Thrown into the mess…

I always say there is no perfect design. Likewise, there is no perfect design situation. You are always thrown into a mess of communications and deliveries. This is not meant to be a judgment — it’s simply inherent to being a designer. There is a “thrown-ness” to it, if you will.


Of course, we are taught the “right way” or “proper set up” of a design engagement in university classes — like how every engagement should have a specific set of people representing core disciplines (product, engineering, customer support, sales, etc.) with clarity on the problems, timelines, milestones, review criteria, and so forth. And there’s often some handy document like a “Design Brief” to set the aims, corral alignment, provide the structure and focus to said engagement, compartmentalizing all the key information pieces (requirements, goals, etc.) into a collectively shared manner. And voila, right? Umm, not quite…


While it’s super valuable to learn that method of the “design brief’ and such, the reality is always messier. You are thrown into a situation not of your own making, with people and process and outputs already happening in some ways, things are truly “in-flight” with pre-set targets and such, that you must inherit and absorb, or somehow work with. There is a melange of personalities, politics and power structures, communications and deliverables, cross-functional / inter-departmental dependencies…oh, and by the way, there’s the actual product or services, and of course – the customers! All of these elements are simply happening in their own way, against their own rhythms, or due to forces already set in motion before your arrival upon the scene. So, good luck right?


Well, the challenge for any designer is the “sensemaking” of such complexity and ambiguity, while entering the stream of workflows in progress, AND ALSO carve out that precious vital space for the “design intervention”  to transpire — beyond simply specs and assets, which is often the first ask by unknowing non-design peers, sadly.


A good way to navigate that sensemaking journey is to ask the following:


  • What are the basic assumptions of this project or problem (or overall situation): Truly unpacking what is in everyone’s heads via personal 1-1 and collective discussions grounded in some common artifact (focus-goal map, difficulty vs priority matrix, even customer videos…and of course, that design brief) Maybe there’s some executive drivers presumed as irrevocable core beliefs ingrained into the team’s charter, if not the individuals’ psyches.


  • What are the critical dependencies for achieving design impacts: Other people, other products, other services, things often hidden in the corporate woodwork or simply taken to be intuitively known by the product team members (especially those who have been working on it for years). How do those dependencies impact timelines and handoffs? Where are the known frictions and potential roadblocks? Who can help resolve them? And of course, the accountabilities and incentives — very crucial in product development programs. This stuff often lives in a kind of ambiguous ether that permeates a team and overall program. But folks don’t realize it! So you gotta dig into it.


  • What are everyone’s expectations of your role as a designer, and of design itself? Really get clarity on this, as often this is the rub for many designers thrown into a situation where things are so dysfunctional, because there’s a lack of clarity of roles and owners and leaders. Who is accountable for what and by what measures (or incentives). And then, truly push back on “specs/assets ASAP” for a sprint starting tomorrow — that’s clearly yet another sign of the mess to be re-organized into a more effective model, hopefully by virtue of your “design intervention”.


It can undoubtedly be discouraging and downright frustrating to arrive upon a promising situation  (or sold as such) only to realize things are not as neat or tidy as we would wish it to be. Indeed most are frankly total clusters!@$%  :- / Sigh. It is what it is, right?


However, if we look upon the untangling of the inherent “thrown-ness” of all design situations as a pragmatic puzzle of decoding complexity and grounding ambiguity, whereby you the designer are leading conversations to enable such clarity — it can be valuable learning, and even a fun challenge, for everyone, where all feel as if they are participating in the clarifying process. So, leverage your abilities as a designer to uncover and intervene effectively. It’s a huge opportunity for you to set yourself up as a design leader as well, role modeling “good behavior”. Because, there is no perfect design situation.


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