When I started my design career, I couldn’t imagine it would consist of 75 percent communication and only 25 percent “actual design.” But as I was moving from pixels to components, from components to layouts, from layouts to systems, from systems to guidelines, and so on — the role of people relationships and group psychology gradually grew. And my design epiphany of the recent couple of years is how important it is to be part of a larger community and not just with the people on your project or team.
Still think that designers do their best work while shut away alone in a room? Here are three ways why joining a community of like-minded designers will help you grow your career and become a more empathic facilitator.
Recently I read a brilliant quote, “Good designers don’t fall in love with the solution, but great designers fall in love with the problem.” I think this sentiment applies to Design Thinking even if at the end of the day you don’t come up with a digital prototype. Facilitators often get attached to particular methods and tools, and this habit becomes only stronger in isolation from a professional community.
I bet you have a favorite framework or technique, maybe something like, “We prefer jobs-to-be-done to user personas because the latter are outdated and subjective.” Another example, “Our team uses the empathy mapping canvas with the ‘Goals’ sections at the top.” However, it’s a slippery slope. As American psychologist Abraham Maslow put it in 1966, “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” We all are exposed to this cognitive bias, which it’s also known as the law of the instrument, or Maslow’s hammer.
Moreover, many Design Thinking agencies developed their own branded frameworks to stand out among numerous competitors on the market. But as a downside of marketing gains, we have even stronger attachment to favorite methods. Fortunately, communication and creative borrowing can save us from this “tool-affection.”
Icebreaker exercises are, probably, the easiest source of Design Thinking inspiration. Long time ago, I knew only one — “The Shoe Game,” which worked the best offline. All workshop participants stood in a circle and the task was to take an imaginary shoe and demonstrate how you can use it in a creative way — anything except for putting them on. People would always start chuckling and show how they could row a boat with a shoe or drink an extra-large dose of coffee out of it.
Sadly, this simple exercise doesn’t work online, so I started collecting icebreakers for different situations and thinking cultures.
My current toolkit includes exercises that can match informal startup spirit or reserved corporate atmosphere. For example, I often combine a warm-up with an intro to the digital tool where we are going to run all activities. So, I ask each participant to create a sticky note of their preferred color, type their name, and add one key thing they expect to get from the workshop. Then team members add an emoji or icon that best reflects a superpower of the current workshop team.
👉 If you haven’t tried such a warm-up before, feel free to steal this idea and don’t hesitate to share yours in the MURAL Community!
Germans are always punctual. Americans are good at selling and always give “burger feedback”. You can find this kind of stuff in articles on cultural differences. But how much of that is truth and what is just a more academic form of stereotypes? From my experience, fifty-fifty. Besides, we rarely encounter “pure” cultural types and often work with expats, cosmopolitan persons, or simply those whose behavior has been shaped by other factors rather than ethnicity.
Of course, one can try living in different countries and experience various cultures firsthand. Last year, I relocated from Ukraine to Germany and it helped me understand nuances and debunk quite a few myths. Well, Germans aren’t always punctual, and delays happen here not much more seldom than in other European countries. But Germans are literally surrounded by clocks and, generally, numbers are an important navigator in their life: numbered items in cafe menus, numbers in queues, and minute-by-minute transport timetables.
However, in my daily work, I communicate with representatives of many other nations. And somehow we have to navigate facilitation for Brasilians, Australians, Singaporeans, Italians, or, for instance, Canadians. And you know what? People’s workshopping style is more influenced by their firm’s culture than their location or country or origin. The best way to embrace diversity is communicating with people of different backgrounds, nationalities, and company cultures.
For instance, two weeks ago we talked via LinkedIn with a design leader from Microsoft and exchanged our approaches to ideation workshops. His team employs so-called Billboard Design Thinking, which features a set of interconnected canvases arranged one by one on a large scroll on the wall or placed horizontally on an endless digital board. I asked whether he was afraid of exposing all the exercises to “difficult” participants who might manipulate the exercises for a desired outcome: he said that wasn’t the case. As for the company where I work, ELEKS, we often provide consulting to misaligned teams and companies with internal conflicts or rivalry. I even wrote some detailed recommendations on overcoming stakeholders’ biases.
Both of us came out of the conversation with new perspectives. Now, I won’t go into all projects suspicious of client stakeholders because I’ve learned that many teams are highly collaborative and aligned — it’s not always useful to go in expecting something negative.
My design team is lucky enough to have a detailed semi-automated competence matrix for designers, which describes required skills and what level of each skill is needed for obtaining the next job title. Different aspects of Design Thinking are reflected in the requirements, but even such an elaborate matrix doesn’t fully reflect all the nuances. Our competence matrix serves an important internal benchmark for designers’ growth, but where do you think it originates from?
First things first — when you grow within a design team or you develop your own team, it’s important to be in line with business needs. For instance, there’s not much value in developing the skill of AR/VR interfaces if your firm only works with Fintech dashboards. Or let’s say, it won’t suffice to demand basic UX mapping from senior designers if your team specializes in customer discovery and user research. Matrix requirements versus real work complexity is a popular topic for recruitment memes.
To a certain extent, competence matrices are like MVPs. It’s a minimal required skill for a particular role, in other words, an entry level to a certain scope of responsibilities and opportunities. But if we only take into account the business needs of the moment, there is a risk of falling behind pretty quickly. Peter Shilton said, “If you stand still there is only one way to go, and that’s backwards.”
Unless you are in the top 1 percent of Design Thinking gurus, there is always someone ahead. Exploring what those people do can encourage you to add a new promising skill to the competence matrix and develop the team accordingly. Inspired by the global community, now we consider adding such skills as the design of business processes and business design.
There are countless ways to benefit from a professional Design Thinking community, and I’ve just shared three of them:
Undoubtedly there are more reasons to seek out a professional community, and the larger that community grows, the more opportunities there are for innovation and imagination to flourish.