It’s 2018, and I’m writing a book. It’s about the things we bring to design that we don’t think of as design. Perhaps you have a way of thinking or seeing that’s uniquely yours; informed by your innate or learned skills. I was interviewed about the book on The Digital Life podcast; listen or read the transcript.

For me, it’s mostly about what I learned in the arts, specifically literature. I studied English, and the habit of deconstructing or critiquing a text gave me a deeper way of seeing the world; of understanding the subtext or metaphorical nature of an issue. I use it all the time in my work, but I didn’t realise it was useful until years into my career.

I’m hoping that by bringing our stories together, we can make something that we’d wish we’d read earlier in our careers. It’s not going to be just the stories though; I’d like to make it practical, should a designer want to utilise the skills I find in my digging around.

Contributors so far include design leaders such as Joe Macleod (Ustwo), Josh Clark (Big Medium), Stephanie Troeth (Mailchimp), Kevin Hoffman (Capital One), George Oates (Flickr), Mike Atherton (Facebook), Cathy Pearl (Google), Chris Noessel (IBM), and many others.

What’s your story?

I’m inviting designers to contribute to the book, mainly via interviews. If you’ve got something to say, fill out this the form below to get in touch (or just email me).

Contribute your secret design skill >>


Why am I writing this? (unedited excerpt)

Once you’ve had a few years working in a field, patterns emerge. Design is, after all, a practise that involves noticing - how do people behave? What are the patterns? What are the unsolved problems?

This book is about one of those patterns I noticed in design. Well, more accurately, it’s about the patterns within those patterns. Allow me to explain.

For a few years, early in my career as a UX designer (when that was a new, unusual kind of thing), I lived and breathed UX. My feedreader was tuned to all the best blogs; I attempted to suck up as much information as I could to understand how I could be better at it. I was freelance; I had little scope to learn from peers. I paid for conferences with the very explicit goal of parting with large sums of cash, in fact, it was a point of principle that I spent around £3000 a year on learning. 

And after a few years, I started to notice that I was far less interested in the conference talks about UX. The highlights were always those talks from another field - to give me a new lens on design, and new way to think about or see the world. At UX London, I saw speakers from Disney and Pixar - I met Scott McCloud (author of ‘Understanding comics’). The inspiration I got from those talks was much deeper than what I had taken from UX designers. 

It’s not just conferences either: my favourite book about design isn’t explicitly about design, it’s about architecture ('100 things I learned in architecture school'). Go ahead - treat yourself (it’s a wonderful stocking filler!).

But this book isn’t about books or conferences; it’s about people. Because in parallel to the patterns I noticed in my learning, was that many of the designers I admired had also brought something to design that we don’t think of as design. When I talked to them about their backgrounds - how they moved into UX or design from somewhere else (less common these days as the industry matures) I realised that they had something unique in the way they designed.  Their past skills or professions left marks on their design - the echos of another way of seeing, thinking, or doing.

So this book is about osmosis; the liminal; the in-betweeners, or the cross-breeding that makes up the practise of design. And it raises a question: if all you’ve ever done is design, can you be a good designer? Actually, scratch that. Yes, of course you can. A different question then: if you learn new ways of thinking, will it make you a better designer? I believe firmly that it does, and this book is all about exploring that question. To understand a bit more about why this is, we need to sense-check where we are as a society. Because the idea that you are 'one thing’ is not something we should take for granted.  

We think of hyper-specialisation as a kind of societal norm these days, but in fact, it’s both true and untrue in a historical sense. Before the industrial revolution, it’s largely true that people just did whatever their parents did. The options before large-scale, free education were more limited. Farming was the way most people could guarantee food. People largely didn’t experience mid-career shifts, triggered by technology or personal choice. 

But then, it’s also true that people who ‘made a dent in the world’ didn’t see any hard boundaries between different ways of thinking. For example: science used to be called ‘natural philosophy’. Think about that for a moment: it implies that understanding the reality of the world was in fact, a sub-branch of philosophy. Oh how times have changed (try getting a research grant in philosophy these days!). Many of those thinkers weren’t just scientists and philosophers; they were poets, writers, designers, innovators, politicians, and revolutionaries. 

But today, in our hyper-specialised capitalist society, is there room for philosopher poet scientists? Perhaps not. Very few scientists today are likely to have room in their careers to ponder bigger questions outside of their domain. Maybe it’s simply economics; many of those groundbreaking thinkers I’m referring to were just well-off enough to mix it up a little. That’s no longer true.

But there are more recent examples. I’m almost loath to refer to him for all the reverence he’s gained from designers, but Steve Jobs is a instructive example. From the deep influence of that one calligraphy course he took in college, to the way he said that Apple was ’the marriage of humanities and engineering’ - we’d all be better off if our world-view was a little less narrow. We instinctively agree with this at a societal level - we encourage our kids to 'see the world’, and to learn about many different domains in school, only to snatch it away from them in adult life.

Then there’s the organisation who used diversity of viewpoint to define how we interact with the world: Xerox PARC. In the 1970’s, PARC invented the laser printer, object-oriented programming, TCP-IP, and last but not least, the windows-based GUI. What’s not as well known, is that the professions they brought together to innovate on these things were absurdly varied. Think of the traditional technology team (but in PARC’s case, lose the decision-makers!), then add in psychologists, musicians, anthropologists. Ask yourself if your organisation would pay for those kind of people to hang around. Despite the world-changing influence of that organisation, it’s still very, very, unusual to see that diversity of skills in a team. 

Most of the UX designers in my generation are, by virtue of coming into UX via a change in career at a time when it was a very new concept, people who've experienced or studied completely different things. When I speak to them about their careers, there’s usually a thing - a skill, or a perspective, that they didn’t realise was actually really useful in design until they were a few years into the work. But often, that thing is not considered design, or is tangential to it. At least, not something we often talk about in industry. 

This book is a collection of those stories. Ways of seeing, thinking and doing, that were accidentally useful to a designer, someone largely unaware of their own powers at first. When I’ve mentored younger designers, it’s these subsurface, hidden skills that are most interesting to them, the question often being: "how can I learn to think the way they do?”. 

Now, I’d never suggest that mimicking your thinking on someone else is a particularly good idea, as no-one is right all the time (or even that the notion that you could be is particularly useful). When we talk about diversity of thinking, we should discourage the act of reverence, and perhaps treat these ways of thinking more like spices for cooking. Every meal is somewhat unique in terms of ingredients and quantity. Even the bland, mass-manufactured ones. I often remind myself that every new ingredient was once potentially life-threatening. Many a meal was ruined, many a person poisoned, in order to make the food we have today. 

So I’d encourage all designers to find their voice, find their thing, as Bret Victor puts it, or, their set of unique ingredients. To see the diversity of opinion and perspective in the world as a vast creative toolkit, or a library to call upon from all of humanity. This book’s ambition is to make some of those hidden ingredients a little more accessible.  

My own story begins in primary school.

When I was around 9 or 10, all I wanted was to be a Ghostbuster. It wasn’t just the movie; I wore out the tape cassette of the soundtrack - I also wanted to be Ray Parker Jr. As a kid who loved external validation, I dreamed of performing in front of other people. Enter Mrs Samuels, our music teacher. At assemblies she’d let us act out mini-plays, and I can remember hitting play on the tape recorder and dancing along to the soundtrack in front of the entire school. I don’t remember what the story we made up was, I just wanted to perform, my rockstar ambitions on display at an early age. The story didn’t matter.

Then, in secondary school, drama took a more serious turn. I acted in Oliver, Hiawatha, and the Government Inspector, amongst others. The school’s drama department was led by a fiery Northerner with Slavic roots, Peter Maric. Directing a play meant all kinds of creative insults along the way; anyone in the way of progress was a ’shower'. Pete constantly railed against the school’s authority - fighting a battle against being shut down by the powers that be, keeping drama alive as a course by putting on an annual show, thereby bringing PR value back to the school. It was in these plays that I discovered a deeper fondness for performance. Whether it was these plays, or the fact that my father had a radio show of his own in London, I felt compelled to take the stage. 

Ten-something years later, I realise that I’m not actually a particularly good software engineer, and that maybe although I liked writing code as a creative problem-solving act, I wasn’t well-suited to it. What I really want to do was work on the usability or information architecture. 

Sometime after that career transition into UX, I started presenting to stakeholders. And after years away from any kind of stage, it was completely natural. To this day I feel like I have a super-power - give me a topic I know, and I could talk about it in front of any size of audience at the drop of a hat. I’m not saying I wouldn’t be worried or scared, I just have the confidence to know I’ll be OK and face the challenge head-on.

I am not, or was not, a natural graphic designer. Layout and colour are not my favourite playgrounds. But I am a natural design-thinker, and a huge part of that is being able to articulate decisions, and facilitate collaboration. And this is where those performance skills kick in. It took me years to understand that I had this secret advantage - I could be a worse designer than someone else, but I’d be better at presenting an idea - crafting an explanatory narrative, and engaging the audience. 

For this reason, I always recommend that younger designers get comfortable with presenting their work. Seek out the discomfort; it’s the only way to grow. Because if not, you could take 6 months to design your best work; but if you can’t sell it or explain the rationale, it may never see the light of day. 

As our industry matures, and the routes to industry solidify, I worry that we’ll lose something when designers go straight to UX from studying design. Does it mean less diversity of skills and perspective? Time will tell... 

(More to come later!)