Part 1: SHARED UNDERSTANDINGS:
THE CONVERSATION CENTERED WITHIN A DESIGN
What Are Shared Understandings?

Practice-By-Design Series

Image by Feld, 2020

A piece of jewelry, a website landing page, the interior of a room, the public face of a building, all these so designed, are objects of beauty and functionality. But they are more than that. Things which are designed are unique forms of artistic expression. They are not stationery in the sense of paintings hung in a museum. They have a different type of relationship with the user or utilizer. They have a specific relationship to the body. They might move with the person, or have the person move with them or through them. They might adjust positions as the person walks, sits, runs, turns, bends, maneuvers. They might relate to clothing and hair styles and dexterity and maneuverability and body shapes and sizes. They might flow through many contexts, environments and situations. Design is expressive. Relational. Both an object and, more importantly, an intent.

Design represents a commitment to a conversation — between designer and self, designer and client, and less directly, designer and all the various audiences of that client. Otherwise people would not use the design. Or influence others to use and buy it. Or bring it into a public space with them. Or interact with it. Or buy it.

That conversation does not happen all at once. It does not start and stop at the beginning of the design process. It does not fully resolve itself even after the piece or project is finished and then used or bought or shared. That conversation continues as that piece or project is introduced to others and they react to it.

The things we design and make and inhabit and wear speak about ourselves as artists and our clients as persons. The designer can be somewhat alone, but never alone. In his or her head, but simultaneously complicit or perhaps collaborative with others, either in reality, or virtually and in the abstract. Design emerges from this dialogue, imaginative or otherwise. And only emerges with some level of commitment to a conversation.

This commitment to a conversation, centered around any piece of jewelry or other designed product or project, then is progressive. It is perspective shifting. It is reflective. It keeps going as everyone who interacts with the design begins to formulate whether they like it or not. Whether it excites them or not. Whether they would wear it or buy it or inhabit it or utilize it or not. Whether it feels finished. Whether it seems successful. Whether it would suit some purpose, or fulfill some agenda. But the shifting perspectives and emerging collective, shared understandings about the design always reflect back on the authentic performance of the designer. Endlessly reflective.

Some designers are very aware of their thinking during their authentic performance in design; others are not. While the former is a more powerful position to be in, all designers will need to figure out — before, during and after the design process — what criteria these various audiences will use to assess any design as meeting their needs, desires and requirements. How do they evaluate a design as coherent, relevant and resonant for them? How do they determine how much the designer’s own design sense contributed to coherency, relevancy and resonance? How do they share these understandings with others as they use and interact with the design publicly? What makes these understandings contagious so that others get excited about the design, as well?

The better designer anticipates answers to these questions. The designer uses this information as evidence in formulating and judging the smartness of the choices to be made when designing and constructing something. This evidence — good, bad or indifferent — forms the basis for criticality. It is a measurement. It states a position and measures the deviation. That criticality guides the designer all along the way from inspiration to aspiration to design to introducing the piece or project publicly.

Evidence in this knowledge-building experience is assessed, managed and controlled. All designers want to get good at this. It is their way of inspiring their clients to recognize the designer’s power in translating thoughts and feelings into design, that is, to reflect back the designer in their own design. We call this coherency. It is their way to excite their clients on an emotional level. We call this resonance. It is their way of influencing their clients to want to wear and buy and utilize their designs. We call this contagion. As the clients use these designs publicly, we also want to get their audiences to see and experience coherency, resonance and contagion.

Design is both an outcome as well as an instrument for new shared understandings, new relationships, new behaviors, new reflections. It is a two-way mirror. It is a catalyst for exchange. It is a marker of validity. Design is a product of creativity. Design is a tool of engagement. Design is a means toward criticality and legitimacy. Better designs show the designer’s conscious awareness of all these things and how they might play out in any situation. Authentic performances in anticipation of shared understandings and with no apologies. That’s the goal, at least.

For any design, it is a long journey from idea to implementation. This journey involves different people at different times along the way. The designer’s ability to solve what is, in effect, a complex problem or puzzle becomes a performance of sorts, where the designer ferrets out in various ways — deliberate or otherwise — what the end users will perceive as making sense, having value and eliciting a desire powerful enough to motivate them to wear a design, inhabit it, buy it, utilize it, exhibit it or collect it. The designer, however, wants one more critical thing to result from this performance — recognition and validation of all the creative and managerial choices he or she made during the design process.

People will not use a design if their agendas and understandings do not converge in some way. They will interact with the designer to answer the question: Do You Know What I Know? If they get a sense, even figure out, that the answer is Yes, they share understandings! — they then become willing to collaborate (or at least become complicit) with the designer and the developing design.

Sometimes this convergence of understandings and meanings and intents occurs in a happenstance sort of way. But more often, it won’t happen without some degree of assertive leadership on the part of the designer. It is primarily up to the designer to establish these shared understandings. That is, the designer must take the lead to anticipate how they themselves should relate to their understanding of reality. The designer must invite the client to engage. So the designer, too, will ask the same question of the client that the client has asked of them: Do You Know What I Know?

The answer to this simple question — Do You Know What I Know? — is more than how the designer impresses the client and how the client impresses the designer. It is deeper than that. It is not surface meaning. It is not something descriptive. It is something critical. At its core are ideas about intent and desire. Its vocabulary gets very caught up in ideas about risks and rewards. The conversation to establish these shared understandings — we might call this a dance — proceeds on many levels, some assumptive, some perceptual, some through expectations, some through values and desires.

The designer, in effect, bridges the gap between how the designer sees the risks and rewards within any design process and outcome, and how the client might see these same risks and rewards. Both want to assess ahead of time whether the project will be satisfactory, feel finished, and meet their needs and desires. Both want to assess ahead of time whether there will be consequences, and what these consequences might be, should these communications and shared understandings about risk somehow fail or not meet expectations.

The designer wants to avoid any miscommunication. Any frustration. Any discomfort. So an in-depth, intuitive knowledge about shared understandings, how to anticipate them, and how to incorporate them into the design process is necessary for the success of any design.

The designer should not assume there will be shared understandings. The designer should not assume that there will be a pleasant, conflict-free relationship with the client. The designer should not assume that any disagreement or miscommunication will be worked out at the beginning of the process and not have to be dealt with again. Nor, conversely, should the designer assume that any disagreement about elements of the design would negate shared understandings. The designer and client can agree to disagree as long as they share certain understandings.

Shared understandings are about recognizing intent and risk. They are about

· Getting a sense of where the ideas for the design originate

· How the design process is to unfold

· What the design might be able to accomplish and what it might not

· What happens if conditions or intents and desires change over the course of the process

· How adaptable the designer is

· The chances the final design will feel finished and successful

· What criteria the final design needs to meet

If neither designer nor client understand intent and risk as each other sees it, there will be no shared understandings. The design will be ill-defined and poorly articulated. The designer’s performance will be inauthentic. There will be no trust. No legitimacy. No satisfactory outcome.

While the need for establishing shared understanding in the design process might seem obvious, it does not often occur. Designers too often assume this will happen automatically. They present designs as fait-accompli — their success predetermined and prejudged as successful. They lose some level of management control when the client responds negatively. They fail to adapt or become too inflexible when the situation changes. The designs get implemented imperfectly. When the client takes possession of the design, the relationship ends.

About the Shared Understanding Series…

For any design, it is a long journey from idea to implementation. This journey involves different people at different times along the way. People will not use a design if their agendas and understandings do not converge in some way. They will not buy a design or contract with the designer unless there are some shared understandings about what should happen and when, what will happen, and what the risks and rewards of the finished project will be. Shared understandings are about recognizing intent and risk. Design is both an outcome as well as an instrument for new shared understandings, new relationships, new behaviors, new reflections. As such, any design represents a commitment to a conversation — between designer and self and designer and client. The conversation allows for the management of shifting assumptions, expectations, perspectives and values. Better designs show the designer’s conscious awareness of all the things affecting shared understandings.

Other Articles of Interest by Warren Feld:

Disciplinary Literacy and Fluency In Design

Backward Design is Forward Thinking

How Creatives Can Successfully Survive In Business

Part I: The First Essential Question Every Designer Should Be Able To Answer: Is What I do Craft, Art or Design?

Part 2: The Second Essential Question Every Designer Should Be Able To Answer: What Should I Create?

Part 3: The Third Essential Question Every Designer Should Be Able To Answer: What Materials (and Techniques) Work Best?

Part 4: The Fourth Essential Question Every Designer Should Be Able To Answer: How Do I Evoke A Resonant Response To My Work?

Part 5: The Firth Essential Question Every Designer Should Be Able To Answer: How Do I Know My Design Is Finished?

Doubt / Self-Doubt: 8 Pitfalls Designers Fall Into…And What To Do About Them

Part 1: Your Passion For Design: Is It Necessary To Have A Passion?

Part 2: Your Passion For Design: Do You Have To Be Passionate To Be Creative?

Part 3: Your Passion For Design: How Does Being Passionate Make You A Better Designer?

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Vilajosana, Lluis Comin. Connotations and Contributions of the Maker: The Value of Jewels. 6/26/18.

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Yusuf, Bulama. Understanding Shared Understanding: 5 Ways to Improve Shared Understanding in Software Teams. 12/8/2019. As referenced:
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I hope you found this article useful.

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Beading and jewelry making have been wonderful adventures, from custom work, production work, and teaching. *Design is about the ability to make smart choices.

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