What Decisions Did We Make Today? by David Sherwin

Individual decisions end up becoming team decisions. Teams get misaligned when they don’t acknowledge this fact, and find ways to socialize individual decisions to see how they factor into a team’s work output. Often decisions happen within specific disciplines: Engineering decisions happen with engineers, design decisions with designers, and so forth. 

The following ritual encourages cross-silo communication and reinforces open communication habits, and can prove valuable for any team struggling to incorporate individual decisions into their team’s work. 

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The Kickoff Before the Kickoff by David Sherwin

It’s time to start that new project at work. You know, the project the CEO is talking about. The project that your future business is riding on. The project that you want to succeed, beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. The project that you’re responsible for leading. 

What’s your first impulse? If you have a “big hairy audacious goal” (BHAG) to go after, then of course you have to start planning the big hairy audacious kickoff meeting (BHAKM). 

You’ve been to one of these. The hand-picked team gets locked away in a big comfy room, preferably out of the office. The meeting starts with your boss’s boss’s boss explaining the extreme urgency of the project… for hours. By the end of the marathon day, everyone’s figured out what they need to get done—but deep inside, they’re freaking out because the finish line feels it’s a thousand kilometers away. They look around the room, at their new team members: Unknown quantities. No amount of craft kombucha or beer will wash away the anxiety.

You may need to facilitate one of these BHAKM’s for your team. In fact, your company’s culture may require it. But I’d like to ask that you try something a little different this time.

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What’s Your Workshop? by David Sherwin

Ah, January. It’s the New Year, and you’ve decided to work on your core design skills: Creating better ideas on your projects, improving your ability to frame problems, sketching like a pro. But by the time February rolls around, you’ve barely gotten started.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For the skills that you really want to improve in 2017 (and beyond), create a solo workshop practice, where you work regularly on your own to practice and master specific skills.

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Introducing Teamwords: The Working Deck by David Sherwin

We get asked a lot about problem solving. Not about business problems, per se, but people problems.

People seem to understand OKRs, Agile, and MVPs. Acronyms and abbreviations have specific and fixed definitions you can find on Google — and though you can get into long arguments about whether something is a tool or a process or a disruption at work, people are still, well, people. They change and then they don’t change. They’re heroic and then they’re petty. Confusing and clear, sometimes in the same meeting.

Yes, the pesky things are problems with people. No matter how sleek and refined our company needs to be, how much faster we have to get to market, or how many more hours we must be available night and day to meet the demands of customers, we’re still talking about people at work. They’re the one thing that hasn’t 100% changed about how business gets done.

So companies ask how to create better “cultures of collaboration.” Make teamwork a working norm. Rethink how cross-disciplinary talent can be best configured, how to optimize their working spaces for breakthrough innovation blah blah blah… Again, the same problem of applying jargony buzzwords to people and how they work together. Then upper management wonders why they weren’t very successful in making things better.

Words are powerful. So powerful that most of the problems we encounter are failures of vocabulary. We assume that everyone uses the same words and that they mean the same things to everyone. JIRA means JIRA, right? We see it and recognize it. But, think about the word supportive. How do you see that word in how your team works? How do your coworkers see it in your work? Have you ever sat around with your team and talked about that?

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The Most Abused Word in Product Design by David Sherwin

Product. That’s the single most abused word in Product Design.

Products are things that are manufactured for sale, and must be purchasable. The buyer will likely have access to it after they’ve paid for it.

It’s that simple, and that complicated for today’s designers. The word Product has become a giant container for the following things: Physical products, Internet-connected things, consumable packaged goods, software applications, digital services and platforms, real-world services and experiences, and anything else that can be made and sold which won’t fit into the previous categories.

Applying design to a broader range of things we use in the world — that’s often good for both customers and businesses. However, that’s not so good for those who have decided on a whim to update their title on LinkedIn to read Product Designer. It’s also not so good for hiring managers who want their new job titles to have Product in it. We are seeing this play out in weird job titles and job descriptions, probably written by people who don’t realize they’re compounding the issue.

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The Designer's Bias by David Sherwin

A few years ago, I saw a presentation from a creative director about how he helped brand an experimental elementary school. Before he shared his work, he said: “We promoted the school through videos on YouTube. My first job was as a filmmaker, so every time I see a problem, I want to solve it with a film.”

Since then, I’ve heard hundreds of people make the same kind of statement in everyday conversation: “I’m an engineer, so every problem can be solved with software… I’m an architect, so every problem can be solved with a building… I’m a carpenter, so every problem can be solved with a table.”

There’s a bias operating here. Let’s sum it up as: Every problem I encounter can be solved with things I have the training and skills to make.

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Removed from the Image by David Sherwin

Light knifed across the stark grey ceiling. Pain curled in my gut. Sweaty salty upper lip. Knees pulled to my chest. Slitted curtain. Slipping into and out of lucid dreams: Late summer bright suits and sundresses. Grass blades tickling my back. Fighting for a share of blanket on the hilltop. Birds formed a wheel overhead. When I shut my eyes, my body shook itself awake.

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What Aspiring Designers Need to Know About Strategy by David Sherwin

As I read through his resume, the designer stared at me expectantly. He had a wealth of great design projects under his belt. He had been seeking out personal projects to build out his portfolio. He had internships with sterling businesses and studios.

But there was one thing that leapt out at me from the list of core skills he’d listed at the top of his resume: strategy. Not brand strategy, content strategy, interactive strategy, media strategy or the M.B.A.-land of business strategy. Just plain ’ol strategy.

This has been happening more and more frequently, and for good reason. In the process of providing strong service to our clients, we increase the likelihood of becoming a strategic partner. We finally have a seat at the table when the client is talking strategy—and we can offer a range of strategic services that verge outside what may be considered a designer’s core area of expertise. This is a good thing. With the ongoing expansion of design’s role in business, today’s designers are helping to solve problems that transcend mere decoration and instead impact the core functions of a client’s business.

But in our haste to be strategic partners, I’ve discovered that many designers don’t fully grasp how strategic services fit into their client offerings. And when I ask designers out of sheer curiosity how they’re functioning as strategists—what experiences they directly bring to bear on being strategists rather than having a strategic orientation—they can’t easily answer the question.

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The 10 Building Blocks of Design Studio Culture by David Sherwin

Culture is everything people in a design business do that supports the process of making work happen. Culture can create joy for designers, while improvements in process can facilitate profit. A common misperception is that culture emerges organically based on the decisions of a business owner or CEO. But a design studio’s culture is not created solely by those at the top. For a design-led business, culture is generated from ongoing contributions and discoveries from both studio owners and employees.

In researching my book on how design businesses can be more successful, I began to see important building blocks that were present in the most successful studios. These building blocks are divided into two groups: hard building blocks and soft building blocks. Hard building blocks are realized through a budget, meaning that you can allocate money and time for them as part of business overhead. The soft building blocks can be created through the decisions employees make over the course of their daily work, life and play (with less material investment by the owners).

A healthy studio culture draws equally from both types of building blocks. They provide emotional and material stability to employees in the face of ongoing work challenges, and often clients, family and the general public perceive them as ingredients of the company’s brand. These building blocks are equally present within design firms and in-house design teams—though for the latter, the composition of some building blocks may be heavily influenced by the company's overall behavior and needs.

Let’s take a deep dive into these building blocks, with important questions to ask yourself (and your team) in order to create a strong studio culture. 

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Rowing on Command by David Sherwin

Four years ago, I was having a conversation with the head of client services at a large marketing studio, and somehow we ambled onto the topic of Buddhism. I mentioned that I'd been thinking about the similarities between Buddhism and design, and he said: "Well, then clients definitely make us suffer too."

We both chuckled at the joke, but there was a hint of wisdom lurking in the laughter. 

We don't need clients to cause us to suffer. We do a fine job of causing suffering in our work without them.

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A Hummingbird's Perspective by David Sherwin

Sitting on the cabin's deck was like having a front-row seat at a dragstrip. The birds would park themselves on the perches of a bird feeder, seesawing back and forth to take little sips of sugar water. Then, with a snap, their bodies would shift from sitting to hovering and zip into the treeline.

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Where the Roads Become Rivers by David Sherwin

The rules of the road? There are no rules. Riding in a fast-moving car, the freeway is a fat, pulsing vein, and we are but one blood cell swirling through the body called Dhaka.

Oncoming traffic doesn't matter, since we can swerve into whatever lane is free to get there a few seconds faster. Right of way isn't important, because we cut off everyone else indiscriminately — three lanes of road packed five to six vehicles across at any moment with rickshaws, mopeds, cars, buses, compressed natural gas (CNG) taxis.

The man who was helping me find my way around joked that when traffic lights are green, you slow down. When they're yellow, you start to speed up. When they turn red, you drive as fast as you can.

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The Tipsy Triangle of Software Startupdom by David Sherwin

In talking with entrepreneurs of many stripes over the past year, I've heard the following hypnotic refrain repeated over and over again: "If we design a beautiful user experience, we've got what we need to launch a successful business."

Whether uttered by corporate executives or designers fresh out of school, I've been surprised by this near-religious belief that great user experience is the silver bullet that will attract a huge audience base to your company's products or services. Surface solutions trump business plans. To quote Enrique Allen, founding member of Designer Fund:

UX can be a 'grabber,' like the shiny materials we buy but then don't end up using after a few days. Without a solid tech and business model 'holder' that provides lasting utility, startups will peak but then crash…

Yes, to your customers, the user experience (UX) is everything: It's how your product or service is utilized by the world. But if you are a designer trying to create a sustainable business from your product and service ideas, the UX for your product is one important facet of creating a successful business. The user experience you design, the technology selections you make, and the business model you generate: all of these decisions support how you make money from your products and services. They are interrelated, to the point that you can't truly sustain a business in the long term without them all in place.

This may be obvious advice for those who have spent time creating products and services, or worked at a startup before. But for any designer that is looking to jump into the software game and bootstrap their own products or services, closely consider the following perspectives in the early stages of any new business venture.

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On Letting Go by David Sherwin

A thousand books scattered about the apartment, stacked in knee-high piles. All of the bookshelves bare. This housecleaning project was unplanned, but had been on our mind for months—reviewing every single book we'd accumulated over the past 10 years, and deciding which ones we could live without. Deadline: We had to wrap it up before the end of the long weekend. Otherwise, my wife and I couldn't make it out the front door.

Books have always been my worst vice. A lifelong addiction, scented with ink and glue. Being inside a bookstore requires great restraint, as I'd like nothing more than to run off with an endcap of science books, and perhaps swipe a popular novel or two on the way out the door while laughing maniacally.

It wasn't always this way. Through most of high school and college, I was able to get by just with the library. When I was in graduate school, however, I would acquire and read 3 to 4 books a week—for work, for pleasure, for class, for my full-time job as an editor. In the mail, I would receive dozens of review copies a month. The bookshelves grew fuller and fuller, and since many books were referred to in class, I had no excuse to get rid of them. It wasn't until a hurricane blew through town and flooded our townhouse's basement—destroying about a hundred of my books—that I felt heartbroken at having to recycle all those books. Giving away or selling books, even since then, has always been a struggle.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I realized my hoarding tendencies were part of a shenpa. 

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How Sending Postcards to Strangers Made Me a Better Designer by David Sherwin

Something people with creative jobs always struggle with, myself included, is that creativity often likes to take its sweet damned time. We're forced into all sorts of habits and rituals that we feel will help us get to ideas more quickly. Totems of one such ritual sits on my desk: A pile of postcards at least three inches tall, sent from people all over the world. They serve as a reminder that creativity flows from well-considered constraint, married to daily discipline.

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The Glass Is Always Empty by David Sherwin

Last Saturday, I was talking with Keith, the export representative for a sake brewery in Nagoya. His day-to-day life sounded like a dream job for anyone who enjoys chatting with people and world travel. He's constantly flying from city to city, often internationally through Europe and Canada, presenting and pouring the range of high-end sakes that his brewery crafts every winter.

While he explained the flavor nuances between a junmai sake and a non-junmai sake — where the rice utilized in making the sake had its husk and 50% of its kernel polished off in the pre-fermentation process — I asked him how his job performance is measured. Does he have a sales quota? Or is there some kind of softer metric for his success for his company?

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Becoming a Design Leader by David Sherwin

What does it mean to lead a design team? Design leaders guide organizations in planning and fulfilling desired outcomes for their clients—and they grow their designers in the process. The real definition of design leadership, however, is quite blunt: 

Design leaders make awesome shit happen.

Design leaders at a design business may not be the ones in charge of the day-to-day client management, project management, accounting, bookkeeping and other activities that require deep focus on operational management, but they will always touch those facets of the business, ensuring they support the quality of the creative product. 

Hartmut Esslinger, founder of frog, put it best: “When we have a ‘concept’ and people smile, we take the next step. When there are questions, we go back and try harder.”

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Thinking About Problems as Spaces by David Sherwin

This is a companion article to my presentation "Designing the Design Problem."

When I first started working at frog, the people around me kept referring to the problems we were tackling as "problem spaces." When pressed, no one could give me an answer as to why, so I went out and tried to find one for myself. And I think the beginnings of an answer just might be—at least metaphorically—in the splendor of the night sky, full of glistening stars.

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Designing What Remains by David Sherwin

The streets blurred gray in the early morning rain. My cab driver, unusually chatty for five in the morning, tells me that he works four days a week at his dispatch in SODO, tending the lost and found. He rattles off what bounty you might find in their basement office: mobile phones, articles of clothing, wallets, keys, umbrellas. If items linger too long on the shelves, they're donated to charity. The mobile phones, after waiting for a few months, are shipped overseas for use by U.S. soldiers.

Recently, a new type of item was left on his desk by a spooked driver: A box of ashes.

"It was hard to believe that someone would just get out of a cab and forget their grandmother," he said. There weren't any identifying marks on the box, so they couldn't chase down whom was responsible for the cremains. "I put the ashes on the shelf and hoped that the family would come and pick them up."

Later that week, another surprise was waiting for him when he arrived at work: Another box of ashes.

"Another driver found it in the back seat and knew which fare had left it," he said, accelerating into the HOV lane. "He tried to get back in touch with her, but she wouldn't answer her phone. So we just put the new box up on the shelf by the other one."

I was aghast at the notion of two people abandoning the remains of loved (or not so loved) ones—but that feeling was also tinged with shame.

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