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  • Four Things I’ve Learned About Designers

    For the last two years, I've been doing to designers what they usually do unto others. Which is to say, I've been observing and studying them, asking a lot of questions and trying to discern patterns. Here are a few things I've learned along the way.

    1. Designers question

    To be more specific, they ask what Bruce Mau calls “the stupid questions”—the kind that are actually profound, but can make you look stupid because they address fundamental issues. When designers ask the powers that be, “Why are you doing things this way?” or “What are we really trying to accomplish here?” or “Does it have to have four wheels?” it can seem as if they're bogging down the business meeting. But they are actually cracking open the door to real innovation and progress.

    It's a gift designers have that I'm not sure they fully appreciate: the ability to recognize that the present reality is a temporary and changeable condition. (To the rest of us, reality looks like reality, something to be accepted with a shrug.) I think all of this is captured nicely in the joke some designers tell about themselves. How many designers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Does it have to be a light bulb?

    In these times, with so much in need of reinvention, we need people who know how to ask stupid questions. And who are actually willing to ask them—because it does take a certain amount of courage to question the fundamentals. Or, to put it in the pithy words of George Lois, “You gotta have guts to be the person in the room who's asking 'why' while everybody else is nodding their heads.”

    2. Designers connect

    When I first began visiting designers' studios and workshops, I noticed a lot of hoarding going on: five-year-old magazines, sketches on the wall from long-ago projects, lateral drawers filled with hunks of plastic and scraps of leftover cloth. I have relatives who engage in this kind of behavior for no good reason, but designers actually have a reason: They are master “recombinators.” They can take a bit of this and a piece of that to form something completely new.

    Designers can do this because—as you probably know, and as RISD professor Charlie Cannon informed me—they are born and trained to synthesize, to take existing elements or ideas and bring them together in creative and coherent ways. The beauty of this, from the standpoint of anyone who happens to be involved in creative endeavors of any kind, is that it shows you don't always have to invent entirely from scratch. To quote the designer John Thackara (who coined the wonderful term “smart recombinations”), most of us who are out there trying to create or innovate “are needlessly constrained by the myth that everything [we] do has to be a unique and creative act.” But the good news is, somebody already invented the wheel—all the rest of us need do is design new ways to combine it with other stuff that already exists. (Example: Put wheels on an alarm clock, as designer Gauri Nanda did, and you've created the Clocky—guaranteed to rouse you in the morning because you must chase after it to turn off the alarm.)

    3. Designers commit

    When it comes to ideas, most of us humans are all talk. But something I learned about designers is that they very quickly give form to their ideas. Ask a designer about a notion he/she has and immediately that designer starts sketching it out for you on any scrap of paper that's handy. At that point the idea exists, even if only on a napkin. Whatever form a rough prototype may take—a carved piece of foam rubber, a cut-and-paste collage or a digital mock-up—it represents a level of commitment that most people aren't willing or able to make when it comes to bringing a young idea into the world. Here again, the designer is showing guts—because when you commit to an idea early, sharing it while it's still tender and imperfect, you open yourself up to criticism. You hand people something that is tangible enough to be torn apart.

    But you also give them something to pass around, and to build upon, and rally around. The designer Brian Collins has a wonderful phrase he uses: “Design is hope made visible.” Designers can show us a better future, can present us with all kinds of new possibilities so that we can decide: Is this what we want? Before any of that can happen, though, the designer must first commit—by taking what is just a faint glimmer in the mind's eye and giving it shape and life.

    4. Designers care

    This is not always a good thing, and can, in fact, be annoying. Designers obsess so much about their work that it's a wonder they ever let any finished project out the door. And they're just as tough on everyone else's work. As I discovered, if you let designers read what you've written about them in advance, they will try to finesse every word. They can't help but notice all the imperfections in the world around them, even when they ought to have other things on their minds. (Once, when Michael Graves was in the midst of a medical crisis, he reportedly said from his hospital gurney, “I don't want to die here—it's too ugly!”)

    But if it's true that designers sometimes care about things that don't matter, it's also true they care about things that do: sustainability, homeless shelters, better hospital rooms, better voting ballots, mortgages that can be understood, prisons that actually might be livable, social services that actually might work. Designers are tackling all of these challenges and more, and they're not doing it for the money—because the money is in making the next iPhone. They're doing it, I think, because they can't help noticing that things around them are more imperfect than ever these days. And because they can't stop themselves from stupidly asking, “Why?” and “What if?”

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    Stock-a-rama tape measure painting by Ellen Lupton

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