A Delicate Balance: Design Mind and the Three Ways of Seeing

There’s a great line from Annie Hall: “A relationship is a like a shark; it either moves forward or it dies.” And I think this kind of typifies how I feel about design. Not that I would merely shoot so low as to simply “stay regular”….but anyone who works in design knows that it’s really a deliberate process of staying unstuck and landing on your feet with your aspirational soul in tact.

Of course, Albert Camus famously wrote in the The Fall “sometimes the most difficult thing for a man to do is to merely continue.”

If the answer is “yes,” you want to continue then the next question is “how.” This is easier said then done if it’s 3:00 AM and the Account Director is insisting on changing all the subheads in your deck to proxima nova before the morning presentation. You could a) just stab him in the neck like you‘ve really been wanting to or b) find a perspective. But b) is more than just a way to prevent a life sentence without possibility of parole. It’s a window into excellence.

Continuing is hard at times, yes. But continuing and cultivating through adversity is harder. Exquisite design is the result of absorbing the trials of exhaustion and combat so that you can coax your raw intent into the fullest possible expression. This is your focus; the reason you do this.

This is why you wake up and sit in front of a screen and draw strange boxes on white boards all day and argue with the same people who in some moments are angels and in others, infidels. You have an idea, but so what. While the artist might believe the idea is an extension of themselves (or just that they have license to create their own moral universe); the designer knows they are just the window through which ideas pass. Once out in the world the idea must be stress-tested, nurtured and hazed. In some cases the idea must die — violently. But does it really die? Or does it’s death inform a new idea? Like drinking strong beer, this work takes stamina.

What is the difference between intent and an idea? Your design intent can spawn many ideas. It procreates possibilities. Without it you are essentially sterile. I may have an intention to make health a shared value in the United States, and I may have many ideas of how to express that. So how do we allow an intention to fully ferment throughout the divergence of emerging ideas? There are three ways. Three words that start with “P.” Three ways of seeing that must shift like the lenses on a rotating turret:

Pliant

Design is about living in the realm between people and ideas. To be pliant doesn’t mean to be a pushover. It simply means the designer’s mind must be sensitively nimble and learn to bend — mostly to other people. We understand that design comes from people and that design teams are fallible organisms with varying levels of emotional complexity. If we’re pliable, we can navigate the menagerie of human imperfection. We can know that an idea emerged from some person’s mind, which is to say their unique life history and view of life. This principal allows us to externalize the humanity, so that the true shape of the solution won’t be camouflaged by false objectivity. To see from a pliant point-of-view means that the designer practices a kind of patience that’s intrinsic to good design, such as allowing a good idea to survive without inflaming misguided passions. And, more importantly, it means letting the seed of a solution incubate through its proper cycle by not forcing it into contrived clarity so you can, as Jack White says, “leave the door open a little to let God into the room.” But really this agility also permits our own selves to be vulnerable. If we’re vulnerable we can expand to receive new ecologies of sensory data, which is a signature act of courage, and often the first casualty of feckless leadership. All good designers should be leaders of their own mind.

Precise

The zen monk Shunryu Suzuki said, “purity is seeing things as they are.” Seeing things as they are is a kind of intense curiosity, the kind of truth-seeking that’s not concerned with being right, but pursuing absolute clarity. The designer has no greater patron saint than clear precision; it’s a saint who may not leave you feeling right, just happy. With precision, your chips are either all-in or not. It is an absolute unrelenting stance. It’s as if all the constraints and pressures of the process are all conspiring to get us to board a train off to some land of political relativism and compromise, when all we really need to do is to sit in the train station and observe — to resist and hold the integrity of seeing clearly. On a macro level, this is when products copy feature sets to stay competitive and not stay true to that product’s purpose. On a micro level, it might mean designing a feature for every possible class of user, instead of choosing an appropriately bolder, narrower target. It’s a righteous battle to always maintain a precise line of sight to purpose, but it’s one worth having. Seeing precisely also means seeing beyond your own cognitive bias so we can clearly imagine what might not yet be, regardless of the fact that it can’t be proven until after it’s conceived.

Promiscuous

Promiscuity isn’t about conquest. It’s about getting intimate with a lot of possibilities and then being willing to move on. It’s another way of saying “letting go,” but with a bit more deliberate intent (and without the hangover). The author Robert Solomon wrote, “It takes an emotional investment to create a great idea, and it takes an emotional detachment to improve a great idea.” Designers need to contain multiple sets of data that may actually contradict each other and find the fortitude to extract and weave together the sweetest parts. It’s no small feat to oscillate between passion and detachment. It’s like training yourself to be a creative hypocrite, but you must. There is no greater mark of a fierce intelligence than one that knows creativity is never scarce; that battles may be better saved for another idea on another day. Promiscuity allows the designer to composite creative experiments and reveal new models of meaning and purpose. If Warby Parker can reorder the purchase sequence so the user can try before they buy then it’s promiscuity that allowed them to stay unstuck and keep moving towards Valhalla. This is not easy. But it’s absolutely necessary. Promiscuity means learning to accept that on some level all ideas are dispensable, regardless of the sweat and tears lost in their conception.

Perhaps many of you already practice these principles but don’t realize it. That’s kind of the point. My hope is that you are and that you don’t have to read another blog post from another pundit because the fact of the matter is that you are already complete. You have prana. You have mind. We don’t need a new process and a new toolkit, we need to celebrate the mystery and magic of the designer’s mind with all its bold instincts, inquisitive madness and irrational persistence. This is design thinking. This is where it lives and dies.

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