Communication Design, or Learning Design?

For today’s’ critique I’m interested in getting help resolving the question as to whether I’m more interested in designing for communication or for learning.  I began my MFA with empathy for designers needing to learn new skills and methods such as conducting consumer research, or to facilitate collaboration and understanding with other people in the design process. More recently I’m becoming interested to the human problem of communicating and learning new ideas in general. A concern for learning design is more pragmatic and urgent then it might first seem: in our age people must acquire at least basic understanding of new ideas at an ever increasingly accelerated rate. Is my interest in tools for communication in commercial design, really an interest in patterns of communication for learning in general? And is this a widening of my focus or a narrowing?

What has widened for certain is context. Whereas before I was talking to designers who were designing commercial products and services, now I’m seeing relevance in areas such as non-profits who require communication and collaboration with non-designers.

Here are two examples to show how the context for me has widened:

1) Originally I had begun talking with designers from companies such as IDEO and Mattel on how they designed their communications to build understanding, consensus, and buy-in, especially in the earlier “fuzzier” phases of a project. For instance, a large bank asks IDEO to help them re-imagine and re-design banking centers for millennial savers. There are no specifications on what this challenge might lead to, and so communicating intangible values such as strategy, concept, intelligence, empathy, and trust become vital to staying in business.

I’m currently involved with other CCAD students and external professionals in just such an open-ended project with a large industry association for the Horticulture industry. The essential challenge is to define the future of garden retail centers. Initially I was interested in defining tools and methodologies for conducting research and strategy with consumers and retailers. So my focus was on aiding the designers in the process, to both generate and communicate new innovations.

However, along the way it became it became apparent that a missing link in the communication chain was with the industry itself. New innovations may require resources and insights that are not easily communicated. In fact, the industry may not be suffering from just a lack of new innovation, but a lack of adoption of existing innovation.Once the task of communication is re-framed as the task of helping adoption or diffusion of new ideas and innovations, there is relevance to a number of contexts.

2) For instance, consider the challenges of a relief or care organization that is trying to build counseling centers where humanitarian needs are acute such as in Rwanda. Today, many western non-profit agencies understand that rather then setting up remote offices in areas of needs, it is more sustainable and meaningful to train local caregivers.

The strategy here is to help indirectly by training local people to help directly. One way of accomplishing this is to build tools and methods to facilitate this training.

In both of these cases the issue isn’t how to help designers learn how to research and communicate better, but how to help people learn. It occurs to me, that in our age of compressed time frames and wider collaborations, that traditional college education will need to be augmented with lifelong learning in the form of concise well designed short amounts of content. This type of personal development is going to be a constant need for everyone. This realization eventually leads me to wonder if I’m backing into the field of “Learning Design.”

My question is whether or not this topic is an unhelpful widening of my focus or an important insight and simplification of my focus.

You May Speak Now

It is a curious irony when a designer believes “good work should speak for itself.” If Res ipsa loquitur, “the thing speaks for itself,” were true, then potato chips and dog food would go to shelf in clear plastic bags, financial services would be easily understood, and computers wouldn’t need GUI interfaces.  In fact, design itself wouldn’t be necessary. 

In reality, few things speak for themselves. Or at least, most things keep secrets from the rest of us.

Design, as a consultative service or innovation process, is no less complicated than dog food branding or financial consultation. It is every designers task to help guide others through this complexity. The way forward isn’t through artificial or soothing simplification, but by providing clear maps and structured conceptual models. This type of abstract communication requires all the ingredients of both audio-visual and alpha-numeric languages. Whether our focus is in brand identity, user experience, or service design, it is important to remember that our first creative medium was spoken and written language. As early as three years of age, most of us were designing and producing novel utterances all by ourselves. We shouldn’t give up the practice just because we’ve learned new skills and materials.

Now this isn’t that discussion about how “everyone is in sales.” Design communication covers much more professional territory then selling ourselves. Selling is essentially a monologue to a hostage, and if we haven’t noticed, buyers aren’t hostages anymore. Buyers today can forage for information and goods wherever they please. To communicate to this unbounded free roaming audience, designers must shift the conversation from creating forms, to creating value.

Hans Hoffman observed, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Perhaps ten years ago, an online portfolio was all that was needed to connect with clients, and to sustain design careers. However, amidst the clamorous din of global competition and innovation, new collaborative and conversational forms of design have become necessary to build value, as well as sustainability.

As a result, today’s designers are learning how to speak for themselves without their portfolios. This is an especially useful skill when wandering into the shape-shifting maze of social media. For the aphonic designer who still believes their work “should speak for itself,” the internet is not so much a form of promotion, as a form of Panopticon.

So, if an online gallery of our most attractive JPEG’s are inadequate for communicating what we actually do, what other form or forms could design communication assume? What context and scenarios could it take place in? How intentional and deliberate should we be towards this aspect of our profession? Are there other professions that we can learn from? Exploring these questions is essentially the purpose of this blog, “Were Not in Canvas Anymore.”


Designing the Toolbox.

Before further discussing tool, let’s talk about toolboxes. I grew up around tools, because my father ran his own garage business. He worked on cars and trucks, but he could fix anything. I was always fascinated by the hundred of tools and parts he kept in tall red metal cases that could be moved around on wheels. Each case had stacks of drawers where tools were kept right where they could be found quickly.  It never occurred to me that the these tall red cases were in fact important tools in their own right.

This afternoon in Critique I have a few tools to show, but what I’m really interested in discussing is how to create toolboxes that are usable to everyone. The entire purpose of these tools is to support collaboration, so they can’t remain locked away in some proprietary intellectual property that defies inclusion. It’s relatively easy to publish and market some esoteric model that takes a book or an all-day workshop to explain. It’s much harder to create a tool that people can simply start using.

Can we create tools not only explain themselves, but also find themselves when we need them? I have several ways I can draw on the whiteboard as examples of what I mean specifically by this question.

There is much discussion these days about changing from the ”knoweldge economy” to the “creative economy.” In economic terms this means that the business value of technical prowess in fields like engineering, accounting, and legal is rivaled or surpassed with the aesthetic prowess of design, anthropology, and psychology. For designers, this means moving away from using technical tools for making functional things to using psychological tools for making meaningful things.

This shift from technical to cognitive has given rise to countless “cognitive” tools. Many of these tools are highly personal and idiosyncratic, which is ultimately a good thing, but “mastering” them all can represent an unrealistic burden on designers who already practicing their technical craft at two in the morning.

The solution is to place this complex and growing tool-set within a simplified framework that can guide the process of using them, rather than trying to pre-train people on them. In this way, the framework itself becomes a tool, much like my fathers red tool cases, or a search engine is for the internet or the Dewey decimal system is for the library.

One question that immediately arises, is what should this framework look like? How should tools be organized and retrieved? According to function? According to their place within a linear process? According to context or case study precedents?

This is the discussion I would like to have to today in critique. What does a toolbox look like? It is more preferable to me that the framework be inclusive according to a common intuition, rather than efficient according to a proprietary schema or logic.

Can we create tools not only explain themselves, but also find themselves when we need them? The best people to have that conversation with are artists.

Tools for Constructing and Communicating Ideas

In recent years both design and other professional fields have seen various mental mapping and graphing tools emerge that aid in work out ideas visually and verbally.  Accordingly, in both design and business sections of books stores you can find books explaining a wide of variety of tools and procedures, such as the person map, or the customer journey map, for capturing ideas for innovation. Many of these tools have become standard tools in many professional toolboxes where collaborative creativity is called for. For more information about these tools and methods, I’ve pictured a few essential books below.

Additionally there are three pitfalls I think are worth mentioning when learning more about these tools. The first mistake is being ignorant of them. Because these tools make thought visible to people in a room, they overpower mere verbal communication, and therefore become a form of leadership. It is my experience that designers and artists who are very talented with their hand tools, tend to underestimate the impact of these visually simplistic “cognitive tools.” Meanwhile, people with no design or visual training at all, can take over creative and strategic conversations simply by making effective use of these tools. It’s a paradox that has bewildered many super-talented design geniuses who find that all their powers of concrete form making are no match for some one who communicates abstract thought.  No matter how brilliant their 3D modeling or kerning, they always find themselves at the back-end of projects, after everyone else has eaten up the schedule and budget.

The second rut that newcomers to these tools can make is to abdicate control to them. Problem-solving is an exercise in tolerating cognitive dissonance. Once people discover a tool that promises to relieve them of this dissonance it is naturally very tempting to turn that experience into a new science. In this mindset, we lose sight of our final delivery, and instead process is our delivery. We believe our job is to keep the machine running smoothly, and the output will take care of itself.  The problem is that we can keep tightening the proverbial screws so tight that the heads pop off.

The third pitfall to avoid is to attribute creative powers to them. Whereas some want to turn these tools into a science, others want to turn them into a religion.  These tools are collaboration and communication aids, but they can’t replace thinking and creativity altogether. It is very tempting to believe that new ideas can be generated through ritual. We want to turn our conference rooms into Kiva’s where we can gather to place the ceremonial stickies all over the wall. Once we complete this ritual, some insightful pattern will appear to tell us the “answer.” This mistake is akin to how some people abuse research. Data can’t replace insights, interviews can’t replace empathy, and research can’t replace creativity.

Well in any case, the topic of emerging  tools for collaborative design is well worth learning about whether you consider yourself a designer, a researcher, a marketer, or something else. Of course, like anything that’s helpful or pleasant, these tools can be abused. The cure for abuse however, isn’t disuse, but right-use. I think a quote by Donald Norman explains the right use with this introduction to his essay titled, “Things Make Us Smart.”

“The power of the unaided mind is highly overrated. Without external aids, memory,  thought, and reasoning are all constrained. But human intelligence is highly flexible and adaptive, superb at producing procedures and objects  that overcome it’s own limits.” How have we increased memory, thought, and reasoning? By the invention of external aids: it is things that make us smart…through the tools of thought – cognitive artifacts-that compliment abilities and strengthen mental powers.”

Below are 6 books that describe and explain the usage of tools and procedures for collaboration and communication.

The Convival Toolbox by Liz Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers
The Convival Toolbox by Liz Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers

Communicating the New by Kim Erwin
Communicating the New by Kim Erwin
Universal Methods of Design by Bella Martin and Bruce Hanington
Universal Methods of Design by Bella Martin and Bruce Hanington
101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar
101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar
The Primes by Chris McGoff
The Primes by Chris McGoff
Writing and Research for Graphic Designers by Steven Heller
Writing and Research for Graphic Designers by Steven Heller