Pairing with a Design Partner

Make beautiful products together. Thoughts on the practice, psychology and methods of pair design. A draft in progress.


Hi, I’m Karl, a Designer at Amazon & PairDesignCo. I believe that teams (designers, developers, product managers, ceos & more) can learn a lot from each other by pairing on product design together. Yes, this means 2 designers, or a designer and a developer, or even a designer and a product lead working together: during their actual design & development artifact making time. Pairing is not a “working meeting” and it is not “brainstorming” unless you want to dance with whiteboards. (that’s kind of cool too, but let’s focus on the basics.) Pair design is: critical thinking & doing, trust building and less rework for creative teams that want to build great things together. Let’s dive in to the details.
The devil is in the details! (so, don’t try to design them in a vacuum without critical thinking & feedback from others.) Sure, it’s not easy to let go of a well developed #designego but it’s worth it in the end: Imagine all those precious mockups evolving into useful shippable products with less redesign time along the way.

What’s Pair Design?

It may not be the kind of collaboration you’re thinking of… so let’s explain.

Ever sat next to another designer and worked together on a single artifact? That’s #pairdesign.

Huh, I still don’t understand, isn’t that just a design critique?

Almost. Think of pairing as increasing critical thinking, feedback loops and building trust with a design partner. You’re basically critiquing + designing faster.

I’m in, but how did this start and how does this fit into my day to day design work?

On a personal note: I hacked my design education for over 15 years by constantly trading skills and learning from others. When I think about it I’ve worked with dozens of design partners and mentors throughout my career.

Can you draw your path on a piece of paper and make sense of where you’ve come from as a designer? It’s important to give credit to these people. (I tried once and it was surprisingly fun to find the most influential people on the map were my Dad and De Anza College art & design teacher Lee Tacang)
Many years later: I started working on teams where design didn’t have a seat at the table. (these weren’t design firms but real businesses that had biz + product goals. This was the opposite of a utopia for a young designer and the road to being a more generalist and experienced designer) It wasn’t until after forming a studio with a friend in 2012 that the tables turned into a shared desk. Pairing is a way to bring forward the benefits of critical thinking into the results of critical doing. It’s a chance to not just reshape the pixels but more importantly begin to reshape the core behaviors and interactions of products, together. The most basic concept of setting up the design pairing desk was the following: one monitor, 2 mice, one keyboard and a glass whiteboard-friendly desk surface. We’d begin working on a few screens and flows in a design tool while also working out the flows on paper or on the table. We were switching between low and medium fidelity but it could have been any stage in the process that involved creating an artifact. In most cases you might be used to creating this artifact in isolation and waiting for feedback much later in the process.

It turns out that those tiny changes made a big impact for changing some bad design habits. We have to admit that there are overly drawn out design processes and design reviews that cover the span of a week instead of a short span of a day. The time saving was perceivably the main benefit but it definitely took more attention, mindfulness and energy to pair. Basically, your brain would be fried at the end of the day. Soon after, it became a trial and error process of communicating the hypothesis of the benefits of pairing to different types of teams. I gave a few talks and workshops with 500 Startups, Mozilla Labs, and in a funny turn of events I was showing Pivotal Labs how to practice pairing (for designers of course, because they already knew a thing or two about developer pairing). That was then and this is now. So,where are we now with the practice?

We’re at the beginning. And more importantly, you are here. Let’s start the dialog and create the pair design community. (you can join it) We’ll soon be meeting up in the real world in SF and later NYC. The idea is to start to practice and share pair design methods and grow into an active & open community to help shape the method.

Pair design is just starting. It’s still an emerging method borrowed from pair programming and other feedback mechanisms for design execution, such as timeboxing.

Big points to socialize here are: “Designers pair up too.” and “Pairing makes design time more efficient and helps you redesign less.”

Am I a fit for pairing?

Designers are the obvious match but also we should look into expanding the definition of pair design into other disciplines that want to practice UX, visual and product design with other people. You can also pair with design + dev: that’s a different cross-functional pairing. (and a different post altogether that I’ll write someday) For now, our little community on CollabFinder will focus on the undiscovered territory of designer + designer pairing and we’ll expand the group to design + dev as we grow.

Why don’t I just use method (X, Y, Z) instead?

Is the way we work really evolving or devolving into too much process? It seems that we all want to be and should be designing things more thoughtfully, especially with wonderful minimum viable research and design phases. So we’re all designers, right? (That argument of roles and titles…I will not touch, but I think we all have our strengths and weaknesses and we should admit that. We aren’t all perfect and have a lot to share with each other: each one of us has a range of skill levels. Pairing makes your weaknesses and strengths balance out. You’ll compliment each other. Really.)

The truth is: the future of the way we work is directly linked to the future of collaboration. (some people hate the word collaboration and brainstorming, like this New Yorker article) But pairing isn’t a fuzzy process, it’s executing and action. Pairing is a powerful method because it’s about being brave enough to say, “I don’t know. Please show me how.”

We can all share skills. Designers, developers and other practitioners can pair.

Which type of pair designer am I?

  • You are a team designer. You’re lucky and work on a team of designers.
  • You’re a solo designer and you need more than design feedback (but that’s cool if you just need to find a design critique partner, you can learn a lot from just that)
  • You’re a junior designer looking to learn from someone more experienced. You can benefit the most from a pair. Find a design partner and maybe even some lifelong friends & mentors.
  • You’re a senior designer, you have some time and energy to share. Lack of mentorship in the design community seems to be a common story so think of pairing time as just enough mentorship time.
  • You’re a product owner that would like to communicate ideas outside of standard product requirements.
  • You’re a UX Researcher that wants to pair with another type of designer.
  • Also, you could be a developer or other practitioner that wants to learn design via pairing.

Let’s evolve pair design together. Our goals for 2014, so far:

  1. We’ll start to quantify the value of #pairdesign and start to get a gauge on who wants to pair and when. Let’s answer the question together. How many designers want to practice and learn pairing methods with each other? Join the #pairdesign group to cast your vote. Then we’ll help connect you with other designers this year and start from there.
  2. We’ll start a meet up in San Francisco + grow the community organically online here… and expand from there, maybe even NYC this year too ☺
  3. This is a draft plan, come back here as we evolve.

Wait, isn’t this already happening?

Maybe you think this is old hat. Well, let’s get this out of the way:

An old hat tip to @Cooper (credit where credit is due) for leading the charge on the ideas that kicked off the design version of pairing. Cooper hires two designers to pair as “generators and synthesizers”. Let’s not split hairs over origin stories. We’re only starting to see a less strict definition of these formalized design sessions as #pairdesign. I’d say around 2011 is when the world started calling it this publically, but I’ll get a lot of heat for saying that. Nothing is original and #pairdesign methods are not one size fits all and not going to stay static forever.

To quote my friend @cwodke

“new is not a virtue. Used and useful are.”

Remember, this all started from pair programming. Pair programming is a codified process that you might practice, but maybe you’re the few that have already experimented with pairing as a designer. Have you already tried pair design? I’d love to talk to you. I believe that a large percentage of the design community hasn’t yet discovered pairing and that we need to start sharing our stories. Let’s start on twitter (or Contact me) so we can share more insights and experiences. Designers have been pairing for awhile now but they just didn’t know they were doing it. (If you look hard enough, you’ll find an MIT research paper on a method involving pairs. This brings up the issue that we’re not inventing the concept we’re reinventing it: and, haven’t we been informally pairing all along?) We might have paired before but we sure haven’t formalized it enough to make it an everyday practice.

The positive side of the equation is that organizations like the Interaction Design Department at CCA, Cooper , DesignerFund and Bridge practice some form of pairing in their studios and educational programs. These groups have brought a mixture of pairing and mentorship that teaches young and seasoned designers a new dance routine they can take with them throughout their careers. Bravo to these groups for laying a new foundation. So, who’s missing? You.

How would you carve out time for pairing?

“I don’t know. Please show me how.”

Take any project you’re working on (any stage of the design process where you are in a rut. Remember that pairing on sketches versus front-end code, interaction or flows are going to have different goals, but those goals should focus in on creating the artifacts that you can use and work out design problems, together.) Begin your week by making a once a day or once a week schedule for pairing time for as little as 5 minutes with a partner and as much as 30 minutes. Repeat at each stage of the design process that you need help or check-in time. The magic in the method is developing a routine & habit. Want more help? I’m working on a deck of method cards that will help people learn how to pair.

Let’s pair together

Remember, you don’t have to be an accelerator program or design firm to practice & learn pair design skills. Just be yourself and try it out. So, let’s start hacking design education together, one pair at a time.

Want to get involved? Let’s pair together. Join the CollabFinder Group #pairdesign, start a discussion w/ hashtag #pairdesign, follow @PairDesignCo or follow me @KarlDotter