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Week 43.

Web Directions 2015: Finding Meaning and Purpose in Design

A Donut by Kylie on 1 November

This week I was lucky enough to attend Web Directions 2015. It was my second year attending and putting aside the brilliant venue of Luna Park and the wonderful Perth crew I was with (#perthed!), the Australian web conference that everybody looks forward to did not disappoint. As expected, it consisted of two solid days of learning, mind-prodding and meeting friendly and likeminded people. I’ll refrain from doing a speaker-by-speaker run down of the event (I’ll do this on my own personal blog and on the Humaan blog) and instead, in true Two in Fifty Two style, I’ll talk about one of my biggest take aways from #WD15.

For a while now, I’ve been at odds with what exactly is regarded as design. I’ve been unsure of its boundaries and suspicious of what seems to be widely accepted and conventional notions of design. In my very early years as a designer I really did think design was just about making ‘pretty things’ — pretty layouts, pretty typography and pretty pictures. As I progressively learnt more about what is considered to be design and about life in general, the muddier my crystal-clear idea of design became.

In an early iteration of my website, I even went as far as assigning a large, prominent byline under my logo:

“I’m a designer. I’m still trying to figure out what that means.”

I’m sure that’s probably not the best thing to say on your public facing website about being a designer but I do feel like half of my job is navigating and adapting to the ever-changing landscape of design. Evolving from a junior designer to a junior designer with a little more experience meant that my concept of design also evolved and changed over time. And while I might be generalising, I’m sure this is the case for a majority of other designers. To be honest, I’d be a little worried if it wasn’t. Despite recognising this, my recent dilemma has been in trying to find a new, personal and current meaning for design that I am comfortable with, one that is relevant to the point I am at in my career. This said, does it really matters that I find it at all?

Turns out it might.

I wasn’t really thinking too much about my design conundrum in the lead up to Web Directions, yet by the end of day two and after a number of product related talks, namely talks like Dan Burka’s on proactive design testing in the form of design sprints, I was inadvertently able to piece together the very beginnings of what I now, after a lot of thought, recognise as my current meaning of design — what it means to me right now and what purpose it serves in my life and, as a result, beyond.

Many people before me have said that design is problem solving. I agree with this in parts. The other parts of me believe that design is being superficially used as an interchangeable term for problem solving and/or inaccurately assigned to the wrong point in the long and multifaceted process that is problem solving. In many cases ‘design’ is seen to either be the end-solution itself or credited to the process of simply finding a solution.

The thing is, I believe that anyone can find and propose a solution to a problem. Your Dad can, your client can and probably even your pet cat can — they’re all qualified to do so, it’s all hardwired. The difficulty here is that sometimes these proposed solutions aren’t always the most appropriate. This is where design helps. Design helps (after a lot of initial work) to develop the most effective, thoughtful and interesting way to package a proposed solution; it helps test and validate a solution’s packaging; and finally, arrives at a final conclusion around how that packaged solution should be implemented and delivered. It is in this process that ’design’, with all its capabilities, shines. Ultimately, effective design within problem solving is the difference between a good solution working well and a good solution not working at all. I’m going to go ahead and make up a saying here but…

A solution is neither good nor bad until design says so.
Kylie Timpani (you can totally quote me on that)

So, if design by is about packaging, testing, validating, implementing and delivering solutions, what is the purpose of design? What gives it weight? Well, I believe that the purpose of design is simply about aiding change at any level. It’s a way to catalyse and encourage progress and improvement in anything that we set out to do, born out of its contribution to problem solving. I’m comfortable assigning this as my purpose for design because I constantly see it proven in practice in the real world and, selfishly, it satisfies a belly-deep desire of my own to help make a positive impact on the world. I know this sounds a bit grand and even a bit lofty but this is truly one of my biggest motivators. If I can combine a belly-deep desire with a belly-deep passion, that’s got to be something powerful.

Earlier in the year, I wrote a post that questioned if what I was doing as a designer was fulfilling this desire. I don’t think I ever fully answered that question but in hindsight, I realise that I was getting far too hung up on the idea of solving the world’s biggest and baddest problems, while not appreciating the ones I was helping to solve everyday. In doing this, I initiated a continuous cycle that caused me to become increasingly frustrated as I felt more and more like I wasn’t doing enough. The truth is I was doing enough, I was just unable to recognise it as well as I should have and it was during Brynn Evan’s Web Directions talk, ‘The Beauty of Ordinary Design’ that this penny really dropped for me.

In this talk, Brynn, who is the Project Lead of Google’s Project Fi, talked about the ‘beauty’ in what we are able to learn from designing for the ‘ordinary’. That is, designing for things that are regarded part of day-to-day life or things that have been stagnant for a long time because they are percieved as “just the way things are” or simply, traditional. Brynn talked about the initiative behind De Hogeweyk, a safe and comfortable Truman Show style nursing home village for people living with Dementia; shed light on the ways people are trying to redesign the ‘condom experience’ in order to motivate people to use them more effectively; and pointed out the way USA immigration services are trying to unify and simplify the immigration process for those who find the process so difficult that they eventually give up on the process entirely or happily submit something they know is incorrect.

Beyond Brynn’s core take away points (you can find them within her Web Directions slides) I was fascinated and delighted by the ways I recognised design helped solve the problems included in Brynn’s examples. It was in the finishing moments of Brynn’s talk that I was reminded that while it’s great to help develop solutions for grand problems that affect lots of people, we shouldn’t ignore the ordinary problems that we face in our day-to-day lives. We should feel just as good about solving what we subjectively consider to be ‘small’ problems, as we would if we solved a large-scale problem. There truly is real and positive value in making sure that within the realms of what is considered ‘ordinary’, the world/life/things/experiences, often the most important things in life, function and exist in the best way possible for everyone. Design has the capacity to make this entirely possible.

Assigning meaning and purpose to design has helped to,very simply, settle those questions I’ve been dealing with for so long. Design knows no boundaries, it is limitless. Similarly there are no conventional notions of design, only the one’s we decide exist. Design doesn’t start or stop in a particular specialistion nor does it start or end in either print or digital. Design is fluid. It flows through different parts of life; touches different people and problems; and weaves—easily—in and out of various “disciplines”. If design did none of this, it wouldn’t have the impact it has on the world and it wouldn’t contribute to the change in the way I know it is capable of. I feel empowered by this and inspired to continue combining my passion with desire.

I went to Web Directions knowing that I’d hear some great people speak, that I’d meet some friendly folk I could share a laugh with and that I’d definitely drink too much at the opening party. What I didn’t expect was experiencing a bit of a reawakening about the way I look at design. Having been so baffled by the very thing I do everyday, for so long, I’m glad to have found something that I can hold onto. Hopefully this will help drive me into my next phase of evolution as a designer. Maybe I’ll finally move from being a junior designer with a little more experience to being a junior designer with a lot more experience.

Keep on keepin’.

Some Web Directions 2015 attendee articles and resources:

What my first Web Directions taught me by Mandy Michael
Web Directions 2015 by Ricky Onsman
Directions of the Web by Julia Mitchelmore
Takeaways from Web Directions 2015 by Amy Balsdon
Web Directions 2015 – Day #1 Likes & Takeaways by Jean D’Amore
Web Directions 2015 ‘Stream of Consciousness’ Notes by Jess Telford
Web Directions 2015 by Jeremy Nagel

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If you're a designer, find your own meaning and purpose for your craft. It will help inform the way you think and move forward.

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