Archive for May, 2014

The Rise of Genius Design

Some time ago @rianvdm wrote an article on Miles Davis and the nature of true genius. Back then I didnt find the topic that interesting…

But 2 months ago I read Frank Chimero’s book, The Shape of Design. *And there it was again; the story of Miles Davis and how he and a few other musicians reinvented jazz in one day. But what placed Rian’s article in a completely new light was the poetry analogy Frank used in the beginning of the chapter.

Renga is a form of collaborative poetry where I would write the first 3 lines of a poem, pass it on to you to write the next 2 lines, after which you pass it on to me again. This back-and-forth collaborative approach would then give rise to something completely different than what it would have been without the collaborators.

This exact same thing happens in improvisational theatre as well, except a new role player is introduced into the process: momentum.

Frank explains it like this:

”…if you and I are improvising a scene on stage, and you say something I wasn’t expecting, I cant pull you aside and ask you to change your line. The continuity would be broken, so I must accept what you offer and then build on top of it.”

Now what’s interesting is that this same thing happened when Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue. He and his team build on top of each other’s sounds (without criticizing) to create a type of Jazz that didn’t exist before.

And that’s exactly how genius design is born as well. Together. Through improvisation. One idea is build on top of another to give rise to fresh and unexpected solutions. But what needs to be in **place in order for this to happen is what Frank calls the, “Yes and…” maxim.

“Yes” dictates that each contribution is valid and accepted. It prevents us from editing too early and thereby loosing momentum. The “and” part of the maxim, dictates that improvisation is an additive process that builds itself up with each decision made.

If we were put together to design a form for a website, I would, for example, start off and draw the first iteration with no field labels and only placeholders. You would now ask “Yes and what else can it look like?” You would now have the opportunity to change something. Perhaps keep the placeholders inside the fields and add a label to the top of it. In return I would now ask, “Yes and…” and remove the labels outside the field but add a layer of interaction design to give rise to something like this:

Infield Form Animation

I’ve recently tried this approach alongside one of our designers and it’s been one of the most fruitful design sessions yet. It enabled us to keep momentum and build on top of each other’s ideas to give rise to something I would not have been able to come up with on my own.

And this is exactly what we want and need in design.

The opening paragraph of Frank wraps it well:

”When we build, we take bits of others’ work and fuse them to our own choices to see if alchemy occurs… These fresh contributions and transformations are the most crucial, because they continue the give-and-take of influence by adding new, diverse material to the pool to be used by others…”

What can you add to the pool?

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*I was a bit stuck after my first sentence so I decided to just write what came to mind, even though I was hesitant. What felt like the wrong sentence to continue the article, kept the momentum and lead characters into words and words into sentences to form this post…

** To keep this post a bit more simple, I will refrain from going into how a framework and criticism affects this process.

Designing The Long, Hard, Stupid Way

David Chang is an award-winning chef and is currently the head chef at Momofuku, a New York based restaurant. What makes him remarkable is not the amount of awards he has managed to mount on his kitchen wall, but his approach to prepare food: the long, hard, stupid way.

Where some restaurants may use cheaper ingredients to have a higher markup but still remain in that sweet spot where the customer is happy enough to come back, David would, for example prepare his own stock to ensure that the customer is not only happy, but have an incomparable experience.

Frank Chimero puts it into a different context:

Commercial logic would suggest that Chang stop working once it no longer made monetary sense, but the creative practitioner feels the sway of pride in their craft. We are compelled to obsess. Every project is an opportunity to create something of consequence by digging deeper and going further, even if it makes life difficult for the one labouring.

The same applies to design. Every designer has a choice: She can either take the easy route by copying and pasting design trends, willfully do whatever the client tells her to do, or only put in the minimum amount of effort that would be sufficient to keep the client smiling. And paying.

Or, alternatively, we can choose to be the designer that takes the road less traveled. Fixating over the three pixels, spend another 15 min on a subtle transition, or do sufficient user research to understand our target market better.

Yes, designing the long, hard, stupid way is more difficult. We might have to stay up a bit later or produce more piles of rejected ideas in the process, but it will also kindle a deeper love for our work and the people who are moved by it…

What & Why Questions in Design

In The Shape of Design, Frank Chimero, with his beautifully crafted words, tells about an encounter with a Mockingbird:

I remember one specific night where I found myself on the tail end of a long, fruitless stretch. I took to gazing out the window to search for inspiration, to rest my eyes, to devise a plan to fake my death for forty-eight hours while my deadline whooshed past. I looked at the tree before my window and heard a sound rise from the leaves. It seemed misplaced, more likely to come from the cars than one of the trees next to them.

“Weee-oooh, wooop, wwwrrrlll. Weee-oooh, wooop!”

This was not the song of a bird, but the sound of a car alarm. He mimicked the medley of sounds with skill, always pausing for just the right amount of time to be in sync with the familiar tempo of the alarms that occasionally sounded on the block…

And in that moment, a brief little glimmer of insight came to me from the bird’s song: his efforts were futile, and to a large extent, mine were too. We were blindly imitating rather than singing a song of our own.

He continues to use this story as an analogy for why designers need to ask Why more often:

The relationship between form and purpose  –  How and Why  –  is symbiotic. But despite this link, Why is usually neglected, because How is more easily framed. It is easier to recognize failures of technique than those of strategy or purpose, and simpler to ask “How do I paint this tree?” than to answer “Why does this painting need a tree in it?”

My path as a designer has lead me to this insight multiple times before (for example when I wrote about design patterns) but the more I mature as a designer, the more evident it becomes to me that the quality of my work is in direct relationship to exactly this: how often I can ask Why in relationship to What.

Sometimes asking What takes a lot less energy. It’s easier to ask what kind of navigation needs to be used, like, does it need to be a left navigation, a top one or maybe collapsed into a menu icon? This question has a lot to do with the form of the website. But asking Why unearths purpose: Why do we even need navigation? Or a mega dropdown? Because the Information Architecture is too complex? Because that’s what Facebook does? Or maybe because the Nielson/Norman Group found a better answer?

One question isn’t more right than the other. They both fulfill a specific purpose: What creates skill and Why forms the bedrock of learning and improving. The moment these two aren’t in balance anymore, blocks will start to arise. We will either have an idea, but lack the skills to execute it; or we will have the skills, but lack the purpose for the work.

So, what you read in this post is equally as important as why you read it…


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