Had the unique opportunity to go to the Milwaukee premiere screening of “Rams” by director Gary Hustwit (director of Helvetica and Objectified) last night. After the screening Hustwit took questions from the crowd and then joined us all down the street at a local brewer. Nice break in a busy week, focusing on a designer who maintained his own focus impeccably…
“Let’s brainstorm on this – I’ll check schedules and reserve a room…” Do those words fill you with anticipation or dread?
Often characterized by playful exercises and “absolutely no criticism” decrees to force us out of figurative boxes, I can understand why some of the more pragmatic types amongst us may look at it all as a bunch of superfluous goofiness. It doesn’t help that formal studies have witnessed solitary subjects generating more solutions to a complex problem than a brainstorming group in the same amount of time. More always means better, right?
Which leads me to ask – why do we brainstorm?
There are reasons I remain committed to the group brainstorming process, but not all brainstorming is created equal, nor equally appropriate. For one, it can be an investment in building cross-disciplinary empathy – which is healthy for the project well beyond the session itself. That, and the cross-pollination that you get through this process will be sorely missed in other solitary approaches. You may not always see eye to eye, but that’s kind of the point.
Quantity of ideas is part of the mechanics of the session, but it is not the prize outcome in my experience. A structured session can look like a way to get a lot of great ideas – but I believe it is much more valuable and valid as an intense “immersion bootcamp” to get an extended project team heading in the same general direction with compatible goals. Coming out of a complex discovery research phase there are a lot of factors and motivations to balance, and some may still be forming. A well-directed group session is often the best way to internalize the research findings for the team so they can proceed into collaborative concept development most effectively.
It is not a silver bullet. There are times that concentrated effort from an individual toward a complex mechanical or geometric problem is unbeatable. More often than not though, I find that rubbing two or more heads together over a problem produces something more meaningful than just static-charged hair.
Years ago I tried to be an island. I valued my design input by how much I could do alone – in quantity, quality, and breadth. But I was so much older then – I’m younger than that now…
image credit: 惟①刻¾
quote: Bob Dylan “My Back Pages”
This video made the rounds on the internet a while ago. I later realized that it inadvertently illustrated a pitfall many young designers fall victim to – in this instance exploited in reverse as a wonderful surprise.
Many of the tools we use in product design are 2D in nature, with many that purport to be 3D suffering from this “portal view” effect. CAD tools are a wonderful thing which I’ve taken advantage of throughout my career, but I didn’t learn form through CAD – I learned to understand form by sculpting clay and carving wood first. Both the blank page and the on-screen Cartesian plane are 2D interfaces for design: flat windows to a simulated 3D world. It is a worthwhile trade-off for the ability to explore multiple concepts in quick succession, but it can also lead some to shortchange the process at early stages believing they have thought things through adequately.
I worked alongside a designer for many years who, knowingly or not, mentored me in this approach. He kept his early sketches very rough and often started from the inside out – sketching at full scale on cardboard and foam as he experienced the volumes directly. As soon as he had a hint of a layout in mind, he would jump to mocking it up in low fidelity materials. When it came time to review concepts, whether we reviewed models or limited it to 2D renderings, it became apparent that his designs lived in the real world – designed to interact with the user’s actions and body noticeably better than the rest and not relying on tenuous “view-constrained” relationships in place of form. In mock-up format his concepts would visually hold together as you walked around them, always displaying a visual logic.
“Flat view” tools such as sketching and CAD are essential parts of the mix when designing product form, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can repeatedly short-cut the process without missing out on a significant part of your design’s visual story.
A while ago, I attended a talk by James Ludwig of Steelcase. This event was presented as part of the MIAD Creativity Series, and it was a wonderful opportunity to hear a design leader share some insights. Discovery World’s inspiring surroundings and mission certainly didn’t hurt the evening’s proceedings…
While James shared several interesting principles that evening, two in particular piqued my interest. Intentionally or not, I believe these two guiding lights are intertwined.
If There Is No Insight, There Is No Project:
Before commencing with the “what’s” and “how’s” of NPD, make sure you have a firm grasp on the “why’s”. In supporting this point he stressed the value of synthesis in research, not mere observation. It can be overwhelmingly tempting for designers to immediately jump to direct solutions for the numerous small issues they observe in the field. Doing so before they have enough inputs to understand the interrelations and complexities of why the user is doing something can lead to a perpetual game of NPD “Whack-A-Mole”; a never-ending chase for incremental changes.
Invention Happens At The Programmatic Level:
I found this principle particularly interesting from a selfish standpoint. Creativity often is pigeon-holed as the activity of designers, who wield their markers like magic wands as they solve the world’s problems. This romanticized view has certainly served me well, and has been a lot of fun when everything falls into place just right. But as I’ve progressed in my career, and I’m certain that many designers in my circumstance feel this way as well, I’ve grown to understand that the need for creativity only increases as one takes on responsibilities extending beyond traditional “designer” skills. The toolbox and scale may change, but the pursuit doesn’t. Your creativity at the programmatic level is key to the success of your team.
There’s an oft-quoted product development story involving “slow” elevators. In this story, passengers are complaining to building management about the lengthy waits for elevators in a tall building. Most would-be problem solvers, when presented with this situation, attack the readily apparent source of the pain: slow elevator mechanisms. The hero of the story decides that the real problem is that people think that elevators are too slow, and that perception is exacerbated by their boredom while waiting. Ultimately, mirrors are installed in the lobby and the elevators themselves, passengers occupy themselves with checking their hair, outfit, (and yes, other occupants), and management is thrilled with the inexpensive and easy to implement solution to their problems.
This story is typically pulled out to show how impactful the definition of a problem is to the creative problem solving process, and how thinking within disciplinary boxes can lead us to overlook novel solutions. It came to mind when I stayed at an Aloft hotel on a research trip and saw their familiar Liquid Lava™ floor tiles in the elevator. I realized that these were a new twist on the classic elevator mirror. They took this ubiquitous distractive element and elevated it slightly more toward actual engagement. In a sense, Aloft managed to put “mirrors” on the floors of their elevators without the risqué/creepy implications – while creating an experience unique to their hotels. They didn’t think outside the box, but rather rotated it on its side…