Being a design catalyst

I always find it amusing to see elaborate, trumped up job titles amongst UX folks like “ideation igniter”,  “strategic experientalist” or “interface pathfinder”. You could almost start a short career out of extravagant naming a la Dilbert “mission statement generator” :-) One title in particular that I’ve heard a few times is “design catalyst”, whether in job descriptions or personal resumes. What does it mean, anyway? It’s perhaps the sanest sounding of such titles, but still suggests some grandiose notions of design’s function in product development, almost like “rockstar” or “ninja” ;-)

Although, given some recent design projects I think I’ve gained a little more clarity around what a “catalyst” is in a designerly way, towards helping advance multidisciplinary team agendas. In some sense you could say I’ve been a “design catalyst”, but this realization only came to me very much afterwards, during a project post-mortem, reflecting upon what I did and how it followed through. A few key insights I want to share here:

A design catalyst IMHO is someone who is…

* Willing to drop in to a contested situation (a la Heidegger’s “throwness”??)  with little contextual background info, confidently generate models and solutions quickly on the fly (leveraging “rapid expert” or “genius” approaches of past experience), and spark questions that help the conversations move quickly through initial phases

* Able to quickly foresee and surface issues with current debates/questions/ideas (which may be muddled in some way due to language, politics, schedules, etc.) and think ahead to better possibilities, in a sense “leap-frogging” what’s currently being discussed, jump over the bottlenecks

* Quick to intuit the latent, unspoken yet very critical issues about the context, audience, functionality and business model, and express them in a very quick, active way: diagramming on whiteboard, rapidly sketching real-time, or mocking/protoyping right there with the team to force vital discussions of what’s most important

* Adept at abstracting away the tedium of details to the bigger issues: genres, modalities, paradigms, archetypes…and then diving back into the specifics with rigor and articulation to clarify what’s really at stake for the product: user, tech, and biz model too

Seems what’s key to make this a “catalyzing” function (from a design POV) is the speed & intensity of engagement, which is also quite brief (small doses, if you will), to help accelerate three major things:

a) the team’s understanding of a problem
b) the team’s discovery of novel design solutions and
c) an improvement of overall project / team dynamics towards a more productive, and dare I say, enlightened view of the situation

It is through the power of the designer’s imagination, visualizations, and persuasive rhetoric as a mediator to enable this catalyzing value for the benefit of the product team. Of course, it takes years of experience and a willingness to leap with confidence with one’s judgment…as well as a fearless sense of possibly being wrong! But the goal is the accelerate the team forward to a stronger, better place regarding the proposed product/service offering for customers, and a great experience for users.

Is being a “design catalyst” simply functioning as a “rapid expert designer” (aka, “genius designer”)?? That’s a debate for another day…hmm! :-)

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