Towards a design philosophy

So after 8+ years of designing at a range of companies/agencies in Silicon Valley, I think I’ve finally come to a point where I can start articulating for myself what may be termed as a “design philosophy” or statement of personal approach/attitudes, based upon core beliefs listed below. This is the result, of course, of exposure to and experiences with various designers, projects, clients, contexts, organizations, all set against the ambient background of the “CMU way of thinking”. Here it goes…

Design for me is a humanistic act, creating vivid, smart, innovative solutions, not tediously preserving the bland rigor of test-driven corporate mediocrity. You gotta want to design, pushing novel aesthetic visions. Design is also a rewarding, difficult pathway towards meaningful engagement with people & technology & commerce built upon abstract ideals of cultural expression and human ingenuity. It’s about the relationship, and connecting with people’s unstated aspirations in the course of the interaction with the design. But it all must start with a magnanimous vision borne of personal talent, cultural empathy and a genuine desire to solve problems with passion, imagination, and skill.

My approach is evolving. It is thoughtfully intuitive yet principled, knowledgeable yet speculative, eagerly striving to push the novel, yet recognizing the need to be cautious and focused. It’s heavily influenced by my talent for visual arts (drawing, painting, photography) and intellectual bent for the deeper essences of a problem. I don’t do formulas or recipes. Patterns, models, frameworks are my game as well as concept sketches and systems and strategies. I truly believe you can always improve anything with good design.

** A designer is an informed, talented visionary, with a blend of knowledge and imagination–not a short order cook addressing every user’s whims or marketer’s data or tester’s results.

** Emotion, aesthetics, and cultural expression are vital for creating vivid, engaging experiences. Aesthetics matter, period. If you’re not designing something that’s emotionally resonant and beautiful, then what are you doing?

** Take lots of salt with customer/user research. Users often don’t know what they want or how to describe it. Be careful!

** Stories, experiments, sketches–and yes intuition–can spark innovation. Empathic and cultural insights are valuable, often more than just “test data”.

** There is no perfect design. So doing what’s “necessary yet sufficient” (per Herb Simon’s “satisficing” concept) is often needed, because there will always be a version 2, etc.

** Yet strive for the supreme achievement, not mediocre parity. Design requires bold risk; if you can’t handle that, then maybe you shouldn’t be in this. Design isn’t for everyone.

** Speculative concept sketches are a great way to jump start design activities and inspire new thinking. Sketching is a form of research, whether in pencils or pixels. Get the ideas flowing!

** Excessive testing adds slight marginal value, killing the original design vision. I agree that data can be whipped hard enough to confess to anything! (from Jared Spool)

** Collaboration is wonderful, but has coordination and political costs so must be managed well. Sometimes a design dictator is needed to move progress forward. Design should never be done by committee or solely reliant on “test data”.

** Design process is like a Swiss army knife kept in the back pocket but used smartly. Design requires flexible thinking and jumping around alot. It’s neither scientific nor formulaic. There is an art to it, requiring anticipation and judgment.

** Start someplace and start doing something! And keep on sketching and iterating…and remember to enjoy it!

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