This Week's Challenge: My Design Graph
The Fundamentals of Effective Design Critique

Starting with the Double-Black Diamond

Turning the Apprenticeship Model Upside Down

When considering a change to our critique habits, we often think it's just a matter of getting everyone on your team together and agreeing upon new ways of working together. However, the way a design organization is structured can have a major impact on how critique is conducted.

Many traditional design organizations have been constructed via division of labor, with the "brains" at the top and the hands at the bottom. When teaching craft first and conceptual thinking second, this type of organization forces designers fresh out of school or without a great of professional experience to grapple with the nitty-gritty details, slowly maturing their way into informing and driving more of the conceptual thinking behind a project. This is known in the craft-based trades as the apprenticeship model.

This line of thinking is becoming old school. and not all agencies function like this anymore. But for large-scale marketing agencies and in-house groups, this type of model is common because—just like a Ford assembly line—people fulfill specialized tasks as part of their daily roles, as cogs in a larger profit-generating machine. This is partially why designers often move swiftly from agency to agency, as they can be a larger cog or leader within another organization sooner than they can vacate their defined roles and responsibilities at their current jobs.

Not all designers (or leaders) believe that "better" ideas come from those with grey hairs at the top. New methods of coaxing the best thinking out of everyone on a design team, whether every person's title is Designer or not, are required for dealing with more complex, ambiguous design problems and ambitious solutions. This requires designers and their cohorts to collectively design the situations in which they collaborate to successfully integrate the best thinking in an emergent fashion from everyone involved. Essentially, flip the pyramid upside down, placing the apprentices in charge.

Pulling this off successfully, over and over again, is harder than it may sound. Let's pursue a wintry analogy to elaborate.

Many of us learn to ski or snowboard by approaching a green, easy slope, and skiing it a few times to make sure we can stay up most of the route. When more confident, we slowly work our way up through the blue, intermediate runs, and if we're feeling spry hitting a double black diamond or two—though the most difficult skiing or boarding might consist of us slowly edging our way down, as we realize we've bitten off more we can chew. Few of us want to demonstrate expertise in tumbling headfirst down a steep, ice-crusted, rocky incline.

The kinds of projects we deal with, especially when working in collaborative teams, don't allow for skiing the greens together, then the blues, then the blacks, and so on for a little backcountry skiing through the trees. Everyone goes down the double black-diamond slope together. Otherwise, we're going to be worn out from all those warm-up runs, which are stealing energy from why we're here: to tackle the really big challenges.

This requires trust from all parties, and probably some sliding and falling as well—moments that everyone has chosen to learn from. One or two of the people may be instructors, teaching people how to bash through three-foot tall moguls. But in the end, everyone needs to make it down the slope together, and sometimes all the instructor can do is tell everyone that she knows it's possible to make it down the mountain, though she can't demonstrate how.

No matter what happens, much of your (and your team's) progress will be good—as long as you're clear that everyone will return to the ski lodge at the end of a hard day to dry your wet socks by the fire. Whether assured in the possibility of falling, or fearful (or fearless) in the face of potential failure, you will make it down the mountain.

So, in old-school agency settings, designers and leaders are motivated to send out the A-team for their bomber run down the double-black diamond, asking everyone else to watch and emulate their actions. "Maybe in a few years, you'll get a chance to give it a whirl… otherwise, just head on over to the rope tow."

But it takes way more guts for a designer and her team to send everyone down together, with enough time, space, and emotional support to help smooth over the bumps, scrapes, and bruises that may be personally inflicted in the pursuit of a collectively understood solution. To quote the Bhagavad Gita: "It is better to perform one's own duties imperfectly than to master the duties of another."

Just because you work with a number of master craftsmen, as part of the apprenticeship model, does not mean that the apprentices cannot define and lead the design. They should be learning by exploring designs in new territories with novel technologies, and teaching the design leaders what works and what may fail. In a sense, we're asking all designers on a team to communicate what tacit knowledge they've gleaned from the work at hand to inform a project's direction in an emergent fashion.

Now, I'm not advocating throwing yourself and your team into crazy demanding situations without support—you always need the ski patrol on hand, and part of the posted rules at any ski area is to know your limits and understand the conditions at play.

But the ski-slope analogy ties directly into what I'd said earlier—letting the work be good—because when everyone is fumbling for purchase on a challenging path, you need to find the right moments where reflection and critique contribute to everyone's success of completing the run.

However, talking about skiing is still a poor substitute for skiing, and reflection must always be tempered by a higher volume of action. Would you rather have one of your designers: 1) fearfully slide the whole way down on their butt; 2) attempt a few turns between tumbles with periods for assessment of performance (and guidance); or 3) have them careen straight down at high speed before causing a major wipeout that risks life and limb?

I'd wager that we think we're choosing #2 or #3, when #1 is actually the most common situation. Design managers that try to drive from the backseat, or otherwise have an active hand in shaping the design material, get queasy rumblings in their stomach when they don't see the work visibly progressing in a manner that feels "safe." What design manager doesn't like seeing incremental improvement and progress? Even though we all know that flashes of insight appear like lightning, scorching previous iterations and showing massive leaps in quality.

To preserve space for bottling this proverbial lightning, I'd like to propose a few novel critique strategies. They'll be outlined in the next post.

Many thanks to Mary Paynter Sherwin, who helped create the central theme of this series and the "double-diamond analogy."


Wyn Pottinger-Levy

You are my new addiction! I teach design in a high school -- where many students would rather have a worksheet (even a test!) than struggle with creating something original on a blank sheet. Every day, I try to coax a little conceptual thinking out of them. Your book's in my cart, your blogs are in my delicious, your design challenges are my next throw-downs in class. Thanks. (BTW... Typo in latest blog: "The kinds of projects...don't allow for skiing the greens together, than (THEN) the blues, than (THEN) the blacks....") ~wynnie @ the center school

David Sherwin

Thanks for the kind words, Wynnie. Let me know how the challenges go in class--it's always fun to see the work that comes out of trying the challenges.

Best, David

P.S. Thanks for catching that typo!

The comments to this entry are closed.