Everything design studies ever did for me…

Presented May 30, 2019

A design symposium & retirement party for the one and only, Brian Donnelly

When Brian first asked if I’d participate in his symposium, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I’d do anything in celebration of him and his retirement. When he broke it down further and said I just needed to talk about what design studies ever did for me, that helped. Coming up with my answer was easy: design studies did EVERYTHING for me. Deconstructing why and figuring out how to explain that to a room of people through a pre-recorded video took a little more time…

After getting a Bachelor of Design from YSDN (York University/Sheridan College joint program in design), I did my MDes at the Institute of Design (ID) in Chicago. Our dean Patrick Whitney had a saying:

If design is the craft of making things, then I believe design studies is how students build the muscle required to think intentionally about what they will choose to make. Today, I’d like to talk about the balance between making and thinking, using reflections from my personal journey as fodder.

Making and thinking parallels nicely with design studio and design studies coursework, so let’s start there.

Comparing my BDes and MDes coursework

It’s interesting to note that even though I took way more than the required amount of design studies courses at the YSDN, it still only amounted to about a quarter of my undergrad classes. In contrast, over two years at ID, almost half of my coursework could be considered design studies.

When I attended it, YSDN was a program that aspired to make the country’s best graphic designers. I always felt a little like a black sheep for being so interested in the design studies coursework. I can still recall Angela prodding and joking with me in Information Design class each time it became evident my projects were on the verge of being late or incomplete because I was spending too much time dawdling in the research and writing stage. In a different class, Mary Anne prompted me to reflect on why it always seemed so hard for me to get started on the design work to be done.

ID, on the other hand, is a program that makes design strategists, product designers, and design researchers. Students are required to come with experience in the craft of design or else take a foundation year to learn those skills before entering the main program.

In the main program, Observing Users was as basic and fundamental as Visual Language or Design & Colour had been at YSDN, but it was taught by an anthropologist who regaled us with stories of the time he spent immersed in Java, Indonesia for his thesis work. Typography 1 was a turning point for me when I was at YSDN because learning about kerning and classic typefaces literally changed the way I saw the world. Observing Users was similar, but it taught me how to conduct user research and laid the foundations for how I observe and interact with people. Design Analysis, Design Planning, Behavioural Finance, and Semiotics taught me how to use different frameworks to make sense of users’ needs and consider how the products and services I designed might fit into their existing habits and routines.

If I was a black sheep at YSDN, I was more of a pig in mud at ID. I took the maximum course load every semester and audited one or two extra classes on top, and I was surrounded by classmates who were just as hungry for design studies as I was. Metaphor & Analogy and Behavioural Finance were two of the hardest classes to get into, they were so popular. One of my most memorable courses was called Exercises in Behavioural Observation. Every week for four months, we gathered to observe Western Lowland gorillas at the Lincoln Park Zoo, forbidden to do any secondary research that might help us understand what we were seeing.

The norms around what classes were cool had changed, but so had what I was actually designing.

Here, I’ll take a moment to step back and share some models that others have made, to give some structure to what I mean.

J. Christopher Jones, “Design Methods” (1970) | Meredith Davis, AIGA Boston keynote (2008)

First, is a simple enough diagram from John Christopher Jones. In a seminal work on design methodology from 1970, he breaks down WHAT we might be designing into components (i.e. features), products, system, and community. This is helpful for categorizing the different degrees of complexity involved in my projects from undergrad to grad school and beyond.

Meredith Davis, Professor Emerita of Graphic Design at North Carolina (NC) State University, adds an axis to distinguish objects/artifacts from experiences — again, both spanning a spectrum of complexity.

Hugh Dubberly, “The Space of Design.” ACM Interactions, Sept-Oct 2010

Lastly, Hugh Dubberly, the esteemed supermodeler, absorbs what Meredith Davis had to say about form giving, meaning making, and context negotiating plus riffs on Jay Doblin’s Matrix of Design to make a 3x3 that encapsulates it all. As designers, on any given project we might be designing objects, systems, or ecosystems. And as we do this, we can consider (or assume, or ignore, or be told…) how we are making something (the form-giving), what we are making (the meaning-making), and why we are making it (the context-negotiating).

Taking these models into consideration, there are a few key transitions that emerge when I look at how my design practice has evolved since leaving Brian’s classroom over a decade ago.

2004–2010: the graphic design years

A small sample of my work over three years at POP

My first job out of YSDN was as a graphic designer for POP Montréal, an indie music festival. The work I produced during this time is definitely rooted in form-giving. Honing my hand lettering skills, I created a mix of different artifacts — gig posters, flyers, program booklets, web banners, and even a papier-mâché rendering of the logo for a window display in a local record store (hi hi Phonopolis!).

My process at this time was very solitary. At YSDN, there was so much to learn about typography and composition that I never even stopped to realize that we were always designing for ourselves as end users. During my tenure with POP, I never had to question who the user was because the point was to create a festival that I would love. I had been hired in part because my design and music aesthetics were in line with both the people putting on the festival and the people who typically attended it.

2011-now: shifting towards human-centred design

Funnily enough, in the shift from graphic design to post-its, whiteboards, and HCD, my carpal tunnel went away too!

At ID and in my work since, the projects have gotten more complex, and at the same time my process has become the opposite of solitary. I never realized that everything I’d done at YSDN was solo work until I got to grad school, where the majority of our projects were in groups of four or more. Upon graduation, I worked as a design consultant at Doblin (a design and innovation consultancy that was acquired by Deloitte, a larger management consulting company). There, teams were staffed with a mix of business, insights, and design practitioners. In my current role as a senior UX researcher at Amazon, I get to work on teams with other researchers, UX designers, PMs, design technologists, and data scientists.

Another key difference between my graphic design and HCD practices is the huge role that research plays. Nowadays, I spend the bulk of my time asking WHY questions and showing others the value of finding out what users want and need BEFORE we make anything. I get out into the field to conduct ethnographic interviews or simply observe how people interact in a space. I facilitate hands-on workshops with my team or with research participants to help us think through doing.

Design Camp: teaching 150 TD Bank employees about human-centred design

The things I make now are no longer isolated artifacts, instead they sit firmly at the experience or systems level. At Doblin and Amazon, often the output of what I am working on is a workshop for a specific audience. Other times I might create an artifact—but it’s the means to an end, not the end itself. I make problem frame cards to help groups align on the right scope and focus for our work. Worksheets help me pull out stories and information from my research participants. Paper prototyping helps involve the research participant in our creative process. I’ve also created books and presentations to help both internal partners and clients understand what human-centred design even is. Increasingly the output of my work is confidential — definitely not stuff I’m submitting for design awards!

Although it’s easier to divide things neatly into making and thinking, it’s clear that every designer’s practice is actually a blend of these two things. It seems obvious — the more disciplined you are in thinking about what you’re going to make, the better, more useful the thing you make (design) will be. What does this mean for design education though? Should design studies courses be separate and distinct from design studios? Surely design research deserves to be its own class to get students started, but it ought to also be actively applied as part of the creative process for every studio project. How should we balance the attention spent on developing a student’s making skills and their thinking skills? How good of a designer will you be if at the end of the day you can’t make? What does it mean that different students will be stronger or weaker at making or thinking?

Thinking about how making and thinking come together in one’s design practice is, I think, necessary. It’s also something that has consistently caused all sorts of identity issues for me over the years…

In preparing for this talk, I dug up some of the old emails I sent to Brian (and Jan) as a young design student. There are two in particular that I’ll share with you today.

Email #1 is from my second year. Tasked with thinking about what kind of design to specialize in, I was in a mini crisis, wondering why I preferred to take all the design studies courses instead of the studio workshops and whether that made me a bad designer. I wrote this email actually wondering if I was in the wrong program. Thankfully Brian and Jan talked me off the cliff.

Email #2 was sent in 2010, with two years of post-YSDN work under my belt. I was itching to go to grad school but unclear if I was in love with design as much as ever or if wanting to do more than pure graphic design meant I was falling out of love with it. Looking back at both these emails makes me realize I spent a lot of time worried about whether I was a “bad” designer! I also wonder what I thought a “design innovator” even was back then…

Nowadays, my current identity crisis is rooted in the tension between how I see myself — as a designer — and how my new team knows me — as a researcher. (It is my job title after all). This is compounded by how different my training is relative to other researchers at the company, many of whom have sociology and psychology PhDs or market research and data science backgrounds.

At any rate, what I can say with certainty is this:

While I lived in Toronto, I had the privilege of co-teaching my own design studies class — Design Management for 3rd and 4th year YSDN undergrads. I did this for two years with Eleni Alpous (2007 YSDN alum). It was a great opportunity for us to reflect on what design studies could mean for a new cohort of students. We revamped the curriculum with the goal of getting students comfortable with the interplay between design and business. I gave a lecture called “This is water…” (HT David Foster Wallace!) and brought my favourite business consultants from Doblin in to talk about their experiences working with designers. For many students, it marked the first time they stopped to examine their unspoken ways of being as designers, with an audience of non-designers.

Here’s a bit of the student feedback we got, which demonstrates the power of design studies as a vehicle for helping students place themselves and their burgeoning design practices in the world, in context.

I cherish my years at YSDN and truly believe that while typography classes may have taught me how to see, it was design studies classes that taught me how to think.

I’ll end with one last email snippet — it’s from Brian.

My classmate Marko and I were in first year — young and idealistic, worried about capitalism, and trying to figure out our place in the world. It was comforting and necessary to have classes and professors that made space for us to wrestle with these thoughts. The gentleness with which Brian matched our earnest angst is so… touching. You don’t get that in a design studio.

Thank you, Brian! 🎉🎉🎉

Forever listening and learning from you…

Thank you for planting the seed that drove me to become the designer and researcher I am today. For making me think I could be grad school worthy. I don’t think it’s possible to adequately convey the impact you’ve had on my practice, my career, my life.

You’ll always be the most bad ass professor in my books — the one who picked me to meet Bruce Mau when you interviewed him for your research, the one who didn’t hesitate to be the keynote speaker at my Shaw Street PowerPoint Party, the one who came with me to see tUnE-yArDs at Il Motore in Montreal, cuz why not?!

I know that I’m not the only one who’s sad that future cohorts of design students won’t be taught by you. As more of us former students start to teach ourselves, know that you are the standard bearer we all strive for. So much congrats on your retirement and I can’t wait to see you in June! Thanks. 💖

Thoughts? This was originally written for Brian’s symposium on design studies in Canada, but I thought I’d get some extra mileage out of it by sharing here too. If anything I’ve written prompted questions, curiosity, or disagreement — let’s get into it! You can also check out my website to see more of my work. Thanks for reading. ✌️

Designer. Researcher. Cyclist. Reader. 🇨🇦 http://www.runcomrade.ca/