what their competition is specifically doing. Look at who competitors are marketing to and how they've designed their products and supporting media. This will help you later on, as you consider ways you can differentiate your client from their competition.

In all of this, you're thinking expansively. You're casting a wide net for information. You're keeping your antenna up, and your eyes open. And because you are, you'll surprise yourself when you begin to search for solutions. You'll come up with fresher solutions. That's why it's important to remain in this mindset for a while before winnowing everything down to a solution.
Of course, there can be too much of a good thing. You want to avoid the paralysis of analysis. But gather as much information as you need right now. Just toss it all into the funnel, knowing you can narrow down and throw out what you don't need later.

A good analogy is an ice berg. It's a good way to visualize all of this. Think of an iceberg - there's a relatively small part that's revealed above the water, compared to the mass of ice below the surface. Likewise, there's a lot of listening and questioning and research that goes on below the surface to amass the information we need. But the final product, which is the tip of the iceberg, only reflects a small amount of this. Nevertheless, we need to gather that body of information before we can surface the stuff we'll use.

So, we've gotten really smart about the design problem and have gathered a lot of helpful information, all while we're broadening our horizons, and we're ready to approach the creative process. We've basically created fertile ground for problem solving and idea generation and brainstorming. And we'll get into all that good stuff in a future episode. Perhaps not the very next one, but soon.

And that's today's show. Let me remind you that show notes are available at my web page, which is I've included hyperlinked footnotes to references I've made. And if you want to study a topic further, the book references will take you directly to Amazon where you can get a copy for yourself. By the way, if you're enjoying this ongoing discussion about design, please cast your vote for Design Guy at podcast alley, or leave an encouraging word via the iTunes comment feature on my iTunes profile page. Until next time, this is design guy. Thanks for listening!


1. Curtis, Hillman, MTIV: Process, Inspiration, and Practice for the New Media Designer, New Riders Press, 2002

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