Design strategy, product management, education & writing
On Hopelessness and Hope
In culture, and particularly in the creative professions, a profound dichotomy of hope and hopelessness has permeated discussions of project engagement and project work. At conferences, in client meetings, and over a beer or two, designers frequently and increasingly describe the rich potential to effect massive change and empower humanity in our work and in our jobs. This potential lies both in the nature of the work itself, as we have the ability to improve the artifacts that make up our cultural ecosystem, and also in the scope and scale of our influence. Designers have a large degree of control over the world around them. While this control may have a sense of delayed return—as products take months to land in the market—we can often trace both cultural and individual changes back to particular product introductions, feature changes, or even brand philosophies.
Yet this potential is increasingly tempered with a sense of hopelessness. I see designers bemoan their ability to actually follow through on visionary promises; deliver products that work and act as intentioned; or even conceive of artifacts that will evoke a sense of desire, mystique, or intrigue. They may find themselves designing things they deem insignificant, or they may be working on significant problems but feel unable to effect enough change, or they may simply not have the appropriate skills to execute on the challenges of behavior and the larger issues of cultural change.
Perhaps expectations have been too high, or perhaps the renaissance view of design has impeded our ability to master a particular element of craft. Yet a number of individuals—a group that is small in number but significant in its contributions—have managed to deliver on projects broad and deep. They do act as renaissance individuals, and they do manage to tackle problems that are complex and whose solutions result in important contributions. In working with and observing these types of people, I see several commonalities.
These designers are not focused on innovation. Their work may be described as innovative—they may very well win awards for their new and insightful products, services, and systems—but these individuals approach their work with a sense of focused pragmatism that emphasizes appropriateness, not newness. They don't strive to be as unique as possible. Instead, they observe their constraints and attempt to fulfill these constraints directly.
These designers have a passion for details. All design work has both concept and detailed stages of development. Often, designers gravitate toward preliminary concept work because they find it gives them more freedom to explore. Yet design that seems to resonate on a behavioral level is detailed, nuanced, refined, and crafted. This comes through relentless iteration, relentless refinement, and a relentless patience.
These designers are constantly reflective. Design is an intellectual activity, and while few of the designers I refer to here would actually call themselves intellectuals, they exhibit the sense of thought and reflection described by Donald Schön in The Reflective Practitioner. In a situation of complexity that requires order, Schön explains designers will constantly "engage in a conversation with the situation they are shaping... and if they are good designers, they will reflect-in-action on the situation's back-talk"
Above all, I see these designers—those who are able to continually deliver significant advancements even in this period of hope and hopelessness—expect to have a dramatically deep impact, rather than a broad one. Their expectation is to affect only the small, detailed, and critical aspects of the artifacts they design. They don't speak of "designing experiences," in some grandiose fashion, and they don't describe their work as "end-to-end design" or "system thinking" or "affecting the experience of the end-to-end customer journey." These designers are able to quickly prioritize problems, select those of most importance, and then, through a reflective, detailed, and extremely rigorous design process, create appropriate design solutions.
I wonder if designers should refocus their efforts on the more mundane and detailed. Rather than emphasizing the "strategic, game changing" nature of their work, and rather than considering their role as "innovators" or those engaged in "delivering the brand promise," designers might better focus on more humble, appropriate, and refined goals.
Accept—quietly and implicitly—that your work will affect millions of people. Focus on the nuances and details of the craft itself, and on your intellectual and reflective capacity to engage in a conversation with your work. Through this will come humble and beautiful design solutions that will live on, affect culture, and change behavior. And through this will come a sense of subdued pleasure in your creative work.
Kolko, Jon (2009), "On Hopelessness and Hope". In interactions magazine, July, 2009.