Turning to Pair Design

How to start designing together


A few weeks ago, I attended a pair design ‘TalkShop’ (talk + workshop) at Pandora facilitated by Suzy Thompson (Cooper), Chris Noessel (Cooper), Karl Dotter (pairdesign.co) and Kate Rutter (Tradecraft). Pair designing is much like pair programming — two designers work together on a single problem and collaborate to come up with a design solution. Design agencies and startups alike are implementing pair design as a method to push creativity, expedite learning, and improve workflow. Having recently been matched on a new client project with another designer, I was intrigued by pair design and wanted to learn how it could improve my process.

Working Together as One

Suzy and Chris kicked off the event by discussing their experiences pair designing together at Cooper.

“Pair Design is taking two designers… that work together as one.”

They reflected on how it’s important to utilize the experience and perspective of both designers within a pair but crucial that the pair works together, not merely side-by-side, developing independent solutions. Working as a pair helps to establish mutual ownership over the design process and avoids competing designs that lead designers to defend their own ideas over their partner’s. Designing together can also avoid mixing and matching aspects of two separate workflows therefore leading to a more coherent design narrative and cohesive solution.

The Rules

Design Pairing has been effective for Suzy and Chris, and through their experiences, they have developed six ground rules to help guide their process.

1. Have only one marker in the room

Designing with a single marker allows for engagement and deeper listening. Often, one member of a pair will draw or design with a marker while the other observes and facilitates. At Cooper, they have defined these roles as generator and synthesizer.

2. Use the 15 minute rule

When having reached a design disagreement, time-box it. Allow for discussion and bring in a third party to provide a less biased perspective and try to help resolve the issue. It’s okay to have disagreements but don’t dwell on them.

3. Build don’t block

Cutting down others’ ideas can halt momentum and hurt a partnership. Build on your partner’s idea by adding to it, asking good questions, and seeing the solution through before jumping to criticism. Building can also help guide further ideation that wouldn’t have occurred if an initial idea was blocked and can build trust within a pair when sharing ideas.

4. Respect your Spidey sense

Throughout the process, listen to your design intuition. If you think that a design is not working or doesn’t feel right, say something — your feelings are always valid*. (*later, be sure to return and make a valid argument to justify your feelings.)

5. Show don’t tell

Showing gives your design partner material to work with, respond to, and develop upon. Telling keeps your ideas abstract or “in the air,” and subjective. Showing leads to more objective design conversations and greater understanding and collaboration.

6. Embrace Egoless-ness

“Leave your ego at the door.”

The success of the pair design process is dependent on your ability to check your ego. When designing, it’s tempting to drive your own ideas while ignoring others. Being able to champion other’s ideas allows for better design and happier designers.

15-minute Pair Design

Next, Karl and Kate took the stage to facilitate a 15-minute pair design activity. Our goal was to take an existing mobile app and do a 15-minute pair re-design.

The format looked like this:

Slide from the TalkShop — via Karl Dotter

First…

I paired up with Kristy, a designer at AutoDesk and we looked to redesign Dropbox for iOS. We began our first with five minutes with goal setting and idea generation, jotting down notes on usability and visual style.

Then…

Kristy had five minutes to draw while I took on the role of navigator. It was interesting to lead her through my design thoughts but challenging to convey my thoughts perfectly. I found myself holding back from taking the pen and drawing on my own.

Finally…

We switched. I took the pen and listened to Kristy as she walked me through her design ideas and revisions of our initial work. There were instances where I had to draw over my previous ideas (that was tough) and work together to come up with a better solution.

In the end, we came up with a scrappy design to implement alternative ways a user could view and organize their folders on Dropbox’s mobile app.

Notes from our re-design

Although we were perhaps left with a less-than-perfect app redesign, we were able to work together and derive new ideas we wouldn’t have been able to alone.

Designing Together

After the TalkShop, I took the lessons I picked up and applied it to my process. Working on a new client project with my partner, Cathrine, was a great opportunity to experiment with pair designing. Over the next few weeks we got to see how it influenced our work.

As we designed, we had to be patient with one another, slow down and communicate about our decisions. We learned to agree and agree to disagree. We switched roles, taking the position of both generator and synthesizer and adapted quickly, complementing each other’s strengths and covering each other’s weaknesses.

Pair designing offered pushback, a different point of view, and challenged us to question our designs and take them a little further than we thought we could. We also felt more confident about our designs after talking through them and had a much easier time when later meeting with our client.

Conclusions

If you’re a designer, knowing how to work with others is already a necessary skill. Now design teams are taking collaboration to new heights, having designers pair on a single artifact and take shared ownership over each part of the process. Pair designing can help improve your workflow, push your design limits, and build confidence about your designs. Avoid working alone and start pair designing.


For more on pair designing, check out Karl Dotter’s blog post here.

I’d love to hear from you! Tweet me @icschoen and contact me here.