I can recall back to architecture school, on the days leading up to a design review, pulling all-nighters, putting the tiniest of details on models, producing renderings and really crossing my fingers that I wouldn’t get completely humiliated in front of the class by the design jurors. Numerous times at these critiques students get completely skewered after spending countless hours trying to perfect their design only to be told they were wrong all along and would benefit from just starting over.
These experiences are the norm for anyone that has gone through architecture school and many other design disciplines, and while we often humor it as a rite of passage, that mode of operation tends to stay with us beyond academia, in our professional design lives. Only this time, we’ve replaced the feared design juror with the client, who decides after the output of a lot of work, whether we got it right or not. Rather than true partnerships, the relationship tends to be an imbalanced one with power seesawing between the two. The consultants are the design and planning experts and want to make it evident, completing their homework to perfection for every meeting. The client gets the last say and can either tell us we’re on the right track or way off, nudging us to start over or at least take a few steps back. I’ve been through this experience too many times and wondered how much time (and money) had been wasted in the production of these high-fidelity products, not as a final deliverable, but as drafts throughout the project. We put the pressure on ourselves to face our clients as experts, when in reality, we would benefit so much more from a real collaborative relationship with lots of room for iteration and feedback.
We put the same pressure on ourselves when we show up in front of communities with finished designs and glossy renderings — “you’re telling me how important my feedback is, but then showing me a rendering where you’ve made every decision, down to the color of the bike rack you’re going to install.” When words and actions don’t align, it’s no surprise that designers often find themselves in front of angry, confused crowds that are mistrustful of the intentions in the room. Not only are we closing the door on conversations with our perfectionism, when we show up with such definitive products, we’re making a promise of what will come, knowing well there’s a good chance it might not come to fruition. So how might we change this dynamic and be more honest with ourselves and our partners to propose design solutions that don’t feel like a gamble?
Opportunity: Use low-fidelity tests to relieve the pressure of getting it right.
Being trained as a designer, I’ll admit I have a tendency of wanting to exhibit only my finest work, which means I often stress over the smallest design details and overwork myself trying to reach perfection, even knowing that there’s a chance I may have to redo the work entirely. Over the past two years at Greater Good Studio, not only have I learned to put my ego aside, but realized how impractical this way of operating is when it comes to time and money.
Instead, I’ve embraced a low-fidelity philosophy and liberated myself from putting up a front for clients and peers to make the work seem effortless and any changes inconsequential. Instead of spending so much time on creating fancy presentations and beautiful drawings, I now wonder, why not share the messy sketches? Why not invite our clients and communities to work with us through the design process, and help them see that this process is not easy, it’s not quick, and it’s certainly not neat? Yes, the client will eventually have a set of high-quality final deliverables and receive the expertise they are paying for, but couldn’t the time and effort that is spent on these outputs be saved if we took a faster approach that involves our clients more intimately with our work? If we get it wrong, not a lot of time and money has been wasted and starting over doesn’t seem as tragic.
At Greater Good Studio we invite our clients for working sessions in our office where we don’t make any formal presentations, but rather ask that they participate in the design process with us. We run the risk of clients being skeptical of our abilities when they see our messy process consisting of post-its, scraps of paper, and doodles on the wall, but so far our clients have thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to get their hands dirty in the work and see the rigor and range with which we collaborate and iterate before arriving at any conclusions.
This same approach can be applied when working with community members. Knowing that community development projects have the potential to impact a neighborhood, a city, or even a region, for decades to come, I often see designers crossing their fingers, hoping that the solutions being proposed are the right ones. Because the truth is, pretty pictures in a report and market projections can only be so reliable.
Human-centered design, on the other hand, emphasizes iteration, prototyping and piloting before locking down anything final. It relieves the pressure of getting to the right solution the first time around. It asks that we make very low-fidelity mockups that get as close to reality as possible in the cheapest, fastest way, that we test them with real users, and then change them based on the feedback received.
Urban design has adopted a level of this thinking with “tactical urbanism”. But we need more of that across all facets of planning like when creating land use policies. Some might ask if it’s fair to “test” ideas on communities, many of which are already feeling planning fatigue. But isn’t the bigger gamble when we create lofty visions and designs with a 10-year timeline and roll the dice to see if market, environmental, and social conditions comply with what we put on paper?