Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Type Zen

“Our personal design sense and acuity is on display every day in our presentations, our documents, our meetings, our e-mails, and in the way we think and express our ideas,” says Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen Design.

Design matters. Well-designed objects not only look good, but they work better, and people have a positive emotional response. “People make instant judgments about whether something is attractive, trustworthy, professional, too slick, and so on. This is a visceral reaction – and it matters.”
The first chapter of Presentation Zen Design talks about type or font, something we often take for granted. Reynolds repeats two of his key messages: Avoid Clutter and Create Harmony.

Those messages really hit home for me when I was reading an online publication. The unusual use of capitals and the combination of three or four different fonts was annoying. Rather than enhancing the content, it distracted my attention and interrupted the flow.

It was a good lesson for me to keep in mind the next time I was preparing a report or a handout.

Monday, January 25, 2010

I go out walking in the middle of winter

Saskatoon got hit by a major winter storm this weekend. The streets are blocked with snow, and the buses aren't running. People are driving their cars, but you can expect to get stuck or have difficulties if you try to stop or turn or pass another vehicle.

And it really doesn't affect me. Because I don't have a carcentric lifestyle. I can walk to the grocery store, walk to the offices where I work, even walk to the library or the coffee shop.

I'm sure that a great many people are grumbling and complaining that the City isn't clearing the streets fast enough. But what do we expect? Human beings have tried to impose their structure and rules in creating an urban environment. But, when push comes to shove, nature is far more powerful than we are. When will we learn that we have no choice but to live in harmony with nature?

And, yes, I'm fully aware that I am not living off the grid. If the power had gone out, I'd have been in trouble.

Photo courtesy of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix
Title courtesy of Connie Kaldor

Friday, January 22, 2010

Prototypes and Beta Versions

One of the challenges I’ve had with several of my contracts is obtaining feedback on a draft document. The client wants to approve an early version of the final product, while I’m looking for discussion and collaboration. Design thinking provides some solutions.

Design thinkers approach a project (i.e. designing a chair) as “thousands of interlocking decisions. Collectively, all of these questions together are too big to digest, so the designer leaps headlong into the process and begins creating. First, she looks for inspiration, collecting ideas and expressions that help her think. Designers use art, metaphors, analogies and other elements to provoke inspiration around form, function, feel, and experience. Through this process they are breaking the decision down while simultaneously giving themselves new options. Very soon, the designer will begin to create prototypes to understand how certain parts of the chair will work, what it will feel like, and how it will look. Through experimentation and iteration, designers formulate a deeper understanding of their options. Over and over, they refine their ideas; building and rebuilding, they winnow small decisions down until they arrive at the final object. This is design thinking in action.”

There are two important lessons for me in this approach. First of all, jump right in and start working on the project. Once you have a beta version, you can revise it. This works really well when I’m writing software documentation. We develop the first version of the Help when the software is brand new. Once it’s been used by the customers and we know what types of problems they have or what kind of information they are looking for, we go back and rewrite the Help to more adequately address the customers’ needs.

The second concept that really makes sense to me is building several prototypes. Show clients how it will look so that they can imagine the final product, but give them several options so that they can make comparisons and choices. This way I can sidestep the client’s desire to make a quick administrative decision – ‘Yes, it’s good. No, it’s bad.’

My thanks to Ideo for linking me to this article. Decisions by Design: Stop Deciding, Start Designing by Colin Raney and Ryan Jacoby was published in the Winter 2010 issue of Rotman, the magazine for the Rotman School of Management.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I'm the Best

I am feeling really pumped today because I’ve received four new contracts in the past week. And some of them are really exciting ones that will not only take advantage of current skills but also push me to develop new knowledge and expertise.
Freelancing is forcing me to believe in myself and to put myself forward. There are no fallback positions. If I don’t get out there and promote myself, I won’t make any money. It’s a multi-faceted process. I have to clearly identify my skills and interests in my own mind. Then I have to work out ways to tell people about my skills and emphasize ways in which I can help them to succeed. And once I get a contract, I have to sit down and actually do the work – even if it takes me outside my comfort zone.

I have to be prepared to invest in myself by buying books or taking courses. I can’t rely on other people’s judgment of my abilities. I have to be persistently optimistic, always reaching for the stars. There is no steady pay cheque, no statutory holidays, no boss to tell me what to do. I am completely and entirely responsible for my own destiny.

And I love it – but it is often challenging. And as a result, I could really emphasize with Clay Shirky’s Rant about Women. Shirky says that we live in a world where skill at self promotion “produces disproportionate rewards, and if skill at self-promotion remains disproportionately male, those rewards will as well. . . . In these circumstances, people who don’t raise their hands don’t get called on, and people who raise their hands timidly get called on less. Some of this is because assertive people get noticed more easily, but some of it is because raising your hand is itself a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something.”

Shirky goes on to say that there is a price to pay for self promotion: “It’s tempting to imagine that women could be forceful and self-confident without being arrogant or jerky, but that’s a false hope, because it’s other people who get to decide when they think you’re a jerk, and trying to stay under that threshold means giving those people veto power over your actions. To put yourself forward as someone good enough to do interesting things is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction.”

Shirky’s post has received a lot of negative feedback. And it’s true that he presented his argument very forcefully. I don’t want to be seen as a self-promoting narcissist or a pompous blow hard. But I am passionate about establishing my business, and I’m not prepared to abandon those dreams and play a traditional female’s supporting, caretaker role.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Designing Solutions to Problems

In the past, designers focused their attention on designing objects. They came up with clever new designs for cars or furniture or handbags, but they rarely addressed every day problems and needs. The situation is changing as organizations are starting to apply design principles to business and social problems.

The Innovation Gap
One of the principle goals of design thinking is to bridge the gap between our knowledge of how to make things and our knowledge of what people want. Design thinking is people-centered as it studies how people live and use objects. OXO Good Grips spent years watching people working in the kitchen in order to design a vegetable peeler that would be easy for people with arthritis to use. They now produce a whole range of tools and utensils.

Design Like You Give a Damn
Designers are also turning their attention to social problems. Architecture for Humanity's goal is to build a more sustainable future through the power of professional design . They work with communities to design and build transitional refugee shelters, schools, and other facilities. The Aquaduct Bike is designed to transport, filter and store water to help communities in developing countries that must travel long distances to collect water, often from unsafe sources.

Embrace Constraint
According to Bruce Mau, a Canadian designer, “When things aren’t working the way they should be, you have the makings of a great design project.” By embracing ambiguity and complexity, designers are forced to come up with new solutions or new combinations.

One Laptop Per Child wants to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children. Their goal is to produce an extremely cheap, rugged, low-power, connected laptop with content and software for collaborative, self-empowered learning.

The Art of Science
Buckminster Fuller said, “If the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player; but they used the technology to design the wildly successful iPod.

I wholeheartedly agree with Bruce Mau when he says that public transit desperately needs a design-focused overhaul: “So far we have failed in designing a real alternative to the car. When you compare the bus and the car as experience, there is a clear winner and loser. Why does my minivan have seventeen cup holders – but my bus has none? Why is my bus shelter not heated, but I can start my car remotely and let it warm up? Why is my bus uncomfortable and noisy when I can listen to Beethoven in my car in relative silence? My bus is a design failure. It’s a stick painted green, and out of desperation or inspiration, I’m supposed to want the experience. In Toronto, the slogan of the transit company is ‘the better way.’ Well, actually no. It’s not the better way, and everyone knows it.”

Working Together
Complex problems don’t fit neatly into categories. Hilary Cottam works on designing solutions to social issues (redesign of the prison system, loneliness and aging). She “has argued that designers today may need to be facilitators above all else: marshalling and integrating the efforts of engineers, sociologists, politicians, social service administrators, community activists . . . And once a solution is found, collaboration becomes even more important, because a diverse skill set is usually needed to turn the idea into a reality.”

Exploring Design Thinking
Glimmer, How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World by Warren Berger is an excellent overview of design thinking. It was the source of the quotes and examples in this article.

I am also looking forward to reading Change by Design by IDEO’s Tim Brown and The Design of Business by Roger Martin. Bruce Nussbaum’s blog, Innovation and Design, is also an excellent resource.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Weasel Words and Corporate Speak

Here is the link to a very funny 40-minute video of a speech by Don Watson on the absurdity of business language jargon. Don Watson is an Australian who has written Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language and Gobbledygook. In his speech, he points out the absurdity of corporate speak giving as examples “adverse patient outcome” (they died) and “historically dry circumstance” (drought).

What is the purpose and actual meaning of mission statements? Do we really want to “delight our customers”? Is it realistic to expect finance department officials to be “agile and passionate”? Does a grade 2 classroom really need a mission statement? And if it does, do we really want to encourage 7 year olds to be risk takers - in the playground perhaps?

Watson responds to a letter addressed to “Dear Valued Customer” by writing “Dear Bureaucrat.” He also suggests testing your wording by pretending you are writing to your mother – you would never write “Dear Valued Mother.”

The examples Watson uses are funny, but he also points out the risks of jargon. The warnings about last year’s forest fires in Australia were so abstract that the public didn’t understand the risk. And it is a depressing judgment of our politicians when the media questions are more informative than the answers.

(with thanks to Signal vs. Noise)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Fire Yourself

Ron Ashkenas wrote an interesting article for the Harvard Business Review. He recommends firing yourself from your job, re-evaluating the job requirements and deciding what you would do if you were coming into the job fresh.

“First, take a deep breath and fire yourself. That's right — take yourself out of your job so that you'll get some distance from it. Second, consider what you would do to reapply for your job. What are your qualifications? What would you say in an interview about the changes you would make and the improvements you would engineer? What unique "stamp" would you put on this new job? How do you feel about the business strategy and the quality of the leadership team? What would you change?”

The holidays have given me the opportunity to sit back and assess not only how I am building my freelance business but also how I am choosing to live my life, and I’m going to try and refocus my energy in the new year.

I’ve realized that although it’s important to be disciplined when you have a home-based business, you also need to be able to let go and be flexible. I don’t have to be at my desk at 8:30 every morning so long as I get the work done. And I do better work if I relax a little and am not quite so driven.

Time to Reflect
I’ve really relished my quiet retreat days when I deliberately stayed at home and read and listened to music. It’s so easy to let external stimuli drive your actions; it’s far more difficult to slow down and reflect and explore. But in the long run, it’s far more profitable.

Believe in Yourself
If I were to start my business over again, I would be far more self confident. I would emphasize my higher-level skills of research and analysis and teaching. I excel at collecting and synthesizing information and then using my communication skills to share that information with others.

One of the highlights of the past 10 days has been listening to online dialogues in Spanish. I've found a website that offers interesting discussions of current topics using colloquial Spanish, and I’m enjoying listening and looking words up in the dictionary and trying to copy their accent. But it also feels like a complete waste of time. I'll never use Spanish in my work, and I know that I need an opportunity to speak as well as listen, but it’s fun!

I have learnt over the years that the straight path between Point A and Point B may be the quickest, but it’s not always the best. Sinuosity, a curving path that meanders in various directions, represents flexibility and endurance. So I’ll trust my instincts and make time for Spanish study every week.

What would you do if you fired yourself and took a fresh start?