Design Vision: Part 3

by February 9, 2006

Part three of Design Vision: a conversation about the role of design-driven leadership in the product development process (be sure to check out part two first).

Luke Wroblewski

Though I largely agree with Bob’s definition of design as a disciplined form of problem solving, I think it’s valuable to characterize design vision differently.

In most product development teams, no one is fully defining (much less solving) the problem across the multitude of considerations that make up today’s products: marketing, economics, engineering, packaging, etc. The complexity inherent in each discipline makes it next to impossible for any one person to have a complete depth of understanding for each consideration.

This is why the broad generalist understanding of these considerations (and more) is what Jim and I were stressing earlier. To me it’s all about “knowing enough to know what is possible”. For example, I don't know enough about engineering to discuss the nuances of SQL Server data structures. But I took enough Computer Science classes to understand how data can be organized on the back-end. Whether deliberately or subconsciously, I use this information in my designs. Likewise, I'm not a content manager. I can't quote from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. However, I have written enough prose to understand how to structure my writing to get a point across. Again, I use these principles and process in my product designs.

I'm not trying to boast here- I'm just pointing out the more I stretch horizontally, the more my designs function as systems. The more they can communicate in concert. That's design vision to me: being able to unify the diverse aspects of products into a cohesive message. Today's products are massively complex. That's why they often come out significantly less than ideal. It’s time for the new Renaissance man to take up the reins of innovation and bring cross-disciplinary execution (call it capital “D” design if you must) to the forefront of the product process.

Dirk Knemeyer

I’m with you on this, Luke: the role of design visionary is essential, and markedly different from that of just design. You captured many of the generalist components of that very successfully. But I’m going to take the definition of design visionary a little farther: I think that this person can actually come from one of three basic places (as opposed to only coming out of design or from the design organization):

First is the CEO/business leader. This is typically someone whose background is in sales/marketing/general business. They have a seemingly natural ability to understand markets, anticipate what people want, and a vague (or better) ability to visualize what will fill the opportunity that lies at this intersection. Think Steve Jobs.

Second is the engineering/reasarch and development lead. This person has a deep understanding of what is possible, and how to make it possible. They also tend to have a good sense for what the market will respond to, at least within a specific problem set, and thus are able to synthesize the potential of the technology with solutions that will actually catch fire and make money. Think Larry and Sergey.

Third but certainly not least is the principal designer. This is someone who is a highly experienced designer, who really understands great design and in one fashion or another is able to create great products with their own hands. They also understand the applicable technology well, as they must be proficient with it to be a designer in the first place. And like the others, they have a good sense of the market. This applies to most great designers.

Each of these people have a broad and generalist understanding of business, technology, and design (or, to use the language you chose earlier Luke, marketing, engineering, and design) through their combination of skill and experience. But – perhaps more importantly – through their senior role in the company they are likely to have the channels, authority, and ability to actually get their ideas made. There are lots of good ideas out there. At different times, most people have probably had an idea that could have made a lot of money. But it is an entirely different matter to have a vision and get it made. That is where design visionaries come in. They aren’t necessarily the ones who do the primary creation and assembly, but they see and cultivate their vision through the organization.

Now, I happen to think that designers are most naturally suited to fill this role, given their experience in actually building products and spending a lot of time in the heads of users, understanding how they think and what they respond to. But it is not ultimately “our” unique domain; it is really a role for anyone who has a great idea – and the experience and authority to lead an organization or design team to making it real.

More to come

Be sure to catch the final installment of Design Vision on Functioning Form tomorrow...