You may have heard before that it’s easy to go from bad to good but difficult to go from good to great. Practicing design for many years across a range of industries in successful companies, I have identified some consistencies in design teams that lead to (or prevent) great design. I’ve boiled those factors down into 4 principals which I believe to be the core essentials of great design – principals I look to nurture and grow within the teams I lead at IBM. For clarification, I have conceptualised them in a ‘web of great design’.
Just as a spider’s web breaks when a strand is broken, so does great design when a principal is not present in the team’s behaviour. However, just as a spider can build a different shaped web to fit into a different space, so can the web of design take on a different shape to fit the problem at hand, with different strands possibly being more poignant.
Right, let’s get stuck in with the first principal…
1. Be Unreasonable
“If a design team is not behaving unreasonably, it can’t be pushing any boundaries.”
Being unreasonable is one of the most common traits in anyone who’s pushed the boundaries of the known world to create or discover anything great.
The Irish dramatist, George Bernard Shaw eloquently encapsulates the importance of being unreasonable in order to make progress:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Why it’s necessary to be unreasonable
Many of the celebrated people in history who have changed the way the world thinks have had to be unreasonable. They challenged existing and rooted ideas with new concepts that were initially rejected unanimously by their peers.
For example, Galileo is often referred to as the father of modern science. However, in his time he was accused of heresy by the church and placed under house arrest for pursuing his ideas on Heliocentrism (the theory that the planets revolve around the sun). If Galileo had not been unreasonable and challenged what was believed to be common knowledge, suggested new ideas even though the rest of the world believed he was wrong, we may still believe that the sun revolves around the earth!
“If the design team just agree with the world, the designs produced would be no different from those before.”
The other side of the coin is captured in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The prisoners who have never seen the light of day are blinded by its brightness when they look at it. Being unable to look at the sunlight, they reject it and turn back to the darkness — what they know to be normality.
Such stories bring me to believe that if a design team is not behaving unreasonably, it can’t be pushing any boundaries. If the design team is just agreeing with the world, nodding their heads and adapting themselves to the constraints around them then there can only be one outcome: a design that is the same as everything that has gone before it.
“Ask questions nobody asks, and persist when you are told to stop.”
Many disruptive tech companies today are unreasonable and ask us to consider the world from a perspective that has never before been considered. They ask questions no one asks and persist when they are told to stop. However, once society adopts these new products and perspectives, we rave about how good they are and can’t imagine the world without them.
How to be unreasonable in design
Being unreasonable doesn’t mean you have to be a disrespectful or nasty, in fact, you have to be quite the opposite. Unreasonable ideas are only adopted when other people can be convinced of their validity. If you are insensitive to others then you can’t expect other people to come round to your perspective. It is a delicate skill to help people see the improvements in everything around us without disregarding their previous efforts and turning them off.
“Being unreasonable in design doesn’t mean you have to be disrespectful or nasty, quite the opposite.”
As designers, we should be striving to be told at least once weekly that we are “being unreasonable”. Hearing things like “That is a stupid idea” or “That is ludicrous!” are all familiar noises that help me identify my team and I are on the path to something great, not just good.
2. Diagnose then Prescribe
“The real design challenge is identifying those core problems/opportunities, not designing the solution.”
As the designer, you have to correctly and accurately define problems and opportunities. Design challenges are like onions — they have many layers of complexity that the designer needs to peel away to reveal the core problem/opportunity. The real design challenge is identifying those core problems/opportunities, not designing the solution. Design teams that spend more effort defining the core challenges have far more productive ideation sessions. The closer they get to the real problem, the more naturally the ideas flow from the team.
Like a medical professional, the designer needs to create a diagnosis of what they believe to be the real problem. As experts in their field, they should then present a diagnosis to address that problem.
Great design is never ‘self-diagnosed’
When you visit the doctor, you may notice they often ask you, “what seems to be the problem?”, but they will not let you self-diagnose. The doctor is the expert and we ask them to use their superior domain knowledge and expertise to interpret the multiple data points that form a diagnosis. What you believe to be the problem is merely one source of data a doctor will use to diagnose you. They will combine the symptoms they observe and the tests they run.
“It is the designer’s responsibility to look deeper than the symptoms and identify the real problem.”
The design team needs to behave in the same way as the doctor to achieve great design. Design teams that don’t dig to find the real issue will never achieve great design. We as designers are often asked by stakeholders “to build an App”, “move to the cloud” or make “the visuals look good”. This can be seen as a form of self-diagnosis, and if a designer accepts these beliefs as the only source of information, their design will never be great.
Design research is an essential tool for the design teams to find the core challenges and create accurate diagnoses of a situation. It is an un-negotiable part of the design process to help us achieve this understanding.
The success of any design boils down to the understanding and empathy a team has attained with users and consumers (both can be different or the same person). Research alone is not enough, interpretation of these human needs is essential to clarify the real problems. Often people can’t articulate, identify or recognise their own challenges and it is the designer’s responsibility to look deeper than the symptoms and identify the real problem.
3. Acknowledge your Ego
“Unchecked egos in your design team will kill your chances of producing great design.”
It is quite egotistical to believe that you don’t have an ego. By acknowledging that you have one you at least don’t allow it to lead you and you are aware of its influence. Unchecked Egos in your design team will kill your chances of producing great design.
“Designers need to understand that their team is everyone they work with to achieve a common goal.”
How to identify ego’s
Ego manifests itself in many ways in designers, for example, the ego can manifest as an “us and them” mentality. Designers need to understand that their team is everyone they work with to achieve a common goal (e.g. Product Managers, Designers, Engineers, Marketers…). This is their real team, a group of multi-disciplinary skilled people who are all creating something. Using their unique individual skill set to make the final product to be worth more than the sum of the team’s input.
Some designers marry their ideas and stunt the creative development of the product. They become useless to the team, unable to move on into new creative spaces or view the problem from new perspectives. They push unnaturally to have their idea accepted, allowing their ego to lead the design and not the user insight or market understanding. Ideas created in a group setting are owned by the group and all ideas can be adapted, built upon or destroyed without bias. Designers should learn when it is appropriate to fail and how to use failure in an iterative design process as a tool (Fail Fast).
4. Create a Sensory Story
“By creating a sensory story the designer allows people to experience the future and the vision the designer is portraying.”
To achieve great design the designer must create and show a tangible future that the whole team can align behind. Designs should be communicated through a story that targets the senses so that an emotional and visual understanding can be perceived by the wider team. Simply telling a story is not enough, the designer must tap into more than one of the 5 senses to open up a channel that allows people to directly empathise with their users and the proposed future.
“A strong sensory story that ignites emotions within stakeholders does more than just align them, it unites them.”
Our senses are the way in which we perceive reality, they are the way that we experience the world in the current moment. Through our sensory input, we create a visual understanding of our surroundings. By creating a sensory story the designer allows people to experience the future and the vision the designer is portraying.
These sensory stories exist at all levels of the design process, from the detailed iterative optimisation of an experience to the painting of an overall future vision. A strong sensory story that ignites emotions within stakeholders does more than just align them, it unites them.
I use these four principals as core guidelines when leading design teams and coaching junior designers. Like everything, it takes practice and persistence to get good at them and effectively pull all four together in one team. However, it is noticeable when the team gets it because they begin to produce work that is not just good, but great.
This post was originally published on John’s Medium profile.