7 insights from a year of talking with designers

Image credit: By Matt Donovan on Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/donovanhouse/350362527/)

Part of my job includes speaking with designers every week and recording these conversations for our O’Reilly Design Podcast series. Below are 7 topics I covered over the past year that I believe will have a large impact on how design evolves in 2016.

1. On design as a corporate asset

One of the key themes I’ve been exploring is the notion of design as a corporate asset. We see proof of companies like Intuit, GE, and IBM embracing and embedding design. This kind of change management is a long-term effort, but the return on investment is measurable. Suzanne Pellican of Intuit notes, “It took a long time for design thinking to get in our DNA, but it laid an incredible foundation for us becoming a design-driven company, and as a design-driven company, it means that design of the customer experience is the ultimate responsibility to everybody.” While it’s great to see design’s business value being recognized, there seems to be a good deal of confusion about what it means to treat design as a corporate asset. Each company approaches embedding design differently. I plan to explore this more in 2016. What has surprised me along the way is there are far more companies who aren’t even considering using design as a competitive lever. I’ll also be exploring the views of the majority in 2016 — those that have yet to embrace design.

2. On hiring designers: Skills are only part of the package

Phil Gilbert, general manager of design at IBM: “We are looking for three things: intelligence, integrity, and passion.” Katie Dill, head of experience design at Airbnb: “We look to hire people who have humility, craft, and hustle. The reason for that is that yes, we want the best designers on the planet working here, and people who have exceptional craft and taste, and care about every detail and do their work with pride, but…they have to leave their ego at the door. We’re designing for our users at the end of the day, and it’s not for us, it’s for them.” In early January, we’ll release our Design Podcast with Wesley Yun, director of UX at GoPro. He talks about identifying the best candidate for the organization by considering the kind of archetype (Maverick, Architect, or Guardian) and selecting the applicant based on where the organization is maturity wise. Vanessa Cho, head of UX and research for the software and services group at GoPro, looks for “learners — the naturally curious above all else.”

3. On the Internet of Things

Mike Kuniavsky, principal scientist of Innovation Services at PARC, noted Marshall McLuhan’s theory that “the content of every new medium is the old medium. Every new medium subsumes the old medium of the content until you actually figure out what the new medium is.” Nowhere can this be seen more right now than with the Internet of Things. The biggest challenge for those working with the IoT is the mindshift required to realize the possibilities. When the televison came out, people were creating for the radio, and the same is happening in the IoT space. What are the natively interesting qualities of the Internet of Things and how do we create with that in mind? Smart refrigerators — no one needs them. Wearables? We’re in the early days still with IoT.

4. On teams and the power of collaboration

Martin Charlier, independent design consultant and cofounder of Rain Cloud: “Every field needs to know a little bit about others, just a basic understanding of the other side. In some of the most interesting projects I’ve seen, the team was made up of somebody with an industrial design background, somebody doing more technology, and somebody doing more interaction and user experience…. The key, though, to some of the projects I’ve seen was that they started to work together as one team before splitting up into their respective domain areas so that there was a joined vision.” Collaboration and empathy have to exist if you want to succeed as a team.

5. On design and social responsibility

Tristan Harris, who focuses on design ethics at Google, cofounded the movement Time Well Spent. Harris explains that as a designer you’re designing how people spend their time. Is that time well spent or simply time spent? Time is currency. You have a responsibility to your user to design an experience that is in the user’s best interest. Design is neutral. Intent is in the hands of the designer. As designers, you are constantly managing a balancing act: doing right for you, for your users, and for your employer.

6. On the triforce

Katie Dill talks about Airbnb’s approach to designing experience as a combination of design, engineering, and product management. It’s not easy because there are natural tensions across teams. The key is to have mature team players with a shared vision. Many companies talk about this approach, but few are actually succeeding at it. Will this become the organization design of the future or only for those with designers in leadership positions?

7. On paying it forward

There is a designer shortage, and it’s growing. Bob Baxley, who has held design leadership roles at Pinterest, Apple, and Yahoo, believes designers need to engage the younger generations. In his upcoming talk at the O’Reilly Design Conference, he’ll issue a call to designers to get involved in local schools. Maurice Woods, founder of Inneract, a nonprofit in San Francisco, is reaching out to elementary and high school students and educators. As he’ll discuss at our Design Conference, Inneract focuses on encouraging, educating, and advocating for inner-city children by teaching them how to design. In our upcoming Design Podcast, you can hear from Wesley Yun, director of UX at GoPro, who’s also speaking at the Design Conference. Wesley explains his involvement as a mentor at Bridge Guild, a program that is part of the Designer Fund. Look for more from us on the topic of design education.

Stay tuned for more in 2016.

I hope you find these insights as enlightening as I do and helpful in your practice. The O’Reilly Design Podcast series was one of our top initiatives of 2015; we see it as a treasure trove of ideas, information, and inspiration for designers. If you haven’t tapped into this resource, we hope you’ll check it out in the new year, both for the archived editions noted above and the new interviews we’ll produce on a regular basis.

Most of the people who shared these gems in conversation will be speaking at the inaugural O’Reilly Design Conference, along with about 70 other brilliant, inspirational members of the design community in San Francisco, January 19–22.

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