Many of the wondrous inventions we live with, from iPhones to apps to artificial limbs, are the products of design. From the outside, the design process can seem mysterious, like a secret recipe to which only experts have access. In fact, though, designing is a sequence of logical steps that can seem so self-evident it’s easy to discount them (or more likely, to assume we’re already doing them) as we keep looking somewhere else for the magic.
But the real secret to mastering design lives in these incremental, self-evident steps, which, contrary to their obviousness, are extremely difficult to master because they require shifting the way we think.
The first, and arguably the most important of these steps is noticing. (Right, you’re thinking, I do that already.)
In design, noticing doesn’t mean maintaining a general awareness of where you are or whom you’re talking to. Nor does it mean hunting for minutiae hidden deep in the weeds. Noticing, in design, means developing the ability to recognize those things that are so obvious or mundane that nobody else sees them, or more practically, paying attention to what is really there instead of what we think we’ll see. Which is simple only in theory.
What makes noticing difficult is that it necessitates a greater degree of self-awareness than most of us bring to our daily activities. It requires us to reflect on our own world view in the context of the world views of others. This takes time, and since we have taught ourselves to rush from one task to another all day long without thinking deeply about them, noticing requires unlearning some deeply entrenched habits of mind in order to make space for this novel one. But that’s what design is: first and foremost, awareness of self and context.
An example is a company I was working with; a passionately green company that was committed to considering the impact of every decision they made on future generations. What no one inside the company had noticed, though, is that consideration of future consequences had become so prevalent that no one was living in the present. The company had become frozen in place, unable to make decisions in the moment because they were so focused on the future. Once that dynamic was named, it became visible to everyone in the company and they changed it.
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Noticing, and then stating the obvious, takes courage, like the courage of the child who stated the obvious in Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s so often easier not to mention those dynamics that, for one reason or another, people have chosen to avoid. It takes real leaders to stick their necks out and counter prevailing habits of mind. This dynamic can be found in conversations about diversity and inclusion, where everyone in the room sits with fears and anxieties but no one mentions it because it’s easier to pretend an unnatural comfort level with change, when, if anxiety was recognized as a universal human response, it could be addressed.
It also takes courage to cultivate a conscious awareness that other people may see things that you can’t. Idiomatic expressions or vernacular language can mean that people within a community share nuance of awareness that outsiders simply don’t hear. Vocabulary is fundamental to comprehension, and when language is not shared, neither is understanding. It’s important to enter every situation with the recognition that your own lack of awareness may be that obvious thing that needs noticing.
When we observe something, we make a choice about what to notice, and with that choice, we eliminate all other possibilities for things we might observe instead, collapsing an entire world of possibility into a narrow band of focus. The design process teaches us to see opportunities within problems, and to use limitations to inspire novel thinking. Stepping back to notice the obvious is the only way to recognize and act on instincts counter to the habitual approaches that have gotten us into the trouble we’re in.
As with most skills that can only be learned through practice, it’s tough to explain how to see the obvious. The first (again, obvious) step is to stop and look: build a moment into your process to reflect before the habit of rushing-to-conclusions-and- automatically-filling-in-the-blanks kicks in. Designers talk a lot about looking for patterns, and that’s useful too. Sometimes I mentally shift focus away from sharp details, letting them become fuzzy so the patterns appear (easy to do for someone as nearsighted as I am). But the real key is getting in touch with your subconscious mind and letting it do the noticing. Stop thinking so much and let your senses and instincts take over. What exists in the spaces between words or relationships? Where is the energy that moves people toward or away from subjects or each other? If everyone is facing in one direction, what’s behind them? Trying to draw what you see almost always helps because it shifts us away from words and into relationships. We learn to draw only when we begin to see the spaces in between things as much as the things themselves.
Two books in particular are useful for anyone wanting to understand both the science and poetry of noticing. John Mason’s Researching Your Own Practice: The Discipline of Noticing is an academic approach; and The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge is a wonderful anthology edited by Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson.
Women are often criticized (as I have been) for being “too direct.” To state the obvious, we are expected to be circumspect because it’s less threatening to traditional power structures and protects those in power from scrutiny. Nevertheless, I find stating the obvious extremely satisfying and plan to continue writing here about some things too obvious not to mention.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be talking to some amazing observers of the obvious about how they do it. Cheryl Kiser is the Executive Director of the Babson Social Innovation Lab and a leader in social change. Heidi Fischer is an extraordinary nature writer and master biomimicrist. Sarah Brooks is a Distinguished Designer at IBM, working on strategic foresight. And Patrician McCarthy is founder of the Mien Shiang Institute and the first expert to translate this ancient Taoist art and science for America. I hope you check back to hear some women's observations of the obvious but unseen.