Design Communication Thesis

Designers who want to avoid being commodified into manual labor, are experiencing more pressure then ever to explain and validate their thinking and process. The planning and materials required for design communication can be intensive. In fact, the focus they require often precludes individuals and small design firms from successfully managing this new vital area of their profession. In short, there is a “communication gap” emerging, which will result in not only an income gap between “big design” and “small design”, but also a sustainability challenge for small design.

Design no longer exists solely within a set of specialized verticals, but is horizontally distributed across many professional sectors. The design profession is alive and well, but it’s role is changing from execution of product to facilitation of process. As design becomes more collaborative and participatory on an enterprise level, assumptions about how designers communicate will fundamentally change.

For decades designers by and large communicated to peers within their own or adjacent verticals. This allowed designers to not only develop their own specialized languages, but more importantly allowed them to take many aspects of communication for granted. Today, design is moving out of pre-contextualized norms, and must function in collaborative processes with highly diverse perspectives. In this transcendent environment, design communication is emerging as a new vital skill with growing conversation about building intentional, and robust strategies.

Design communication, within the business environment, is in fact a subset of traditional business communication. Whereas traditional business communication is exchanging the data of facts and figures in didactic reports and power points, design communication is about sharing the data of insights, thoughts, and feelings. Unlike traditional business and technical communicators, the design communicator is no longer a reporter reading from spreadsheets, but a tour guide reading from conceptual maps. Such communication calls for more immersive experiential methods.

For the past year I’ve been researching how design practitioners and innovation managers approach building these conceptual maps and leading these journeys. I’ve interviewed professionals from at least a dozen different industries. I’ve traveled with design strategists on observational field trips. Working with designers from other companies, I helped insight presentations for both commercial and non-profit organizations. I’ve helped design and build workshops for design thinking.

My motivation for all of this research is to build an online system of some of the prebuilt resources needed for design communication. The objective is to find and catalog repeatable patterns, frameworks, methods, and tools media tools that can make the communication processes less labor-intensive, boast both manually and cognitively. From my documented research experiences I’ve begun writing user scenarios and stories.  Here are sample:

  1. Maria, a freelance designer, is asked by one of her clients to submit a proposal for a research project by the end of the week. She checks the website on her iPhone and sees that several worksheets and proposal formats are available, allowing her to confidently affirm that she will deliver.
  2. Cindy, the principle of a design firm is wanting to initiate a relationship with a potential client. She offers to run a free half-day brand strategy workshop at the customers location. Once the customer happily agrees, Cindy needs access to a suite of editable workshop materials, including promotional media, facilitation guides, audio-visual templates, and follow up materials.
  3. Josh, a design student in Columbus Ohio, is needing to research markets in multiple cities, but can’t afford the time or money needed to fly. So, he downloads and edits some useful research guides and worksheets, to equip and inform friends in various cities who have agreed to help out.

User stories like these are helpful in keeping the formal technical details of design work subservient to human needs. These stories will in turn inform and inspire the design of not only materials, but also a responsive website. Ultimately this website can be contributed indefinitely by multiple authors.

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