Thursday, November 28, 2013

on exposure

I was speaking with Andrew the other day about the transition from in-house to agency and how that adjustment takes place after a number of years at the former. because a number of years at the former has a particular pace and a particular comfort in the ownership and management of the design you do and the thinking you think and the constraints you know and the collaboration you undertake and the scrutiny under which you find yourself and the measurement of success that you might be subjected to which is likely measured over a period not much less than a decent-sized freelance contract against a set of goals and objectives mapped out over a period not much less the bronze age.

if you have spent a meaningful amount of time as a resident designer on the client side, either as a larger team, or, worse still, as the design team of one, you've likely woken up at your desk one day and realised you can probably go back to sleep for a while and nobody will notice until the end of the quarter. a massive generalisation of course, and more likely just an accurate description of my 14 years in-house, but the point is that the pace and scrutiny is different. and it can be a safe place. and you can get away with it. and you can sometimes disappear completely.

once you make the change, however, you can suddenly find yourself very exposed. I thought it was perfectly acceptable to take 6 months to design a faceted navigation system for a line of hardware. and, you know, it kind of was. but as soon as you get started on your first proper design project agency side, you are immediately aware that there is something different. people want to know what you're doing all the time. they want to know why. they want you to explain to them the things they don't understand and tell you why those things you suddenly can't articulate aren't actually that good anyway. they want to question everything you do. and, by the way, that 6 months? that's actually 6 days here. if there's one thing that really hits home in your first 3 months of transition, it's the change in pace. and it's not that the change in pace is a bad thing. it's just that it feels like you don't have enough time to think. which means you don't have enough time to design. which is stressful and surprising and difficult and awkward. because you might not actually be able to do it. you might fail. and everyone will be able to say they told you so. and you'll be exposed.

if I'm honest, it took about a year to get used to the change in pace, which I'm sure will be validated by the account teams who's budget I used to work that out. I'm pretty efficient now. and that doesn't mean I'm by any means a worse designer for being a more efficient designer. it just means I'm a bit quicker. if anything, I believe it makes me a better designer, since I've worked on the skill that is understanding and articulating the very thing in a given design challenge that is where the opportunity lies. and I can do that very quickly. and I can do it for multiple design challenges. and I can move from studio to studio, whiteboard to whiteboard, desk to desk, and I can point to the thing that matters. it's an acquired skill. it takes time to learn. but the efficiency in the clarity is what facilitates pace.

the less tangible form of exposure comes when you are suddenly placed under an intense level of interrogation regarding the very thing that you think makes you a designer in the first place. your design thinking. or whatever you want to call it. that process you go through when you think about stuff. and write down words. and draw boxes. or abstract categorisations of emotions. maybe you use different colour pens. maybe you cut bits of paper out and rearrange them in a way that you think is the responsive version of the jean genie. whatever you do to evolve insight into articulation. evidence to ideas. you know, DOING DESIGN THINGS. for that is the place where you've likely never really had to justify yourself to other people who might actually be designers too who might even be better designers who might even be honest designers who might actually tell you what they think. because when design is money, clarity is currency. you really need to be able to explain yourself. be under no illusion, when you work for an agency, your constraint is time. but your reputation is all about quality. so quality is, and should be, ruthlessly monitored, evaluated, and understood. and that's why the integrity of design and design thinking is the first thing that you will get caught out on. well, apart from the pace thing. but it's not personal. even though that's what it feels like the first few times someone like me sits down with you, looks at your designs and pulls that horrible squinty patronising-but-really-caring face that tells you there's something not quite right. but I do that because, actually, there's something not quite right. I've exposed you. how you then deal with that is that up to you. if you're anything like me, you'll probably print out pictures of me and stick them to your bedroom door whereupon you'll spend a full 3 nights throwing manically sharpened pencils at them sobbing in your underpants slowly mouthing "I can design. I'm a good designer. I can design. I'm a good designer. I can design. I'm a good designer" over and over and over until you're all cried out and you collapse on the floor onto a pile of ripped up creative reviews as the queen is dead plays on repeat over the wail of sirens and the incessant banging on the door.

you get over it. it's all part of the transition. welcome to the real world.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

on pathways

sometimes I get all wistful about forest paths and the unloved tracks of forgotten intent. often that's because I'm wondering where my dog is. equally often it's because I wonder where my god is. which is to mean that I can't begin to describe the realisation of paths less travelled whether I consider them in terms of dog or god. there's no difference. all there is is the relic of some lost spark of curiosity manifest in the loose dirt and leaves of time.

for clarity, I don't believe in a god. sometimes I don't believe in my dog. but I do believe that these manifestations of chaotic traversals that scar this earth have more to do with synchronicity than we might imagine. those pathways in the forest are both the magic and the mundane. the structured and the intangible. the mirror and the well. the loved. the unloved. but above all, inextricable and beautiful. for every half-trodden pathway, there exists a sense of the terrible and wonderful history of the moments that make that path place. place where you, I, my dog, and an epoch of experiences come together in the half-light and a half-glance as we pass through time and wonder; what if?

whereupon someone's jack russell jumps at the leg of time itself and the moment is lost in an apology and a god biscuit. but, just before that, as time stands still at the branch of life, where instinct begets choice and all history collides, we're faced with the overwhelming sense that not taking that path might be to deny ourselves reward. reward for curiosity. reward for courage. reward for conviction. if we don't take that path now, we're just another part of someone's else's tomorrow. the tomorrow where they, their dog, and an epoch of experiences come together in the half-light and a half-glance as they pass through time and wonder; what if?

but the truth about these paths is that you can't find these paths if you look for these paths. for they exist only in the blind spots of consciousness. you can only see them if you look away. and then only if you're in the right place. at the right time. and only if the path is looking for you. and there's a raven on an oak tree reciting the autobiography of edgar allen poe. or something. the point is, as we move through time and space on the bark and boards of our earthly existence, our sense of place is as much to do with the predictability of the path as it with the beauty of the unknown. and seizing the unknown may be our only chance to be lost to the forest forever.

there's no parallel with findability or discoverability here, much as I'd like to bring it to a conclusion that has something vaguely to do with signposting and waymarking and user experience, it's just something that's occurred to me and I wrote some words about. maybe I could draw a parallel to information architecture or something. maybe not.