What is “design evangelism”?

Recently had a lively, thought-provoking lunch with a design candidate, exploring a wide range of issues from “what is user experience” to “design evangelism”. The latter in particular caused me to reflect more deeply afterwards on what it means to be a design evangelist, if that’s even the proper phrase. As my lunch partner suggested, this can be a troublesome concept charged with elitism and arrogance, appearing pedantic and condescending when in fact you are simply trying to help outsiders recognize and support the benefits of good design in their world. Certainly, it’s a loaded phrase that may rub non-designers the wrong way — how comes there’s no “Finance evangelism” or “Logistics evangelism”? — and thus has to be handled carefully ;-)

If pressed, I’d articulate “design evangelism” is the passionate advocacy, education, and coordination of people/principles/practices throughout an organization, using various levers and switches (social, political, economic, technological, etc.), while respecting people’s needs and goals. It’s a human-centric thing, naturally ;-) To delve a bit deeper:

a) Advocacy: Like a public defender that is an advocate for someone wrongly accused, there is a sense of “representing” and “clarifying” the purpose for doing good design, getting non-designers to recognize design’s benefit. There’s cheerleading, showmanship, and passionate argumentation, all emphasizing the role of design…and why it matters, as Robert Brunner articulates in his acclaimed book.

b) Education: Like a good, strong teacher helping an uninformed person learn, understand, and appreciate how design happens, there is a critical need to educate in a helpful, altruistic manner. This includes process, deliverables, tools, practices, patterns, even how to critique a design. All about helping provide the tools to enable Bob in Sales apply design thinking to his job, etc. Be a guide and mentor to help advise, cultivate lasting trustful relationships, and so forth. Goes back to the ancient saying: “Teach someone to fish…feed them for life.”

c) Coordination: Definitely on product-based projects (or other situations too, like helping HR or Finance), you should help coordinate the resources, tools, checkpoints, schedules, so as to demonstrate your passion and DEDICATION to truly making design happen and helping others get their sea-legs to make design operate as a positive habit in their worlds. Offer to facilitate discussions, capture notes, hand-hold some follow-ups but all the while you are teaching (b) and advocating (a). It all fits together nicely ;-)

I believe this trifecta of advocating, educating, and coordinating makes “design evangelism” more palatable in suspicious environments and gives it credibility / utility / focus beyond mere pontificating of trendy buzzwords about design thinking. It’s a strongly existentialist posture, of taking real action (not just talking!) and building on the collaborative potential of sharing / listening / learning in complex team situations.

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