Photo by Maria Cordell

Designing the Designer

Jesse James Garrett’s Midwest UX 2017 Keynote

By Kathrine Becker

When Jesse James Garrett gave the keynote at Midwest UX 2017, he offered up a rousing list of qualities that make for a truly human-centered designer, sharing lessons learned while working alongside the many talented creatives at Adaptive Path and Capital One.

While watching it, I kept imagining Jesse (full disclosure: my boss) walking down an allegorical path to designer-dome and calling out the landmarks, as if to helpfully say, “If you realize you are doing X, then you’re traveling in the right direction,” …rather than, “Follow my instructions precisely, or you will be a ridiculous failure.” He’s a nice guy.

Design = intentional decision-making, and this talk, “Designing the Designer,” not only describes the attributes required to act with intention, but also why that intention needs to be rooted in humanity.

JJG doesn’t go for that willy-nilly, Arbitrary-Mary, pin-the-solution-on-the-user sort of riffraff, and he politely suggests you abstain as well. Check out the video or transcript for his full remarks, or scan below for a few highlights.

On the Adjacent Possible

“The adjacent possible is simply the range of answers that exist in any given moment to the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’”

This concept figures largely in JJG’s approach. Navigating the adjacent possible isn’t a single tool in your extravagant toolbox — it is the toolbox. As decision makers, you need to be able to consider as many solutions and scenarios as possible at any given moment.

“In the game of chess, there’s a finite number of moves that a player can make at any given time based on the positions of the pieces on the board… This finite set of moves defines the adjacent possible set of game states at any moment in the game.
The difference between a chess grand master and the rest of us is that the grand master understands the adjacent possible better than we do. They can see the moves that we see, but they see them in a completely different light because of their experience. Or, they may see things that we don’t.
At every point in the design process, there are ideas that are just one step away from the ideas that we’re currently working with. That’s our adjacent possible.”

The talk reviews 20-ish must-have and nice-to-have qualities, and they all feed into your adjacent possible in some way. They’re like booster packs for mindfulness: Serve your curiosity. Search out your blind spots. Suspend your disbelief to engage with ridiculous ideas.

On Embodiment and Self-Awareness

BOGO on body cognizance! Of all of the topics Jesse covered, this two-fer on physical perception stood out because speakers/bloggers/inspirationalists often only cover half of it, or at least stop short of connecting the two.

There’s an entire scientific field called “embodied cognition” which studies the way that our thinking and our creativity are influenced by the way that we engage physically with the world… By changing the way our bodies relate to our environments from moment to moment, we access cognitive resources and problem solving capabilities that we can’t get to any other way.

That’s the part that we hear all the time: We know there is a connection between our physical self and creativity, so we buy standing desks, we play with prototypes, we do stokes to stir the blood and feed the senses. Yes, it’s ideal to build those activities into our routine — but not to the extent that we rely on them passively. Active self-awareness is key.

Jesse’s challenge: pull that broad, catch-all understanding of embodiment into your mental dashboard every day, into every moment. This flows directly into the development of your creative instinct, which manifests in distinctly physical ways.

“In order to be embodied, we have to be present with ourselves, aware of what’s going on with ourselves from moment to moment. Physical self-awareness can range from simply knowing when it’s time to turn up the heat in the room to knowing when it’s time for a bathroom break. If we’re present with our physical states, we can become more aware of what we physically need in order to do our best work.”

The ultimate and very simple truth:

“If we aren’t paying attention to the body, then we also aren’t paying attention to the cues that the body gives us in the creative process when ideas resonate with us.”

Those signals aren’t maybe there — they are happening. Your corporeal container doth communicate. Other people read your body language. Choosing to dismiss this information is like closing an entire lane of your Adjacent Possible Freeway.

Doing the Right Thing For Humanity

Mic drops are pretty 2013, but this closing may have deserved one. It’s not a sermon, or tirade, or diatribe exactly… it’s less of a call to action, and more of a call to arms. I half-expected him to mount a horse and shake a righteous Sharpie at the sky while an orchestra swells up in the background.

The throwdown starts at 51:25 —

“The nature of technology’s influence on our lives has shifted. The issues may look the same on the surface, but the difference is that an ill-considered dialogue box or webform didn’t used to have the power to enable abusive behavior at scale. It didn’t used to have the power to undermine civic discourse. It didn’t use to have the power to unravel social fabric.
We, as designers, have always been the voice of human impact in the decision-making process as we create technology. That voice has never needed to be heard more loudly and more consistently than right now. We need to be the ones initiating conversations about the potential of our work to make people’s lives worse instead of better, even if we are hitting our business targets, even if we are hitting our behavioral metrics. We need to be the ones initiating conversations about unintended consequences, the bugs in our systems that can lead to damaging second order effects. We need to be the ones initiating conversations about how our choices create outcomes for humanity as a whole and not just for each individual in isolation. Because we’re not in isolation. We are all in this together, and we have a moral imperative to be more human-centered in everything that we do.”

(That orchestra would be really loud by now.)

“This is the mindset and the perspective that we as designers must nurture, and cultivate, and uphold, and defend. Because there is no one else with a seat at that table — not product people, not technologists, not business analysts or brand marketers — who has ‘Doing the right thing for humanity’ as their explicit mandate. It is up to us.”

Fight the good fight, designers. It is up to us.


As the writer-in-residence for ONE Design’s Events & Publishing team, Kathrine Becker uses storycraft to support over 400 designers at Capital One.