I avoid using the word design as a noun. This keeps me from lapsing into lazy thinking about the object of my practice.
Consider this sentence: “I like the design of the new iPhone.” Can you point to what “the design” is? What exactly do you like about it? “The design” is vague. A semantic cop out, fit for the pages of a general business publication — but not for practitioners.
Designers need precise language that lets us assess our decision-making process. Design is a critical part of this process. It’s how the thing arrives at its form — not a characteristic of the form itself. A verb, not a noun.
In order to respond effectively, actors in an information environment must be able to clearly perceive what is happening in the parts of the system that affect them. The Wikipedia is an information environment that is constantly changing, and editors need tools to allow them to monitor those changes. WikipediaVision is one such tool that places anonymous edits to the English Wikipedia on a map in “almost” real time, allowing editors to easily see where changes are being made from.
When discussing changes to an information environment, I sometimes hear “increasing engagement” stated as one of the project objectives. By this, stakeholders mean creating conditions that encourage people to spend more time in the environment, either through longer visits or more frequent ones, hoping this will increase revenue.
I understand the desire to increase engagement. That said, in many cases, I don’t consider useful it as a design objective. For one thing, engagement per se doesn’t signal people are getting value from the environment. (What if they’re spending more time there because they’re lost?) For another, engagement doesn’t always correlate to increased revenue. (A notable exception is environments that monetize their visitor’s attention. It’s not uncommon for these places to employ sophisticated psychological techniques to keep people engaged, even perhaps against their best interest.)
Engagement will result naturally if the environment serves people’s needs. It’s a useful tool for understanding how they respond to our design decisions and not something we should pursue for its own sake.
One of the most common complaints I hear from stakeholders in large companies is that their colleagues in other parts of the organization are working in “silos.” By this, they mean these people have their own goals, incentives, processes, systems, and structures that make it difficult for them to work together towards a common goal. By talking about “silos,” they are expressing their frustration about the differences between them. However, these different parts of the organization need different systems and structures; you don’t want all these groups to think and work identically since that would make them ineffective. What you want is for them to be in alignment.
The word “alignment” has roots in the Latin linea, which means “line.” When we align, we bring ourselves in line with each other: our trajectories become parallel. Note this doesn’t mean our lines become one: we still have different trajectories, but now those trajectories point in the same direction. We agree on the goal we’re striving towards, even if our methods are different.
Design can help different parts of the organization come into alignment. The way we most people communicate in business settings — talking about what we’re doing, perhaps augmenting the words with spreadsheets or presentations — leaves a lot to the imagination. We parse language through our own perspectives, which are shaped by our belonging to different groups. You and I may think we’re on the same page, but in reality, we have divergent expectations. Design helps make the impact of decisions tangible; it allows us to test scenarios. It’s difficult to misunderstand when you and I and end users can see and touch an artifact that embodies the direction we’re pointing towards.
Designers help create better products and services. But we also help organizations come into alignment. Currently, design is acknowledged in the business world for the former but not the latter. As designers, we haven’t done enough to emphasize the strategic value that comes with being able to simulate and test future states. It’s time we change that.
“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”
Complex systems are not static; they’re always changing in response to changing conditions inside and outside them. They are in a continuous state of becoming; a snapshot of a system at any moment in time will quickly be out of date as the system keeps evolving.
Consider the Wikipedia. During the time it takes for your web browser to download and display a Wikipedia article, many changes have occurred to the site. New articles have been added, existing articles have changed (including, perhaps, even the article you’re downloading!), new links created between existing articles, etc. The article you’re seeing is a small snapshot of an evolving system; if you were to download the entire the Wikipedia to your computer, your copy would be obsolete by the time it finished downloading.
Complex systems ask of designers that we give up notions of control over their final form. Instead, we must adopt an attitude of perpetual prototyping: an understanding that the system we’re designing will soon move on from its initial state to other states that we are ill-equipped to predict from the start.We must develop the ability to understand this evolving system clearly: its structural configuration, the forces acting upon it, the outcomes it produces, and more. Doing so is essential if we are to act skillfully upon its structure and behavior.
At their most basic level, buildings — our homes, offices, shops, etc. — protect us from the elements. They give us ways to carry out our activities in environments that keep our bodies safe, warm, and dry. They make it possible for us to convene as groups to get things done while keeping us and our goods safe.
However, buildings do more than merely provide for these basic needs. They’re also physical manifestations of the political, social, and cultural environments that produced them. They tell stories about who we are as a people and inform our sense of group identity — whether the group is a nation or a company.
This year we’ve seen the opening of two major architectural projects that have been explicitly created to embody the identity of the organizations that produced them: Apple Park and LEGO House. Apple Park is a manifestation of Apple’s values in the form of a building complex: it uses innovative construction techniques and materials in service of sleek, practical, elegant tools. It is an act of design and technical bravado, without gaudiness — just like the products Apple fans love.
LEGO House also manifests the values of the company that created it in the form of a building:
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be inside a real LEGO® House? That’s why we built this world of creative experiences. Discover the magic behind the brand, and the endless possibilities for play and learning with the inspiring LEGO brick.
LEGO goes on to explain how the environment is structured:
When children play, they are having fun, experimenting, tinkering, messing around and making mistakes. In other words, they are learning.
The process of playing and learning while having fun is a holistic balance of five overlapping competences.
In LEGO® House, these core competences are laid out as physical spaces.
In Red Zone, we have made plenty of room for creativity. In Blue Zone, we stimulate your cognitive abilities. In Yellow Zone, emotions will take centre stage, and Green Zone is all about social play. The outdoor areas cater for physical play, spatial awareness – and letting off steam!
All activities in the LEGO House Experience Zones embody the LEGO Learning Through Play philosophy.
In other words, here people can experience LEGO’s brand values by inhabiting a place structured explicitly to embody them. While Apple Park is designed primarily as an office building with a symbolic function, LEGO House was designed to be a destination for LEGO fans visiting the company’s birthplace and headquarters (Billund, Denmark.) It allows them to converge in a place where they can experience the brand’s values in physical space, therefore reinforcing their identity as “LEGO people.”
Like buildings, information environments also have symbolic functions. Your bank’s website is not just a means for you to carry out financial transactions; it also embodies the bank’s brand values and (in ideal cases) encourages you to feel like part of the tribe. A well-designed information environment can inform and foster group identity. Have you thought about the ways yours does it? Does the environment feel ordered? Is it aligned with the organization’s values? Does it feel secure? Is it clean? Friendly? Sober? How do people think differently about this place than others like it? (Do they?) Addressing these issues explicitly during the design process helps us create environments people not only use, but can also relate to and embrace as part of their identity.
Principle (n): a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning
We often talk of “design principles” at the beginning of projects. But are they really principles or merely suggestions?
The proof comes whenever you’re called to make a difficult design decision. The options before you call for sacrifices; one option may be more politically expedient while another will have a greater upside for end users. How will you decide?
Having clearly articulated principles can help make — and justify — difficult decisions. But in order to do so, principles must be grounded in reality; if they are platitudes nobody really buys into, they will be ignored.
Are you clear on what yours are?
Have they been articulated in a way everyone understands?
Are they aligned with your organization’s strategy, tactics, and ethos?
Does everyone feel strongly enough about them to uphold them when called to task?
In April 2016, Craig Mod and Dan Rubin spent eight days walking the Kumano Kodo, an ancient Japanese pilgrimage route. Armed with good shoes and good cameras, they documented their trip and published it as a beautiful book and website.
The website is particularly interesting — as you scroll down, an animated map on the right side of the browser window traces Mod and Rubin’s path, showing you exactly where and when along the route they took which photos. The result is a delightful travelogue and an excellent example of the use of subtle animation in service to understanding.