Designing in the open

by Chris Skelton

I’m concerned about the design industry. We are too quick to jump to conclusions, overly critical, competitive, closed and cliquey.

It’s understandable, though. As designers it’s in our nature to spot the holes in things. It’s our job to question thoughts and produce the most unique and refined ideas in order to elevate and position our clients above their competitors. The pitching process hasn’t helped, either. We need those perfect, secret ideas to win projects and keep our businesses going.

However, more often than not the world seems to forget that ideas are infinitely stronger when people come together, focus their energy, share their thoughts and work as a team to solve a problem, especially when this is done early in a project. They might hate to admit it, but any designer will tell you — with a bit of prodding — that results are always better when other people are involved.

  • Being more open

    In my opinion designers in all industries should be more open. We should share our ideas and processes from the very start of a project to the end. We can all benefit from witnessing the ups and downs, the successes and failures, the delights and tribulations. After all, didn’t we just agree that working through a problem together yields better results?

    This isn’t a new idea, it’s been spoken about before and many articles have been published online since at least as early as 2010, and I imagine it’s been a topic of discussion long before then, but I haven’t seen much change.

    I had an interesting discussion in the studio recently about why we do what we do, and the answer was, without question, that we’re tremendously dissatisfied with the world—how depressing—and are striving to make it better through design. It sounds both cheesy and egotistical at the same time, but we want to make a difference to peoples’ lives, and we know that through design we can. Everyone benefits from good design, and that’s really fulfilling. So, if more people have insight into what makes good design, we’ll elevate each other to new heights, as well as teaching valuable lessons to those just starting out in the industry.

    This is a fascinating subject for me to discuss as I’ve spent most of my career (so far), in the Web industry, which as it happens is a very different beast to other, more long-standing creative industries. For someone who’s grown up building websites it’s just in my nature to share, and it’s only as I’ve opened my eyes to other sectors of the industry by spending time with colleagues how have a more traditional design background, that a distinct lack of openness has become apparent.

    The evolution of the Web has encouraged openness

    Anyone who works predominantly online knows that Web technology is, and always has evolved at very swift pace. There are so many new possibilities every single week that no one ever really knows everything, everyone is always a bit unsure, and everyone always has questions. It’s been a 20-year battle that only seems to be getting more difficult. The amount of knowledge needed to create engaging experience online is daunting even for an experienced professional, never mind a young University graduate, so it’s no wonder we’ve been forced to ask questions and publish answers in order to succeed.

    Having said that, the Web industry is by no means perfect. Dribbble was designed as a platform to share work-in-progress but almost instantly became a showcase for super-refined digital design work. Though we certainly are more comfortable with the idea, as illustrated by various articles that have been written on the subject here, here, here, and here.

    The rest of the design industry

    The impression of some is that the thought processes and working practices of rest of the design industry — with the exception of computers and software — has stayed more or less the same for the past 50 years. But has it? There aren’t huge breakthroughs in the design process every year, but as society changes so do ideas of what is possible as a creative outcome. Wouldn’t it be interesting to actually see how organisations work together to arrive at a solution? Isn’t that part of what we all found so fascinating about MadMen?

    Everything we see in publications and blogs is a finished product, nicely packaged in Swiss-inspired wrapping paper. We’re told that this is the perfect solution and it has/will do wonders for the client. And I’m sure it will, but we put our work on a pedestal, so it’s no wonder other designers enjoy pulling it to the ground.

    But who are we to judge a project and a process that we haven’t been part of?

    What if we saw all the tiny decisions that went into creating something? What if we were witness to all of the conversations, debates, arguments, problems and solutions? Or better still, what if we were invited to contribute? Would we have a different perspective and therefore a different opinion on the final outcome?

    Publishing stories is powerful:

    • It’s a reminder that we’re real people, not just corporate entities.
    • By confidently discussing design work and documenting outcomes you can position yourselves as experts in the eyes of potential clients.
    • It informs potential clients about the number of decisions and amount of work that goes into various types of project.
    • It makes you more attractive to potential recruits by giving real insight into your culture and creative process.
    • It builds more awareness of your business though the distribution of valuable and informative content.
    • It allows you to gather valuable feedback from a wider range of people, and:
    • Encourages greater work by committing you to a project and making you even more responsible for the outcomes.

    Sharing is caring

    We all care deeply about the quality of design everywhere, and I truly believe that we can benefit from being more open about what we do every day. The journey of design can sometimes be more interesting than the outcome, and there is so much knowledge out there that it’s incomprehensible to me that so many talented individuals and firms worldwide work in silos.

    I’m concerned about the design industry. But maybe if we all shared more we wouldn’t be all of those things that I listed at the start, and we’d begin to build even stronger businesses, as well as a foundation for even more talented young designers to support us in years to come.

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