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Thinking Design: A pencil, a ruler, and a cup of coffee (Part 2)

by David Burney

In a previous article I explained why the title above has meaning for me. I’d like to dig a bit deeper, so you may want to read that article first if you missed it. If you take the client’s perspective in the above quote to its logical ending, I think you can make the argument that everyone is a designer. Most of us don’t think that way. But, after 30+ years in the industry, I do.

Not that I always did. I was like most young designers a few decades back. “I’m a professional; don’t try this at home,” was more my opinion when clients and others expressed their views on the designs I’d created. I was good. And I knew it. Bigger type? Red? A bigger logo? I’ll get back to you on that.

Today, I see design in a totally different way. I’m less concerned with the design of any artifact and much more interested in the process of design as a way to solve large, complex problems that defy a more “industrialized” analytical methodology. And, in the end, if you play any part in the process, from “Houston, we have a problem” to conducting research and gathering feedback on how successful the process played out, then you are a designer. In the end, everyone is a designer.

Perhaps no one communicates this idea of design better than the folks at NextDesign Leadership Institute (or NextD, for short). Their illustration of a parallel creative process is discipline agnostic and focused primarily on how(design process) rather than what (design artifact). With a mission to help raise awareness regarding how cross-disciplinary environments lead to the acceleration of innovation, NextD strives to expand the reach of design in the world. This focus on multifaceted collaboration emphasizes the power of teams and the varied perspectives offered by each individual contributor. It hopes to illustrate that everyone is a designer–they just don’t know it yet.

AIGA, the professional association for design, is a great resource for varied thinking about design. On one hand, the craft and art of traditional design is nurtured and protected. I’m all for that. They are building an archive of great design that hasn’t been generally cataloged by architects and product designers. But they’ve also recognized the next generation of design thinking–one less concerned with artifact and more concerned with the process of designing regardless of its physical manifestation. Consider their recent website redesign, where they’ve incorporated an entire section devoted to design and business. Here is a repository of articles, presentations, event postings, and other content highlighting the increasing role design is playing in the business world. You can find a similar design and innovation section in Business Week. The buzz is happening, and it is getting noticed.

One of the reasons I find the open source development model so fascinating is because I see it as a large scale creative process that has proven successful on a large scale and with a sense of freedom few would have trusted a few years ago. And now we’re seeing similar movements being moved forward: the human genome project, MIT’s Open Courseware, the Open Voting Consortium in California. Bruce Mau has done an excellent job of cataloging such endeavors in his book Massive Change. In this book, Mau discusses not the world of design, but rather, the design of the world. Massive Change explores paradigm-shifting events, ideas, and people, investigating the capacities and ethical dilemmas of design in manufacturing, transportation, urbanism, warfare, health, living, energy, markets, materials, the image, and information. I love how Bruce asks the fundamental question, “Now that we can do anything, what are we going to do?”

At Red Hat, we’ve chosen a 7-step process to serve as a common vernacular. Define, Research, Ideate, Prototype, Choose, Implement, Learn. The process is illustrated as a sequential, linear process, but it’s important–in fact, critical–to recognize that the process isn’t truly linear. One has to allow for the free movement within the steps, returning to another step if subsequent data suggests so. In this way, the process isn’t simply a process anyone can follow. It demands a cultural acceptance of another way of thinking.

Once this cultural acceptance begins to take root genuinely within an organization, design has a chance. But it is a fragile creature. Easy to kill. Easy to distract. Tom Kelley of IDEO, a leading product design firm built upon the design and innovation process, refers to this fragility in his book, The Ten Faces of Innovation. Kelley suggests different roles people can play in the innovation process. Many play a positive role, like the storyteller, cross-pollinator, and hurdler. But there are also those who can stifle creativity, like the naysaying devil’s advocate. If these roles are adopted and avoided appropriately as part of an organization’s culture internally, innovation and design thinking can be used to transform the customer experience externally.

If everyone–“designers” and non-designers alike–begin to accept the proposition that “everyone is a designer,” we are on our way to a truly creative and innovative culture. And admitting this truth is the first step.

What I’m reading: Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Last movie I saw: Finally watched Borat.
What I’m listening to: Randy Weeks new album: Sugarfinger

David Burney is Vice President of Brand Communications + Design, responsible for building the Red Hat brand globally. David has been involved in developing Red Hat’s corporate identity for more than eight years. Prior to joining Red Hat, he founded and led his own design and communications company. He has also served on the national AIGA board and was chairman of the AIGA President’s Council. David has a degree in Visual Design Communications from North Carolina State University.

3 responses to “Thinking Design: A pencil, a ruler, and a cup of coffee (Part 2)”

  1. kevin utsey says:

    Please forward this comment to David Burney:


    I hope this message gets to you – I enjoyed reading your piece on design and run into the same response all the time: “we need to pay you to draw?”

    Are you going to be in your office this Monday, the 11th? We are interviewing for the parking deck addition next to your building that day and I thought I’d drop by if you are free. Hope you are, it’s been a long time.


  2. William Howell, Sr. says:

    Your article (“Thinking Design: A pencil, a ruler, and a cup of coffee) hits right on a point I have been trying to get accross to fellow friends and students I have taught over the last years.

    I originally started my worklife within the two-way radio field back in 1967, back then if you didn’t have a degree or tech certification there would be no way you could be accepted as a “designer” of anything. In 1989, I had a desire to further the availabilty of “in-car computer terminals” so I sat down and learned computer programming on my own and then started building the RF Modems, writting the software and putting it all together and selling it as a complete operational and useful system. There wasn’t a day that didn’t go buy that I wasn’t told that the “software design” was the selling point.

    A few years later I opportunitiy of teaching young students whom couldn’t afford programming classes how to take thier ideas and put them to use with computers. I remember starting each class with “You have an idea, a desire to make it come to life, now let’s learn and work together to make your ideas become real”. In my classes I would reinforce to them daily that everyone is born with the ability to design – if you don’t think so just look at a young child’s imagination and how they make make-believe come true in their minds.

    The opportunities that computers, software and open source software have brought about over the last years has no doubt brought about the need for everyone, everywhere to reconsider what the true definition of what a “designer” is, not only with the computer industry but the world as a whole.

    I know in my mind and heart, that even though I don’t have a picture frame on the wall with a degree or certificate, I am truly a certified “Design Professional”.

    Give any person a pencil, paper, ruler and a softdrink (coffee)and tell them to imagine anything and then put it on paper, and they will everytime the oppertunity arrises.

    Keep up the great articles, such as this one, for these are truly the type of mind thinking and mind changing articles needed this day and time.


  3. Messay says:

    Great article , exactely what i want to say to a bunch of friends who are reluctant to work together to invent things. Lot of negative attitude from their part ; positive attitude = american attitude
    Keep in touch