#18 The Strategy Designer

I met David Townson the day I started University. He was the driving force behind the design of my undergraduate course in Product Design. In my second year he left the university to start the Newcastle LiveWork studio. This move was another step in my journey of discovering and becoming addicted to service design. Since then he has started his own ventures and worked as a consultant with organisations such as The Design Council, NESTA and 100% Open. I’m delighted David will be working closely with our Experience Design students as part of their Business Strategy project. Here’s what he has to say…

1. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt over the last year?

It’s never too late to change your mind (not learnt solely in last year – mainly had reaffirmed in last year).

In a world of increasing uncertainty and reducing timescales, anyone involved in the development of new ‘stuff’ can often be ‘bumped’ into committing to something that may turn out to be the wrong course of action. It’s never too late to change your mind, primarily because it’s an opportunity to learn something new (and nobody knows it all – don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise). If you believe that you’re in a situation where what the course of action you’d thought you’d be using is no longer the correct one, then you can change. I did it earlier this year on a personal project I was working on that was clearly not going to yield the value I needed it to in the time I had (within the last three months of a twelve month training course I was studying on), so I ditched the idea and started a new one instead. I also did this half way through a workshop last week – what I’d thought I’d do was clearly no longer the right thing in my professional view, so I did something else (and on the fly so the client saw something happen that wasn’t on the schedule). This can apply in various situations and you need to be mindful of when it’s occurring.
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For example, a client may ask you to outline your approach to something (a workshop, a piece of writing, some web design, a new service idea) and then, before you know it, the outline (which you knew was one of a number of possible responses but were in a situation where you had to give it ‘your best shot’) has been adopted as the final thing. If you’re not careful, you can be carried along on the client’s enthusiasm and desire to hit a tight deadline (and the fact that you’ve been hired to do the work). Before you know if, you’re presenting something that was an initial suggestion as if it’s the answer when you actually know it’s not. You now either have to carry on or design your way out of the situation (not a piece of design you were hired to do).

To reduce the likelihood of this happening in the first place, you need to develop as close a working relationship with your client as you can. Particularly for complex projects, where there are no ‘off the shelf’ answers, help them understand that design is a change process and that you’re essentially using it to navigate uncertainty and that the outcomes will be better if you do that together. You might find it helpful to use the word ‘pivot’ – a business word with high currency at the moment (popularised in a book called The Lean Startup). To pivot ones business is to change it. Remember that your client is a designer too (whether they acknowledge it or not) because they want a different situation than the one they have now. As the economist Herb Simon said, “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”.

If, in a discussion about change, the client won’t listen, and wants to pursue a course of action that you’ve learnt is no longer appropriate, then either (a) walk away and acknowledge that you may not work with that client again, putting it down to experience or (b) design your way out of the situation somehow, deliver the best value that you can within the constraints that now exist, get paid and then have the conversation about how you might have done it differently (you might get a follow on project). If that doesn’t work, see (a).

2. What’s your burning question of the moment?

How can we enable the type of engaged discussion that happens in a really great face-to-face workshop in an online environment?

I’ve spent a huge amount of my career designing, delivering and reflecting upon face-to-face workshops. I love doing workshops, they’re a great way to enable experiential learning and to assess the impact on the participants in real time. You can see how engaged people are or where they might be struggling for some reason (and adjust what you’re doing and how you’re doing it to help). I like to work with a good structure that has some core principles at its heart but that has enough flexibility to account for both the context of the workshop (the type of organisation or challenge being explored) but also for human behaviour. For example, a particular topic may unpack in an unanticipated way, sparking a new and valuable discussion (which you want to harness rather than shut down) and that sees me introduce a tool or technique I hadn’t planned on using but is now apposite. My workshop design didn’t say I was going to do this but it’s never too late to change you mind (see above). I get a lot out of workshops as do my clients.

Over the last 12 months I’ve begun to do more online workshop activity. There are some brilliant tools out there to support online webinars, interactive training and collaborative working. When combined with internet video and audio, online collaboration really seems to be coming into its own. And yet, and yet…it simply doesn’t beat spending real time with real people in a real space. There are always technical issues of some sort for some one. Joining an online session is never as easy as walking into a room through a door. You can’t ever get a real sense of the mood of the room or how engaged people truly are (even with video, people are still checking messages in other parts of their screens or getting distracted in other ways). I’m convinced that there’s a way to better harness the scale of the web for the type of workshops I do but I haven’t found it. Yet.

3. What’s the most inspiring thing you’ve seen / heard / read in the last year?

Too many to mention as I’m constantly inspired by anyone I’m lucky enough to work with. I’m looking forward to the gang at Hyper Island doing the same for me. However, a few things that have made an impression and that I recommend to others given half a chance are:

Anything by Marty Neumeier. His business books are great – packed full of really useful tools and you can read them in two hours. But his real magnum opus is Meta Skills. If you’ve got any interest in design and education then you have to read this. I was fortunate enough to become involved in the review process of this book – particularly on the chapter around learning – and as a result spent time in dialogue with Marty. He conveys everything every so well and as simple as it can be (and no simpler). His manifesto ‘A Modest Proposal’ (after Swift) is brilliant and I think should be implemented as part of the education policy of any sane land.

Other things to read I’ve found useful recently are Zero to One by Peter Thiel (PayPal founder and one of the first investors in FaceBook), The Art of The Start by Guy Kawasaki and an article by Wired Founder Kevin Kelly called 1000 True Fans.

Lastly, I’ve finally got into podcasts – non-fiction ones in particular. Not sure where on the adoption curve I am on this one (always like to think of myself as an early adopter) but I think podcasts are finally starting to come into their own. This is partly done to better technology and accessibility but also down to some people finally realising that there is value in spending time creating a strong narrative and making podcasts like the best radio shows. To understand what I mean, go and listen to the first season of Startup by Gimlet Media (created by Alex Blumberg). It is fantastic in so many ways. It helps you get what I mean about podcasts (he literally explains it better than I do) but if you’re mainly interested in starting a business, then this is the show for you. It’s honest, at times emotional, very very real…and very very inspiring. Lastly, and just to understand what you can achieve in life, listen the the podcast of Tim Ferriss. The guy is an inspiring maniac. And slightly addictive. If you’re young enough, he’ll fill your head with ideas that you can spend the rest of your life executing. Enjoy.

You can read more design profiles over here…

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#15 The Data Designer

#14 The Experience Designer

#13 The Design Teacher

#12 The Creative Technologist

#11 The Creative Generalist

#10 The Hyper Island Designe

#9 The Conscious Designer

#8 The Business Designer

#7 The Networked Designer

#6 The Speculative Designer

#5 The Digital Maker

#4 The Craftsman

#3 The Storyteller

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#1 The Go-Getter.