Post-sabbatical reboot, part 1

Well, it’s hard to believe, but it has now been officially two months since I last set foot in an office environment as a regular daily practice, i.e. “my day job”. Whoa! What’s happened since then? 

After departing Peel, a consumer startup trying to improve the “universal remote problem” via smartphone apps, I set upon a personal sabbatical of sorts, with nothing lined up. Crazy? Sure, it’s a bold, daring move. Yet, I last did this upon leaving Cisco in the summer of 2008—while major financial institutions were crashing all around, no less! So that kinda worked out OK…And, in certain rare moments you reach a critical, personal “crossing of the threshold” where your values & principles are at incredibly intense odds with external demands or pressures, thus you simply need to break away and pursue a personal path of self-discovery, right? There’s that conflict of intention, expectation, and benefit that’s just too overwhelming, demanding escape. So that you can then, in effect, become more attuned to the subtler, nuanced aspects of whatever it is that drives you and elevates your aspirations to even greater levels, which tend to get drowned out–or ground down–amid the combative frenetic pace of an emergent, hi-tech development context—for instance ;-)

So I took a break…I traveled. I tried new foods—Japanese style hot dogs! I experienced new things—flying in a seaplane in crazy fog and rain! I met up with other design professionals in Europe. I gave talks on design in Pittsburgh and Copenhagen, and met with design leaders tackling similar issues. I caught up with childhood friends and family, to remind myself what matters most. I drove an Audi A4 Performance Edition in the Texas heat for 8 hours—awesome but tiring! I gave guest lectures at Carnegie Mellon and CCA in San Francisco, as well. Great ways to meet the new generation of designers excited to dive into the madness …that I had left behind ;-)

All the while, though, I have been quietly reflecting upon a variety of conundrums at the core of being a designer and practicing design, such as:

• What does partnership truly mean with dynamic, contested personalities & agendas?

• How can design leadership be measured effectively, the signals for success, and by whose standards?

• What is the path of design authority and influence in immature yet evolving and chaotic contexts?

• How can innovation of the business model happen in tandem with creating novel experience models?

• Why is design still so damn misunderstood, with the lack of bonafide investments in resources and process? 

• How do we preserve the strategic significance of design value amid the wild torrents of short-sighted, tactical frenzy?

Not an easy mix of questions! Lots of hard soul searching required at the personal level of unearthing whatever it takes to plod onward into the murky yet fiery depths of politics, requirements, logistics, etc. And also at that broader level of how to engage and educate organization leaders to want to dig into these tough issues with an open-minded attitude, together. Whew…

But it’s definitely time to get busy and start fresh tackling these challenges, with a new outlook and approach… Stay tuned!

Starting up for design success…

As I look back across the nearly 15 years of design gigs that formed the basis of my career path, I noticed an interesting commonality that marks how I actually begin each gig, whether full-time, agency, or contract. It consists of two somewhat interrelated notions that I take to each new job on Day One, as described below:

a) I’m already fired: Yes, let’s start on a boldly dramatic note ;-) Actually, this is a concept I borrowed from reading many years ago the “Code of the Bushido”, a revered Japanese guide to honorable warrior-ship. It begins with the notion of acting as if you’re already dead (or will be), that death is an inevitability and pervasive in the course of one’s life. Grim, indeed. Yet, this notion frees up the warrior to perform to the best of their abilities, with nothing to lose. The field of possibility opens up, unencumbered yet not desperate. Similarly, I apply this to my roles, to invoke a certain degree of fearlessness within my self, of nothing holding me back in doing what I believe to be right and necessary to achieve meaningful success, devoid of anxieties around “getting fired”. It truly becomes a liberating mindset, setting up bold action framed by personal conviction grounded in solid principles and vigorous processes. (Note: obviously, this is not something you go around bragging to folks, nor does it give license to be a reckless jerk! A moral compass is a pre-requisite, with good ol’ common sense.)

b) I’m preparing for my successor: Somewhat ironically related to the former is the belief that what I’m doing will hopefully outlive me and be useful for successive designers occupying my current role, or complementary to it. Work is unpredictable, companies change, roles shift in rather different ways than initially expected. That’s simply how it goes! Yet, I want to be sure that whatever I’m designing serves an impactful cause, effort, or model of enabling design-driven success beyond any one person. Thus, I’m continually thinking of ways to shape and define systems of thinking, principles for prosperity, artifacts that enable, and processes that can propagate beyond any single design output or person. I often ask myself, is what I’m creating contributing to a culture of good design habits, promoting a way of design-driven thinking, that supports the business? Each action you perform is setting up expectations for the person who comes after you, so do what you can to help that as yet unknown individual be set-up for success before they even start!

Creative habits for the designerly

Being a so-called creative, imaginative designer involves a significant degree of hard work (that “99% perspiration”, as Edison famously said) with many iterations and setbacks, as part of a connective & regenerative process. An essential part of that process is developing a personalized set of “creative habits”. Such activities increase the probability for inspiration and invention of something remarkable in your work — or at the very least, sustain your drive, especially during those moments of self-doubt or anxiety— to continually explore, creating your way forward.

So, what are my personal creative habits? Hmm. Here’s a quick survey of what gets me motivated :-)

* Always keep a sketchbook with a pen: I assume this is almost cliché for any designer, but this is vital for me. I literally do not leave home without this pairing. Sketching is how I process various information, and seizing those spare moments “waiting” while sketching is invaluable, given my busy schedule. (I prefer the Muji mini-sized sketchbooks that fit perfectly into a jeans’ back-pocket, and the Muji black rollerball pen.)

* Browse & read diverse magazines: I’m a total magazine fiend and love to spend time reading articles or perusing photos and illustrations found in The Economist, Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, WIRED, Metropolis, etc. Such contents are a wonderful source of raw intellectual material (ideas, themes, concepts, or just memorable phrases) while photos/illustrations are valued for their stylistic qualities (tones, colors, textures, layouts, etc.). To seek out those “radical adjacencies” that Steven Johnson mentioned in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From”, I prefer articles on economics, society, foreign policy, pop culture, literary or film criticism, keeping me diversely stimulated.

* Indulging in webby serendipity: Every morning I peruse social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook) to see what’s new, fun, trending, and flag it for later follow-up or pass along to folks in my network. I also quickly scan specific sites like The Verge, Quartz, Daily Beast, Ars Technica, The Vox, etc. Some days are better than others… If there’s nothing that morning, no biggie. (The trick to this is really time-boxing it, else you get sucked in and start meandering, actively searching for something inspiring, which is not altogether very useful.)

* Seeking constant physical stimuli: My desk is deliberately cluttered with toys, souvenirs, mementos, just stuff to pick up and play with while bored or thinking through some complex problems. Not sure if there’s a scientifically proven basis for this, but I find the physical interactivity stimulates my cognitive and creative energies in some useful ways.

* Taking long walks outside: Yes, it’s healthy to take a stretch and walk in the fresh air. But also, after reading some pretty heavy material, or sketching for a long time, I need to take a long walk to process what I just internalized, to help me make sense of it at that subconscious level, and start sparking up the neural intersections, vectors of inspiration, via outdoor observations, and the kinesthetics of “walking”. You may start to visualize in your mind’s eye some transient, deeper connections… Trust me on this!

* Sipping a good drink: Now, I’m not talking “Mad Men” style — you’ll just pass out that way! And of course, it’s not for everyone. But for me, I find that when I sip a good drink or two (bourbon, single malt, etc.) I enter a nicely relaxed state that fosters… well, some interesting ideas to flow forth! Maybe it’s the melting away all the loaded up cognitive inhibitions of the day, but imbibing on occasion certainly helps me pursue and express novel ideas— or simply form connections among existing ideas— just a little more… fluidly ;-)

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.