Over the last few months there has been a lot of talk about how designers are successfully home-working during virus-times lockdown in many countries — how from their spare rooms whole design teams have managed to remotely do pretty much everything they were doing before in the studio. The dialogue on this tends to be about the tools they have used to accomplish this transition, on how they are moving design properties from formative sketch to digital engineering properties, and even how maybe working from home is more efficient than working in the studio.
One thing we have noticed is how we are mostly hearing about the practical, executional craft, not the creative and intellectual process, of designing — about measurable quantity, not immeasurable quality. Maybe this is because, being hard to measure (or even see or describe), it is easy to overlook the creative bit of design thinking. As design management grapples with so many new imperatives on-top of existing programmes, and because home-working is temporary anyway, its arguably not something much can be done about either. But we were curious to consider what sits behind this reduction in the creative and intellectual aspect of designing to see if this could be addressed or learnt from, and, have found three overlapping areas that stymie this aspect of the design process. Related to these we think are ways these three areas might pivot to then make a better design process in the future:
Working from home reduces the visibility of design briefs, work-in-progress designs from co-workers, early project design ideas that have been moved on from, and the design icons from the brand’s past that we take for granted as the wallpaper of most design studios. In a related way, work-spaces at home tend not to be as strewn with inspirational bits of research, or mood boards, or sketched out ideas. It’s not practically possible, yet alone secure, for most home-working designers to be surrounded by this kind of stimulus: remote-working inherently reduces the volume and narrows the variety of what we can surround ourselves with to inform and inspire, and thus reduces the ‘creative oxygen’ fuelling the design process (although clearly some designers do successfully pro-actively compensate for this!).
Home-working designers are more isolated from the design team than ever before, they are ‘less-teamed’ — particularly junior designers (arguably the creative engine of design teams) who attend less meetings than senior designer and thus have even less contact with colleagues now. And remote meetings are different to in-real-life ones; there is no time wasted changing rooms and then bumping into colleagues in corridors, or getting distracted by pre-amble or post-meeting chit-chat. Indeed, working from home means many designers don’t lose time to ‘water-cooler moments’, or lengthy coffee breaks, or off-site lunches, or talking about a recent game or film with co-workers when they arrive in the morning. Similarly they aren’t having ad-hoc moments when work-in-progress design is seen or commented on by others when passing by (solicited or otherwise!), when someone relays the upshot of a heated exchange about a design between senior and junior designer, or when a bunch of co-workers crowd around to look at and discuss a just announced radical design from outside the organisation. Home working makes communication only about the essential, which is to the benefit of headline project efficiency, but also to the detriment of the wider creative team’s engagement and creative alignment. Fundamentally, design teams are made not just from their shared time at the coal-face of projects, but from a multitude of different ways they interact and build a shared wealth of creativity and ‘one-ness’. Right now this is being stymied by the isolation of home-working, teams are less-teamed.
Beyond the tacit ways designers get stimulous and inspiration in the studio environment, and gain value and ‘one-ness’ from close interaction with their team, they are also often tightly bound to the trajectory of a project along with many players (and not just other designers). This is still much happening with project-centric video-conference meetings being the main-stay of remote working interaction. But the necessarily tight focus of these meetings reduces on-going awareness of real-time project progress, such as: what others in the team are doing or thinking outside of meetings; how the brief is evolving; what some of the related project developments in the organisation are. And project participants also have a less consistently shared history of the project, such as: research that underpinned the original direction; the reasons behind key stakeholders decisions that affected directions taken previously in the project; what the inspiration was behind early concept ideas. Compared to being in the studio, remote working tends to elevate the efficacy of ‘now’ with less of a long tail of ‘then’, and also reduces the visibility of work to just the essential and not the peripheral as well. This project myopia where mostly current and central elements are visible, is another downside of home working.
This article makes the broadest of assumptions about remote-working for designers; different resources and cultures between studios, different project types, and a huge diversity of individual circumstances for designers make this no single experience. But inherent in the experience of most home-working creatives over the last few months has been facets of reduced oxygen, being less-teamed, and having project myopia. This is not surprising given how quickly home-working happened, was initiated as a stop-gap, and needed to emulate existing studio practice for simplicity’s sake. But now we have become fluent with this new way of doing things, perhaps we can go beyond this? Maybe we could pro-actively harness remote-working tools as powerful means to realise new and better ways of doing things, not just to approximate to how we used to be when we were in the same space?
There are three areas we think this might happen in:
Broaden the richness and diversity of insights and intelligence informing the project by remotely engaging with customers the design is being designed for — and get a richer window into who they are and the lives they lead. And to connect similarly with a diverse range of experts: from car dealers to material or technology experts; from academics to those in parallel industry areas; from people in LA to Lagos. Essentially ‘reaching-out’ to usefully broaden and deepen the inputs into a project in a way that is now feasible with remote video calling (and our new found comfort with this tools) and to undertake design research in a way that can also be shared and baked-into a wider programme instead of having these remain only within the design group. This in turn would increase the autonomy of the Design Group with facilities that not only inspire and inform their creative work, but that will help substantiate it also — designers and Design will be more empowered.
Seeing the faces of those working on the same project on a Zoom call gives a sense of ’togetherness’, but it is a long way from being in the same room. At the moment most systems are still at the stage of just helping several people from remote locations come to one virtual location, and for project work to reside in one virtual place. But to ‘come-together’ (as is the original, ancient meaning of ‘team’) is beginning to happen as we see greater fluency with existing tools such as: break-out rooms; multi-screen share; parallel working whilst on a team call with other services such as Miro and Slack; adoption of high quality wireless headphones with integrated microphone; and using video calls beyond just core team meetings in a more instant, informal and passive background way.
There are ways we see that these services could be developed further to unlock more value, but if used to their full potential, even today’s remote-working tools have the scope to realise a new type of team-working for designers that offer some benefits over working face-to-face. When used part-time in conjunction with studio team-work, this combined way of working could go beyond the pre-lock-down studio-based way of team-working.
Gamers today spend hours in a variety of huge and detailed virtual environments where their characters act with others in game-play, and many then re-live their and others game experiences in video replays. At the moment digital design and digital collaboration tools are mostly separate in their function, but the marriage of these —taking with it some learning from the game space — would enable shared virtual environments in which work can be seen progressing in real-time and or work-in-progress can be both walked around during meetings and then re-visiting on an ad-hoc basis. Feedback, decisions, and previous iterations could also be easily be tracked along with other metrics — with stakeholders having visibility of those viewing and adding critical feedback. Designing remotely could be more, not less, transparent than studio-based designing. This would lead to a far more complete creative process, and also greater accountability.
There is more to this area than the immediate challenges (and opportunities) of home-working, just as there is also more to the solution set than Reach-out, Harness, and Transparency. But this perhaps sets out some of the territory of possible changes to the design process that might be a way to pivot to a new and better direction. Covid-19 is set to change the world we are designing for, it might also change the way we design.
[With thanks to Martin Groschwald of Konzepthaus, the Munich based design recruitment and change management consultancy, for his ideas and critical feedback that contributed to this article]