It's a common nightmare. You stand in front of a class or you take an exam -- and you draw a blank. You haven't studied; you never learned the lines. Your mind is a tabula rasa of the first order, and you're stuck. You break into a cold sweat before you rattle yourself back to consciousness.
It wasn't real, you tell yourself in the dead of night. It's okay. Eventually, you fall back asleep.
But sometimes this moment slips out of your nightmares into reality. You're flying by the seat of your pants. Now, mix in design work, and you're suddenly designing by the seat of your pants. So, how do you do it?
Let me tell you a story.
The schedule for the fellows program hit a speed bump over a week ago. It hit that speed bump at full tilt and flew through the air with, it seemed, no one to catch it. While Mondays are dedicated to fellows' presentations, Wednesdays have been reserved for guest lectures as determined by the cohort, and no one had been scheduled. In all, the fellows have a fast-dwindling number of opportunities to formally gather. This means every moment to share and leverage one another's expertise is precious.
So, I sent the following e-mail to the group in a last-ditch effort to create meaning out of the meeting time:
Hi all - For those interested, I am happy to hold a storytelling workshop if you are interested. This may be a nice opportunity to hear each other's challenges and ask questions on this front.
Just an idea.
I had nothing planned when I sent that e-mail, and to make matters worse, I had no idea of what I could plan. Other than a determination to lean into the challenge and the moment, I had no idea what I was doing.
The appointed hour arrived, and five of nine fellows showed up for the workshop. In a show of respect to the fellows who turned up, I did my best to start on time. I asked each fellow to outline their main concerns around their projects, particularly as it related to their storytelling. There were a few common themes:
- What would their final presentations look like at graduation? What was required? Did they need to start preparing now?
- How do they tell the story of their projects? What consistent narrative or script could they have to begin expressing the work they've done at the d.school to the wider world?
- What is their personal story? Now that they are nearing the end of their time as fellows, how do they express to others the new professional -- the designer -- they've become and the value of what they've learned?
Well, at least we had plenty of work to do.
Based on what I learned in the initial check-in, I determined that I needed to better define the fellows' common challenges. So, I grabbed a whiteboard marker and started writing questions on the board. The questions came organically from what I believed to be a latent need to distill large concerns and observations around their storytelling work into bite-sized chunks. Here are the questions I scrawled on the board (they have been modified to reflect some clarifying questions the fellows posed during the exercise):
- What do you need to be able to tell your story this week?
- Who were you when the fellowship started?
- Who are you now?
- Who do you want to be when the fellowship ends?
I then instructed them to answer each question with a Post-it. The magic of the Post-it note is that it forces one to headline ideas. Whereas a discussion, a paper or a blog post can allow one to ramble (yes, I know), a post-it cuts you off, forcing you to focus.
Two of the fellows, in reviewing this piece, asked me how I came to these questions. What went through my mind at the time? Now, d.leadership had taught me to dive in confidently, to acknowledge and embrace the moment and to dedicate myself fully to changing my method at any and every opportunity. My d.bootcamp experience, which had taught me the raw process, was the foundation on which my empathy and definition work rested. Here, though, is the most honest answer: I asked these questions because I was constantly asking them of myself. How does nearly eight months of learning and applying design thinking change your perception of yourself?
Now, did every fellow adhere to the one-Post-it rule? No, and it was a battle worth losing since, I was still able to see ideas that were a bit more distilled than during our check-in conversation. I reviewed their work, looking for the common themes I had heard hints of in that discussion.
In retrospect, the exercise served as my empathy work.
Based on that, I defined the challenge, establishing two stages for the rest of my workshop: give every fellow a concrete assignment to be completed during that session and make sure that I convey one, key skill. In essence, I was pushing them to prototype.
I decided that the skill would be to make sure that each fellow could easily audio record their thoughts, observations and conversations with their phone. They each had a general idea of how to pull up an audio recorder, but there were some last-mile challenges that they were able to navigate through collaborative learning.
Why this skill? I have a few reasons:
- I've found that, when it comes to design work, taking pen-and-paper notes can be disruptive -- especially when you're in a one-on-one situation. Those notes can often fail to capture important details such as tone and character.
- The audio recordings can serve as content for the fellows' final presentations as well as a springboard for their storytelling going forward, addressing two key concerns that surfaced during our work.
- It's more likely that the fellows will have their smartphone in their back pocket than a notebook.
- Audio is a nice middle ground between paper and video. It is easily transferrable, with generally small file sizes.
- I firmly believe that smartphones are one of the most powerful tools in the modern storytelling arsenal, and a familiarity with the tools specific to storytelling (audio, video, sketch & prototyping apps) is essential.
Once each fellow provided proof of capability with their recording devices, we began unpacking their answers to the questions on the board. In doing so, I was able to refine my earlier discoveries into two key themes:
- Branding is an essential part of each fellows' desired experience. Whether it was establishing themselves in a new role within their organization or strategizing an approach to social media, each fellow wanted to at least begin the work of establishing a brand for themselves before the fellowship was over.
- A new frame for expertise. Each fellow arrived at the d.school an expert in their own right, but the frame on that expertise has changed since they arrived. For some it centered around the incorporation of design thinking into their daily work, while for others it centered more specifically around their projects. They each wanted to know how to express that change in a clear way.
To that end, and taking into account that four fellows were not present, I made the following assignments, custom-fitting them to each fellow:
Make a listicle: Kim Jacobson's project is the iZone, which presents not only a large-scale design challenge but a complex storytelling one as well. With this exercise, I wanted to create an opportunity for her to drill down and express that story succinctly. The listicle may be mocked by the journalism cognoscenti, but it is, nonetheless, an effective storytelling tool. Tying the popular culture to a theme particular to an interest group is a way to grow and strengthen a community culture. I assigned Kim the task of making a listicle for the iZone. This gave both of us an opportunity to see another layer of her storytelling challenge and her project overall.
Draft your TED talk: If you're an educator and you haven't heard of two-minute PDs (#2minPD), you will. This is Melissa Pelochino's project -- one she wrote about here on the whiteboard late last month. Since then, the idea has spread internationally, with educators celebrating the opportunity to transform an otherwise arduous and poorly-tailored part of their professional experience into an empowering and community-building exercise. So, how could Melissa capture the story of the idea and its impact? A TED talk. These short-form, highly curated presentations have been critiqued for, on occasion, their oversimplification of complex topics. But they remain a strong model for expressing a narrative in an attractive and engaging way.
Draft 10 tweets that you wish to send over the course of the day: Social media is a critical branding tool, and two fellows, Melissa (@mpelochino) and Melissa "Mel" Kline-Lee (@MelissaKlinLee), expressed a desire to have a stronger voice over social media. A powerful tool for establishing a brand (and one I know I don't use often enough), is the scheduled tweet. This allows you to maintain a constant presence on the medium, which is important for building audience.
Record, write & repeat: Fred Leichter is among the most experienced design thinkers in the fellows cohort. Having attended workshops in the early days of the d.school and bringing design thinking back to Fidelity, Fred brings a nuanced understanding of the process to his work. He has used the fellowship to, in part, further refine his understanding of the underlying design thinking principles to begin to create his own design-thinking process and tools. The knowledge he has about the process, however, is often shared in conversations around the d.school. During our workshop, I noticed he was processing and delivering a key insight about design thinking to the group. I stopped him, asked him to turn on his phone's recording device, repeat what he had said and, before he left the session that day, use it as the backbone for a piece we could share on the whiteboard. Before the end of the program, I hope to have a series of these insights from Fred, giving him (and you) the value of a repository of knowledge on design thinking from an experienced, real-world practitioner.
I concluded the fellows' session with heads-down time, giving each one an opportunity to generate a piece of concrete work based on their insights. My final goal was to give each of them something I have found lacking in many of the workshops I have attended and hosted: a tangible springboard. That, in turn, gave me plenty more work to do in terms of editing and iterating. So, without further ado, I'm going to get back to it.
Do you have an experience designing by the seat of your pants? Share it in the comments, or tweet it to me at @emikolawole.