I met designer Keenan Cummings recently at the SVA MFA Interaction Design Dot Dot Dot event and we’ve carried on an email dialogue since then. We both have a connection to the Johnson & Johnson Global Strategic Design Office, but our conversation has quickly jumped beyond that common ground and into some really intriguing ideas about how and why designers work the way we do. The conversation began with a post Keenan published on his Field Study blog entitled “Maintaining Inexperience” in which he writes “some work environments have become expert at learning and repeating unoriginal, decontextualized solutions called precedent (‘This is the way it’s always been done…’).” In his post Keenan ponders how designers can stay fresh despite the relentless pressure to crank out solutions in an efficient manner. I found his thinking to be in parallel with my own thoughts about how we as designers run our businesses—that too often we find ourselves on “autopilot,” not really understanding why we are working within a certain model.
You can find Keenan’s “Maintaining Inexperience” post on Field Study by clicking here. And below is an extension of our dialogue on the topic.
Doug Powell: You write about how easy—and dangerous—it is for designers to fall into patterns in our working process, yet the paradox here is that often the problems we are trying to solve involve (or even require) finding patterns. Do you have some specific techniques for staying fresh?
Keenan Cummings: There are very tactical techniques that I think a lot of designers use to keep the ideas fresh — brainstorming prompts, switching up environment, getting out of the office and engaging in cultural experiences, etc. But I think there is a much more profound level of staying fresh. For me, it means not just changing the way I work, but the work I’m doing. It could come down to switching jobs, asking your boss to be assigned to a new team, going back to school for an advanced degree in another field, going after a client in an unfamiliar industry, recommending non-visual solutions to a client’s brief. The hard part is aligning these kinds of changes with our economic goals. But it seems like the thinkers that we espouse for their brilliance fearlessly tread into new territory and it pays off. Look at Virgin Airlines/Mobile/Records/Galactic/Health Miles.
DP: I happen to think that part of the reason designers fall into these patterns is that we are almost always working on someone else’s problem (ie: client) hence we are in a reactionary mode from the very beginning of our work. Do you see this dilemma? Are there other issues with the design business model that you think are contributing to this?
KC: That sounds right. Or maybe I would add that we are in reactionary mode, and our reactions become automatic, reflexive. I also think we need to solve something for ourselves as we solve problems for our clients. We need to indulge ourselves a bit and find greater opportunities to stretch the problem to accommodate our personal need to create something new.
I’ve seen what seem to be two mentalities when it comes to a design business model. One mentality focuses efficiency around a product. A firm develops a style, that style becomes their product, and they try to sell that style to as many clients as they can. Theo other mentality focuses efficiency around a process. This seems like the winning model. There is still plenty of wiggle room within the process to freshen the approach to each new problem, and the end result is never the same, and, ideally, completely unique. And hopefully those results satisfy something for the client and the designer.
DP: I find that designers are able to work much more deeply on work that they care deeply about. is there a clue here for how a design business can inject new energy into a stale creative environment?
Just as I said above, designers need to make their work about solving something for themselves — at least a percentage of the goal should be personal. But this question hits on something else — building that depth into the business model of a firm. Those personal goals and aspirations should be discussed, encourages, and accommodated within the business. Switching teams or trying your hand at a different role should be easy. That is how to make restlessness and inexperience an asset. Otherwise you play a guessing game trying to keep your talent happy while they are looking elsewhere for that fulfillment.
And a final note — the job market is changing. I’ve been hearing a lot about extended career duration and more frequent cycles of career changes and job changes. Inexperience is going to be built into our economic system. There old model is concerned with building loyalty and holding onto talent. It is in fear of turn-over because turn-over is expensive. But there seems to be opportunity in rethinking turnover and inexperience and finding a way to make it useful. I’ve seen universities that do this well with guest professors that draw in students (sometimes only visiting for a single semester at a time). Could you build a brand around a revolving door of talented consultants with a reliable internal process to guide them?