The question. We always think we know what the question is. We just need the answer.
I am always dogging clients to let go of their idea of what the question is and to reframe. And now, the shoe is on the other foot. I realized in reading Design for Growth by Jeannie Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie that I have framed a question and forgotten that it might not be the right one. The flash of realization was almost blinding. I’m excited to see how many ways I can parse the problem now. What is really needed? How can I tease that out of the research I am doing and will do?
Chance favours the connected mind. This phrase is the juicy summation of a talk by Steven Johnson given at TED in September 2010 called, Where good ideas come from.
Johnson asserts that the great ideas of humankind are generally not eureka moments, but the purest essence distilled from years of thought, influences and collaboration — conscious or not. As an educator, I believe in this model and tend to guide my students to work in teams in order to see a problem from multiple perspectives. Being young, competitive undergrad students, their perspective of teamwork is often not fully formed. They may see it as a painful exercise, particularly when not working with closest friends. The input they give and receive can be superficial at times, as team mates struggle to find their purpose in being part of that team. They hold back but, at times, they receive a nugget of insight that helps push them further.
I have recently become immersed in the Leading by Design Fellows Program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. I haven’t worked in a team (in an academic environment) since my own time as an undergrad. What I am discovering at this stage of my career and in this program is that no one is holding back. Everyone who has come into this program seeks a higher purpose. They are intelligent, passionate people looking for a way to contribute to the greater good in a significant way. No one is in it for a title or an honorific. They are in it to make the world a better place.
The synergy in working with my team is extraordinary. It feels like we are working with one mind, sharing on each other’s projects and thinking about all of our projects simultaneously. This is not so much team work as a collective, connected mind. As has often been said, the more you practice the luckier you get. And in terms of hitting the amorphous targets in a wicked problem, a group of minds, working with a connected mind has longer range and much better accuracy.
Someone asked me what this was all about. How is design a conversation about the future?
Well, that depends on your understanding of design and on your understanding of conversation. Design inherently lives in the future. And if it’s not a singular expression of self, it is most certainly a conversation about that future. Let me explain. Design lives in the future because its entire raison d’être is to see the future: opportunities, challenges, possibility. The future as we all know is, by definition, unknown. Design lives here, thinking about what could be —something or some idea which does not currently exist. To the mainstream, that might mean a poster not yet realized, an advertisement which exists only in one person’s mind. To the design leader it might mean an entire business model that will turn every other business model on its head. It might mean a teaching method that reaches that other 80% of students not currently served by the narrow teaching methods of today.
Design is a conversation rather than a singular narrative. It is that because design does not exist without conversation — a hell of a lot of conversation. Real design can’t be realized without the clearest of definition. And clear definition cannot be had without triangulating in dozens of directions with every stakeholder, real or imagined, that the future design will affect. Triangulation is conversation; checking in; listening; hearing the echo.
Design is a conversation.