A few summers back, I was riding on horseback through the deep mountains of Kyrgyzstan with a young local woman. She said, “When I was a little girl, I always wondered what would be behind these high mountains.”
“Did you find the answer?” I asked, intrigued.
“Yes, I did. It’s another mountain,” she answered with a shrug and a smile.
How true. There’s always another mountain. That’s how things turn out every day at work. My entire career has been this way. Lao Tzu couldn’t have put it any better.
Why design culture?
I was not always conscious about how a design culture affected product quality. While designing enterprise software, it quickly became clear to me, that technology or A+ design concepts alone cannot make a great product. Imagine the complexity and scale enterprise software has. We design large scale products with long product lifecycles with high dependencies. No single step from design to implementation can be done without a broad collaboration across different teams and organizations. Our designs undergo a long buy-in, tedious alignment processes and often painful trade-offs along the way of productization. When individual product or designer competes to outsmart other solutions and work in silos, we end up creating a bunch of inconsistent designs, which would make our users to pause and wonder. Design details out of an immature decision-making culture fail to communicate the design intention to users and thus confuse them. A vague product vision or insufficient understanding of the product leads us to change our designs back and forth, and the product ecosystem will suffer.
How we build is as important as what we build.
A healthy design culture seeks the right problems to solve and challenges today’s solutions constantly. It turns disagreements into constructive iterations, convert failures into opportunities, and grows ideas into the products.
A healthy design culture has a long breath. This allows us to tackle long winded design processes without being exhausted on the way, forgetting the vision, or losing the flexibility to reorientate and readjust the goal on the way. It helps us approach every step of design mindfully without being carried away or rushed. We can always step back and revisit the problem without jumping into solutions too early.
“Are we solving the right problems? Will this be still a problem, when things around it change?”
Down the line, taking time in each step saves us a lot of time, energy, and disruptions. Slower is faster. It also allows us to solve local problems and benefit the whole at the same time.
Design with a beginner’s mind.
A healthy design culture also encourages design with accountability. It provides an environment where we can try out new things without fear, and allows us to fail and fix our own failures afterwards. It’s not about making right decisions all the time. It’s about failing better — making sure that we learn from the conclusions and decisions we made. Over time, we not only learn how to fix problems but also how to outgrow them.
That’s how we build our endurance and sovereignty, which brings harmony to our intentions and actions, harmony to vision and products. A healthy design culture will create solutions that are well thought through and add tangible values to the users, rather than fixing something in hurry and causing new problems elsewhere.
Allow time to mature.
A design culture cannot be created overnight. Nor can it be created by a selected handful of people. A healthy design culture is not a magic, but a continuous observation and iteration of every details of our daily interaction. A culture needs to be lived and practiced daily. It mandates mindfulness of everyone. It calls for beginner’s mind. It needs grit.
Throughout my design career, certain products made me particularly curious about the people behind them. First of all, they must have had a great time making them. From the outside you can see the enthusiasm, and the collective momentum the team must have had. Second, the indefatigable boldness and product quality they carried through the product evolution. They must have had strong tradition and leadership capable of reading the time and re-interpreting their product/brand vision. Be it a magazine, restaurant, bank, school, hardware or software. You can see how they dealt with the time and technology for their business. Some of them kept renovating their processes, products and services with a continuous momentum. Some of them struggled to make it. Some of them didn’t care at all. We can tell who “evolved the tradition” and executed it with untiring passion, and who played catchup. The philosophy and culture behind their product journey came across through their products. It’s not only the products they created, but also their sovereignty over their products that inspires us.
Design culture is to me the philosophy that nurtures the right attitude, behavior and discipline. Design culture is also the environment that shapes the interpersonal dynamics between people and paces their work from ideation to productization. Design is, after all, all about people.