LIST: 60+ well designed everyday things that go unnoticed

With the new book coming out, I’m running a little contest on Twitter. Best three answers get a signed copy of How Design Makes The World.

The question: what well designed common object goes unnoticed because it works so well?

The premise: We forget that what we do everyday depends on countless inventions, discoveries, designs and systems. Just to flick on a light switch requires centuries of work and effort on the part of people we never even think about. It’s powerful to take a moment to look thoughtfully at the designs around us. There are inspirations and stories waiting for rediscovery.

UPDATE: Winners have been chosen. I chose: the key, the alphabet and the mirror.

Even if you miss the deadline I’d still love to hear what comes to mind for you.

Here’s the list so far:

  1. The simple toaster oven
  2. Japanese nail clipper
  3. The pencil
  4. The clockface
  5. Yellow dotted line in middle of roads
  6. On road reflectors / Cat’s eye
  7. Bathroom entrances without doors
  8. Mythical bathroom where you don’t touch anything?
  9. Aglets (tips of shoelaces)
  10. Scotch Tape roll holder
  11. Paper Clip
  12. Phillips screw and screwdriver
  13. Cigarette Boxes
  14. Chapstick
  15. Running water
  16. Safety Pin
  17. Hinges
  18. Alphabet
  19. Light switches
  20. Corkscrew
  21. Book
  22. Peeler
  23. Concrete
  24. Toilet Paper
  25. Bidet
  26. Spoon
  27. Stairs
  28. The Metric system
  29. Glass
  30. Handicapped symbols
  31. Chopsticks
  32. Mirrors
  33. Keys / Lock & Key
  34. Hammer
  35. Clothes buttons
  36. Bicycle
  37. Tire pressure valves
  38. Toothpick
  39. Mattress
  40. Glasses
  41. Scarf
  42. Single level mixer (a faucet that controls both temp and water pressure)
  43. Escalator
  44. Waste disposal / recycling
  45. Elevators
  46. Safety Matches
  47. Dog door
  48. Differential gears
  49. Traffic signs
  50. Curb cuts
  51. The dial
  52. The smell added to natural gas
  53. Windshield wippers
  54. Soda can tabs
  55. A mug
  56. Ballpoint pen
  57. Light bulb
  58. Decimal number system
  59. Zipper
  60. Cardboard

Have an interesting one I should consider? Leave a comment.

It’s Time To Learn

Yesterday my feed had many references to a new Marc Andressen essay titled It’s Time to Build. I understand its popularity as it has an enthusiasm that’s in short supply in the tech world today.

But what he has to say floats about the fray in a disturbing way – thousands of people are dying from a problem we aren’t sure we know how to solve. Unemployment is rising towards 20%, which means basic needs for many is now a struggle. The government decisions happening now will determine how many more thousands of people die, especially front-line workers and the poor. And his essay doesn’t give consideration to them at all: having everyone build now will solve everything is his empty answer.

There’s much more. Let’s dig in:

Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.

This sounds compelling at first as I hoped he’d explore what the rest of the world did right, so we can learn from them, but that is nowhere to be found in this essay, despite how well documented our lessons are. What did they do right? Is not a question he seems to have studied. A sign of things to come, or more precisely not to come.

Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared 

Here he has made pandemic response binary, either you pass or you fail, which is not how things happen in the world. There’s always a spectrum for how to evaluate outcomes. If he wanted to write about the future he could have, but he starts in the present and makes everyone equal as a way out, which dodges learning anything from what’s happened.

Some U.S. States and European nations responded much better than others, as evidenced by the countless charts we all study daily. But that spectrum isn’t convenient for what Andreessen really wants to say, so he frames the world as pass or fail so he can confidently say that everyone (except for all of Asia which he won’t talk about) has failed.

And pinning the blame means you blame someone who was not involved (which he calls here pinning the cause). You can’t say this about someone whose job is precisely to prevent a thing that ends up happening.

For example, if a CEO calls the threat of a competitor a hoax and tells his staff to ignore it, despite their knowledge and interest in doing something pre-emptive, and then that competitor devastates them a few weeks later, and the stock price tanks, and 20% of staff are fired, it wouldn’t be pinning the blame. Instead it’d be holding the people in power accountable for the consequences of their actions.

Andreessen is avoiding politics by not mentioning Trump, or his staff, or any government agency, all of whom are accountable in degrees for what has happened. Andreesen wants to avoid alienating anyone but he’s doing it at the expense of credibility. Later on he writes:

We need to demand more of our political leaders…”

But he does the opposite in this essay. We pay our leaders to plan for, respond to and be accountable for the outcomes of major events and he gives them a free pass, without even a mention of who has served their citizens well.

We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds.

A cursory look at the successful pandemic responses showed that if you act early and shut social interaction down quickly, you never need vast quantities of ventilators or ICU beds. I’m not saying we should copy what they all did, as there were many tradeoffs, but we should start by learning from it, instead of leaving it out completely from essays on the subject.

Even if prevention wasn’t possible, we could have had the supplies we needed. They were for sale. But someone has to decide it is worth keeping massive expensive inventories that are rarely used. A hospital owned by a corporation that wants to stay lean to keep profits high, is unlikely to do this. What corporations call inefficiency, in the short term, is often very important in the long.

In the movie Catch-22 a corporation replaces parachutes of active WWII war planes with shares of stock, using the logic “when was the last time you actually used one? Wouldn’t you rather grow wealth instead?” Which works great until your plane is going down, which planes at war, and nations in pandemics, often do.

It’s governments that historically are well suited to insure societies against uncommon but devastating events, like wars, famines and natural disasters. Without shareholders and profit motive they can prioritize differently. America’s prized $748 billion military mostly stockpiles missiles, guns and aircraft that will never be used for their purpose, but we pay anyway. Why? In case we need it. That’s what a government can do. Why the same logic isn’t used when it’s about the health of citizens is a better line of inquiry than simply pointing out that we didn’t have enough of something. A small percent of that military budget might have been enough.

This was not a building problem. It was a priorities problem. A logistical problem. A leadership problem. You could call it many different kinds of problems but building isn’t high on the list.

Making masks and transferring money are not hard. We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to *build

Finally we really get to what he wanted to say all along: BUILD!

But he’s off the rails already. Sure, making masks that sit in a warehouse and transferring money to individual consumers are easy. But that was only part of the challenge. The other parts were:

  • How to pay for a stockpile of masks/resources that are unlikely to be used for decades
  • How to quickly distribute masks/resources across 50 states, or between dozens of counties within states, and through various agencies who may not have coordinated before (or pay for the training and exercises to make sure they are always ready)
  • How to build a public tech money transfer infrastructure within existing legacy (e.g. COBOL) systems that can service citizens during a national crisis

These are hard problems to solve, or in his language, hard solutions to build. He doesn’t frame the problem this way because… I don’t know why.

Maybe because it doesn’t support what he really wants to say? Or maybe he has little experience with massive government infrastructure problems with 30 year old COBOL codebases and didn’t talk to anyone who does, like the folks at 18F or USDS who are technologists who work in the U.S. government and can explain exactly why these challenges are far harder than they appear.

I agree with him that these should be solvable problems but part of the answer is having more of our best young technologists choose to work to help society in profoundly important ways instead of being recruited to join one of Andreessen’s startups that’s going to go try, but likely fail, to disrupt something or other that everyone involved admits isn’t really that important but happens to have a bigger “growth opportunity.”

You don’t just see this smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build, in the pandemic, or in healthcare generally. You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.

Who has smug complacency? I do not know who he is talking about.

If anything, most of America is angry, scared, lost or grieving, and feels let down in one way or another, which is neither smug nor complacent.

Is he including the people who work at his startups, or use their products? Or the millions of people who use the products his startups are busy competing with to convert into their own customers? Who is he rallying against here? I don’t know and he doesn’t say.

We have top-end universities, yes, but with the capacity to teach only a microscopic percentage of the 4 million new 18 year old’s in the U.S. each year, or the 120 million new 18 year olds in the world each year. Why not educate every 18 year old? Isn’t that the most important thing we can possibly do? 

What year is he writing this in? Schools and universities are closed indefinitely right now and some are likely to go bankrupt.

I actually agree that education in America is in a bad place but we’re in a crisis. And even if we weren’t this isn’t a problem of building. It’s a problem of systems, of leadership, policy and bureaucracy. I don’t think Andreessen has watched season 4 of the Wire. If he had, he’d understand how school quality is inextricably linked to city and state politics. It’s a really hard and long term problem that is rarely solved by budgets and technology alone.

You see it in transportation. Where are the supersonic aircraft? Where are the millions of delivery drones? Where are the high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?

We are now fully in bad example territory.

  • Supersonic aircraft? The Concorde was expensive. And noisy. And is convenience of faster air travel really important for the foreseeable future?
  • High speed trains? Much of the world has them, but America has not invested much in infrastructure in 50 years. Our highways are bridges are literally falling apart. And our culture has a huge preference for cars over public transportation. In a democracy that makes it pretty hard. Like masks, high speed trains exist, but someone has to decide to pay for them and we haven’t.
  • Soaring Monorails? I live in Seattle. I know about monorails. They are inefficient and expensive (They also don’t soar – birds do. Maybe he meant speeding monorails? But they don’t get very fast either.) There isn’t one non-imaginary city that uses them effectively (and DisneyWorld doesn’t count).
  • Hyperloop? Is he only going to mention technological ideas that most experts think are ridiculous for very clear reasons but the uninitiated love to romanticize?
  • Flying cars? Yes! He did it! Had he mentioned jetpacks too he would have had the full set.

Had he simply listed important problems that he feels we have underinvested in (education, infrastructure, emergency response, climate change) I’d be fully behind him. But that’s not what this is. It’s an underthought list of tech-lust thinking. He was trying to be inspiring here but these are terrible examples.

How about free internet for all? (A timely problem since underprivileged kids can’t do schoolwork from home right now). How about ensuring basic health care for everyone or even that every family has enough food to eat for the next few months? Those are building problems too, but they don’t sound as cool to the tech-centric as his list does. Historically the truly important things technology can do for us in the long term don’t seem cool, but maybe a silver lining of the pandemic is that will change.

Building isn’t easy, or we’d already be doing all this. We need to demand more of our political leaders, of our CEOs, our entrepreneurs, our investors. We need to demand more of our culture, of our society. And we need to demand more from one another. We’re all necessary, and we can all contribute, to building.

I’m doing my part my demanding more from his essay. And you can do the same by demanding more of mine.

I’d prefer you also go into the part of your community that is struggling right now and help them get the basics they need. If you go to them (virtually of course) and listen, and pay attention, and learn, I bet you’ll find plenty of easy things to build that will help them right now.

Even better, find people already building solutions, and have been working on these problems for years, who need more money or other support. Builders are often bad at helping if it doesn’t involve them building something themselves (e.g. the mostly pointless pandemic hackathons), even if they’re not the best person to do it.

There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.

I can agree with this. Provided we’re talking about building societies, safety nets, higher quality of life for communities and the tools they actually need to make that future, I’m in. Or building better tools and telling better stories for reminding us how interconnected our fates are.

But first we have a crisis to solve. And unless you’ve lived through a pandemic before, it’s time to learn before we act. We have to look to our experts who know the options and the tradeoffs and how they played out in the past. And more than anything, resist the temptation to jump ahead and likely repeat the mistakes that have been made before.

Want a better world, by design? Join the street team

Want to read my upcoming book, How Design Makes The World, before everyone else?

And/or are you passionate about good design, of products, of cities, of societies, and want more people to understand it, care about it and fight for it? Especially with all that’s happening now?

Then I need you! You are a great candidate for this street team.

A street team is a small group of people passionate about a book, or a topic, who are willing to volunteer a little time in return for early access. 

You probably already talk to your coworkers and friends about why they should care more about good design or a well-designed world (or wish you were better at it). This book was designed to be a natural ally and asset for you.

What you get if you join:

  • a free pre-release copy of the book
  • images, quotes, excerpts and other easy to share material
  • weekly goals so we can work together as a team
  • a fun and good project to root for
  • Training on how to persuade people to care about design
  • rewards like signed book copies and free coaching sessions for most active folks 
  • Direct access to me as I’m on the team too! 

What you do:

  • Write a review on Amazon / GoodReads
  • Share images and quotes to your network, on Facebook, Twitter or other media 
  • Recommend the book to influential people you know
  • Teach people why good design is important (the book makes this easy) 

Interested? All you have to do is go here and answer a few questions. Thank you.

Design During Pandemic: a Visual History

Design, good and bad, is central to the human response to the COVID crisis. From the design of respirators, to supply chains to public policy in times of crisis. The number of services and systems that are being redesigned on the fly reinforces the notion that design matters more than ever.

From the beginning I’ve been updating this visual history to help capture what has happened. You may find what you see both depressing and inspiring.

Did I miss something you saw that should be in the history? Leave a comment or ping me on twitter. Also see this list from the UK of pandemic signage.

Click on the image to go to the source.

Did I miss a good one? Leave a comment with a link. Thx.

The World Needs Designers Now More Than Ever

When Dr. Jan Mikulicz-Radecki designed the first surgical mask, he was questioned by his peers: they didn’t believe that by creating something so simple, millions of lives could be saved. And when chief nurse Caroline Hampton complained about her hands after assisting with surgery, William Halsted was inspired to design the first surgical gloves and asked her to be the first to test them. These stories are just two among thousands about how ideas became things we depend on. Most ideas go nowhere, it’s true, as it takes more than just having an idea to change the world. We need people who know how to make ideas real. And for this, designers are among the best we have.

Every challenge we’ve overcome in human history was led by a designer of one kind or another. Someone designed the first city, the first market, and the first hospital. It was a leader who designed regulations to keep people safe (or not) or crafted plans to help them recover after a crisis (or not). Design is everywhere we look and in everything we depend on. It explains what resources we can get or wish we had, fueling the fears that we find hard to shake. Mostly design is an act of hope. It’s the belief there is a better way and that creativity and persistence will find it.

We take good design for granted, as when it works we assume “it just happened that way.” When we flick a light switch or take a hot shower, it never enters our minds how many people with different design skills worked hard, over decades, just so we could live our lives free from thinking about their work. It’s only when things fail that we start to ask questions that perhaps we should have considered all along. Design questions. What were the goals? What tradeoffs were made? How could this fail (or have been designed to be more resilient?)

Often we dismiss design as a matter of luxury: designer handbags, designer jeans, designer living rooms. But we’ve been forced to see the limitations in the design of our systems, like schools, markets, and hospitals, which like a light switch, we assumed would always work without a thought. Design defines our social safety nets, our shared plans for emergencies, and our systems that either help us, or prevent us, from working towards the greater good, especially when lives are at stake.

Someone designed every chart, each curve and line, updating you about the state of the world, and the cities where your friends and family live. Another kind of designer designed the database that makes those charts work. Someone designed every sign or video you see about “flatten the curve”, “physical distancing” or “how to wash your hands”. Someone designed your sick leave policy, and the policy for the people who drive your bus or make your food, assuming you and they even have one. Someone is working right now to design a vaccine, or better logistics for your supermarket or even a society that works with fewer people working.

There are designers everywhere working hard right now and the work they do matters more than it ever has before. Websites, services, systems and laws are being designed, and redesigned, right now, and their quality will determine who struggles, who survives and who thrives. We all must learn and think more about good design: it profoundly impacts our lives and the sooner more people understand how good design is done, and demand it, the more likely we’ll see it where we need it most.

I wrote the book How Design Makes The World to teach everyone, from any walk of life, how to better understand good design and look at their world in a new way.

Buy the book, watch the short film, read free chapters or have some fun and spread the word.

Photo Credit

Free digital version of The Year Without Pants (my book on Remote Work)

[UPDATE: the book is no longer free! Sorry if you missed it. We gave it away to all for over a month and more than 15k people downloaded the popular book. Hope it helps people figure out our new working world. You can of course still buy the book in various formats].

I worked with Wiley, the publisher of The Year Without Pants: and The Future of Work, to make the digital editions of the book free to all. We’re doing this to help anyone who is adjusting to remote work acclimate to what the next few weeks or months will be like.

Please spread the word. You can also read all of my posts and essays about remote work here.

Wanted: Ambassadors For Good Design

Most designers agree the world would be a better place if more people understood good design. But since designers are always in the minority, outnumbered by managers, marketers, programmers and more, who is going to show them the way? Enter the design ambassador.

Design ambassadors already exist, they just don’t go by that name. They’re the ones who know how to talk about the value of good design in ways most folks can understand. They’re comfortable talking to executives or project managers, confidently making business cases for design resources. They’re OK with the management politics for budgets and strategy and working to gain influence. They’re patient in teaching, for the 50th time, the same basic ideas and concepts to new clients or coworkers, no matter how senior or junior they are.

They do this because they know no one else but designers can or will do it. If we want a better-designed world, or product or organization, or more respect for design, it will only come from designers gaining power or the ability to influence it. Design ambassadors know from human nature the challenge isn’t about more design knowledge: it’s about persuasion, teaching, coaching and inspiring others to think differently.

My mission is to bring design ambassadors together, to help them and to coach new ones. I wrote an upcoming book to pave some of the way for us all.

Will you help? 

  • Are you a design ambassador? Will you share what you know with me?
  • Do you know a great design ambassador I should talk to?
  • Do you want to become a better ambassador for design?
  • Would you help me find, organize, or create, resources design ambassadors need?

If you can say yes to any of these, please leave a comment or get in touch. Thanks. 

My new book – How Design Makes The World (Coming Soon)

I’m excited to announce my next book is almost here. It’s called How Design Makes The World and it teaches anyone how to better understand good design.

It’s been 5 years in the making, yet it’s one of my shortest and most fun to read books.

This book teaches everyone:

  • What good design is and why it’s so important
  • How our lives are defined by designs, good and bad, made by others 
  • How to ask better questions of everything we buy, use and make

And it gives designers and makers:

  • A fun and fast way to explain what we do to coworkers and friends
  • A tool for making organizations more design mature
  • Stories to use to be a better ambassador for good design

Early praise and reviews:

“This fascinating book will help you see design everywhere and question why it works—or why it fails” – Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

“An invaluable, essential resource that demystifies and democratizes design for everyone who lives with it—which is to say, all of us.” – Khoi Vinh, Principal Designer at Adobe and Former Design Director of The New York Times

 “Design does indeed make the world, and Scott Berkun has written a highly readable book about this fact.” – Henry Petroski, author of Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design

You can read more early reviews and sign-up to be notified when pre-orders are available by going here.

What’s the best first book on visual / graphic design?

I posted on twitter recently asking for recommendations. Specifically for non-designers who need some design literacy, but without the goal of becoming a professional designer. Not UI design, not UX, but focusing on aesthetics.

Often pro designers recommend books from their degree program, but that’s not quite what I’m after, as those books tend to assume you’re going to be a practicing visual designer and are willing to endure textbook experiences (which aren’t known for being good reads or for achieving any level of fun). Here’s the list, annotated with my notes (as I’ve read some of them).

These are by far the two best because they are well written and in an accessible way that anyone can pick up and follow, which is not true for many supposed intro design books.

  • Non Designer’s Design Book, Robin Williams. (recommended by 4 people) It’s also my current go to recommendation, and was glad to see it’s still popular for this scenario. Covers the fundamentals of making things look good, covering composition, color theory, layout, typography and more. Unlike many visual design books it’s practical and by example.
  • Go, by Chip Kidd (recommended by 4). Written for kids, but don’t let that stop you. I’m part way in and that seems to just mean it’s friendly and well written. I wish more books were. It’s FUN, so rare a thing for design books.

These others have strengths and weaknesses, which I explain for the ones I’ve read.

Free pass to Interaction 20

[UPDATE – WINNER HAS BEEN CHOSEN: will reveal who won once they confirm.]

I have a free conference pass for IXDA’s Interaction 20, in Milan, Italy this year. I was granted a free pass to the conference in return for speaker coaching for their speakers, but turns out I can’t use it.

I’d hate to see it go to waste, so if you’re able to go (Feb 5-7, 2020) and arrange your own travel, leave a comment. 

This Friday I’ll do a random drawing from the comments and pick a winner (and will update here that it’s all over).

If your comment makes me laugh, I’ll count it twice in the random drawing.

Help wanted: motion graphics / video for book launch trailer

[Update: filmmaker found! Position closed.]

My next book, How Design Makes Out the World, comes out in a few months. I’m looking to hire a motion graphics / video producer to make a trailer video to help market the book and get the word out.

Interested? Or know someone you’d recommend? Provide a link to a portfolio in a comment below, or send it here.

Trailer Design Brief:  

Vision: The book teaches everyone what good design is and why it’s so important. It uses everyday objects and real life situations as the basis for asking new questions about our daily lives and how design impacts our quality of life. One approach to the trailer could be as simple as stock footage of everyday experiences (driving in traffic, making dinner, dealing with meetings at work, etc.) overlayed with motion graphics and narration calling out things we don’t notice and hinting at how much we can learn from looking at them in a new way (that the book provides).

Length: 1 to 2 minutes at most

Previous book trailers I’ve had made:

Cover design vote: How Design Makes The World (first round)

My next book, which teaches just about everyone how to understand good design, is on the home stretch (release May 2020). Which means it’s time to get your feedback on cover design directions (I’m working with PageTwo Books).

If you haven’t been following along (outline and more at the link), Here are the book’s goals.

The book’s goals are:

  • To teach anyone to see people, places and things more like our best designers do.
  • To invite everyone to ask better questions about the designs they experience every day.
  • To give designers a compelling, short book they can share with coworkers, clients and friends to explain what they do and why it’s so important.
  • To have fun while understanding the world. Life is too short.

Stories in the book explore city design, product design, web design, aethetics, design process, flow, user research, mobile design, ethics, system theory, inclusion, business, org politics, tradeoffs, design for conflict and more.

Rules for Feedback

  • These are preliminary so the specific images or objects should be considered placeholders.
  • You’re voting on the approach, rather than for these being the final cover.
  • The book is for everyone, not just you. Your personal opinion is interesting, but if you’re a designer most people buying this book won’t be.
  • The brief is: clear, simple, inviting. Fun if possible. Readable in a thumbnail.
  • Thoughtful comments welcome.

Approach A

One approach to thinking about the world, with a sample map etching as the background.

Approach B

Simpler visual style one an anchored image, in this case a globe (one idea for representing the world). Some variations below.

Approach C

Rough sketch – the idea here is to show some kind of progression in style and fidelity. This was done quickly but if we went down this path we’d invest in high quality hand lettering.

Approach D

The background images suggest different kinds of design, and there could be many different options for what’s put there. Or how many there are.

Option below shows a different orientation of the images.

Help wanted: design literacy for everyone project

UPDATE: This book is in progress – head over here for details:

My next book is about teaching basic design literacy to everyone.

The pitch: Everything we use, from social media, to our homes, to our highways, was designed by someone. But how did they decide on what was good for the rest of us? What did they get right and where have they let us down? And what can we learn from the way these experts think that can help us in how we make decisions in our own lives?

The goal won’t be to teach readers to be designers (which takes experience and practice). Instead, it’s to get them to design literacy. Which means to understand why design is so important, the basics of how good designers do it, and to be able to think critically about what’s well designed and what isn’t in their daily life and the world. It’s also a book designers will want to read, as it explains design in a fresh, inspiring and powerful way.

The plan is to make this a fun community project (join the list here). It will be funded through Kickstarter, so we control the intellectual property and can donate parts of it away (to schools or other groups) as we choose. Backers will be able to help the project as it develops, including participating in UX methods I’m using to write the book itself.

Project advisors include: Jared Spool (founder of UIE), Kim Goodwin (author of Designing for the Digital Age & former VP of Design at Cooper), Christina Wodtke (lecturer at Stanford and co-founder of IIA), Lisa deBettencourt (co-founder of Pearl Partners & co-founder of IXDA), Sam Aquillano (Executive Director, Design Museum Foundation), Laura Klein (Principal at Users Know), Nick Finck (Distinguished Faculty at General Assembly, CXO at Craft & Rigor) and Bob Baxley (former design director at Apple and Pinterest).

The team has two important (part time / freelance) roles I’m hiring for:

Graphic Designer. You will be the lead designer for the book (cover design experience please), as well as for the related materials evangelizing design itself through the project website, the kickstarter campaign, fun marketing materials like posters, stickers and other side projects you propose. You’re expected to be a collaborator on the book itself, from the title to the chapters themselves and to participate with the project community. I’m open to working with a design studio for this role, or a Voltron-like team of freelancer friends, as this job description is admittedly unicorn-y.

Design researcher. A book is a designed object just like any other and the researcher will apply user-research methods during the development of the book and related materials. They’ll work with the author to define a research plan for the book (which may never have been done before from a UX context before!), help with general research (who already teaches design literacy well?), conduct research and offer findings, and make recommendations to the author and other collaborators. You will be invited to collaborate on the book itself, from the title to the chapters themselves and help with the project community.

To apply, do the following:

  1. In 10 sentences or less tell me why design literacy is important to you
  2. Provide a link to your resume or LinkedIn
  3. When are you available to start?
  4. Designers: include a link to the related bits of your portfolio. Researchers: a link (or brief summary) of the most related, or the most unusual, research you’ve done.
  5. Bonus points for a reference or two.
  6. There is no step 6! Since it’s nice when applications have one less annoying step than you expect.
  7. Basic info on your rates / fees for an unusual project like this
  8. Send the above to this address, with the subject “for hire: design literacy (designer or researcher)”

And/or if you want to follow this project, please join this list for updates. Thanks!

Public Speaking Workshop: April 8th 6:30pm

(Hi folks – the blog has been quiet for awhile. Good to be back! I’ll explain more soon. Happy Monday to you.)

For many years I’ve been the speaker coach for Ignite Seattle, a local event that centers on diverse ideas and challenging stories told live on stage. We decided last year that a central part of our mission (we’re now a 501c3) is to help all people, in all walks of life, to tell their stories and teach their lessons.

We now teach inexpensive, fun, high quality sessions, open to all, and the next one is coming up soon: Monday April 8th, 6:30-8pm, at Market Theater (Pike Place). Tickets are just $10. Please help spread the word. Thanks.

Join us to learn:

  • How to tell better stories at work or in life (and do it fast!)
  • The 6 most common mistakes speakers make (even experienced ones) and how to avoid them
  • The science behind fears about speaking and how to manage them
  • Advice on getting talks accepted at events like Ignite Seattle, TEDx, etc.
  • Plus a few volunteers who bring 60 seconds of a talk they have will get an expert critique

Details and how to get tickets:

Alternatively, If you’re looking to improve the speaking skills of your team or organization, you can bring me in for my in-depth, practice-centric, full day workshop, thru SpeakHQ.

Public Speaking Workshop: open to all this October

For years now I’ve been quietly teaching public speaking workshops in-house at corporations and organizations and doing private speaker coaching. Every year I offer this workshop to anyone who wants to take it and the next offering comes up next month. Here are all the details:

This one day experience will boost your confidence in speaking to groups of all sizes and in many different situations, from speaking at events. to work meetings to pitching ideas to coworkers and friends.

This full-day workshop is:

  • Fast-paced, fun and funny
  • Highly participatory and exercise-centric
  • Safe and supportive / Extremely practical
  • Inspired by the style and attitude of the bestselling book, Confessions Of A Public Speaker

The day consists of:

  • Expert critique from Berkun, with personalized advice for each student
  • Mini-lessons on managing fear, reading a room, storytelling, handling Q&A, preparing a presentation and more
  • A morning and afternoon performance of your talk to a live audience
  • Mid-day speed rounds of practice and feedback
  • Time for Q&A to get your biggest concerns and questions answered

Who should attend?

  • Beginner to intermediate speakers (all speakers can benefit from critique and are welcome at any level, but most attendees typically have low to medium speaking experience/confidence)
  • People who like small workshops (20-25 people)
  • Anyone who is a fan of Scott Berkun and his honest, direct and entertaining style

How do I sign up?

Please share and spread the word – if there’s demand I’ll offer this to the public more often.


UX Lisbon 2018 – Talk Notes

I speak later today at UX Lisbon 2018, Here are my notes from the sessions so far, will update after each talk so hit refresh to get the latest. If you find any typos, broken links or other mistakes leave a comment and I’ll fix. Thanks.

1. Confusion, stupidity and Shame, Richard Banfield

Part One: Fight Club

We think that failure is the end of the lesson, but kids just keep doing stuff. It’s how they learn how to walk and talk, mostly by doing terribly, but it’s never a reason for them to stop trying. He wanted to remind us that’s the best way to learn. Fall seven times, get up eight times (which would make a great tattoo). But as adults we forget to get up.

The first rule of failure is to talk about failure. – Perry Hewitt

Adults primarily are embarrassed by failure, so they prevent learning and encouragement from happening. (The Flight Club reference is about secrets and the danger of keeping your feelings about failure a secret).

Identity / Responsibility

Missing a quote on quote slide, slide right. Your identity is not the design you create. Other people will simply ask “so what is s/he going to do next?” – the dramatic stakes of the result of a project are in our own minds. By owning a failure and saying “I made a mistake” you claim ownership of it and allows you to move on.

Part Two Most of us think we are responsible for our success, Privilege, genetics, timing, parents, friends, education, luck.­ These factors are more likely to explain why we are here than hard work. Go to Bangladesh and watch people work manual labor jobs to see real hard work. Tatoo: you are not special, get back to work

“Failure is yours, and success is your team’s” – Tess Cooper

When looking at a portfolio, he often asks candidates “so how did your team contribute to this?” and they respond with surprise, as the premise is “this is my portfolio”.

Movie: The Bear – “Most people lost in the world, they die of shame” – Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins).

Book recommendation: Deep Survival

When you want to do something new and you talk about your idea, it polarizes people. Even if it’s a good idea. You should be prepared for résistance even if your idea is good. “A genius is a crazy person who turned out to be right” – Tim Minchin Designers have a personal investment in their ideas, they take negative feedback of an idea as personal. There are other models.

What problems:

  • Excite you
  • And are worth solving
  • Are u willing to sacrifice for?
  • And you will work on when it’s hard?
  • And when other people hate your ideas?

Book recommendation: The subtle art of not giving a f*ck


He told a story about having a grand new vision for his team, which he presented in a big presentation, but which didn’t go anywhere. “Hold a funeral for your best ideas. After you grieve, will you miss them?” – Paul Bellow His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and he immediately went into problem-solving mode, which is natural for designers. But in many situations problem solving is not the most useful place to start. Connecting with others and generating a context for help might be more important (which is hard for self-reliant people to prioritize first). Failure isn’t so bad when here’s someone there to catch you. (His wife is doing well now, as is his company).

2. Augmented Reality – Wait, What? (Or, Pokémon Gone),Boon Sheridan

In the time it takes to give this talk augmented reality has changed again. AR? VR? MR? Is similar to UX vs. UI. Endless debate because there are continuums that overlap. Pokemon Go. The old church he lives in was a Pokemon Go gym, which made for some interesting experiences and lots of media coverage. A wave of stories that explored augmented reality in ways it hadn’t been explored before. It was finally not just an academic tool, but a game ordinary people were actively using. 1983, Murder She Wrote (American TV show) had its star detective using a VR headset. The technology has gone through many hype cycles. Hardware has reached a point now that nearly everyone has a software and hardware to create and use AR experiences. It has finally been democratized. “Anything with a chip in it is ‘Smart'” – which lets us do some cool things, but also some silly things, like an app that encourages kids to brush their teeth (which involves the terrible idea of mounting your phone above your sink). Interesting concepts / prototypes:

  • Google maps AR overlay –  to help orientation (as most people wander in one direction until they see the dot move, and then they correct)
  • Airport security – how to figure out which line to get in
  • Lowe’s shopping – to help you find the right aisle for the thing you are looking for
  • Hyundai’s AR car owner’s manual – the experience of using a car manual (“find 14.6.2”) is a frustrating one, especailly for procedural tasks that are easy when someone shows you directly (which AR can simulate well).

How to get started with AR:

  • You don’t need AR Tools to prototype – draft ideas on paper and low fidelity digital.
  • Build for the already mobile friendly – early adopters and natural mobile device users are the easiest place to start
  • Consider how you will measure success
  • Narrow scenarios and embrace constraints – focus on smaller problems with clear wins – AR is an interface within an interface and if you don’t focus you’ll get overwhelmed as a designer (the amount of actual usable space to view the world is getting smaller and smaller)
  • Prepare for lots of post-build testing. “half the time to build it and half the time to test it” – usability studies move to the front of the process.
  • Consider the personal impact.  AR means you are collecting tons of personal data (GPS locations, photos, etc.). And once data is collected it’s very hard to get rid it of, or control how it’s used (unless you have clear and useful poliies in place). Sometimes you have the wrong data, and it will hurt people in ways you can’t imagine.

Original Reddit post with backstory

3. From UX Strategy to Digital Transformation, Jamie Levy

(I found this talk hard to follow so there are gaps in some places).

Her talk followed the story of how she came to write a book. In the 1990s she made software without all the processes and tools we use commonly today. By 2002 IA and interaction design developed methodologies that many design agencies followed, and she found herself with a job as a wireframe monkey.

This was eventually frustrating as she didn’t have much say in what the product would be. But then she worked on a discovery phase for the first time and she enjoyed working with stakeholders and customers directly. In 2010 she started an agency that only did discovery and strategy. She decided to write a book about strategy (which she admits was much harder and a longer process than she expected) and she studied many classic books on management and business strategy.

(She listed some definitions but went too fast to easily capture)

  • Value Innovation:
  • Validated user research: it’s not a product until you can both verify it’s utility and generate profit
  • Killer UX Design: making something that’s absolutely frictionless (e.g. Don’t Make Me Think)

She referenced five techniques:

(I missed the first two as I wasn’t quite sure that this was going to be a core list or that it would have 5 points):

  1. Customer discovery: find people with problems, ask them how much they’d pay for it, to drive definition of value and services.
  2. Creating Solution Prototypes for Experiments
  3. Conducting Guerrilla User Research

Central to some of these techniques, and her overall approach, are detailed spreadsheets, but not much detail about how they are made or how to make them was offered.

She had a client who asked her to do a digital transformation, but she didn’t know much about it so she read more books (this was her favorite of the bunch).

Case study: Netflix vs. Blockbuster

This is a canonical story of the advantages of digital centered businesses vs. non-digital.

Business model differentials Netflix had:

  1. No late fees
  2. Easier access
  3. Wider choices
  4. Recommendations

Other differentials:

  1. Subscription model
  2. e-commerce website
  3. data assets and recommendation engine
  4. Warehouse and mail
  5. no retail costs

Digital transformation needs to be from the top down.

4. Speaking CEO: Business Fluency For Designers, Jess McMullin

He has been in UX since the mid-1990s but these days he does more management consulting. While he was working at Intuit, long ago, he had a chat with the founders of the company. They asked Jess what website he liked best. He said Amazon, which they didn’t like. And Jess tried to explain in design terms why it was good, but he didn’t have the vocabulary and lenses that they would likely understand.

Business Fluency

It’s very different to travel somewhere if you speak the language. Your comfort level is very different.

The CEO Design crit: you bring your design to an executive and they say “I don’t like green”, which signifies they don’t get it. But if I say “they don’t get it” you give away all your potential to possibly solve the problem.

The Design 180: to pivot away from what we know to focus on understanding the business.

Pivot Skills: designers have the ability to look at the world through different lenses, and business fluency should be one of them.

Three tools: Grid, Pyramid and Funnel

The Grid – what keeps senior leaders up at night? (Big 6)

  • Money: how is it made and saved?
  • People: how to hire and retain?
  • Goals: what is our direction and how to track progress?
  • Value: what do we deliver to customers vs. shareholder (which should be a venn-diagram, not either/or)
  • Reputation: Protecting and building
  • Risk: Managing and pro

Money is like oxygen: you need it to survive but it’s not the purpose of your life.

The Pyramid 

The more you have to deal with, the more abstract the view you need to be able to have (from top of pyramid down: lead / manage / execute).

However: “the more important the decision, the less the person making it will know about it.” – Dave Gray

The insight is to talk to people at their level of abstraction, not your own.

  • Triangle: connect people issue to projects and money.
  • Slipstream: follow your idea behind larger but related projects
  • Tether strategy: connect something on the ground to something very abstract

Hypothesis Funnel

There are now many (business) canvas tools (and the funnel is similar).

Funnel structures the translation between business and design.

Opportunity loop:

  • What Customer behaviors are mentioned by the business?
  • What insights do designers have about those behaviors or related needs?
  • What is the desired business outcome and how can we measure?
  • Where is the opportunity and point of leverage?
  • (What are the sources of truth on the business or design side?)

What is our hypotheses for the customer experience?

  • For people in situation X…
  • We hypothesize that changing Y…
  • Will make Z difference in business…
  • Which can be measured or observed quant/qual Q

Advocacy, Inquiry, Empathy: we tend to spend 70% advocating, 20% inquiring and 10% empathizing with CEOs/stakeholders, but this should be inverted to be an effective advocate.

5. The Values are the Experience, Kim Goodwin

“How do I help my org value design more?”

This question is reasonable, but it might not be the right question. A better question is “How do I get my organization to value humans”. A small organization that values people can create great things, but a big team with many designers that don’t value people probably won’t.

Example: United airlines

They’ve been trying to revive their image for the last few years, but it hasn’t gone very well. Platitudes and ambitions are not enough when mistakes big and small are common.

They think “personalization” means changing the background, yet the site keeps pitching their credit card, even if you already have it.

User experience goes end to end. Choices engineers, customer support, baggage handlers, all contribute in their way to what the customer experiences, often in ways the design team can’t easily influence.

Even picking which metrics to use (Net Promoter Score) and how to apply them?

“When your values are clear, making decisions [on a team]become easier” – Roy Disney

When you work at Disney, you are trained to know that you are always on stage. You are part of the cast. It’s not a uniform, it’s a costume. All the employees know these values. And this extends across silos (she shared a story about how a bus driver at Disney heard a complaint about a room, asked what their room number was, and they called it in. Crossing silos in this way to help a customer is rare in most organizations).

Metrics-aware design is essential, but metric centric design is problematic. The disturbing stories about Facebook and Twitter recently reflect the dangers of allowing metrics to have too much power. If you’re human-centered, that means you focus on human needs (re. Maslow’s hierarchy).

No one intends to do harm (e.g. Facebook), but the true values of an organization are revealed in the underlying behavior that is common across an organization.

(She showed a series of examples of recent screenshots and anecdotes from Uber, Apple and Facebook, with commentary)

Kim currently works in the medical community and they have a more established ethical standard compared to the tech world. There are professional review boards whose job is to review behavior.

Nuremberg Code: ethical code for the medical community that are enforced to prevent abuse to people in the name of science.

Imagine if for products we had a code like:

  • Is it of benefit? To people? Or mostly to the organization?
  • Is it the only way?
  • Is the risk proportional?
  • What kinds of harm are possible?
  • How can we minimize harm?

So why don’t we ask these questions? It’s hard, but imagine the impact if we did.

5 things you can do

  1. Don’t just drive the bus – get out of your silo
  2. Leverage existing values – what values do stakeholders refer to most often? How can human-centered design fit into those values? (She shared a story about safety being a core value in an organization: safety -> ergonomics -> UX)
  3. Challenge assumptions and requirements
  4. Agree on (and measures) real values – Desing principles are values in disguise! – “Our value is to put patients first, so why are some of our products hard to use?” – they discovered there are hidden values that aren’t stated but define choices. (e.g. “I value exercise, I just don’t have time to do it” really means you value TV more than going to the gym).
  5.  Work to change values – this is hard and slow. Even with an executive mandate, it will take time (2-3 years). Requires commitment, but it is possible.

If you don’t honor a value when it’s hard, it’s not a value.

Design is the least important word in “human-centered design”.

6. Shaping Behavior, by Design, Chris Risdon

I had to miss this one.

7. UX in Service, Cyd Harrell

She is a UX practitioner because she wants to make things better for humans. Over her career she has moved increasingly towards working for and with government institutions including Code for America and 18F.

In 2011 she drove with her daughter through Golden Gate Park while the lawn sprinkers were on when they weren’t needed. Her daughter said we have to do something. Cyd said sometimes there are some problems you can’t fix, which her daughter rejected. So Cyd found out about how SF city government had a twitter account that allowed people to submit issues. So she did and she got a message back informing her that the message was received and here was her issue #. She’d return later and the sprinkers were off, which was a powerful (user) experience. But she hadn’t thought about government as part of the UX/Design sphere influence?

Earlier in 2009 Cyd worked for a consultancy about tbe H1N1 flu pandemic, and she thought about that experience differently after the sprinker epiphany.

When does the government assist people? How can we make the citizen experience better? What important services does government provide?

  • Public safety
  • Infrastructure
  •  Regulations REcord keeping
  • Dispute Resolution
  • Assistance

The strength of the institutions around you has profound effects on your quality of life.

When Cyd was 19 she needed a rare book and she happened to find it, after much looking, in a university library. She was the first person to check out the book in decades and it made her realize the power of institutions to think long term in ways no other kind of organization can.

American has 50 states, 3144 counties, 19,354 cities and towns, all with different layers of influence and power.

The 2000 election in the U.S. was decided by the (poor) design of a ballot, known as the butterfly ballot.

At a Code for America event, the founder (Jen Pulka) asked a designer why they decided to come. He said:

“I’m here because I believe government can be simple, beautiful and easy to use” – Scott Silverman 

Thanks to Dana Chisnell, Cyd helped work on Election Tools, free resources to help elections be run

Cyd thinks the best institutional design on the web is Gov.UK.

The U.S. has slowly made similar progress, one piece at a time. She showed the original mortgage disclosure form which contributed the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008, and the significantly improved redesign.

She joined Code for America in 2013 and worked on similar projects.

2014: disaster. The U.S. Government brought in USDS and 18F to help.

She expressed the complexity of working for institutions and that there can be overlapping contexts that define her service.

  • I worked for President Trump.
  • I worked in the Trump administration.
  • I worked for the federal government.
  • I worked for the American people.

Principles for civic design

  1. Respect for people’s time, dignity and abilities.
  2. Inviting, not just allowing, full participation.
  3. Government & citizens are on the same side and experience the same quality of ease of use.

Often the work is small and incrememanl, like improving forms ordinary citizens use (and providing the systems knowledge gained so it’s easier for other institutions to replicate this progress – she referenced the boston designer who did a massive project to improve their forms (reference needed))

Institutions need designers who:

  • Work in long timeframes
  • Follow principles over process
  • Open their practice
  • Make all the friends you can

How can you share  your practice with the institutions you care about?

How Creative Friction Can Help Your Team

Creative abrasion is Jerry Hirshberg’s term for the kinds of friction that helps develop better ideas. Hirshberg, a former design manager at Nissan, realized that some kinds of resistance are useful in the creative process and should be deliberately created by the leader of a team. This could be a timely critique, a barrage of difficult questions or even a temporary reworking of team processes and roles.

This works against the romantic fantasy many have for an ideal creative workplace. Somehow we all have a latent desire for a workplace free of annoying meetings and frustrating bureaucratic processes, where we could just show up at the office, pronounce our epiphany, and have the entire organization immediately swirl around us in support. But Hirshberg suggests good ideas, and good people, need to be challenged to develop and grow. A good idea can withstand critique and hold up, or improve in quality, when compared against other good ideas, while weaker ones will be revealed and fade away.

In his book, The Creative Priority, Hirshberg documents various kinds of abrasions, including:

  • Hiring divergent pairs: teaming people who see the world differently to work together on the same project
  • Embracing the Dragon: finding false constraints and challenging them (also see: Idea Killers)
  • Creative questions: thoughtful questions can reframe the problem that needs to be solved
  • Blurring discipline boundaries: our invented taxonomies for knowledge blind us from new ways to think about problems and solutions

He also noticed how his choices as manager would sometime generate dual responses from his team. It both made them uncomfortable and had effects that they appreciated, and this duality signified to him that his abrasions were having the desired effect. For example, when Hirshberg made his team’s  prototyping process much faster:

Jim McJunkin, a meticulous designer from Texas, felt that “God is in the details and the nuances, and these take time to resolve.”… But McJunkin then countered himself with the observation, “I like the imposed haste. I’m a perfectionist, and it’s a nice counterbalance to my workstyle… there’s something provocative in the unfinished-ness of the models,” a statement that implicitly acknowledged the added value of the modelers’ creative instincts in these spontaneous interpretations. (p. 44)

Jim McJunkin noted that “it is the abrasion of tiny air molecules that creates the beauty of a shooting star, without which it would be just another rapidly moving, cold and anonymous piece of rock.”

However, too much friction, or friction of the wrong kind or at the wrong time, can be just as bad, or worse, as not having enough. Hirshberg is clear the goal isn’t to force heated debates or make people upset (although that may happen at times). Instead, it’s the deliberate use of energy to make a kind of forcing function, that pushes people to dig deeper, rethink harder and explore alternatives they would be unlikely to choose to otherwise.

Deciding the right kind of friction to apply is a subtle skill that many managers never master. It depends heavily on understanding the culture of the team, the personality of each individual, and the ability to make friction something interesting and that raises curiosity, rather than feeling like a penalty. It’s also heavily dependent on timing: much like working a campfire, you have to use different kinds of friction and fuel to start it, grow it, or to just keep it going.

The legendary research lab at Xerox Parc, where the GUI, Ethernet and the laser printer were invented, was led by Bob Taylor, and his approach to management might be one of the labs greatest creations. Alan Kay, who worked for him, said about Taylor: “His attitude kept it safe for others to put aside fears and ego and concentrate objectively on the problem at hand.”

Taylor encouraged open criticism and debate, in a weekly meeting in a room filled with beanbag chairs. The goal wasn’t to tear other people down, but to push, inspire, and challenge everyone to explore their ideas deeply. Taylor put the ideas, and ideas about ideas, at the center, and moved politics, posturing, and hierarchy to the perimeter. Taylor was likely an excellent facilitator of discussions, helping make sure there was just the right amount of friction.

All too often managers hear about a concept like creative abrasion and rush to apply it, without fully understanding how it works. Hirshberg shares this story:

After hearing about [creative abrasion] at a meeting at NDI, a group of executives from Salomon, the great French ski equipment manufacturer, attempted to apply it. When they returned to San Diego from France a few months later for a design review of the ski boot concepts we were developing for them, one of the vice presidents said, “Well, we have the abrasion part down pat!”

This reveals that the notion of friction applies to the manager’s own work as well. It’s inevitable that the use of friction as a tool will force questions about how a company or team are organized and the process that managers use. This is healthy and can lead to progress, but for insecure managers who fear change, it’s also terrifying. Creative abrasion can be seen as slowing things down or working inefficiently when it should instead be seen as one of the few ways to provoke better and more original thinking to happen.

But even if all the strategies suggested in this book were invoked and followed religiously, creativity would still sit uneasily within bureaucratic bounds… None of the procedures is designed to make it a comfortable, obeisant, timely, well-oiled cog in traditional or enlightened bureaucratic machinery. Instead, the strategies were conceived to help overcome the knee-jerk resistance that inevitably accompanies the creative process, and to recognize the unease as a sign of its probable health.

Hirshberg’s book is a worthy read, especially for design managers or R&D lab leaders, as many of the stories he uses to illustrate his ideas come directly from his management experience.

FREE Today: The Dance of The Possible on Kindle

Sunday was my birthday and to help celebrate my success at avoiding death in this universe I’m giving my latest book away to all of you fans and readers on Kindle today, Tuesday 4/17.

You don’t have to do anything special. Just go here on over to Amazon, and “buy” the book for $0.00. Do it! It’s fun! And it’s a delightful and practical short read on how to work better with your own ideas.

As of this morning, it was at #300 for all of Kindle – can you share this post to help see how high we can go? Thanks!

Here’s what some folks I respect said about the book:

“You’ll find a lot to steal from this short, inspiring guide to being creative. Made me want to get up and make stuff!”  – Austin Kleon, author of How To Steal Like An Artist

“A fun, funny, no-BS guide to finding new ideas and finishing them. Instantly useful.”– Ramez Naam, author of the Nexus Trilogy

“Concisely debunks all kinds of misconceptions about the creative process in a book that’s no-nonsense, fun, and inspiring.” – Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

“This book will undoubtedly increase your abilities to invent, innovate, inspire, and make things that matter. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s phenomenally effective.”  Jane McGonigal, author of the New York Times bestsellers Reality is Broken and SuperBetter

Get The Dance of The Possible on Kindle now.

Why Designers Hate Politics (And What To Do About It)

People who design things for a living depend on optimism. To do their job well, whether it’s designing websites or automobiles, they must believe they can make things that are better than what currently exists in the world. The problem is that this optimism, when combined with immaturity, creates a shallow view of how organizations work and how decisions get made.

Designers claim, and often with good reason, that they understand human behavior better than others, but their distaste for what they call politics reveals they’re unaware of one of the most natural behaviors people in groups have. Designers who don’t comprehend or wish to avoid all politics betray their own ideas by not recognizing how politics defines the human landscape they must work on.

The confusion stems from the two different meanings of the word:

  1. Politics (n): the things self-serving, manipulative people do.
  2. Politics (n): the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group.

When someone says “I hate working in Stan’s organization, he’s so political” they’re using the first definition, and they specifically mean the abuse of power to serve someone’s self-interest or the creation of a culture of fear and dysfunction. These are bad things, for sure, but often the word politics is used in a lazy way, by someone who simply doesn’t understand why their ideas get shot down, or why they’re not given the power they think they deserve. Rather than examining the culture they’re in (who is thriving here? what are they doing that I am not? Do I need new skills or a new job?), they blame the very concept of politics.

The hard truth is that human nature is political (2nd definition above). The fields of sociology, anthropology and psychology are largely about the complex challenges of people trying to get along with each other (and themselves).

Put simply, when you organize people to do something, whether it’s throwing a party or starting a company, each individual has their own opinions on the right way to do it. And they have preferences for who they like to work with and what tasks they like to work on. This means no matter how talented leaders of an organization are, some people will not get everything they want.

This motivates people to influence those with power or to try and take it for themselves (and if raises, promotions and prestige are at stake the tendency for people to forget their ideals increases). There are of course many ways to express ambition, some much healthier and more transparent than others, but politics are everywhere people are.

  “Every management act is a political act… in some way [it] redistributes or reinforces power.” — Richard Farson

Blaming “politics”, in the abstract, is a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility for solving problems. The same is true for pointing fingers at “management,” “engineering,” or “marketing” and saying how stupid they are (See: The Fallacy of ‘They Don’t Get It’). Of course it’s true you could work in a completely dysfunctional place where even Machiavelli could not succeed, but it’s far more likely there are reasonable forces at work you don’t fully understand.

Pointing fingers doesn’t make those you point at any less stupid or ineffective, and it deflects any personal responsibility for learning how to be more persuasive, collaborative or thoughtful in how you approach working with them. And who knows, it’s possible that with a careful eye, it might just be that what you see as incompetence in another is just a smart person constrained by similarly difficult political factors that you can’t fully see. Of course some workplaces are truly broken, but that mostly raises the goal of finding yourself a new place to work. When a designer, a natural optimist, is pessimistic about who they work for and with, it’s time to move on.

Designers love to talk about their mastery of problem-solving skills, but politics is just another kind of problem-solving: people problems. If you approach organizational problems with the same optimism, discipline and creativity that you approach a design or engineering problem, you can find alternatives to explore and use them to make better decisions. And this is the grand irony of designers complaining about politics: designers should be great at the combination of problem-solving and understanding people, yet so often they can’t escape their frustration that these problems even exist.

The greatest factor in your political experience of an organization is your boss. A good manager will buffer you from organizational drama and set you up to succeed, while a bad one will amplify the worst problems an organization has. For designers, this means the heaviest political burdens land on the most senior designer in their organization. It’s their job to pave the way for all the people who work for them, establishing relationships with other powerful people in the organization.

But sadly design as a profession suffers from the Peter Principle. The problem of overpromotion is universal in the working world, but design is a specialized enough field that often the people who become design directors, or executives, are far better at designing than directing, leading or managing. In the best cases they know their primary job is to be an ambassador of design to the CEO and other executives, to form partnerships, align goals and gain influence that can be transferred down into their own organization. But even as an individual designer without much support from above, there are still many things you can do.

The way forward is that politics, even in the healthiest organization, is based on your reputation. The same organization will feel very different if you have a great reputation for getting good work done vs. having a poor one (or no reputation at all). This means earning trust and cultivating respect from your peers and superiors is the path. This is far more productive than allowing your audible frustrations at “politics” in meetings be the primary way people know you. And much like designers study users, they can also study their coworkers and superiors. By asking simple questions, much can be revealed that makes healthier politics possible:

  • What does my boss value? What problems is she trying to solve? How can my talents help solve them?
  • What problems is her boss trying to solve? How aligned are they? (Is the real problem between my boss and my skip-level manager?)
  • Who among my peers is thriving here? Why? (If no one is thriving, also ask why)? What can I learn from them? Can I ask one of them to mentor me over coffee now and then about how to get things done here?
  • Who frustrates me the most? Are my goals aligned with theirs? Why not? Who sets their goals? Do they have a good relationship with who sets mine? Who is the boss of all of them and why haven’t they fixed this problem yet?
  • Is my (design) work simply rated by leaders as low priority and what I see as “politics” is really just a prioritization decision?
  • Who has more influence than I do, that I trust, who can lend me their ear for advice?
  • What realistic expectations do they think I should have for the culture here?
  • What political skills are my weakest? How can I become a better facilitator? negotiator? persuader? listener?
  • Who has a good reputation that I can partner with to pitch an idea and use their reputation to help grow mine?
  • Is there a manager here that I’d be better suited working for?
  • Or is it just time for me to find a new place to work?