Design at a Higher Level

What does it mean to have a systemic approach to design? It’s not just about striving for a comprehensive understanding of the key components and actors in the system and how they relate to each other. For the complex problems and environments we’re facing today, that’s table stakes. Beyond this, designers must also understand the conditions that brought the system about to begin with. What key forces precipitated the need for the design intervention? Often, the problem we’re being asked to work on is a symptom of a deeper issue.

For example, imagine somebody in your organization has discovered an inefficiency in the way service personnel interacts with customers. You’re being asked to design a system that allows service reps to get a more comprehensive picture of interactions with customers. It’s great if the system you design can resolve the problem, but if it’s even better if the process of doing so also helps resolve the underlying organizational issues that brought it about to begin with.

Often these issues emerge not from technical deficiencies, but from social/political/organizational/interpersonal ones. You won’t find this stuff spelled out in RFPs! Discovering the underlying issues requires you to ask difficult questions. (The five whys framework is useful for this.) It also requires keen observation. Designing in such projects often calls for working with multiple stakeholders, people from groups that may not interact with each other day-to-day. What have you noticed happening among them? Where are the disconnects? Are they using different names to describe the same things — or worse, using the same names to describe different things? Why have these disconnects come about? What contextual conditions led to the situation? Are these conditions still relevant?

On the surface, even a complex system will address a set of requirements. Resolving them will add value to the organization, and (ideally) to society in general. But addressing the issues that brought about those issues to begin with will create even more value — especially if they’re resolved with a generative perspective that accounts for their ongoing evolution.

Selling Design

Before he retired, my dad was an orthodontist. When I was a kid, we often talked about his work. One such conversation was about advertising. The impression I got was that advertising was seen as something for shoe stores and used car salesmen, not service professionals such as dentists. Advertising left a bad taste in the mouth. (Sorry.)

So I grew up thinking that for some lines of work, new business comes through reputation and referrals. Anything more aggressive than that is tacky, perhaps even a sign that something’s wrong. (Desperation?) As a designer and a consultant, this perspective hasn’t served me well. There’s nothing inherently wrong with letting people know you can help them.

Still, I sense a widespread (if unacknowledged) understanding among designers that some aspects of doing business are “beneath us.” One such aspect is selling. The word “sales” itself is often met with contempt; for many of us (myself included), it speaks of deception, pressure, and manipulation. The image: Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross pushing hapless minions to ALWAYS. BE. CLOSING.

For professionals who center their identity on empathizing with others to create things that help them accomplish their goals, the idea of pressuring anyone into anything they don’t want to do is anathema. Repulsive, even. We come up with euphemisms like business development so we don’t even have to utter the dreaded “S” word. But as popular as the image of the high-pressure, less-than-honest salesperson is, we must resist the drive to see all sales in a bad light.

All of us are in sales. If you’re operating within any business context — in any role — sooner or later you’ll need to “move others” (Dan Pink’s phrase). This doesn’t mean you must mislead them or pressure them into doing things they wouldn’t do otherwise. It means you help them understand how you can help them, and then make it possible for them to let you do so.

This isn’t easy. People are busy, and they have many other things clamoring for their attention. How will they know you can help? To begin with, they must be aware of who you are and what you can do. Then they must be able to see how that can help with their problems. There are things you can do to move this along, and there’s nothing nefarious about this. (Actually, it’s a disservice both to them and yourself as a professional to not make your value clear and actionable.)

Designers are especially good at empathizing with the people who use the things we design. You can think of the sales process as empathizing with the people you can provide value to so you can understand their problems and concerns. Once you do, you can jointly design ways for them to engage you to help them. As with the design of a product, this calls for revealing the opportunities and constraints implicit in the situation. It calls for understanding context and developing trust. These things are central to design, and they’re central to selling design services.

It’s Not Just About Users

Designers have long known that good work comes from a thorough understanding of the people who use our systems and products. We interview users or observe them “in the mist” to grok their desires, needs, and motivations. We analyze their behavior and generate insights. We produce prototypes to validate and test those insights with them. In short, much design today is a collaboration between designers and the users of the systems we create.

Many designers within organizations have adopted this laudable perspective. “I’m an advocate for the user,” they’ll tell you. The geekier ones cite Tron: “I fight for the users!” Who are these designers pleading or fighting with? Often it’s people from other parts of their organization. You’ll hear designers talk about resisting pressures from marketing, or working around constraints placed by compliance. It’s as though the requirements established by these groups are obstacles arbitrarily placed in the way of a “great user experience.”

Many do get in the way. But why is the experience being designed in the first place? Ultimately, it’s to meet business objectives. In establishing requirements and constraints, those other “corporate silos” are serving their organizational functions, just as design is serving its​ own. Thinking of colleagues from these groups as an “other” to be resisted shows a lack of systemic understanding and leads to sub-par work. The objective of user-centered design is not merely to provide the best experience to users; it’s to provide the best experience to users that serves their needs while also serving the organization’s needs.

Designers should strive to have as much openness and empathy towards our counterparts in the organization as we do towards users. Yes, a deep understanding of our product and its users is essential. But it must be framed by a systemic understanding of the organization’s goals, our role within it, the roles of people in other parts of the organization, and how those parts work together to help it achieve its purposes.

Dealing With Organizational Politics

For some kinds of problems, it’s essential that you think through what you’re doing before you work out how you’re going to do it. Common sense, right? Unfortunately, it’s not the norm. Too many designers still start projects by formally exploring directions before they’ve nailed down answers to key questions:

  • What distinctions will this solution impose on the situation?
  • How do those distinctions help/hinder the path to user satisfaction?
  • How do the organization’s governance structures affect our ability to create distinctions that support the user’s journey?

This last question is the most challenging for designers since it requires that we delve into territory many of us would rather leave unexplored: organizational politics.

Political struggles result when individual groups try to further their own agendas while serving the organization’s overall goals. Groups (and their leaders) compete and cooperate with other groups for resources and attention. Through the choices they make, they try to position themselves to achieve influence and power. Given enough scale and resources, all organizations exhibit some of these power dynamics. In some cases — but not all — these struggles can become toxic, affecting the performance of the organization and the people in it.

Many designers complain about having to deal with political forces. But dealing with politics is not only part of the job; it’s also a sign of maturity: The point of design is effecting change, and the only designers who don’t have to deal with politics are the ones who aren’t causing real change in their organizations.

Note this doesn’t mean designers should merrily go along with highly dysfunctional situations. Life is too short to deal with that sort of thing. But it’s important to acknowledge that design can disambiguate complex situations, leading to clarity and better decision-making for everyone involved. Understanding how power dynamics work — and embracing the reality of politics — is essential for designers who seek to effect real change in their organizations.

Taking Business Seriously

Designers often complain about not having “a seat at the table.” By this, they mean they have no real power in their organizations. You’ll hear them say their company doesn’t “get” design, or sees it as merely tactical. While some or all of these things may be true, whenever I hear this kind of talk I wonder what the designers there are doing (or not doing) that leads their organization to not see their value. Often, there is a cause-effect relationship at play: “the business” doesn’t “get” design because designers don’t get the business.

I’ve interacted with designers in organizations who don’t understand (or care to understand) the purpose, strategy, or objectives that drive the work they’re doing. I’ve even heard some who have apprehensions about the idea of for-profit business. Somehow, these folks think they can be effective in business contexts by “showing up and doing their job” — cranking out wireframes, interviewing users, or what have you — without being truly committed to what they’re in service to.

This is a recipe for frustration — for everyone involved. For the designers, it means spending a considerable part of their time and cognitive energy in activities that aren’t aligned with their values. For “the business” it means trying to collaborate with people who aren’t committed to learning their ways or truly supporting them.

To be clear, this is a false dichotomy. Designers in organizations are the business. Once a designer commits to becoming an agent in the organization, his or her work is in service to the organization’s purposes and objectives. This doesn’t mean designers shouldn’t have a say in what work they do or how it’s done. Design has much to contribute towards making organizations more user-centered and ethical.

But this must be done in the context of what the organization is trying to achieve. If a designer disagrees with the organizations’ purposes, strategy, motives, etc., he or she won’t be effective there, will be miserable in the process, and will perpetuate the stereotype (alas, still all-too-common) that designers only care about superficial aspects of products and services. For the business to take design seriously, designers must take business seriously.

Reports of My Death

Back in the waning days of the Cold War, U.S. President Ronald Reagan adopted a Russian proverb to describe his attitude towards Soviet disarmament: “Trust, but verify.” To some people, this phrase may come across as ironic or hypocritical. I’ve always liked it. To me, it suggests giving people the benefit of doubt, while avoiding dumb risks.

Many years ago, when I was running a small digital design studio in Panama, I’d field many different types of prospective clients. Some would be people I knew socially. Others were referrals from people I knew, or people I’d worked with in the past. A small minority were people I’d never heard of before. Design requires establishing a close relationship with the client, so I’d want to find out more about these potential clients. I’d usually search for their name on AltaVista (told you it was many years ago!) and eventually Google. Often a simple search would give me enough background to know if this was somebody I’d want to do business with.

For a small studio in a developing world country, every lead is precious. I was excited every time someone brought business to us. My initial response was to ask for more information on what they wanted help with. I established a courteous relationship. (Trust.) But I also did due diligence by gathering as much information as I could independently. (Verify.) Many of these leads didn’t pan out; often even a few minutes on a search engine would reveal to let me know the project wouldn’t be a good fit for us.

This “trust, but verify” attitude has saved me lots of aggravation over the years. I think it’s not uncommon for other people to do it as well when exploring new business relationships, which is why this brings me no end of grief:

This is the sidebar to the Google search results page if you look for my name. Yes, you’re reading that right: Google thinks I’m dead.

What’s going on here? There happens to be another architect and author also named Jorge Arango. (We’re not related.) Mr. Arango was Colombian, but practiced in southern Florida. He had a long and (as far as I can tell) rich life and died in 2007. I’m guessing that since we share the same name, profession, and affinity for words, Google’s algorithms are mixing up our profiles. The sidebar includes Mr. Arango’s Wikipedia description, my photo, and a mix of our books. It’s as though we’ve become a hybrid Jorge Arango, one with an unnaturally long lifespan. (I was graciously gifted one of Mr. Arango’s books by Amy Espinosa, and have started reading it. From what I can tell we have some stuff in common and would’ve had very interesting discussions had we met.)

I’ve asked Google multiple times to correct this, but I haven’t heard back from them. I don’t know how much human curation goes into these search results, and don’t have high hopes for a correction. So in case you’re Googling me for reference, rest assured: the search results of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

A Call for a More Holistic Approach to Business


Last week Larry Fink — the CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager — sent a letter to CEOs of the largest publicly traded companies. In it, he asked them to plan with the long-term in mind and to contribute more proactively to the well-being of society:

Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.

It’s refreshing to see an influential business leader calling for a change in the way we do business. Business is not separate from society, but a central part of it. For companies to have a sense of purpose — and especially purpose in service to the long-term survival of the context in which they operate — is not socialism; it’s smart business. After all, if society unravels, so will the company.

As designers, we have an essential role to play in helping organizations navigate the transition from short-term thinking to a healthier, more holistic relationship with society. Our remit is broader than many other traditional business functions, making us natural coherence generators. As such, we are well-positioned to help organizations align around a newly-rediscovered sense of purpose and long-term strategies. And as systems thinkers and visualizers, we can help them explore different ways of being in the world that allow them to achieve their financial objectives while also improving conditions for the societies they serve.

Mr. Fink and his company have great clout. I hope his clear statement heralds a transformation in the way we conduct business. As designers, we must be ready to help this transformation by deploying our unique roles, perspectives, and craft towards a more holistic approach to doing business.

The Problem Is Not Social Media per Se

I’ve been writing and speaking about the downsides of social media for a while and am working on a book that deals with this subject. Still, even I was taken aback by the cover of this week’s The Economist:

This image is representative of a narrative currently playing out in the media that suggests social networks — especially Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — are to blame for allowing foreign actors to influence the 2016 U.S. election, and — more generally — eroding our ability to hold civic discussions.

That these networks have enabled these things is undeniable. However, I sense too much focus is being placed on these particular companies and not enough on the underlying cause of the problem: the fact we’ve moved considerable parts of our social and civic interactions to environments run for profit by companies whose business models monetize our attention. The problem is not social media: it’s advertising.

Advertising exists to influence people’s opinions. This incontrovertible statement makes no claims about the directions they’re being influenced towards; the same mechanisms used to push Old Spice can also be used to push conspiracy theories and misinformation. The model has no moral imperatives and no incentives other than profit. Attention — and public opinion — will go to the highest bidder.

I know people who work at Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To a fault, they are decent folks, not malicious actors out to destroy society. Mark Zuckerberg (who I don’t know) appears to have good intentions and seems contrite about his company’s role in what’s happened. That said, these problems will not go away as long as these companies remain beholden to a business model that values engagement over elucidation. The markets demand they continue generating profits, and as long as their money comes from advertising, they will be pushed in directions that are at odds with the needs of an informed populace.

Social media can serve as incredibly powerful venues for understanding and growth. Facebook allows us to stay in touch with remote family members, rekindle old friendships, and discover new ones. Twitter serves as a virtual water cooler, an intimate conduit to the powerful and famous, and venue for public kvetching. YouTube videos entertain, enrich, and open up new possibilities. These environments can be great enablers for good. However, their potential will remain hobbled as long as they’re reliant on selling our attention.

Community-owned Local News

Yesterday a family of local news websites — including DNAinfo and Gothamist — shut down with no warning. I didn’t read these sites (they covered New York), but judging from my friends’ tweets they were beloved. Why would popular news sites shut down abruptly? A company spokesperson explained: “The decision by the NY editorial team to unionize is simply another competitive obstacle making it harder for the business to be financially successful.” So this was a financially-motivated decision. Much of the coverage I’ve seen has focused on the fact the sites’ owner — Joe Ricketts — is a billionaire. The implication seems to be that it’s not fair for him to pull the plug on these ventures because he has a lot of money.

I won’t comment on the way the shutdown was done other than to say it seemed abrupt, with no warning to employees or readers, and this aggravated reaction​​s. The point I want to get across is that as owner of these enterprises, Mr. Ricketts has the right to do with them as he pleases. If they’re not performing up to the standards he expects, it’s his prerogative to shut them down. Even though these websites provided information that brought communities together, they were not community assets. They were private information environments, and the people who used them were guests there — not financial stakeholders.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The internet is neutral with regards to business models; it can host sites owned by private companies equally well as sites owned by the community of people who use them. We gravitate towards the former. Why? For one, familiarity: private ownership is the way it was done in pre-internet days when spinning up a publishing business was an expensive proposition. For another, the people who take the initiative want to be remunerated for their work, and the means our society has for doing that is through private enterprise.

Current infrastructure allows us to explore alternatives to private ownership. Online publishing is cheap and ubiquitous, and cryptocurrencies make it possible to establish different ownership and remuneration structures. Local news information environments can be a central component of healthy, resilient communities; places where we convene with our neighbors to develop shared frames of reference. What would an information environment that provided local news and was owned by its community look like?