Holistic Design: Working Empathetically

The way we design is wrong.

Think about it – the end user doesn’t look at a product and think, “Wow!  I like that logo, and the product speaks to me, and so does the app, and the packaging really communicates everything together!”  Consumers see one thing, and that one thing is what drives their purchase and usage habits.  So if the final design is meant to be one cohesive unit, then why do we work in creative silos?

Historically, the design process has been practiced in isolation.  Having started out in marketing and advertising, I became used to working in silos and I never really questioned it.  Over the years this siloed approach had made some aspects of my design career pleasant and uncomplicated, but I realized over time that there was something missing; the sense of exposure, of perspective, that drew me to design originally.

Going to school, I actually saw myself becoming a ceramicist – I was intrigued by the physicality of the process and thought of it as a form of self-expression.  It wasn’t until one day, when I passed the computer lab and saw people working in Illustrator, that I even knew what Graphic Design was as a discipline; I sat down and began playing around with the different tools, and quickly became enamored with the speed in which I could iterate concepts.  I changed my major the next day.

In a way, entering the world of graphic design with a passion for making tangible objects completely transformed my outlook on the industry.  I have an empathy for industrial design, and a deeper understanding of how my work will live with a physical product.  It seems obvious now that working together across disciplines is fundamental to great design thinking; it allows designers the opportunity to expand their knowledge and grow their perspective.

I’m fortunate enough to work in an environment where there are no walls, literally an open space, where people from different disciplines contribute ideas just as fluidly as finishing one’s sentence.  I work closely with strategists and industrial designers from the beginning of every project.  As a graphic designer focusing on the brand experience, these ongoing partnerships are invaluable to my design process.  To some, this process sounds exciting, and to others this notion of sharing ideas, eliminating boundaries and allowing space for other people’s opinions can be scary.  But I challenge you to find a more gratifying way to work.  This doesn’t mean I take every suggestion that comes my way, but the ability to listen, to hear a different perspective and understand the consequences, for better or worse, is a step towards a stronger idea and partnership.

Strong ideas depend on bravery.  To be brave is the ability to not be tied to your work, but rather the success of a collaborative idea.  I have sat in many critiques where a strategist or industrial designer has given suggestions that make the graphics feel more connected to the whole idea and vice versa.  As Henry Boyle wrote, “The most important trip you may take in life is meeting someone halfway.”  This is true in the design process as well.  I find inspiration in the ongoing conversation, the push and pull.  It helps to evaluate, question, and probe the designs in order to make ideas stronger, better, and more successful before they reach the public.  When I can share differences and ask open-ended questions, I’m creating a space where there are no silos – a space where I can validate and elevate someone else’s ideas.

This type of partnership brings me back to the importance of empathy.  The way we empathize with the end consumer, we need to learn to empathize with each other during the design process.  When working with industrial designers, I try to learn about them as a person, their background, what perspective they bring to the table, not just as the role they play in the process.  This allows us all to gain a more holistic understanding behind our design choices, and ultimately leads to better work.  It also helps me grow both within my discipline, but also as a leader in my office.  And, in practicing this form of communication, I also build better relationships with my clients.

I predict that in 5-10 years, the idea of working in silos will be obsolete.  We will work in smaller, more efficient groups of specialties that will represent the three corners of holistic design: branding, product, and experience.  Approaching design from a group perspective from the start, will avoid the disparity in experiences we see today.  In fact, I think we will see global brands taking bigger risks and reorganizing the way they staff projects to close the gap and unify the brand and product experience.  The more we can foster collaboration, in any setting, and rebuild our human roots of direct interpersonal communication, the better our results will be for anything we do.

Design is like a symphony.  We all play different instruments, sometimes we get a beautiful solo ensemble, but the audience experiences the full spectrum of sound in one idyllic chorus.  The range of emotion that can be created through the complexity of all these instruments coming together is a rich experience for the senses.  To me, design can be imagined in the same way.  If we all play together, imagine what we could achieve.