“It’s like a finger pointing to the moon.”
Tools are best used to serve a purpose.
In the cult film, Enter the Dragon, a favorite scene of mine has Bruce Lee instructing his pupil on refining martial technique. He explains to his apprentice the dangers of over analyzing. He instructs that doing so can paralyze action. In explaining this concept, Lee utilizes an analogy of a finger pointing to the moon. As he points to the sky, his pupil looks at the finger rather than what the finger is trying to accomplish — that is, the view of the sky.
At Think Brownstone, we use a variety of tools and methodologies to craft solutions towards our clients’ challenges. As my design lead often tells me, any method or tool we use is simply that — a tool amongst many we leverage upon our journey towards the goals we are trying to meet. Certain tools are more fun to use for some than others, but a part of our challenge — and responsibility — is to assess which tools are most befit for the task at hand.
Like the swordsmith who uses a hammer and an anvil to forge a new weapon, we as designers harness the use of other tools to create our own. While creating and developing better avenues of engagement and interaction, we interact with and employ a bevy of design implements.
Whether they are tools for conceptualizing (user research, sketching, white-boarding), for creating visual artifacts(Sketch, Pixate, Adobe Creative Suite, coding) for presenting concepts (wireframes, moodboards, Keynote), for validation (prototyping to user testing, our Think Brownstone Think Trusts), or for communication (Slack, email, Trello, meetings), all of these are just that: tools.
Like our young martial academic in Enter the Dragon’s kung fu pop-parable, we can often times focus on the finger rather than aiming our gaze towards the moon. Sometimes, we fixate on the tools, on one method of wayfinding over another.
Research as a Tool
To illustrate the point, we can hone in on one example of tool fixation by examining research. Research is a crux of our work, the process by which we accrue our raw materials for the furnace of refinement. At Think Brownstone, research is the stiff jab in our design-pugilistic arsenal. It’s the bridge from which we set up following combinations.
And why not? In any other field, research not only validates the work at hand, but the very profession. Research champions both task and practitioner with marvels of data and science. Furthermore, research provides context — not just competitive and comparative analyses on existing solutions — but also on behaviors supplied by qualitative data. We glean actual feedback from our audiences’ behaviors with the products we create or intend to create.
Research informs us of the needs of our users and stakeholders thereby informing us, the designers, of our own needs and objectives.
Problems, manifest, however, when research is indoctrinated as the only tool by which our solutions can derive. Research in this context becomes an issue when the security it provides reaffirms our preconceived assumptions rather than utilizing it as a catalyst for exploration. In other words, we hyper-focus on the tool rather than the objective at hand. We become more interested in researching rather than designing, more indulgent upon the data than building for our users and our clients.
Ben McAllister, former Creative Director at Frog and now Director of Strategy for Under Armour, states:
“Design, like the world as a whole, is unpredictable and messy. If you think it boils down to “research,” you’re mistaken.”
The ‘Science’ of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea, Ben McAllister
McAllister isn’t shunning nor shaming research, but rather is arguing that while the merits for research are true, the essence of design is not purely research. He goes on to expound on specifically the flaws of scientism: “Scientism exploits the extreme reverence accorded to science in our culture, as well as a popular misunderstanding of what actually constitutes science.”
That is not to say our field of design — specifically, designing products and experiences — doesn’t follow scientific rigor. But it is to say, as designers, we have an array of tools that play very nicely with science: intuition and imagination being two of them. That is to say, “soft skills” and pragmatic tools do not have to be mutually exclusive. They can and should coexist.
McAllister continues, adding a quote from Paula Scher (emphasis, mine):
“It is as if anyone could follow the same steps and end up with a great design on the other end. This story satisfies the design customer’s desire for predictability and reliability. Unfortunately, it also trivializes the role of the designer. Paula Scher criticizes this mechanical view of design in her book Make it Bigger. “It diminishes the real value a corporation gets from a designer,” she writes. “It is the rare combination of the designer’s intelligence, intuition, inspiration, and aesthetic sense — dare I say talent? — that makes for successful design.””
Tools Towards Purpose
At this point, it may seem this piece was written to bash a cornerstone of our discipline, negating the value of objective assessment towards building something useful and delightful. This isn’t the case. As it always does, it comes back to purpose.
The purpose of research, the purpose of any of our tools, is to accomplish a goal. When designing a product, a tool, a solution, we need to be sure of why we are doing research in the first place.
Research is great for filling the gaps of assumption, for discovering who we are designing for and why. It addresses and mitigates the ambiguity of our understanding. It validates the hunches and hypotheses for which we are testing. But it is not a substitute for the totality of our skills nor does it replace the ingenuity of our design thinking. It supplements them.
Naturally, those of us in our profession who use the full breadth of our toolsets understand what Hannah Alvarez means when she says:
“Don’t ask what people want. Instead, find out what they need. Remember: as you’re doing your research, the point isn’t to ask what users want or what they might be likely to do in the future. It’s to observe their behavior and identify their pain points so you can determine what needs to be built.”
To Design an Awesome Product, Let Go of Being Right, Hannah Alvarez
This critique is not beholden to only research; it applies to all of our other tools as well. Whether it’s focusing too much on a rendering tool forgoing low fidelity sketching, or in reverse, focusing too much on paper-pen when it may behoove one to dive directly into a high rendering tool: the same trappings apply.
Tools as Ritual
There are also times when it is important to pay specific mind to the specific tools we use. For instance, if the goal of research is for the sake of research (and in many instances, there is nothing wrong with that sort of R&D) then by all means, engage and immerse oneself in research. We mentioned prior the idea of purpose. If our aim is for an artifact of high aesthetic value, then of course we will put more efforts into our rendering and the tools providing those capabilities. Purpose and vision add a lot of clarity to the strategies we use and the tools we employ.
In these cases, the tools and paying heed to them may provide purpose by offering the ritualization of a mundane task.
This sort of ritualization has its purposes in the creative process.
And with digital or physical implements both, there are moments where the purpose derived from our tools are in the tools themselves. For instance, many take great pride in the tools they use, and at times, spend a bit of effort honing, organizing, and prepping their tools for more effective (and pleasurable) use. We often see this exemplified in craft trades such as the blacksmith or the woodsmith, but is also seen in our more contemporary settings, such as curating one’s workspace for optimal production or, organizing our digital tools on our desktops. We are all smiths honing our crafting instruments, after all.
Of a more mundane fashion, I find great satisfaction in polishing my shoes or in placing on my hand-wraps before doing heavy bag training. The ultimate goals are to walk in those shoes or in striking the heavy bag. But in the instance of addressing the tools themselves, the purpose I derive from the act of preparation is one of ritualization, of caring for and prepping my tools. In these cases, the tools and paying heed to them may provide purpose by offering the ritualization of a mundane task.
This sort of ritualization has its purposes in the creative process as referenced in Scientific American™ “Why Rituals Work” by Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton and in Fast Company: The Importance of the Creative Process by Art Markman.
And you know what? Sometimes, it’s just fun to work in a particular tool, and fun can be a very purposeful and powerful thing.
Nonetheless, with the process of creating, of building a new tool, a better experience, we utilize tools at our disposal to create something well. In this regard, the tools we use are the sum of the finger as it points to the moon. Our objective lies in looking towards the moon, where we sometimes fixate on the tool pointing towards it.
There is a time and a place for refinement or specification or fun with the tools we use. For those other times where we strive to design something specific, we listen to what Bruce Lee shared with his pupil in Enter the Dragon: