… And five other design leaders offer their best advice
Six industry leaders on serving clients, customuers, and design itself.
●MAKE THE COMPLEX CLEAR BY MARIA GIUDICE The VP for experience design at Autodesk on creating business products that produce emotional connections
Enterprise products can be so disrespectful to the user. The message is, “You gotta use these products, so screw you, suck it up.” There’s this assumption: “Oh, our products are so complex, they can’t be simpler to use.” It’s all about being serious, stable, performance-driven. Hey, that’s table stakes! We have this opportunity to really think about those products in a new way and not hide behind the complexity. Our job is to make the complex clear. This is where we need to go.
I grew up in a time when we were just grateful if things worked. We live in a world where a whole population expects good, fluid experiences. This is where consumer and enterprise are meshing. We always saw a line between enterprise products that were powerful and consumer products that were lightweight and emotive. There’s a whole
population that doesn’t see that. They work at home; they play at work. That’s why I’ve been thinking about emotions and product design. That connection goes way back in the world of physical products. But emotion is still not considered much in digital products. There are exceptions—Uber shows the tiny cars moving around your phone’s screen. I might hate Uber as a brand, and I know that the interface isn’t even accurately mapping the cars on my screen, yet it’s so comforting and delightful to see the little cars! That’s a product where people are considering human emotion.
When we think about designing products well, the science behind creating emotional connections to our products is called anthropomorphism. We should be designing interfaces as if they were people. That changes the relationship you have to the product. With artificial intelligence, machine learning, the rise of robots—all these things—the relationship you’re going to have with digital devices will be less directed and more about co-creation. With traditional products right now, we don’t know enough out of the gate, so we give customers a 10-course meal all at the same time. The more we know about our customers, the more we
know about what they need next. The machine is going to know so much about you and your behavior that, rather than you telling the machine what to do, the machine will offer up what you should be doing.
●THE WORK IS NEVER DONE BY MICHAEL ROCK The co-founder and creative director at design firm 2×4 on learning to love open-endedness
Crushed in the scrum behind the soundboard at Madison Square Garden, wreathed in smoke (theatrical and otherwise), in the muddle of Kanye West’s epic album launch-cum-fashion show— an engineered spectacle that managed to interweave multiple pop culture narratives (Balmain-clad Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner, West’s feud with Taylor Swift) with high-fashion royalty (Anna Wintour, Carine Roitfeld), random superstars (50 Cent, Gigi Hadid), and high-concept performance art (Vanessa Beecroft’s refugee-camp-inspired miseen-scène), all into one mind-boggling agglomeration—I had an epiphany. And like any good epiphany, mine came punctuated by a bell.
About 20 minutes into the musical portion of Yeezy Season 3, as West
previewed his new album, The Life of Pablo, a familiar Macintosh alert chime blasted through the massive PA system. At first it seemed like a random sound effect, but then it was clear: All 18,000-plus of us crammed into every inch of the arena— many paying hundreds of dollars for the honor— were listening to a guy play us some songs from his laptop … and he just got an e-mail. The seemingly unplanned ping lent an unexpected air of intimacy to the experience—as intimate as any event can be when it’s breaking Instagram and the New
York Times covers it live on its home page—and underscored the ad hoc quality Beecroft set up with her ragged, tarpaulin-draped sets. West had gathered his friends together to casually share his latest work in progress, with a decided emphasis on “in progress.” For months leading up to the event, the artist had opened up his frenetic process through a stream of Twitter postings, public appearances, pronouncements, feuds, tentative titles, playlists, cover art, and bootleg tracks. Collaborators were announced and reshuffled. Entire songs were floated, discarded, and reworked. The final download was delayed, canceled, then offered in multiple iterations. Tickets for the event were announced online, then disappeared entirely, then suddenly went on sale three days in advance.
Although it’s easy to dismiss this as (a) genius marketing or (b) massive disorganization, by revealing the multitude of radical revisions and minuscule tweaks that go into crafting each work, West draws his fans (and critics) into his creative process and rewards close, multiple listens while reinforcing his reputation as a hyperperfectionist craftsman. The blur of information and process surrounding the release of The Life of Pablo also suggests a shift in the focus from finished object to something more ephemeral: a designed relationship.
It was purely coincidental—I think; you never know these days—that as West was arranging and rearranging the dizzying array of elements that would become the morphing coherence of The
Life of Pablo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was putting the final touches on its own exegesis on the subject of the “non finito.” Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, the inaugural exhibition of the Met Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art outpost dedicated to modern aand contemporary aart, opened a few weeks after Yeezy Season 3 but could hhave easily been tt heh setup f or it. The Unfi ni s hed show includes ss even centuries of art historical examples—partially completed paintings, discarded sketches, rough studies, and intentionally discontinued works—to offer glimpses into artistic process and question the notion that art can really ever be done. The exhibition, notes Met curator Sheena Wagstaff, “throws into sharp focus the ongoing concern of artists about the ‘finishedness’ of their work, which, in the 20th century, they co-opt as a radical tool that changes our understanding of modernism.”
The Unfinished exhibition proposes that unfinishedness in itself is a disrupter. Incompletion opens a work and reveals the always questing creative mind, befuddling our desire for simple endings. As artists, writers, and designers, we can work to disguise the fact that our work is never really done, or as West does, co-opt it as a “radical tool that changes our understanding.”
That link between incompletion and disruption is at the heart of a widely circulated presentation by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner John Maeda titled “#DesignInTech Report 2016.” On Slide 14, Maeda draws a sharp distinction between what he calls classical design and #DesignInTech—read: oldfashioned designers vs. those who code. He imagines the classical designer as one for whom the attainment of a perfectly finished state is the goal, whereas the #DesignInTech lives only for the next iteration. Further, he imagines the classical designer’s level of confidence is “absolute and self-validating”—he must know different designers than I do—while the #DesignInTech’s is “generally high but open to analyzing testing/research.”
Using Maeda’s definition, West would easily qualify for #DesignInTech status. He reaches hundreds of millions, his work is delivered over the Net, he’s constantly evolving, and he’s open to real-time feedback. But then again, doesn’t that describe the state of contemporary design in general? Perhaps what Maeda misunderstands is that classical design is fast disappearing, if it ever really existed, and the iterative nature so emblematic in tech has worked its way into everything we do. The average life span of a contemporary building is not millennia but something short of 70 years, during which time it will be repurposed over and over again. No responsible designer can create a
product without at least some planning for its ultimate demise and recomposition. And if we have learned anything about designing a brand, it’s that the work is never done but instead is a constant, iterative battle for relevance and currency.
What West so vividly demonstrates is that fixity is one of the casualties of our current moment. The unfinished is inherently destabilizing. It makes us—the audience, consumer, listener, reader, whatever—question our own role in the notion of completion. In the end, maybe that bell wasn’t an epiphany after all; maybe it was just a high-tech death knell for something we used to call closure.
●HOMELESSNESS S IS BAD DESIGN BY ROSANNE HAGGERTY The CEO of Community Solutions, a nonprofit that combats homelessness, on designing a system that actually puts roofs over people’s heads
Homelessness is what happens when people fall through the cracks of different systems, so if we’re to put an end to it, we need to create integrated teams—the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the mayor’s office, the nonprofits, the housing authority. It’s only when you get everyone together in the same room that you can construct a well-performing housing placement system that isn’t sending vulnerable people down all sorts of dead ends.
Everyone at an initial meeting would say, “We get that we need to collaborate, but how?” We need a performance management system that helps a collection of local organizations focus on a common goal and test their way into a solution, but that’s grounded in person-specific data, so you can see if a situation is actually working for certain users of the system.
Another design principle is the notion of housing first—you redesign your approach to getting people housing as your first order of business, then help with the other issues that have been confounding them. Moving a single person from homelessness would require more than 50 steps. We worked with designers to create a magnetic board that looks like Chutes and Ladders. We asked people to map out what’s required for a single person to move from the point where you identify them on the street to a stable home. You’d see this crazy, winding trail.
Washington, D.C., looked at the amount of time it was taking from when
an apartment becomes available to a lease-signing and turning over keys. They created a day where they’d have all the landlords and all the people who had been matched to them show up and sign their leases at the same time and get their keys. Imagine that.
●EMPATHY IS REQUIRED BY KEN WONG The designer of the celebrated game Monument Valley on what’s different about working in virtual reality
Our idea at Ustwo was to make a virtualreality game timed to the release of the Oculus Gear VR headset. But after eight months, the game, Land’s End, wasn’t coming together as a story or an experience. There were missing skills on that team. There was no art director; there wasn’t a voice saying, “You’re going to encounter this beautiful moment, and here’s how we’re going to convey it.” Eventually I felt the need to put my hand up and say, “Guys, I don’t think you’re making the thing that you want to make.” And we voted to kill it. For like 10 minutes, we were just really sad. And then I said, “I think what might be best for the team
is if I come in, change up the skill set, and bring a new perspective to this.”
Game design is a discipline that you can get good at. It’s not about a person getting their way all the time. It’s about being tuned in to what makes a game work, what makes an experience fun. With our previous game, Monument Valley, we made it short intentionally so people could get to the payoff at the end. For a lot of people, it’s the first game they were able to finish. We got a nice letter from a guy who had sustained a brain injury; he used to really enjoy computer games, but after that most of them were too intense.
With Land’s End, we started fresh. We threw away levels. We found that people have a much poorer sense of space in VR than they do in real life, so we had to get better at creating landmarks and memorable places and mixing things up, so you go outside to inside, from cliff to gorge. Originally, we had way more fantastical levels, with floating chunks of rock. But it felt like you were in a computer game. We don’t want to remind you that you’re in a game; we want to fool you just enough that you’re like, “Oh, this is real, but it’s the most fantastical real I’ve ever seen.”
Everything that you design in a video game, it feels stronger in VR—having a waterfall or a tower right in front of you. Eye contact is a really intimate thing. Chris Milk, an artist who works in virtual reality, called VR an “empathy machine”—it has the potential to show you how someone else lives. Games are just one application, and it’s kind of obvious, but imagine how powerful VR can be for education, training, design, tourism. We’re really happy to be here at the ground level. That said, my next game won’t be in VR. I’ve had my taste, and I want to go and have another adventure now.
●GOOD IDEAS TRANSLATE BY MIGUEL McKELVEY The co-founder of shared-workspace company WeWork on his residential project, WeLive
When we started about seven years ago, our plan was “We everything”: WeWork, WeRestaurant, WeBarber, WeResort. We started with WeWork because the only buildings co-founder Adam Neumann and I were able to get were office buildings. The response was so positive we kept going. The WeLive building at 110 Wall St. was sort of knocked out by Hurricane Sandy. We had a relationship with someone, and they said, “Are you guys interested?” When we saw it, we were like, “Yeah, we’re interested, but we have this other concept we’ve been planning.”
A lot of things we’ve done at WeWork carry over to WeLive—the primary one being trying to understand how people can have the personal space they need but share. It’s sharing that goes beyond the space, that flows into people’s social engagement. It’s about trying to make those opportunities part of daily life.
Let’s say there’s someone who’s 35, and she’s successful, but she’s like, “I’m ready to make the leap to start my own company.” We want to give her a workspace and a living solution that allows her to take that chance and to be supported by people who are going to be like, “That’s amazing! What do you need help with? Who can I introduce you to?” Being in that environment is definitely going to help you become more successful.
In the office, what we start withh is relatively simple. You have a desk, chairs, and lighting. In an apartment, of course, you need a living room, a kitchen, a sleeping area, a bathroom. We had to figure out a way to create those spaces in our 200 units and give them enough character that they feel nice and comfortable and warm and inviting. But we didn’t want to go too far with the design that they felt particular. We didn’t want someone to go in and say, “Oh, I hate that color. I don’t want to be in that unit.” So that was the nuance to the WeLive design.
We had arguments about whether people would do their laundry in the building, because there are all these new services where you can have your laundry picked up. That was one where it was back and forth. Like, what’s going to happen? Is it going to be an empty room, and no one is ever going to be in there, and it’s going to become a total failure? So far, it’s been great. We have a cool laundry room that also has a pool table and a pingpong table. It’s become one of the beating hearts of the building.
●HOW TO HIRE A DESIGNER BY YVES BEHAR The founder of product and brand design firm Fuseproject on creative partnerships
① Hire a partner, not a vendor
Most clients understand this, but for a collaboration to be successful, the design team they work with shouldn’t be selected only for their portfolio, but also for the potential for a true partnership. Any design process is a close collaboration, with a significant amount of
communication necessary to get the best results. If the partnership isn’t there, the results will disappoint. If the partnership is there, a designer will grow with you and continuously optimize your business. Mitch Pergola, our chief operating officer at Fuseproject, says, “The key to effectively working with an external design firm is not only picking the right skills and experience, but collaborating with them like a partner. Neither of these points are optional.”
② Share dreams—and nightmares
The design process is never the same for any two projects, so it’s important to be as clear as possible upfront. Not only does this mean timelines, finances, etc., but also what you expect from the process and, crucially, context. If the client can focus on defining the needs of the business (which they should be best positioned for), the designer can focus on defining the solution (and, where needed, challenge the brief ). The more a client can communicate their context— company culture, past successes and failures, the passions and aversions of their audience and shareholders—the better able the design team will be to solve from this foundation. I often say, “The more context the better.” I personally benefit from all the data, the good stuff and the ugly stuff, the realities as well as the dreams.
③ Adopt a healthy sense of abandon
Here’s an interesting paradox: Clients come to designers to push them out of their box and yet struggle when the design feels beyond their current reality. The most successful projects I’ve worked on have come from relationships in which my client trusts me, trusts our design strategy, and empowers us to guide them into the future. And this sense of risk and innovation should exist with every step of the process—from conception through hitting the market. “Trust that we have your best interests in mind, because our partners’ success is also ours,” says Kristine Arth, our director of brand. Herman Miller, with whom it’s been a privilege to work for the last 14 years, previously established long-term partnerships with Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson by, in the words of Herman Miller founder D. J. Depree, “abandoning ourselves to our designers.” Don Goeman, the vice president for R&D at Herman Miller, demonstrated this deep trust when we designed the Sayl chair and the Public Office Landscape system.
④ Go long
It’s hard to know when the job is done. But the truth is that design is never done: The value of design grows over time. Companies that succeed are ones that constantly refine their products, experiences, and offerings. We currently experience a circular feedback loop with evolving customer needs: Improving technology, growing brands, and experience touch points are taken into account regularly. The best thing a client can do is find a partner who understands their essence—why they exist—and invest in a future together. One amazing product i s great, but having a brand that’s cohesive, and sustainably and organically growing, is what we all need to build. Long-lasting relationships—that’s an investment that pays off handsomely for both outsider and insider. In this current era of disruption, if a company isn’t actively creating its future, you can be sure of one thing: Someone else will. <BW>