The Value of Mapping Semantic Environments

You hear about it all the time: an accomplished designer joins a large company to lead their design efforts, only to leave disillusioned and frustrated after a relatively short stint. These are smart people and great designers. They’ve come into the situation with the best intentions and have put their credibility on the line. This is not the outcome they wanted.

When you talk to them, they’ll tell you corporate politics ground them down, or that there’s too much inertia in the company, or that design isn’t as valued in the organization as they thought it would be, or that they’ve lost executive support. These things may all be true, but they’re all symptoms of a deeper issue: the leaders (and their teams) haven’t mastered the organization’s semantic environments.

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Fielding Ambiguity

When I was a student, I had a very dualistic understanding of how the world works. Architectural projects were either the-best-thing-ever or utter shit. There was no in-between. I venerated the designers of glorious projects, overlooking their flaws. I assumed the people who made shitty ones were completely clueless. Why would they make such crap?

Now that I’ve been working for a long time, I understand designers don’t have complete control over the work. Ambiguity is the norm; the “right” answers are often only right in retrospect. Some people leave; new ones join. People change their minds. Teams get reorganized. Conditions change. Incentives change. Learning to be effective under such conditions is not easy. We crave clarity and resolution, and often they’re not on offer. But learning to deal with ambiguity is essential to maturing as a professional designer.

Whenever I find myself in an ambiguous place, I take a step back to make an inventory of what I do know about the situation. (This will often take the form of a mind map or other such visual information dump. Stickies and a whiteboard are useful tools in this context.) I look for specific areas where I lack information. What has changed? What do I know I don’t know? How can I find out? What can I infer from the things I do know? (Of course, there’s also stuff I don’t know I don’t know. Knowing that offers some relief.) If other people are in the same situation with me, making these inventories together can help relieve some of the uncertainty, and remind me I’m not struggling alone.

Taking steps towards clarifying the situation is always preferable than letting it paralyze you. The process can even prompt you to reframe the problem you’re dealing with, bringing some degree of relief — if not closure.


Responsibility. How does this word make you feel?

I suspect many of us find it heavy and burdensome. If something goes wrong and somebody says you’re responsible, you don’t feel very good. Suddenly a weight is on you; it’s “on your shoulders.” If you’re responsible, you’re expected to work towards resolving the situation. It may cost you — time, money, cognitive effort, reputation, etc.

On the other hand, responsibility can be liberating. If you’re responsible, that means you have agency over how things turn out. (By definition, you can’t be responsible if you can’t influence outcomes.) Choosing to act responsibly means acknowledging your power over a situation. It also means complying to wield that power within a series of constraints agreed with others. For example, we say people are “responsible citizens” when they choose to fulfill certain civic duties. When given a choice, they act in a way that may inconvenience them but ultimately benefit the community. (E.g. serving jury duty.) Responsibility requires clear choices.

When you design an information environment, you create an architecture of choices. You give the people who use your environment agency; response-ability. Do they understand the degree to which they’re responsible for their experience within the constraints you’ve established? How does this make them feel? Are you working to empower them or burden them?

What Are You In Service To?

“What are you in service to?” This is one of the most important questions I’ve been asked. I was taken aback the first time I heard it. “I do my job, right?” Nope. That’s not what it means. What are you (ultimately) in service to? Bigger picture. As in, what’s the change you want to instigate in the world? How will your contribution make things better?

I’m in service to enabling healthy societies that serve the needs of people in sustainable ways. My area of expertise — where I can contribute to making this vision real — is crafting information environments. Every year, more of our social interactions move from physical environments (such as buildings) to information environments (such as websites, apps, and other such digital systems.) I help design these things so they create contexts that serve human needs. This is what I do, but not why I do it. I do it because ultimately I’m in service to well-functioning societies.

My “in service to” statement motivates me. I want my children to have rich, long, fulfilling lives. For the world to be better for them, it needs to be better for everyone. The work I do can help move us in that direction. But the direction must be clear if we’re to move towards it. (As the Lewis Carroll wrote, “If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there.”) I’m lucky to have found what I’m in service to, and aligned my skills towards it. It gives my work purpose and meaning — essential for going the distance, especially when things get tough.

What about you? What are you in service to?

Team Moods

I was once part of a team that was going through a rough patch. We’d been through two reorganizations in eighteen months — not good for morale — and now we’d had a sudden change in leadership. (Which is to say: we found ourselves with no leadership.) There was no vision of the future, no clear lines of responsibility, no accountability. People were leaving — out of their volition and otherwise. It was a mess.

This team included some of the brightest people I’ve worked with. All of us found it very difficult to get anything done. We’d spend more time talking about the state of the team than about the work. We were worried about the future of the company and — of course — our jobs. It was an unpleasant experience for all; I remember the sense of relief when it ended. (The team was dissolved.)

If you’d been able to travel back in time to when I first joined the team, you would’ve gotten a very different picture. We were cracking then! We had a clear vision of what we were doing and who was responsible for what. We had competent and committed leadership. We had deadlines. We had the support of the company. It was exciting work! I have vivid memories of a celebration party the night we launched our first release. Everyone was exuberant.

Same group, two very different situations. In one, we were paralyzed; ineffective. In the other, we were at the peak of our productivity. What changed?

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What Are You Working On?

One of my favorite questions to ask of designers is “what are you working on?” This is more specific than the more usual “what do you do” — which often leads to dry, rehearsed answers — but broad enough so they don’t feel they need to betray confidences.

Most folks answer with a high-level take on what they do. For example, a person could say she’s working on a healthcare app. Some get a bit more specific; for example, the person could say she’s working on a medical app to help cancer patients monitor their treatment.

The types of answers I get vary depending on whether the designer works independently or as part of a team in an organization. Freelancers and consultants move from project to project, so they tend to have a shorter sense of what “now” means; whereas internal designers are usually part of longer-term efforts.

Another distinction is in the degree to which the person thinks about his or her work as being transformational. The ones who’ve found a way to connect their work with their values are often more enthusiastic, and tend to have a higher-level take on the work. For example, the person could say she’s relieving suffering in cancer patients. (This level of engagement is what I aspire to.)

What about you? What are you working on?

The Smooth Handle

One of Thomas Jefferson’s canons of conduct reads as follows:

Take things always by their smooth handle.

I’ve been intrigued by this statement since I first heard it. What does it mean? The way I interpret it is that there are multiple ways of dealing with problems. Some are easier than others — hence, the smooth handle. “Easier” doesn’t mean the most expedient; it means the best way to resolve the problem with minimum fuss or suffering for everyone involved. This may entail some hardship for the person deciding, but if it solves the problem with minimal harm, then some sacrifice may be called for.

As designers, we’re sometimes called to express unpopular perspectives. For example, an important stakeholder in a project may be suggesting something that is counter to the overall vision or direction of the project. Assuming you’re completely certain of your position, what do you do about this? Do you confront the person? If so, do you do so publicly, in a venue where their ego and reputation may be threatened? Or do you do seek a private channel or an intermediary? Perhaps there’s a way to help them come to their own understanding of what the issue is, and why their position would harm the overall project.

When faced with a difficult situation, we should strive to respond in a way that makes the overall situation better. We may be right, but that doesn’t mean other people need to be made to feel wrong. Whenever I’m faced with such a challenge, I look for the smooth handle and consider how to use it to move things in the right direction.

The End

I’ve written before about the special energy available at the beginning of a new undertaking; a mix of curiosity, excitement, fear, and possibility that motivates us as we start on the new journey. Well, the end of things also has an energy of its own. Or rather, energies, since things can go in multiple directions.

If the undertaking has gone well, there will be relief, excitement, and a sense of accomplishment. If it was a team project, there will also be a sense of camaraderie; we did it! It’s important to take time out at these moments to celebrate and to recognize those who contributed to success.

However, not all projects end on a positive note. When things go wrong, the mood at the end will be very different: There will likely be a sense of resignation, disappointment, and perhaps even fear. (In such cases it’s often tempting to lapse into cynicism or a victim mindset. Resist this impulse!)

As the song says, all things must pass. Whether things have gone well or not, it’s important to acknowledge the end. Doing so frees us to move on, to try new things. The feelings of elation or disappointment will eventually subside. When they do, we can reflect: How did the project go? What could I have done better? How will I do better? Then we can move onto the next thing, back onto tapping into the energy-of-beginning.


“Integrity is the essence of everything successful.”
— R. Buckminster Fuller

Integrity is the most important quality I aspire to in my work.

There are two meanings to this word. One — perhaps the most common — suggests abiding by a set of moral principles; acting under the guidance of a code of conduct, whether explicit or implicit. The other meaning has to do with wholeness; with the way the parts synergize coherently towards a purpose.

The two meanings are not in opposition to each other. In fact, moving towards a worthwhile purpose calls for integrity in both senses. When purpose is clear, it’s easier to coordinate the parts so they act in concert towards it, and this purpose can be — must be — informed by a clear understanding of what is right.