It’s the first month of a new year—heck, a new decade. It seems like a great time to get off your butt and start acting (if not now, when?). But often people get caught up in a lot of throat clearing and engine revving before ever taking action. Or as designer/inventor Mark Noonan observes from his own experience, “People are always saying, ‘Why doesn’t somebody do this or make that,’ but it doesn’t go any further. It’s just a rant.”
A person becomes a designer, says Noonan, when they make the decision to act on a problem. “Instead of just asking a question, you have to take ownership of it.” As I recount at greater length in Glimmer
, Noonan went from whiner to designer when
he created a new form of snow shovel
through a series of smart recombinations. No more aching backs for him.
likes to tell of a writer he knew who was determined to write an ambitious book on a big subject. The writer, Mau recalls, “was always preparing to get started—always arranging his bookshelves, and organizing his office” so that he would have everything he needed, right where he needed it, as he began this very challenging and daunting task. But somehow, Mau says, he never did begin, and still hasn’t to this day.
For designers, the temptation to “arrange the bookshelf” may be even greater than it is for writers. Design challenges are often complex, which means that one could spend endless amounts of time boning up on the subject or subjects involved. The solution may be unknown or at least unclear at the outset, which can give pause.
The ability of designers to just begin, and begin anywhere, is critical—and it’s something we can all learn from. What helps designers move forward in the face of uncertainty is a step-by-step methodology, or, to use Mau’s preferred term, process. Mau often starts by questioning standard practices; then begins an experimental-thinking phase that I describe as jumping fences; he quickly begins to create sketches, prototypes, and other representations of ideas that can be shared; and at some point, he brings empathic research into the mix.
at Stanford University’s d.school teaches a process similar to Mau’s, but it’s presented differently. Kembel boils it all down to: 1) gaining expertise about a problem or subject area, primarily through empathy with the people directly involved; 2) framing the challenge you’re going to tackle (which is to say, making sure you’re asking and trying to answer the right questions); 3) generating options or ideas; 4) creating prototypes to test those options; and 5) iterating, or creating subsequent refined versions of your original prototype, based upon feedback.
Those are the building blocks of good design and it doesn’t really matter which one you start with (in other words, you can begin anywhere) as long as you circle around to each one, and do so repeatedly. “By the end,” says Kembel, “you have a lot of expertise, a lot of empathy for the problem, confidence that you’ve framed the right challenge, tons of ideas generated, and lots of testing so you know what’s working.” Kembel talks about watching how students awaken to this process and then begin to apply it to all parts of their lives. “It goes from being a methodology to a mind-set,” he says.
What we non-designers can take away from this is that there is a proven process for getting past the initial difficulty of starting something. And you can jump in anywhere in the process to get it going. We may not have a corporate research budget, but anyone can learn a lot from simple observation of what people do and say. “Framing” for us takes the form of taking the time to ask yourself a series of “what if” and “how” questions. It’s amazing how quickly those build towards something. And “prototyping” doesn’t mean a highly polished version of something, but rather a rough draft or sketch—something that gives you and others a thing to react to. And then you go back and refine.
I have a whole chapter in Glimmer titled “Begin Anywhere” that leads readers through how to jump-start the creative process, through others’ examples and advice. As you kick this new decade into action, I’d love to hear what works for you.
No related posts, but check around GlimmerSite for lots of other interesting articles.