Design to Change, Change to Design

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Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin.

The Rut

I’m notorious for falling into a rut. I discover something that works well and I stick with it because I enjoy the stability it brings. In the field I’m attempting to join, stability is sparse, nonexistant even. When you find something comfortable you immediately tackle it into submission and hold on to it for dear life, because for one tiny second that thought or idea is the rock in an ocean of tidal waves.

This becomes a problem however, especially when that rock is a paradigm — a means of seeing the world that feels so right that you become blinded by it. Typically when this happens to me I don’t realize it’s happening. This is incredibly dangerous because I rely explicitly on the people around me to say or show me something that will break down this perspective I’ve built up.

A Challenge

When we were given 18 minutes to build the tallest tower out of 20 pieces of spaghetti, 1 metre of tape, 1 metre of string and a single marshmallow, my brain immediately went into designer mode and began estimating weights, structural integrity and material limits. I started to ask the questions I have become so accustomed to asking myself: what is the limiting factor? What is the biggest problem with these materials? What do we have to solve? How do we use our resources efficiently? Little did I know that my paradigm had failed me almost immediately.

I want to make sure that we don’t discount the value in those types of questions. They’re all very relevant and important to answer, but they all have one thing in common: they assume. I’ve grown a lot over the last year, and I’ve learned twice as much. This has led me to have confidence in my ability to understand my surroundings. I’m not naive enough to assume that I’m always correct, but I’ve definitely gained some confidence to make decisions on the fly. This is important in UI/UX design and design as a whole: we are designers because we have a knack for understanding people and the objects they use. A lot of the time our gut is telling us the right answer. We can’t explain it immediately, but we know deep down that the answer is right. Until recently I had ignored this feeling almost entirely. Trusting my gut without explanation seemed like a sure-fire way to lose my job. I felt like there was no value in my gut because I didn’t have the experience to back it up. It was only until I started applying reason to these feelings that I began to listen to them more effectively. This however led to assumptions. Innocent ones at first, but eventually they are exactly what guided me into this rut and led to my failure in this seemingly simple challenge.

The Result

We failed. I was disappointed by it, too. I thought that this great repertoire and confidence I had developed was going to be enough to help guide our team to victory. I was dead wrong. In hindsight it’s easy to say that I was overconfident and that my team was equally as sure of our plan. We unknowingly made the decision early on that our theory was going to work and that we had the collective knowledge to fix the inevitable failures along the ride. 18 minutes however, is short. Very short. In the end the weight of the marshmallow (which was required to be at the very top of the tower) toppled our structure over with ease. The height and weight of our tower weren’t tested, and they definitely weren’t refined.

Where we went wrong? We didn’t play. Play. It was such a simple solution and I had completely ignored the fact that this was even an option. We didn’t experiment. Instead we did what we do best: we theorized, we planned and then we executed. The reality of it was that we ran out of time and our final product flopped. We didn’t take the time to really understand our materials. We didn’t see how they interacted or influenced each other and this led to a subpar and unfinished result that lost us a free lunch (the worst defeat a guy like me can have).

So Why Don’t We Play?

We grow up. We’re told to take responsibility for our actions and that every decision we make has consequences. We lose the ability to let our minds wander and dream because we’re weighed down with information, responsibility and a hand-me-down goal that we have to succeed. That means cutting out the play time and trying our hardest to show our chops. We begin to do things with intent instead of out of curiosity. The world loses that gleam of wonder.


Why do we let this happen? I’m happy to be transparent about why I’m scared to play as a designer: I’m terrified that my work will seem inadequate and appear to be a waste of my time. I don’t prototype and iterate because I feel like I’m responsible to know the correct answer already. I’m expected to provide in a small time limit. Playing feels like I’m wasting everyone else’s time. The team is waiting on my work to move forward, the client is paying to use my expertise. Playing is something I should have done in school, or on my own time.

This is completely wrong and unhealthy. I want a work environment that encourages this new, playful atmosphere. As a designer I want to experiment. I want to build something and test it because I’m naturally curious. My gut is giving me an answer, but is it right? Theory says it is, but do the users agree? I have to play in order to answer that question. I can’t give you the answer. Maybe this is a result of my age, perhaps a result of my inadequate knowledge. Whatever the reason is, I want to find the answer, and an environment that encourages experimentation and focuses on breaking boundaries instead of budgets is key to this. We have to feel like the playing we’re doing is both respected and worth everyone’s time.

Great design is the direct result of curiosity and immersion.

I believe this wholeheartedly. This experiment opened my eyes a lot; from here on out I’m excited to see how my team takes this knowledge forward. If the environment is fostered correctly, our office is about to explode with inquiry and learning. We’re going to start providing solutions that are above and beyond what the next team can provide because we weren’t afraid to have a little fun. This play will be encouraged and expected of us because it is something that is proven time and time again to work. I’m extraordinarily excited to see how this new perspective is going to help me learn and grow as a designer. I’m about to allow myself to be curious again, and 10 year old me couldn’t be happier about it.

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