Design’s North Star

Telling the story of an inspiring future


Design, past and present

There’s no doubt that the tech industry’s general understanding of “what is design?” has come a long way. I can’t remember the last time I had to explain to someone in a real-life work situation why it’s important to include designers in the initial stages of a project, or how designers can do a lot more than lay down a shiny veneer of pixels over an ugly interface.

If anything, our industry craves more design. At a recent dinner, managers from some of the fastest-growing companies in the Valley sounded like a professional chorus with how completely in unison we were about the fact that we would do just about anything for another two or five or ten more talented designers on our teams. Design conferences like this week’s Brooklyn Beta are becoming the hot annual pilgrimage destinations. Prominent VC firms now staff design partners or designers-in-residences. Just last week, Vogue ran a piece about Jony Ive, who’s status as a titan in tech is still growing. Even slow-moving industries like banks are realizing that it’s a wise move to invest in design.

This is excellent for designers, of course. This is tremendous progress. All around us, CEOs and engineers, PMs and salespeople are realizing that if you give a product problem to a designer, you’ll get something that’s more useful, usable, and lovely.

Here’s the thing, though. The design industry is still young.

And useful, usable and lovely isn’t good enough.

Let’s aim higher.


The North Star

Vision: a thought, concept, or object formed by the imagination.

Every great product starts with a vision in someone’s head, a little flicker of an idea, incomplete and in pieces—like remembering a few scattered scenes from last night’s dream—but it’s enough to intrigue, to make the heart go thump-thump and the mind to resolve I must know more, I must explore further.

This vision could come from anyone. There isn’t some rule that says only CEOs or product people or designers or engineers or designated “visionaries” can come up with great ideas. (That said, it must be acknowledged that actually coming up with a compelling, transformative vision is incredibly hard, and most people do, in fact, suck at this).

But if such a vision were to exist in someone’s head, then the next step should be to capture and encode that vision, taking care to preserve all the richness and wonder and awe so that the other people who see it can also feel the thump-thump in their hearts and the resolve in their minds. This is how a transformative idea builds from a flickering flame into a blazing sun, growing in its momentum and energy until it launches into the air and becomes a North Star, its twinkling light a guidepost for people inspired to take the idea and turn into something real.

But here’s the rub: how do you capture and encode that vision in a clear and compelling manner? How do you create a North Star? Because if you try to tell someone about it and your explanation is muddled or generic-sounding or filled with holes, then you might be sentencing a promising idea to death before it’s had a chance to shine.

To properly tell the story of a vision, you could write a word doc, sometimes called a product brief or a customer promise. You could create a slide deck with bar graphs describing the market opportunity and tables that explain pros and cons. Or you could craft the narrative using just the power of your tongue.

Do you know what tends to work better in explaining a vision to someone than words, graphs, texts or a speech?

Visuals.

A storyboard. A series of hi-fidelity images. A movie that describes the experience someone has when you achieve the end state of a vision.

We humans often need to see something to clearly understand it, and so those of us with the ability to effectively convey an experience in a visual way possess a special and important skill indeed.

(Yes, I’m looking at you, designer.)

Can you imagine the power of such a skill? It’s almost like a superpower! Done well, you could help those around you envision a not-so-distant future full of exciting new possibilities. Done well, you could energize a whole group of people and rally them behind a common purpose!

Of course, this isn’t to say that making things delightful and easy to use isn’t important. This isn’t a case of either/or. Shipping improvements, both big and small, is a designer’s job. Usability is a designer’s job. Craftsmanship is a designer’s job.

But there can—and should—be more to a designer’s job than just those things.

If you never find yourself designing a North Star, if you are only ever making existing products more usable or beautiful, then maybe your talents are not being fully utilized.

What is a North Star, and what is its purpose?

  1. A design “North Star” is a visual output (commonly a video, although it can also be a storyboard, a series of hi-fidelity designs, etc.) that explains the high-level narrative of why an idea or concept will improve people’s lives.
  2. A North Star is meant to get everyone on the same page about what the idea is and why it’s exciting, without focusing too much on specific execution details.
  3. A North Star should be inspiring. Hence, North Stars generally benefit from being imagined a good ways out in the future (think six months or a year or even longer.) By placing the narrative further out in time, you free yourself of existing constraints so that the results can be bolder, more imaginative, and more impactful.
  4. A North Star should seem achievable and realistic, even if it’s on a longer time horizon. The proposed idea shouldn’t feel like science fiction, nor should the narrative feel like it doesn’t ring true to people’s real problems, desires, or habits.

What is a North Star not?

  1. A North Star is not a spec, roadmap or detailed set of mocks. In fact, even if everybody is sold on a particular North Star vision, it’s dangerous to jump straight into working backwards to build the exact thing as presented. Instead, a better idea is to start from where things are now and work forwards towards the North Star by mapping out a detailed execution plan that seeks to validate the most controversial parts of the vision first. The North Star is only meant to be a guidepost; what eventually ends up being built and launched may not look or function exactly like the original vision, which is fine because things like executional details (which aren’t the focus of a North Star) clearly need to be thoroughly explored at some point in the actual building of the product. If done correctly, however, the final output will have retained the spiritual soul of the original North Star, and will have successfully delivered upon its promise of improving people’s lives.
  2. A North Star should not simply describe an interface and describe what each button or navigational element does. It should tell the narrative of how people would incorporate the idea into their lives. For example, if we’re talking about introducing a new feature, questions that should be answered in a North Star are: when would a person use this feature? What would get them to remember or want to use this feature? How would they use it, and what would make them stop?
  3. A North Star should not simply be a redesign. Redesigns might help improve clarity, ease of use, and aesthetics, but they don’t fundamentally transform or introduce new value into people’s lives. (Also, ask yourself: when was the last time you were really inspired by a rearrangement of elements on a screen?)

Design, future

The profession of design has grown leaps and bounds in terms of expectations and understanding. No longer does design conjure up just notions of a pretty skin. And yet, if you are a designer, ask yourself this: have you recently inspired a group of people with your designs? Have you successfully told the story of how a person’s life was going to be made better because of something you and your team could build?

For some of you, the answer will be yes, and that makes me very happy. Unfortunately, I don’t think yes is the majority answer. Designing North Stars isn’t the norm, partly because many of us don’t think of our jobs in that manner, and partly because much of the industry doesn’t think of our job in that manner.

There’s work to do. Let’s tell the story of the North Star.

And if we tell the story well, then this is what I hope the state of design looks like in a few years:


Cover photo by Moto Miwa

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