Rube Goldberg, Device to Keep You From Forgetting To Mail Your Wife's Letter, date unknown
For over twenty years, I've been writing proposals for projects. And almost every one of them has a passage somewhere that begins something like this: "This project will be divided in four phases: Orientation and Analysis, Conceptual Design, Design Development, and Implementation." All clients want this. Sometimes there are five phases, sometimes six. Sometimes they have different names. But it's always an attempt to answer a potential client's unavoidable question: can you describe the process you use to create a design solution that's right for us?
The other day I was looking at a proposal for a project I finished a few months ago. The result, by my measure and by the client's, was successful. But guess what? The process I so reassuringly put forward at the outset had almost nothing to do with the way the project actually went. What would happen, I wonder, if I actually told the truth about what happens in a design process?
It might go something like this:
When I do a design project, I begin by listening carefully to you as you talk about your problem and read whatever background material I can find that relates to the issues you face. If you're lucky, I have also accidentally acquired some firsthand experience with your situation. Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can't really explain that part; it's like magic. Sometimes it even happens before you have a chance to tell me that much about your problem! Now, if it's a good idea, I try to figure out some strategic justification for the solution so I can explain it to you without relying on good taste you may or may not have. Along the way, I may add some other ideas, either because you made me agree to do so at the outset, or because I'm not sure of the first idea. At any rate, in the earlier phases hopefully I will have gained your trust so that by this point you're inclined to take my advice. I don't have any clue how you'd go about proving that my advice is any good except that other people — at least the ones I've told you about — have taken my advice in the past and prospered. In other words, could you just sort of, you know...trust me?
Now, an intelligent client might ask a number of reasonable questions: How can a bunch of random conversations yield the information you need to do your work? Shouldn't the strategic justification be in place before the design work begins? If you show me one solution, how will I know it's the only one that will work? On the other hand, if you show me a bunch of solutions, how will I know which one is best? What will happen if I don't like any of them? Finally, can you explain that magic part to me again?
Not only that, but my "honest" description of the process is an idealized one. Sometimes I have one great idea but can't convince the client it's great and I have to do more ones. Sometimes this leads to a better idea. Sometimes it leads to a worse idea. Sometimes after I go back and explore other ideas we all come back to the original idea. Sometimes the client accepts an idea, and then produces other people who haven't been involved up to that point who end up having opinions of their own. One way or another it always seems to get done, but never as originally promised.
Although I've managed to enjoy a relatively successful career as a designer, I've always had the vague sense that I was doing something wrong. A better designer would be able to able to manage the process properly, moving everyone along cheerfully from Phase One to Phase Two, right on schedule and right on budget. What was wrong with me?
You may have had the same feeling: it seems to be pretty common among the designers I know. Then, this past summer, I was lucky enough to participate in the AIGA's Business Perspectives for Creative Leaders program at Harvard Business School. (Which I highly recommend, by the way.) Part of the assigned reading was a book that one of the instructors, Rob Austin, wrote with Lee Devin called Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know about How Artists Work. Artful Making has an interesting message: we may have been right all along.
What makes the book particularly interesting is the collaboration of the two co-authors. Austin is a Harvard Business School professor who has focused on information technology management; Devin is not a business school teacher but a professor of theater at Swarthmore College. At the outset, the writers acknowledge that the nature of work is changing in the 21st century, characterizing it as "a shift from an industrial economy to an information economy, from physical work to knowledge work." In trying to understand how this new kind of work can be managed, they propose a model based not on industrial production, but on the collaborative arts, specifically theater. Interestingly, the process of mounting a play, as we've noted here before, is not that different from doing a design project. The iterative process, the role of improvisation, the adjustments that are made in response to audience feedback, all of these elements are a part of any design process. And, in a way, they've always been the ones that have vaguely unnerving to me.
Evidently, this unease is common. The authors take pains to point out that they're not advocating a "loose" process or one that lacks rigor. "A theater company," Austin and Devin point out, "consistently delivers a valuable, innovative product under the pressure of a very firm deadline (opening night, eight o'clock curtain). The product, a play executes again and again with great precision, incorporating significant innovations every time, but finishing within 30 seconds of the same length every time." They are careful to identify the defining characteristics of this kind of work: allowing solutions to emerge in a process of iteration, rather than trying to get everything right the first time; accepting the lack of control in the process, and letting the improvisation engendered by uncertainty help drive the process; and creating a work environment that sets clear enough limits that people can play securely within them. They call this artful making: in short, "any activity that involves creating something entirely new." This includes not just the obvious "arty" things, but, for instance, "a successful response to an unexpected move by a competitor" or "handling a sudden problem caused by a supplier."
Over nearly 200 pages, Austin and Devin make a persuasive case — a vigorous argument, really — for a process that most designers would find familiar. I read the book, in fact, with a certain degree of smugness: we already know all this stuff, I kept thinking. More interesting to me was the tone that the authors take with their presumed reader, a kind of imaginary Old School Boss. Addicted to flow charts and timelines. Suspicious of ambiguity, unexpected outcomes, and, especially, artists. You know the type. That's who they're addressing when they say, almost consolingly, "We know our industrial age thought patterns intimately. We're comfortable with them. We love them because they are so successful for us..." Hey, who do you mean, "we?"
I was still feeling a little superior a few weeks later, attending one of Rob Austin's sessions at the AIGA HBS program. He was talking about his book and showing a slide that compared two processes. On the left was a diagram of the iterative, cyclical process used to develop software at a company that Austin admires, Trilogy. On the right was a sequential process, with arrows leading in turn from "Concept Generation" to "Product Planning" to "Product Engineering" to "Process Engineering" to "Production Process." This diagram was labeled "Clark and Fujimoto's Description of the Automaking Process."
I'll be damned if I've ever heard of Clark or Fujimoto, but the thing on the right looked eerily familiar. For good reason: I've used a version of it in hundreds of proposals over the years. I never really believed it was an accurate way to describe the process. I simply never had the confidence to describe the process in any other way. Like a lot of designers, I've considered my real process my little secret. With their work, Rob Austin and Lee Devin provide a new way not to think about what we do, but to help others understand it.