Pairaphors: Explaining pair design (metaphorically)

At Cooper, we’re quite fond of pair design as a way to get to the highest quality design quickly. (Even if you have to cheat your way there.) Most of our client engagements involve a pair of interaction designers dedicated to projects full time. Over the years, two specific roles have evolved out of this paired practice.

We struggled to come up with descriptive titles for each of the roles. Though the debate was a tough one, we erred on the side of accuracy at some cost of accessibility, and call the roles generator and synthesizer. (We’re aware that that makes us sound like machines, but with the quality of design teams are able to produce in this way, maybe that’s apt?)


The generator is the one whose job is to fearlessly generate design ideas; to walk up to the whiteboard or OneNote page, draw some designs, and say, “OK, here’s how I’m thinking it will work for the persona.” The gen, working with visual design, makes the design solution visual; first with hand drawings, then in illustration software.


The synthesizer is the one whose job is to insightfully keep challenging, improving, and synthesizing the design into a whole. As the “gen” posits ideas, the “synth” will ask questions, help analyze, improve, and iterate it. The synth describes the behavior in words, incorporating the gen’s drawings to create a design specification.

Together they…

…identify and evolve designs, so that the persona using the system we’re designing accomplishes their goals in awesome ways.

Some asides about these distinctions:

  1. These roles aren’t cast in stone. Sometimes when the gen is out of ideas, she might hand the pen to the synth so he can draw what he’s thinking, and she’ll “synth” him.
  2. We’re experimenting and refining our methods all the time, as with our new integrated product development offering. Not all projects need two interaction designers.
  3. Our team structures include additional, invaluable members like visual designers, industrial designers, engagement leads, etc. This article is just about the relationship of paired interaction designers.

This is some heady stuff to explain, whether to our parents, at a cocktail party, or interaction designers applying to work with Cooper. For this reason, we often find ourselves employing metaphors to explain the relationship. Since this is usually when the lightbulb goes off, I thought I would share some of the more effective and engaging ones.

Some explanatory metaphors


Are like gens because the pilot drives where the ship is going.


Are like synths because the navigator makes sure they avoid the dangers and stay on track.

The metaphor’s not quite right because

On a ship you generally know exactly where you’re going. With personas we know who we’re designing for, and via scenarios we know the big picture of what it must do. But the design that gets you there is an unknown.


You might be more gen if you like driving a design solution. You might be more synth if you like keeping an eye out for pitfalls.

Not a fan of sci-fi? Maybe a musical metaphor will resonate more.

Recording artists

Their main focus is on the present task at hand.


Their main focus is on the big picture.

The metaphor’s not quite right because

A gen doesn’t document a whole design and then listen to the synth’s notes. Pair design is co-creation. Each thinks about detail and context in terms of the other, refining frequently.


You might be more gen if you’d rather be in the moment, making the design. You might be more synth if you’d rather hang back, thinking about the end result.

Not big into the music scene? How about the otherworldly and alien?


Is like a gen because he’s got this crazy theory he wants help working through.


Is like a synth because she’s open-minded but skeptical, asking hard questions and taking no b.s.

The metaphor’s not quite right because

Mulder’s pretty good about keeping Scully in the dark until something life-threatening or dramatic needs to happen. In pair design, it’s important to keep thinking out loud as you create, so the reasoning underneath the design gets surfaced and considered right along with the design itself.


So you might be more gen if you have big ideas that are so crazy they just might work. You might be more synth if you like asking the hard questions that keep people thinking.

There are other pair-creative metaphors that are just as informative, but these are the ones that, for me, get the lightbulbs floating overhead popping on the most.

Read more about Pair Design on the Cooper Journal.

Originally published at

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