The first time I spoke at the 99U conference was in 2014. While I was in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, my husband was at the Santa Clara County courthouse bidding in the auction for the probate sale of our next door neighbor’s house.
We won the auction that day, and eventually decided to build a new house for ourselves. We retained a local architecture firm, Fergus Garber Young, whom I had the pleasure of getting to know just after I had completed construction on the first house I built, the one I was living in when I bought my neighbor’s property.
This project was a rare opportunity for me as a designer to be in the client’s shoes, which gave me greater empathy for what it’s like to be managed through a design process. Moreover, the lot is exactly the same size and shape as the one my other house sits on. The requirements we gave FGY for the programming of the house were mostly the same, so this project became an interesting A/B study of what it’s like to work with different creative processes, taste, culture, and abilities between the architects I worked with on both houses.
In early June this year, our new house was featured in the American Institute of Architects’ Silicon Valley Home Tour, making this year’s 99U (2017) the finishing bookend for this house project, coming full circle. Our house was one of five houses the Bay Area AIA chose to feature to celebrate excellence in residential design.
The question 99U organizers asked me to address was “How do we fix design?” I’d like to share with you seven lessons I learned through this experience of building my new house which offer practical insights for designers to employ day to day.
1. Choose clients intentionally
Naturally, designers are more apt to be successful if they work with someone who has a clear vision, appreciates what designers can contribute to a project, and empowers them. FGY over time has developed a sixth sense for identifying these clients. When a potential client doesn’t fit this profile, they turn down opportunities when their instincts tell them to stay away.
As a former leader of in-house design teams, I have found that the ability to choose your stakeholders or internal clients is key to success. At the time that I joined Google, the designers were vastly outnumbered by engineers. It was painful to not be able to staff design on every project at Google. It was standard practice for designers to be spread thin across multiple projects to the point where they were only ancillary members of the team.
We turned this dynamic around by using this staffing deficit to our advantage. We prioritized aggressively, turning towards teams where we felt the conditions were ripe for our success — a commitment to iteration, a strong vision, support for a truly user-centered design process, and tight collaboration and trust between all parties. Instead of spreading team members thin across many projects, we worked on fewer projects really well. With each successful win, we bought ourselves more credibility and created more demand for our time which yielded even more interesting and successful projects to choose from.
Turning potential clients or stakeholders away is hard to do. It is one of the top mistakes I see design organizations make. Design teams feel a sense of responsibility to the company to service all parties who need them, and they want to help. But in the long run, spreading resources thinly across too many projects does not set up designers or stakeholders for success. If you are a creator working with other people, take charge of your destiny — set yourself up for success by choosing your clients intentionally.
2. Present multiple alternatives
Any idea always comes with a cost and tradeoffs, whether it’s the safe road or the road less traveled. FGY always presented multiple options to help us understand the tradeoffs.
In the early stages of design for our new house, FGY worked with bubble diagrams in multiple variations to facilitate discussions with us around the relative flow and placement of spaces and how we conceptually wanted to achieve our goal of bringing in as much natural light as possible. They said, “The goal here isn’t to nail down where everything goes, but to test your edges for what you want.” For example, did we want to create many alcoves of private spaces that could be surrounded by windows on three sides? Or did we want a giant open space where everyone would congregate? By making the concepts tangible for us, we could make informed decisions and buy-in to every tradeoff that was made, so that even compromises did not seem like losses but as wins.
As creators, sometimes the tradeoffs and the options are so obvious to us that we don’t bother sketching them out or presenting them, maybe to save time, or out of fear that the client will actually choose the option we prefer less. But that time and energy spent on generating multiple alternatives pays forward in spades later, by having stakeholder buy-in. Stakeholders are reassured that they are being heard when you’re ready to take the journey with them through thoughtful effort. By seeing the tradeoffs and constraints as you see them, they can more readily get on board with any compromises with design, time, or budget.
3. Prototype: from low- to high-fidelity
Once the concept was laid down and priorities established as a result of these conversations, the team worked with increasing fidelity with each iteration. Keeping sketches rough in the early stages forced us as clients to stay focused on the high level strategy and priorities without getting stuck in the weeds. In fact, FGY even told me that sometimes even though they have things mocked up in higher fidelity they will intentionally show the low fidelity sketch, just to manage client expectations and steer the conversation in the direction needed for that time.
Working in low fidelity during a project’s early stages might sound like an obvious way for designers to work but too often I witness a gravitation towards high fidelity mock ups right away. Sometime this is driven by the designer, because they feel more comfortable and proficient working at a high fidelity. Sometimes stakeholders say they cannot visualize the interface in low fidelity sketches. But there is a fallacy in fidelity — working in high fidelity mock ups right away makes it too easy for designers and stakeholders to focus on the wrong things at the wrong time, and represents clarity in the design where there is not. Low fidelity enables strategic conversations around esoteric topics that are often hard to have, such as concept, vision, values, and priorities.
As we continued to flesh out the details of the house, FGY modeled every aspect of the house in a 3D model. The furniture and art I considered would populate the model as well, and we could fly through the model as if we were navigating a video game.
When a 3D model wasn’t sufficient to understand the physical manifestation of our intentions, we would turn to prototyping. In my yoga studio, foam core mockups of light fixtures were built to help us see how the fixtures would fill the volume of the space, to inform what size bubble lamps to use. The handrail for our stairs was mocked up in multiple ways to help us understand the hand rail’s relationship to the rest of the stairs. We hung a life-size printout of a lighted art piece so we could designate the electrical outlet location for it.
Prototyping can seem like a waste of resources — it’s time, energy, lumber, code that will all be thrown away. But sometimes we don’t really understand what the consequences are of a certain design direction until it becomes tangible.
If you’re working on digital products and experiences, the ephemeral nature of code and rapid development cycles may provide false comfort in not prototyping, because you think you can get away with launching something and change it later if it doesn’t work. Every launch is effectively a prototype. Keep in mind that prototypes can take many forms — even a storyboard or cartoon can serve as a prototype of the experience to inform strategic choices. While it’s true that no design is ever done especially in software, prototyping saves time and energy over the course of the project, and helps the team arrive at the right answer faster.
4. See the opportunity
The reality of projects is that we do have to make compromises. Sometimes we are so constrained that the design can’t be all that we want it to be. When we have to live with the reality of a compromise or constraint, it helps to take an optimistic view.
When we choose an optimistic viewpoint, we turn negatives into positives, and amplify what makes it great. For example, with only one east-facing window that didn’t catch much light, the hallway that connects my daughters’ bedrooms and their bathroom had the potential to be less than spectacular. Yet our long, narrow lot constrained the floorplan, which left us with few alternatives. Our lead architect chose to see the upside. Given that this was the one area in the house where there was ample wall space, he recognized that we could accommodate my treasured books in this hallway. Taking it a step further, he noted that we had space in the attic above for a loft, and it would be neat to have a library ladder that would take us straight up through a manhole in the ceiling to go into the loft. He turned what would have been a mundane space in the house and made it a unique feature.
A mundane experience is a failure to see. When we are instead present, we begin to see and notice and only then do we begin to consider possibility. It’s that recognition of possibility that allows us to turn negatives into positives. How do we see beyond the constraint? It’s a skill that is cultivated over time. Given that there is a duality to everything, focus on the upside and run with it.
5. Get the details right
Details manifest in design in a number of ways. It starts with anticipating needs before the stakeholder becomes consciously aware of the needs after the product is built. For example, FGY called for the construction of a cabinet inside every water closet in the house for storing extra toilet paper rolls and feminine products. As clients, we didn’t even consider asking for a feature like this, but now we are so grateful for this thoughtful detail.
Details also come in the form of being able to see and build delight and beauty into the product. For example, FGY noticed how the loft shares a wall with the cathedral ceiling in my daughters’ bedrooms. Introducing a stained glass window in this wall created the opportunity for more light to stream into the loft and offer a beautiful, decorative detail in all related spaces.
Finally, no amount of design details will matter if they aren’t executed well. The builder who built my first house completed the house very quickly — 13 months from start to finish. The framing for my house went up quickly but not precisely, resulting in a critical beam that obstructed a light fixture which meant that the trim to the fixture had to be shaved off to fit in place. During the 10 years I lived in this house I could not unsee this aberration.
Through the course of my career I have come to work with a variety of engineers. There are some who don’t see the details and with them it’s very hard to execute well on design. They don’t see the same things designers see. Then there are others who appreciate design and proudly create with love, care, and attention. Do we always need the latter when building technology? Not necessarily — it’s important to get the right kind of talent for the right time. Being aware of developers’ proclivity towards hacking vs. craftsmanship allows you choose the right kind of person to work with if you care about design.
Here are a few examples of how details manifest in the Google experience. Inserting the cursor in the text box when the home page loads and Google Suggest are attempts to address needs upfront. The Doodles that decorate the home page on special occasions add a decorative flair and an opportunity to celebrate and educate. And a counterexample: the fragmented look and feel of Google’s products in 2006 reflect a lack of priority and infrastructure around a common look and feel, in contrast to Google today.
6. Be the arbiter of taste
FGY prides themselves on having “strong plans, good proportions, and a high attention to detail to make beautiful and functional houses”. It turns out that proportion and scale are really hard to get right in architecture. How do you make a space open and airy without being too voluminous? Cozy and warm without feeling cramped and dark? How do you know when something will look good and feel right?
Over centuries of building structures that we inhabit, humankind has figured out what works well, in form, space, and functionality. As builders and designers over many places over many years have resolved a particular problem, these design decisions are recorded as a pattern. A pattern language has evolved in which architectural design ideas have become archetypal and reusable descriptions. The words “architect” and “archetype” come from the same root, arkhi-, which means “first” or “master.” “Master builders” understand the “master forms” that underlie us all. FGY employed design patterns to create a living space that feels spacious and comfortable at the same time.
Well-trained designers understand and employ principles of good design, such as principles of alignment, repetition, proportion, contrast, geometry and scale; for example, the notion that presenting a series of windows or doors in odd numbers looks better than even numbers, or that repeating an architectural detail in multiple places makes for a stronger, more coherent vision for the whole house. Working with established best practices and design patterns, we arrive at the best solution and get the details right more quickly.
Though design for digital experiences is a relatively newer field than the practice of architecture, principles of good design can still apply to how these ephemeral experiences take form. Twenty-five years ago Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines were the gold standard for design patterns in software; ten years ago we had Yahoo!’s Pattern Library, and now Google’s Material and Framer’s latest rollout serve as a way to propagate best practices in digital product design at scale, through code across many devices.
How do we ensure that we can be an effective arbiter of taste? Per Lesson One, choose clients who value your taste and judgment as a designer. Per Lessons Two and Three, present multiple alternatives in tangible form to help clients understand their options and steer them in the right direction.
7. Approach the work mindfully
We came to look forward to our weekly Thursday meetings with FGY because they were fun and generative. Any idea, no matter how ludicrous, was always received well, and even ideas we did not think were possible were never met with skepticism or a “no”.
FGY takes pride in fostering a culture that is collaborative and inclusive. They invest heavily in mentoring where people are used to giving and receiving feedback from each other. Schedules are flexible and they bond like a family, taking care of each other and themselves.
It is my long-held belief that what’s most important when it comes to creation is how one works — with love and joy, safety and trust, hope and curiosity. Where there is love and joy with work, work begins to feel like play, and play leads to exploration and innovation. Where there is safety and trust, you are more able to be present, not get defensive, and to listen to your internal voice, and to stakeholders. Where there is hope and curiosity, it’s more possible to let go of ideas that don’t land with clients, because we know we’ll find another way.
Beauty and harmony reflect virtues required to create good design: clarity, resilience, patience, empathy, presence. Good design is created through many moments of mindfulness, and when we pause to appreciate good design, that is a gift of a mindful moment passed from the designer to the recipient.
- Choose clients intentionally
- Present multiple alternatives
- Prototype, from low- to high-fidelity
- See the opportunity
- Get the details right
- Be the arbiter of taste
- Approach the work mindfully
These seven lessons may seem obvious to those who make, but they are actually very hard to do — this is why so many people don’t engage in these activities. In the world of designing digital experiences where development cycles are significantly shorter than building a house, it’s tempting to tell ourselves that we don’t have time to do these things that need to be done. We take shortcuts with the hope of pleasing stakeholders by giving them what they think they want, quickly. The experience I had being in the client’s shoes on this project elucidated for me the activities that are essential to designing well. May we all choose to design, and may we all make the time and mental space to do it well.
Many thanks to my husband Bradley Horowitz for being an ideal co-conspirator, enabler, and source of humor and perspective throughout this project, to Clinton Prior and Wakey Mist and the teams at FGY, Northwall Builders, Bernard Trainor and Associates, and Fox Landscaping for being an A+ team and making it all happen, and to Fred Chung, Satish Ramachandran, and Dan and Catherine Garber for their feedback on this talk / essay.