Design and the Magic of Spirograph

When I was a boy my sisters were much better at drawing and art than I was.  I remember feeling frustrated and dejected by my lack of skill, until one Christmas discovering Spirograph.  If you aren’t familiar with Spirograph it is a set of specially designed cogged wheels with holes for a pen that allows anyone to produce stunning symmetrical images by using the tools provided.  With a little practice and experimentation I was producing stunning images of color and symmetry.  By using different shaped cogs, pen positions and colors I was able to produce something slightly different each time. While not exactly the same as the free form drawings my sisters were producing I was proud of my new found skills and experimented with the kit extensively.  By using that kit, I development my confidence to experiment and practice other forms of art.

Fast forward to today where I work as an experience designer and design educator, I find myself thinking about ways to help teams streamline producing great products.  Wouldn’t it be great if there were a system like Spirograph that could allow teams to learn and gain confidence while producing exceptionally designed products?  A team could gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction like I did as a boy just by using a kit of tools to guide you like I did with Spirograph. 

Historically the only way to learn the tools and techniques of design was to enroll in a university program like industrial design, architecture or HCI or through years of practice and independent learning. Thankfully some specialty programs have arisen that teach the techniques of design for high tech. Programs like Stanford University’s, Jon Kolko’s Austin Center for Design AC4D, Jared Spool’s Unicorn Institute are a few examples of programs that teach user research, interaction design and evaluation.  If you are planning to go to school to become a designer one of these programs is likely to be life changing. Given the opportunity I highly recommend formal education for anyone with the time and funds to enroll. While these education programs provide invaluable experiences for individuals lucky enough to enroll, what about a whole product team within a company?  How much impact can an individual with a design education have on a product team’s ability to understand and integrate design affectively?  

From my own experience producing an exceptional product is a team endeavor. Exceptional products are produced by teams who together care about all facets of their product together.  Business people, engineers and designers need to understand and respect the commitments and goals that each are responsible for, and work to harmonize their goals throughout the project.  From my experience I have noticed that design is the least understood within a corporate environment.  This leads designers to often be isolated from business people and engineers. Isolation causes significant friction when it comes to delivering products since the goals of business, design and engineering do not get harmonized.

I believe courses like the ones mentioned are a good first start towards design education but are ineffective at reducing friction and creating lasting change in an organization.  I believe that design is a team sport and the best products are produced by teams who practice “design” together.  To do that everyone on a product team needs to understand the fundamentals of design in order to play an effective role (and that goes also to understanding business and engineering).

To affect the lasting change a product team needs I use a different approach.  I work with product teams on their project to teach the fundamentals of design, to harmonize the goals of business, design and engineering which will reduce friction.  Using a curriculum of exercises specifically tailored for your situation your team must learn to design together using a real problem under a real deadline.  While most corporate education uses case studies that are artificial and “safe” (with a set of known answers); case studies may not be directly applicable to the problem your team faces.  By integrating design education into a project no time is lost and the outcome can be compared to previous projects.

I consider my approach to be a lot like Spirograph.  I provide guidance, training and mentoring for teams to learn the skills that produce great designs that build confidence together.  Much like the cogs in Spirograph my design exercises lead to effective outcomes a team can build on.

Drop me a line I’d love to chat about your team and your specific challenges.