Levels of design craft

One of the most critical, even inherent, aspects of design is the notion of craft — shaping a material with masterful familiarity towards a benchmark of quality, based upon a dedication to refining the details so the result is worthy of personal pride and general appreciation. Craft is what makes design truly a maker’s profession, delivering exemplary artifacts and products — something tangible and meticulously defined with careful attention.

Accordingly, when it comes to software design (comprised of interaction, interface, information, and so forth) the craft aspect is vital to the execution of a well-formed digital experience —including the colors, fonts, alignments, timing and sequence of behaviors, tenor of audio cues and tone of messages. And a well-crafted product conveys quality that can be seen, felt, shared, and paid for with confidence in the brand and its perceived benefits. Craft clearly matters!

This is why it’s important to go deeper and expose various levels of craft a designer (and more accurately, a design leader) brings to the profession. I suggest there are three active levels of craft which interplay in the course of “doing the work” of a professional designer, while engaging with clients & stakeholders to ultimately ship the design to customers.

Tradecraft: This is the level of craft we often typically associate with design, at the tactical, tangible level of executional details, or final production. Every element precisely and carefully shaped with an exacting attention to the abilities of the tools, potentiality of the material, and needs of the context at hand. This also aligns to the features and functions of a product (or service, app, etc.) in a visceral way — what is seen, felt, and experienced.

Stagecraft: However, detailing out the finer pixel & code-based nuances of a digital artifact are only a part of a designer’s craft. Indeed, such artifacts, as beautifully executed as they may be, are useless unless there is a compelling story that evocatively enshrines them in a meaningful way — to the stakeholders and especially the ultimate users — so they grasp how it all fits into a theme, a brand philosophy, a manner of living or working. This all involves those presentational skills, some performance theater, poetry of mantras and pitches, pulling on emotional levers of the audience, while grounded with a good intent to persuade. Stagecraft aligns to the organizational and relationship aspect of designing through the power of inspiration, which connects to an emotional core via storytelling.

Statecraft: And yet, to get that beautifully defined, well-articulated design actually built and shipped to customers requires nuances of compromise, negotiation, and influence. It’s the political, pragmatic stuff that’s inherent to any product development process because…well, people! Look, everyone has agendas and egos and seeks to amplify their position (due to various incentive models & belief structures of an organizational culture) —and every designer who wants to be effective must grasp this “school of hard knocks” point. Indeed, it requires elements of statecraft, shaping relationships with people towards shared aims, with principled debates on risks, tradeoffs, etc. This aligns to the organizational, political, and cultural aspects of design, which doesn’t have to be icky! Done well, statecraft can lead everyone towards a pursuit of purpose and value embodied in a design direction, that should emerge — sometimes painfully!— in those tough negotiations.

Tradecraft, stagecraft, and statecraft may be the primary levels of craft a designer should master as an ongoing journey in their career. They are not necessarily sequential, either — just like any design process, mastering craft can be messy and demand iterative repeat attempts, with some parallel processing, too! (imagine applying statecraft to a business team to provide air cover for a new idea’s development, while guiding a staff of designers with the storytelling and tactical execution) But at least knowing about these levels can help a designer bring a more informed approach to their craft of design.

Styles of design methodology

There are now numerous ways to learn “design thinking” or methods of practicing design for many types of problems: interaction, communications, service, governance, etc. There’s plenty of books and online courseware, professional bootcamps and workshops — from General Assembly to LUMA Institute to Stanford d.school to full fledged university degree programs like at CMU, IIT, SCAD, and so forth. I myself have been through a combination of many of these. And so I’ve noticed a commonality of certain threads inherent to design philosophy and practice – empathy, framing, ideation, prototyping, iteration, validation, so forth. There’s an inexhaustible supply of methods that can be codified and card-ified (methods cards were all the rage, awhile ago!) which is always good to dip your hands into and try out. 

What I’ve begun to realize is there is a certain style — or perhaps a “playbook” — of applying such design methods, backed by the various schools of design thinking  which you have to define yourself, over years of practice and iteration (naturally!). 

Sure you could pick up just one specific school and their methods as THE ONE WAY — and you’re perfectly fine operating as such. For example, just doing the Stanford way or LUMA way or follow one of those “100 methods” books. Each is well and good, will ensure useful results guided by professional expertise and imparted wisdom from their instructors. Just pick one, get schooled up, and run with it! And increasingly there are academies or programs positioning themselves as having THE ONE WAY, mainly as a matter of business propaganda (aka “brand” ;-) It’s a capitalist market and “design” (or specifically “UX” and “design thinking”) have become a hot training commodity now, I totally get it.

But the true master of design methods is one who attains the level of practice whereby she functions as (deep breath) an artist. Yes, with an artistry for knowing how and when to blend points of view with various methods, even inventing some along the way, towards achieving certain outcomes. Not tied to one set way, but masterfully connecting methods (or “dots”) with a purposeful and subtle guidance. This is what it might mean to define a “style” of methodology per strategic design leaders, like styles of painters and musicians. 

Some points to consider as you discover and evolve your style of design methodology: 

– What signs / triggers do you look for to help shape your approach for a situation?

– Which questions and lenses do you bring to the fore upon entering a context (as design is so much about being “thrown in”)?

– What are your go-to frameworks and rubrics for structuring the mess of a situation into something orderly and manageable?

– How do you deftly transition conversations and tempos accordingly, as discussions evolve with various stakeholders (with their temperaments and baggage) 

– How do you bring your own brand of personality, philosophy, and savoir faire to the table that’s functional, yet satisfying fit for you as a design leader?

These kinds of questions can lead you to discover what and how your style of design methodology might be, regardless of the origins and labels. After all, when you are hired by a client or company to tackle projects, part of their “bet” to invest in you is that you are bringing not just some base set of skills but also an evolved model of self as a professional that is unique to you as a designer.  And along the way, you know how to connect the right dots for their problem, or even perhaps invent some new ways of looking at their problem. 

Facets of design leadership

What does it mean to be a design leader? Countless discussions, essays, blog posts and pithy tweets abound covering this question in numerous ways. But as you prepare your portfolio, pitch yourself to potential clients, and present yourself to a future employer, you need to ponder quite deeply about how you yourself approach leadership.

Every designer is a leader in some way…even when starting out — you are role modeling behaviors, demonstrating best practices, and signifying the value of design for stakeholders to appraise and absorb into their thinking. That leadership sensibility — even at the nascent stages of one’s career — expresses itself as words, actions, and of course the “artifacts” or deliverables you provide. Even subconsciously you are framing yourself as a leader — or perhaps undercutting yourself. 

There is a mindset or attitude that you bring to a design situation, personified in your behaviors. There is an approach you demonstrate in how you tackle a problem, or pursue an opportunity, or address someone’s criticism.

There is also the matter of how you interact with peers, highly senior leaders, junior level staff, or the greater community of professionals outside your immediate work context. How do you represent yourself to them?

Most importantly, how do you represent your self to yourself :-) Despite (or maybe because of) ever-changing layers of expectations, pressures, or masks of portrayal, it’s hard to get a sense of who are you to you at your core. Whoa. This is deep stuff! But leadership is more than putting on a mask or mantle that you take off after 8 hours. There’s a base of authenticity of course, with mindful pragmatism to balance all together, too. And it all carries through cognitively, emotionally, physically in the course of our daily lives, even subliminally. 

I have found there are multiple facets to being a design leader, which evolve over time in terms of priority or prominence or context. For me, there are 4 specific facets that I embody:

Evangelist: Being a constant champion of design as a power, a value, a virtue to others, towards fostering greater understanding and depth of appreciation of design’s benefits, in our work and our lives.

Catalyst: Serving as a provocative instigator of radical & creative notions that accelerate a team’s momentum towards something innovative yet valuable, breaking away from legacy modes. Speed, intensity, focus, with an eager, experimental mindset. Yup, the proverbial “bias to action”!

Advisor: Offering informed counsel based upon my years of experience in the field, having worked in a wide range of companies, various organizational models, with diverse design methods and such. 

Ambassador: Being regarded as a resourceful representative to the broader design community, while bringing value back to my clients and employers. Enabling that two-way dialogue of sharing and symbolizing, as well.

These four naturally build on and amplify each other, propelling a virtuous cycle of optimism and striving…and are all grounded upon a specific value or virtue, at least for me —  “teaching” or “sharing knowledge & passion”, expressed as those facets in various ways, providing value through impact, influence, and inspiration. Leading by example is also very much a big part of this.

What facets shape you as a leader? Think of the moments where you exude confidence or aim to build trust & respect, or reduce complexity & ambiguity while building rapport with the team. When are those moments you feel satisfied and accomplished, or at least hopeful and inspired? Chances are those are the signals that suggest the kind of leader you are and the facets that reflect & shape your design leadership potential, with an outlook for others to strive, as well.

Themes across a design career

If your’e just starting out, or at a relatively early stage in your career as a designer, the commonly perceived evidence of potential ability & quality is your portfolio, the body of work you’ve done for clients & teams. This is certainly still true as you develop a significant career path with 10, 15, even 20 years worth of hard-fought experience. As a former mentor once said to me (I think quoting Hollywood agents), “you are only as good as your last project”. Hmm. Fair enough, but as I’ve recently taken a somewhat long view towards the ongoing evolution of my own career path, I can’t help but look back at all the work I’ve done and felt…well, rather overwhelmed. I mean, 15+ years, dozens of clients and companies, with lots of side projects — how should I package and present that to my next client or employer? (or perhaps more likely, to an executive-level recruiter placing for senior design leadership positions)

Yes, the sage advice about selecting your best & most relevant work to a certain role still applies — think of it as a design problem, as I’ve argued before.

But I’ve also begun noticing some common themes that permeate across my work, signaling strengths of expertise and pursuits of passion that exemplify some sweet spot of my design ability and quality. Let me explain…

I noticed these themes emerging when I asked myself the following, as I pored over literally thousands of folders and files (Thanks, Apple Time Machine!):

– Which problem spaces captivated my interest, that I found intellectually stimulating and creatively rewarding? 

– What kinds of design activities excited me, thus brought out my best attitude and highest quality outputs?

– What kind of projects challenged me and compelled me to tackle them, staying up late into the night or weekends, regardless of the incentives I got or reputation/brand of the client?

For myself, I discovered 4 themes that summarize the arc of my design career thus far:

Sketching: I’m an artist at heart and thrive on pen/paper sketching — fast and gestural — as my primary mode of problem space exploration and solution generation. Sketching is how I interpret situations and express myself, full stop.

Systems Thinking: No matter what kind of problem I’m given, I always seek to understand the parts and wholes, the pathways and elements, how they interconnect. Drawing maps and diagrams to visualize such systems, while thinking through ripple effects throughout, is key for me.

Enterprise UX: The nature of my career path moved across various companies bent towards large-scale software rife with complexity and ambiguity, deep into business productivity solutions — aka, “enterprise”. Tough challenges with big impact! 

Next-Gen Concepts: I admit I’m somewhat the creative rebel, fearlessly pushing the envelope, the bar, the constraints, with risky thinking. Naturally provoking speculative concepts to shift the design direction and motivate new business models, that’s a vital theme as well in my work.

As I stand back I realize these themes capture who I am as a designer, quite accurately and succinctly. And now I’ve found a way to encapsulate my work and anchor discussions with prospective clients or employers, based upon points of view literally embodied by my “outputs”, which suggest future possibilities — as variations upon those themes. How can I adapt, modify, or simply pivot as I look towards the future evolution of my career? Themes provide a higher order analysis, yet useful basis for that kind of discussion, with your self and your future collaborators. 



Reflections 2015 / 2016

A new year already! Wow. How time truly flies when you’re busy… prototyping your career? Hmm. The final months of 2015 found me in the midst of a post-startup sabbatical, re-assessing my career trajectory after some unexpected changes, and taking time to shift things around in terms of personal and professional priorities. Lots and lots of coffees and conversations and “catch-up” meetings with many good people in the SF Bay Area, from designers to startup CEOs to engineers and even sales folks. I also began “prototyping” my career situation, trying out a variety of possibilities that keep me engaged and (hopefully) financially sound! I don’t know if it’s permanent just yet, but I landed upon a conceptual structure of proportionally striking a balance among three elements: a) UX Consulting b) Speaking/writing and c) Teaching (or somehow involved in design academia).

The idea is to continually tweak (iterate) the proportions of time and energy allocated to each element, per circumstances and dependencies, i.e., it’s always dynamic and evolving as a “virtuous cycle” framework. This is not new, of course, but it’s new to me for sure!

Some big challenges I encountered while embarking upon this virtuous cycle model during the last few months of 2015:

• Protecting my own time and energy for what I want to focus on, not just giving in to any “we need a designer pronto” request.

• Juggling how to keep various doors and windows of opportunity open while closing those that aren’t immediately or initially relevant, but preserving connections for later… because you never know! 

• Communicating and justifying my value as a strategic, principal-level design leader while educating folks who may not be knowledgeable about the wide, diverse spectrum of “design”.

• Defining my own goals for pursuing “academy” in small engagements, and how to balance that with paid vs non-paid speaking opportunities (for pragmatic reasons, of course ;-)

• Reconciling the inherent “hurry up and wait” model of consulting with an innate passion to tackle problems and prove my talent / leadership / value to skeptics with immediacy of impact — definitely not easy! 


So, the non-stop iteration of this model continues in earnest as I head fast into 2016. But looking ahead I’m mindful of also applying attention to a few key areas of significance for me:

• Role modeling good design leadership behavior, with clients and students alike. This includes communicating abstract concepts of design and demonstrating how to apply design thinking effectively…and strategically. 

• Avoid preaching or lecturing (ahem ;-) but instead cultivate an attitude of “inviting people along”, via thoughtful questioning of issues, encouraging responses and debates from skeptics, thus serving as an unbiased open-minded guide, not someone with an agenda to prove.

• Allowing situations or personalities to play themselves out and assess the outcomes with curiosity, rather than impatience beset by remorse or regrets. Some things aren’t meant to be, or maybe they just connect nicely! 

• Pursue design challenges (in practice and teaching) that speak to issues around ethics, philosophies, psychologies, and organizational themes, beyond “yet another screen/device”. Start developing the “meta-design” aspects of practice with clients and students, for long-term traction.


Amid such reflections of the past and what’s possible for the future (at least this year), it will be an exciting time with further forethought and adjustments along the way…Stay tuned.