Design-related quotes for inspiration

I came across these interesting quotes recently during my holiday break, amid various readings, both online and offline. Each stands on their own quite nicely, but resonates even better when you consider them in relation to the fundamental nature of design as practice and philosophy.

A wonderful articulation of the value of “design intuition” (hint: it’s not just making up stuff!)

“Design intuition is really an incredibly powerful tool that we can pull from. When some people think of intuition, they just think you’re making things up. It’s really not. It’s not just this gut feeling that comes out of nowhere. It’s us drawing upon the aggregate of all of our experiences from all these other projects that we worked on and design situations that we’ve encountered that have some similarities.” Simon King, design director at IDEO Chicago

In various personal discussions with peers, the notion of “faith” as elemental to the design process as come up. In many ways, there is a central need for “faith” in designing an optimal solution that cannot be pre-proven as a guaranteed success, but instead demonstrated in its full delivery and usage amid life itself. Alan Lightman’s eloquent description captures that quality when designing something indeterminate and unproven.

“Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.” Physicist Alan Lightman, in “The Spiritual Universe”

Finally, this has become my new standard definition of design, wonderfully capturing the spirit and value, tying back to its underlying premise and inter-related outcomes.

“Design is an expression of optimism. It is a process by which aesthetic, cultural, technical and economic potential is imagined and then translated to give order to objects, services, activities in our environment.” John Marshall, director of MDes Design program at University of Michigan

Personal review: 2014 highlights & lessons learned

Indeed, 2014 yielded another awesome year of insightful conversations and productive engagements. I’m truly grateful to my friends & colleagues and peers within the broader UX/Design community. It is only through such relationships that I’ve made it this far ;-) With that, I want to briefly highlight top personal accomplishments and valuable lessons learned for 2014, to serve as inspiration for others in this field.


Top Accomplishments
What did I do this year? A few items of note:

* Left Citrix after nearly 5 years as Principal Designer, on perhaps the highest and sincerest of notes, having fulfilled almost everything I sought to accomplish: shaping design vision, affecting process & strategy, as well as influencing the emergence of a true design-driven culture, by partnering with some of the smartest executives in Silicon Valley I ever met. It was truly an honor and a privilege, with a lifetime of memories created. I couldn’t have asked for a better exit!

* Joined an enterprise startup as Director of UX, and rapidly accelerated the company into becoming a design-oriented place. In just over 6 months (with backing from VP of Engineering and the CEO) I helped define a visual design language, instill design rigor with principles and methods, and inspire a bold “Next Gen” vision for 2015. We also amplified our UX “intelligence” with critical hires, both contractors and full-time! The best is yet to come ;-)

* Got involved with Women’s Startup Lab, a fantastic organization dedicated to providing rigorous resources and training for women entrepreneurs aiming to make significant impacts in a variety of industries, not just “hi-tech”. Very honored to run a half-day UX Workshop and begin serving as a mentor/advisor via “office hours” on UX issues, for these amazing women!

* More engagement with Kleiner Perkins Design Council, via John Maeda and his periodic “Dim Sum” gatherings locally and online. This has led to publishing articles on Medium as well as participating on short panels, which has been fascinating to hear a variety of perspectives from several new design friends!

<< Big thanks to my friends & colleagues at Citrix, CloudPhysics, Women’s Startup Lab, and John Maeda himself for enabling such great stuff this year! Truly a collaborative effort. >>


Valuable Lessons
So, what did I learn from all that? Just a few things:

* Being an authentic designer takes conviction and enduring the “risk” of being true to yourself. Forming your own evolved design philosophy & approach after years of experience is a natural & necessary step into “going on your own” apart from a sheltered or academic context. However, staying true to what you believe in takes a degree of confidence with conviction that frankly may not sit well with others. Stakeholders or audiences will disagree, resist, challenge, criticize, or even shut you out/down–out of fear, anxiety, inferiority, who knows. Yet that’s simply part of the path of becoming an authentic designer–bearing that risk of nonconformity & authenticity. You gotta trust it will all work out in the end.

* “Design Thinking” is not a panacea. Often, you need to let the domain experts work their methods and you just might learn something! Not all problems (particularly those of software engineering or business strategy or sales forecasting) can be solved by sticky notes and brainstorming—nor should they be! Every discipline has their own kinds of tools & methods, which are valuable in their way, so it’s often best to let them be applied and watch and learn. Gently suggest areas to improve using typical “designerly” approaches, if appropriate. For many cases it’s better to use “design thinking” as a tuning fork, not a sledgehammer!

* Leadership is a team sport, not a solo act. We have these romantic, popular notions of the strong, triumphant, confident leader directing where to go, what to do, etc. The fact is, being a “leader” requires a committed team to make things happen. I don’t mean delegation of assignments, but rather through inspiration of resolve, persuading folks to take up efforts and willing themselves to want to help and improve things, thus enabling a strategy to become realized. It takes collaboration and constant dialogue for leadership to be effective.

* Always ask dumb, naive questions, to ensure everyone is on the same page! Unspoken assumptions can evolve into difficult tensions later. Everyone holds unstated opinions & assumptions for whatever reason. It’s best to just air them out, write them down, or discuss to ensure clarity. Clear communications enable productive collaboration and resourcefulness of energy applied correctly to the right things. Miscommunications & misunderstandings are inherently wasteful or (at worst) can be toxic to a team.

* You don’t need to have all the answers all the time. This is the hardest lesson of any leader, I think. You’re not paid to have all the answers. You’re paid to facilitate, enable, guide, support, inspire, and ultimately “connect the dots” in a way that only a leader can. And, truly, in this sense anyone can be a “leader”—it’s all a matter of frame of reference or point of view. How are you helping to make forward progress for the team? That’s the bigger question to be answered.

A new “medium” for communicating

As I reflect upon the totality of what I’ve been writing over the past 6 years on this blog, comprising over 350 posts in regards to “design”—from insights, lessons, philosophies, to candid opinions— it’s quite sobering, and personally gratifying. It’s been a wonderful (if at times burdensome) task to articulate what designs means, to me and the profession at-large.

Yet, I also realize that:

a) there are ever more “newbie” designers entering the field thanks to emerging vocational programs like General Assembly (and similar) who never saw my earlier posts dating back several years ago

b) there are far improved platforms for socially virulent communications, with better commenting and “tweet-ability” aspects

One of them is Medium, with its popularity and typographic quality for pleasant reading of memorable stories or critical ideas, across devices & screens.

So, going forward, in an attempt to take advantage of this nexus of opportunity and resurrection of past ideas still relevant today, I’ll be re-posting my “greatest hits” (and most important topics) on Medium, with some light editing.

My hope is this will serve as a much-needed stepping stone towards a collection of essays in some other “medium” like print or so forth. #NotsoSubtleTeaser ;-)

To kick things off, I’ve re-done a few Ghost posts:

>> Me Design Pretty One Day

>> Being a Design Leader

Notes from Digital Design & Web Innovation Summit

This event featured an impressive list of very high-profile brands (Dolby, Netflix, Starwood, Disney, AT&T, and so forth) with executive-level design leaders speaking on various topics pertaining to shaping digital experiences for web and beyond. I attended only the first day of this 2-day summit, but it was definitely worth it if only for the following set of takeaways and reminders of what it takes to deliver top results:

** Defining and extending a brand from logo to product to personal emotion involves a constantly circulating process of moving from “iconic brand” to “great product” to “compelling storytelling”, that taps into latent emotions, of the aspirational variety.

** Think of the “consumer touch points” as “jewels” (physical like the Macbook Pro shiny button or Virgin’s mood lighting) that serve as signature moments and designed elements that differentiate and speak to the brand, as well as resonate with the user’s expectations.

** Where is your “innovation investment balance”? In some cases it may be under-balanced (too much on maintenance of existing) and other cases may be over-done (excess of exploratory research projects lacking focus).

** Seducing the CFO is a good thing ;-) Don’t forget to include CFO as part of your influence strategies.

** Consistency is good for setting a baseline, but don’t rely upon it as a competitive differentiator. Instead, focus on what’s appropriate for the platform and context of use. Esp true of mobile devices (watch / phone / tablet / laptop). Keystone elements like the logo and certain stylistic constants should help anchor, but should still allow for interaction and behavioral variance suited to the device situation of use, to make that branded device experience come alive.

** Innovation can be hampered by over-pursuing consistency: “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” Quote from Oscar Wilde.

** It’s actually good to be inconsistent, sets up innovative opportunities! Just like breaking rules of grammar after mastering them, allow for poetic flourishes and novelty after baseline established.

** Think about proactive, dynamic curation of content, beyond static websites towards “state-aware” content systems: Using mobile device geo-location awareness and other forms of contextual sensing.

** Give users the content they need when they need it (or find most value from it).

** When evolving a social media UX strategy, go beyond “Like me”—sounds desperate! Instead think of the vanity and lifestyle aspects to build up “brag equity” ;-)

** What is “innovation”? Many many many definitions (sigh!) but most gravitate around “delivering change” that has “net relevant value impact” financially and culturally.

** Thus, value (and innovation) can be eroded and destroyed when there is confusion and lack of clarity due to mess of features, convoluted brand value prop, etc.

** Knowing your own intention is critical to setting on good path for viable innovation. However you may not know where you end up—that’s ok! As long as support user’s goals, contextual params, etc.

** Meaningful innovation arises from a magical mix of intention, intuition, and insights. Requires data and iteration. There is no formula or recipe. Requires risk, so don’t expect easy answers or crisp known decisions.

** The team has to care about the final 1% of a product, which is the hardest part. Involves craft and pride, moves the team morale forward.

** Don’t use user research to invalidate creative risk. For innovation to happen, need to support risk. Use research to invalidate assumptions and hypothesis about user goals/contexts/problems to “not be risky”.

** Inform your intuition by observing behaviors and being aware of situations. Keep exploring and learning and exposing yourself to new situations, radically different from your own daily routines. Empathy, curiosity, learning, it’s all a nice circle of continuity, must keep sustaining over a career.

** A “pivot” is really a mindset, not just a series of shifts to the business model. Stay focused on the aspirational customer-centric vision, anchored in values and principles that speak to your team and brand.

Empathizing with engineering

Empathy is an essential element for practicing good design which delivers value for an intended audience or market. To design effectively is to design with a committed sense of deep awareness and care for the that audience’s goals, needs, concerns…from awful frustrations to joyful delights, and everything in between.  

This point is also true, when it comes to designing with a cross-functional team, through the conduit of a shared, common purpose. Empathy is a necessary factor in building key relationships and understanding divergent perspectives that enable a kind of dynamic, creative tension for the whole team’s benefit, towards realization of that purpose. Ultimately it is a human quality that creates social adhesion for fostering trust, engagement, and camaraderie, particularly when arduously working through the most intractable or contentious problems along the way. It all comes down to respect and willingness to see “the other side”, so as to arrive at feasible compromise and viable alternatives that meet everyone’s goals.

This is not easy, in the slightest! Empathy takes hard work, patience and practice, especially when trying to gauge the emotional or philosophical tenor of an inscrutable colleague— or at least an agreeable colleague speaking obtusely ;-)

So how to foster empathy with engineering? Following are some articles that I’ve been reading up to grok engineering principles and practices. To help me truly deeply understand where they are coming from, what their issues and challenges are, what are those fundamental matters that keeps them up. My hope is that by doing this I can be a better designer and foster more team success going forward.


Principles of High Performance Programming:
Coding Principles Every Engineer Should Know:
How Doctors Learn:
Understanding DevOps:
Empathy allows ops engineers to appreciate the importance of being able push code quickly and frequently, without a fuss. It allows developers to appreciate the problems caused by writing code that’s fat, or slow, or insecure. Empathy allows software makers and operators to help each other deliver the best possible functionality+operability on behalf of their customers.

Operations cares about code and about the customer experience:

  • If the servers and network are all up, and the disks have plenty of free space, but the blog-platform commenting feature doesn’t work, then the site can’t be considered “available”
  • Ops engineers help designers and developers understand the operational implications of UX and application design decisions.
In the cloud, operational excellence is a fundamental part of what the software vendor is selling. Operational excellence implies more than just scalability, availability, and security. Part of the benefit of having vendor-operated software is immediate access to software updates. Operational excellence thus includes the rapidity, and quality, of the software release process.