This title is a broad and a difficult question but it is one that creatives are forced to face every time they take on a new project. There is always excitement and fear when the canvas is blank and the fewer imposed constraints there are the more challenging it is. My colleague Donna Barry and I, both Design Directors in our respective Gensler offices, were invited to present and moderate a workshop that we entitled ‘Bring It’ at a recent regional firm conference.
Our objective was to help lead a self-critical conversation around the state of our current design approach and where we should try to go from here to improve. The desired outcome for the workshop was not to ‘solve’ this topic in an afternoon but rather to set up an approach with a small focus group to tackle the topic over the course of the next year and to come back Fall 2019 and present the findings.
We ran (3) successive workshops back to back, each one lasted 45 min and was attended by approximately 40 regional colleagues. We immediately put each group to work. They were given the challenge to draw something in 60 seconds on a white stock card. This something was a shoe. This is an exercise that Donna Barry does with her students and we wanted to see how a group of seasoned architects and designers reacted to this fun exercise that is different to their everyday job description. When completed, we asked the group to turn the drawings face down and forget about them for a little while.
The next exercise was a polling question to analyze what the primary roadblocks were to achieving our best design every time. All three groups came back with very similar results and the word TIME was the most stated followed by word BUDGET.
Graphics above are screenshots from two of the polling sessions.
The next polling question was to analyze what the primary ‘tools’ or strategies our company currently uses to facilitate our best design every time. Again all three groups came back with very similar results and every time the words PEOPLE and TALENT rose to the top.
Graphics above are screenshots from two of the polling sessions
So TIME is the biggest challenge and PEOPLE are our biggest asset. This is not surprising and yet it is reassuring that the firm as a whole agrees that our human capital is our largest competitive advantage and that our biggest challenge is not giving “people” enough time to realize their true potential and unleash our competitive advantage. It is also positive that we identified the word “people” as opposed to an individual person. We recognize that our collective is our strength. This leads into one of the main topics we wanted to discuss which is collective collaboration.
“The smartest person in the room is the room”
– David Weinberger, Too Big to Know.
There are a lot of ways to look at time and how it does and does not correlate with “a” design however we wanted to move the group towards “design thinking” and away from time management tools. We stated that “Design is both a noun and a verb, today we want to focus on action (verb) and not get caught up in the age old question “what is design?” (noun) .” This was important because we did not want to get caught up in a philosophical debate. Design is an attitude, it is passionate and a mindset. Justin Farrel was our keynote speaker during the conference. His talk which was the perfect introduction to this workshop.
“Think of verbs, not nouns when trying to come up with solutions”
– Justin Farrel – Stanford Dschool – Design Thinking.
Part of designing is learning how to reframe a question or a challenge. We asked everyone to once again draw a shoe but this time we changed the wording to say “draw a representation of a shoe” in 60 seconds. What was really amazing in both shoe exercises is that almost everyone was pencils down within 30 seconds. This just goes to show how quickly the brain works and how powerful sketching is. Just imagine having this same diverse group do a 3D computer model of shoes in 30 seconds. It would not work. Everyone was then asked to flip over the original shoe and place it next to the new ‘representation of a shoe’ on their round tables in front of them and have a group conversation. The pairs of shoe drawings were dramatically different. Where the first round illustrated almost without exception elevations of a single shoe, the second round was wide open. It ranged from shoe prints to horseshoes.
As the groups compared their drawings, we also asked them to come full circle back to the question how do we bring our best design every time? The conversations were lively and positive, we could hear laughter and camaraderie. We were able to document over one hundred ideas. Some were shorter term solutions. Others looked at the big picture and focused on research. These ideas gave our focus group the basis for our next steps in the coming year.
One other great realization came out of each session. Solutions and ideas were not linked to the participants titles or labels (Design Director, Project Architect, Project Manager, Principal or other). Everyone had the same pen and the same voice and we ended up with hundreds of different ideas in a matter of minutes. One could reasonably argue that there is no timeline too short to accommodate a similar exercise around an actual project. There should be no excuse for bypassing brainstorming, charrettes, sharing of ideas, and collaboration.