Concrete and Abstract

Post seven in a series about visually representing design mindsets.

We all know people who live in the world of high-level concepts and ideal scenarios. We also know people are the “get-stuff-done” types.

Great designers are able to move between those two mindsets, capturing the best from both.

Theoretical frameworks are great, in theory. Tactics are what really move the needle. But there’s a middle ground where you’re able to abstract a layer above the tactics in order to replicate them and scale. Without abstraction, you live in a world of one offs. Without concrete action, you live in a world devoid of impact.

How might you spend more time inhabiting the space between these mindsets? Visiting each land by choice and not by default.

Navigate Ambiguity

Post six in a series about visually representing design mindsets.

The nature of creation is uncertain. There isn’t a right answer.

To some, that’s cause for tremendous worry. To others, that’s the fun of it all.

Design, by nature is about making judgment calls. If all the choices were made for you, there would be nothing left to design.

You’re going to have to color outside the lines, to set your own guideposts and find clarity in the gray area. That’s what it means to navigate ambiguity.

When your organization’s goal is to maximize impact, what is your first step? It’s not clear. There are question marks literring the path forward. What does impact mean? How do we use our resources to maximize it? How do we gain more resources? First you must chart a path to progress, then step by step, you answer those questions.

When faced with ambiguity, the only wrong action is to stop. To freeze. To become so terrified of failure, of messing up and of letting others down. When you stop doing, you stop learning.

Keep swimming. Walk a little further down the path. Shine a light into the dark.

Like Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards.”

Synthesize Information

Post five in my series of visually representing design mindsets.

As design thinkers, and citizens in the 21st century, you face more information than any one human can process.

Thus, a core ability of designers is to cut through the noise to find the important learnings.

For example, in the world of education, there are countless buzzwords around what students should be doing to succeed.

Project based learning, inquiry based learning, 21st century skills, problem solving, literacy, technical competencies etc… You hear all of these terms and phrases.

Rather than get overwhelmed, the designer listens to all and extracts the key threads. Where do these theories agree and disagree? What can I pull from each to make something even better?

Just like a plant takes in sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce energy, you must pull information from multiple sources to create new insight.

Build Intentionally

Post four in my series about visually representing design mindsets.

Design is about making decisions. In everything you create there will be trade offs, and as the designer you have to choose where you’re willing to compromise and you want to invest.

I think these decisions have to do with consistency, and the kind of statement you want to make with your work.

If you write a book about how to stand out, then make sure the cover looks different and maybe change the shape of the object too. When Seth Godin wrote Purple Cow, a book about creating remarkable ideas, he shipped it to people in a milk carton.

He didn’t ship it in a beautiful box, wrapped with a golden bow. But maybe that’s what you should do if you want to give off the feeling of luxury.

An example of unintentional craft always strikes me when washing my hands in the bathroom. They chose the default soap. That medicinal smelling soap that’s in 90% of public bathrooms. Unintentional craft is a missed opportunity.

On the other hand, Hop N Grind in Durham, NH uses organic, all natural soap. It very intentionally doesn’t look like the regular soap and it certainly costs more. But it’s intentional and consistent with what their brand stands for.

So what do you stand for?

Experiment Rapidly

Post three in a series about visually representing design mindsets.

How could you test it faster?

That thing you’re building is full of assumptions. There are countless open questions and uncertainties. You could cross your fingers and hope it all goes according to plan. Or you could take matters into your own hands and starting experimenting.

But when you’re new, when you’re nimble, experimentation isn’t good enough. Rapid experimentation is the only way.

You could prototype an iPhone application by coding, designing and building a rough version of the entire app, but that would take a long time (and be expensive). On the other hand, you could draw it out on paper. Then put together mockups in Keynote. Then simulate user interactions with a Facebook group or an email newsletter.

Cheap, fast and full of insight.

The mindset of a designer is all about gathering rich information about solutions by running experiments. No matter what you are building, it’s better to experiment quickly and early.

Learn from others

The next in a series of posts about visual representation of design mindsets.

Building anything new is a messy process. Luckily, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Some of the most difficult problems have been solved in nature for millions of years. Some of the complex challenges facing your organization have been studied extensively in business schools around the world.

We tend to believe our human experience is unique, when in fact there is much to apply from the work of others.

In an age of Google, the hardest part is just identifying the right question to ask. The information is out there. Someone has been in your shoes before and it’s just a matter of finding them.

We need your initiative, your independence and your fierce will. But remember to learn from others. Knowing when to copy and when to trailblaze will get you furthest fastest.

Iterative Mindset

I’ve been doing some work to represent design mindsets visually. Now I’m going to pair those visuals with some stories. 

A mindset of iteration is crucial to designing great products and experiences. When you look at something as a step in the process, rather than the end of the journey, you’re more open to feedback and to finding opportunities for improvement.

For example, when we launched Dual School, an idea incubator for high school students, we operated from 1:30-4:30pm on Tuesday afternoons. While we found that implementation worked well, we viewed it as ONE possible option, not THE only way. We then piloted an in-school cohort, and an online cohort. While none of it went perfectly, every iteration contributed to our learning.

Everything is a prototype. Iterate your way to success.

Run at what’s hard

Learn you’re wrong as soon as possible. The longer you leave assumptions untested, more it’s going to burn when you find out the truth.

Facilitating Process

One of the most valuable lessons from the during my first trip was about process. Specifically the design thinking process.

For days we talked about process, and the steps in design thinking. Then we had the chance to practice. We all had all the information one could ever need and we still messed up the process. Five smart, and attentive university students veered way off course during a 60-minute design challenge.

We spent WAY too long defining our problem and ideating solutions. We flipped back and forth between brainstorming and questioning our initial challenge definition.

Why was our process so poor? I think it was because no one facilitated it. No one was in charge of process. Everyone was in an idea battle, and calling “time” on the “define” phase fell by the wayside.

That’s why it’s so crucial to have someone who is not participating managing the process. Facilitation is an art form, but even simple time keeping could be all you need. Process is hard. Make sure someone is dedicated to getting it right.

Irrationality and community

Some level of irrationality is what makes community work.

It’s a devoted version of long term thinking where you keep paying in, knowing that eventually it will come back. Most don’t have patience for it. Most would call it irrational because of the length of the time horizon.

In a world of instant payoffs, few are willing to play such a long game. But those who are get the value of compound interest. Exponential returns on their initial investments.

In the past, people did it for God. Millions, billions of people doing the right thing because God was watching. Many still do, but many have lost faith and now don’t know why they should participate in the long run. An atheistic culture, dominated by short term wins.

What’s an alternative incentive to believe in the long run? How do you begin to shift the culture?