Design is an art of decision-making

I knew of Herb Simon somewhat before I went to study design at Carnegie Mellon (CMU) but only as “factoid” bits of info: Nobel Laureate in economics, contributions to AI, legendary scholar par excellence. Once at CMU I finally dug into his writings, particularly “Sciences of the Artificial”, a definitive treatise which articulates a theory of design based upon “changing existing situations to preferred ones” and characterizing design as “artificial” — human-made creations of some value, as opposed to results of non-human forces, like forests, animals, mountains, etc. (climate change and similar manipulations notwithstanding, of course, but I’m speaking in terms of original making)

Another book he wrote, that’s less well-known, is “Administrative Behavior”, which my thesis advisor had recommended to me at that time, since I was curious about the emergence of “e-business” and digitizing organizations and cultures. Spoiler alert: it’s super dry, dense, and mostly about “decision-making” models. I didn’t really get it at the time… I mean, who studies how or why humans make decisions in giant organizations, how is that important in the grand scheme? Hmm…

Fast forward 15+ years working in software design and… OMG yes, I totally get it now! Indeed, I think I’ve sensed for awhile design is not simply “problem solving” — often proudly cited as the value quotient which makes design so damn important to business & engineering, and to counter notions that it’s some “funky art” of stylizing. Design is a complex practice with systematic rigor that aims to solve problems with empathy and creativity, no doubt. And it is also a decision-making discipline, grounded in an artful balance of negotiated concerns, guided by empathic & creative approaches to enable progress, or possibly even “innovation”.

To design, to lead designing, to manage a design process, to deliver a design spec — these activities all involve making decisions, actually selecting an option among many options under varying circumstances (social, technical, cultural, organizational, etc.). To design effectively is to be mindful of the constants and constraints, the conventions and concerns, the consequences and considerations when it comes to defining the user experience, creating the right icon, laying out the best table format, folding in animations elegantly, editing warning messages for tone and length, or spec’ing out behaviors and states. You make such decisions (ideally) informed by research and user feedback, guided by relevant principles and shared objectives, and along with your team of stakeholders or peers as a collaborative (at least coordinated) effort of collective responsibility.

Good decisions require a mindset of self-awareness while reflecting on the potential effects on other parts of the system or people involved. Deeply considering the risks, trade-offs, opportunity costs, and ripple effect of impacts, both tangible & intangible. Prioritizing which criteria are useful to help lead everyone towards the right decision to helps the team and the customer. The classic Eames venn diagram comes to mind, illustrating the dynamic of multiple layers of concerns in the mind of the designer. Indeed, it’s a lot! Yet this approach of making choices, elevates design from simply “making it pretty” —connoting a silly, mindless activity — to a thoughtful human enterprise of judgment and consideration. One that demands deep understanding and ability to communicate rationale, as part of a conversation (or an argument — yes, both sense of the word!), while also learning or adapting towards making the best choices to move the overall product or business forward.

There’s quite about bit about human decision-making at the heart of design that we should recognize, honor, celebrate, and evolve in our practices. Indeed, delving into this matter might even help crack the issues of fitting Design with Agile and Lean — all are fundamentally human decision-making models within product development. Hmm…maybe I should pick up that Herb Simon book again and re-read it with a refreshed outlook.

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.