5 Design Secrets from the Kids Who Will Replace You

A friend and I joke about the island of lost interaction designers, a place where we will all land after turning 50. Here, Adobe products are still in use and we spend our days debating the definition of user experience design.

In the fast-changing design world, it doesn’t always feel like age and experience equal value. With a fresh crop of talent emerging from schools each year, it often feels like a race to maintain relevance.

For the past 4 years I have taught an introductory class in the interaction design program at California College of the Arts. The experience has been a balance between imparting knowledge and learning from my students’ off-the-wall ideas. They push the boundaries of interaction models and are fearless in picking up anything from a new digital tool to a soldering iron. I often bring their latest discoveries back to my teams at IDEO: a place where we try to bring a beginner’s mindset to our work, regardless of our age.

Recently I gathered a few CCA students to discuss this very topic over beers. Below are 5 nuggets of wisdom from the beginners themselves that I thought worth sharing.

1. Focus on stories, not screens

Attention to craft is table stakes for any designer. For my students, however, the value of visual design skills is not necessarily in creating a beautiful screens but in storytelling. In their current classes they are pushing beyond tangible interfaces to solve interaction problems. They pointed out that you don’t necessarily need visual UI skills to create an interface anymore.

Backtrack to when I was a student, entering interaction design before it was even a discipline. Originally trained as a graphic designer, I have a (sometimes outsized) passion for choosing the right typeface, color harmony, and balance. Those things, while important, are not primary for my students.

So what does this new approach look like in the real world? Let’s take the topic of conversational interfaces (like Quartz), artificial intelligence (Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa) and virtual reality. In many cases the tangible visual boundary between user and technology has disappeared leaving a non-screen based experience. This way of thinking is natural to my students; while they value the craft of visual design and form-making, it is more often about storytelling than UI.

2. Safe Design = Design Fail

My students acknowledged that they recently emerged from the “utopic world of school where it’s ok to fail” but expressed concern about an aversion to risk that they had experienced in their internships and new jobs. They worried that as they stepped into the working world they might be “educated out of risk taking.” I did not hesitate to point out that risky behavior is more complicated in the professional world because there are far more factors at play, including tight budgets, technical constraints, business requirements, and ornery clients.

Still, the students have a point: relying on past experience can lead to redesigning what already exists, instead of creating new realities. They encouraged me to always be willing to take a step back, scrap everything, and jump back into a project no matter how scary. Ask, “Is this the right problem and the right approach?”

Is this the right problem and the right approach?

3. Design in Context

Prototyping is an important part of our process at IDEO, and this means throwing ideas against the wall early in the process. But how does a young, digitally native designer approach this challenge?

A young designer on my team taught me a lesson about prototyping early, in context. He was tasked with designing a mobile app, but instead of polishing the design on a large screen, and then exporting it to his phone, he reflected every iteration of his design on his phone — from the get go. His design was constantly in his pocket and he tested it in various environments. His philosophy? If it’s for the phone, put it on the phone. Certain transitions might not feel natural on a small touchscreen. If it’s for the car, put it in the car. Bouncing animations that seem novel at your desk are annoying when driving.

They acknowledged that it sometimes feels like a hurdle or commitment to get ideas off the screen and into the context in which they will be used. As designers, there is a desire to create a certain level of finish before exposing it to others. As one of my students aptly put it, “It’s like getting out of bed on a really cold morning. It’s so comfy in that bed, yo.”

In an era of interaction design where the medium and contexts are wildly different depending on the project, prototyping alone isn’t enough. It’s the context that helps you understand if it works or not.

4. Confidence ≠ Ego

In an attempt to provoke discussion I asked the students how they felt about the stereotype that their generation is self absorbed and egotistical. I was met with a collective groan. While admitting to sometimes having an over-abundance of confidence, they claimed it was not for the reasons people think. They chose to reframe ego as “voraciousness.” Their confidence stems from faith in their skills, yes, but also a deep desire to enact change through design.

When I asked what they would want my generation of designers to know about them they replied, “I’m willing to work my ass off, so engage me.” They encourage more experienced designers to capitalize on their passion. Talk straight and reframe problems around impact and, in return, you’ll get a young designer willing to work his or her butt off. One student told me of an offer letter that explained the responsibilities of her new job in terms of social impact (in reality it was plenty of button making and transactional email design). But she was inspired by this framing and accepted.

I’m willing to work my ass off, so engage me.

5. Build Responsibly, Then Get Out of the Way

When I asked the students about the future of design I heard two seemingly contradictory themes: responsibility and letting go. On the responsibility side they spoke of sustainability being a baseline design principle for just about everything they create. One explained, “I want designers to take what they’re putting out there seriously and be mindful of the ecological effect that it has.” Yet at the same time they also described a future in which “we (as designers) are no longer needed. The world can design without us.” They spoke of “giving away the tools of design to the world.” It’s world in which designers empower people to live efficiently, responsibly and with authentic care for others.

While this vision seems wildly idealistic to me, it’s a world that I wouldn’t mind living in. Sometimes it takes looking a young designer directly in the eye for us to remember to go there.

Special thanks to current and former CCA students: Brian Wong, Dorahan Arapgirlioglu, Analicia Barros, William Felker, Brett Killoran, Adam Lukasik, Alex Modugno, and Vivek Shah for sharing their perspectives and to Anna Hartley for her editing superpowers.

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