“We’re all designers now…

…so we might as well get good at it.”

This is the opening line to chapter four in Chris Anderson’s book Makers: The Next Industrial Revolution. Okay, I buy it. But just how do we get good at design? C. A. says that we need to learn to use software and hardware of the maker revolution. You can teach yourself or pop into any makerspace for classes on Arduino and 3D Printing and so on.

But there’s another thing that makes us “good at design.” And it’s not something you’ll likely find in a class at a makerspace. It’s the human side of design. And I argue that human centered design (HCD) skills are just as important as tech skills if we want to be designers who make stuff that matters.

To develop HCD skills, I propose we understand and practice three principles: Expertise, Empathy, and Emotion. I’ll flesh these out a bit right here:

EXPERTISE. In David Weinberger’s book Too Big To Know, he argues that the internet has changed our understanding of knowledge and expertise as we transition from a world in which knowledge is disseminated by individual experts via paper to a world in which knowledge is shared through and created by a network. He defines this transition  here:

This transition from expertise modeled on books to expertise modeled on networks is uncomfortable, especially now as we live through the messy transition. We know the value of traditional expertise. We can see a new type emerging that offers different values. From credentialed to uncredentialed. From certitude to ambivalence. From consistency to plenitude. From the opacity conferred from authority to a constant demand for transparency. From contained and knowable to linked and unmasterable.

So if we’re all designers, the first thing we have to understand is that we aren’t 20th century design experts; rather, we are 21st century networked designers. And thus we need to transition from experts who know it all to designers who know how to harness the collective intelligence of a network.

EMPATHY. This transition is uncomfortable, Weinberger warns. How do we let go of our know-it-all status and harness the collective intelligence of our networks? First we have to believe that diversity of perspective will lead to richer solutions than solutions designed by a lone genius. If we believe that, then we are open to gaining empathy for multiple stakeholders in a problem.

How do we do that? We talk to people. And we don’t just listen to what they say, we observe what they do. We listen for the messages between the lines. Or listen for what’s not being said. This close listening will help us gain insights into multiple ways to approach a problem.

And btw, we don’t get these insights from online surveys or conference room focus groups. As entrepreneurship guru Steve Blank says, we need to “get out of the building.” Visit people in their homes, at their places or work, on the street. If we’re trying to design a grocery store experience, well then we best be spending a lot of time at the grocery store.

EMOTION. Once we gain empathy for the people we are designing with — note that I didn’t say “the people we are designing for” — then we can design something that resonates. Why is resonance important? Because despite what classical economists would have us believe, we aren’t only rational. Pure functionality isn’t the only thing that engages us. We respond to emotional details in products and systems. The brainy quotes printed large on each Adafruit invoice, that’s an emotional detail. It’s a wink, an intimate gesture from the company to the customer that says, “Hey, you and I know each other, don’t we.”

Brainy quotes are one way to design for emotion. Another is less explicit: implied metaphor. Implied metaphors in design compel us to transfer to the new design the positive qualities of a familiar thing. Jonathan Chapman, author of Emotionally Durable Design, says, “Its easy to design a toaster that will last twenty years. It’s harder to design a toaster that someone will want to keep for twenty years.” So we need to look for metaphors for things that get better with age, and ask ourselves as designers how we might design those qualities into our work. A wooden laptop might make you want to keep it for longer than a metal one that scratches more easily, because it has taken on an heirloom quality for you.

Now that’s good design. Learn the tech tools. Yes, you must. But also learn humanity in design by redefining expertise, gaining empathy for all types of people, then design with emotion.

Beginner’s Mind and Clarity


There’s a concept in Buddhism that’s often borrowed by folks who teach creativity. It’s called “The Beginner’s Mind.” Adopting a beginner’s mind about a subject or project is supposed to allow us to be open to many more possibilities than if we approach the project as an expert.

This past week I found another great use for beginner’s mind. I was at Ed Tech Day at Ithaca College sharing the work I am doing with my students in the Department of Environmental Science there. The exhibit was titled “Arduino in the Classroom” and folks really enjoyed talking with me about it.

Part of what made the conversation so engaging, I realized, is that when it comes to Arduino, I am a beginner. Thus, when talking about Arduino I was much more clear about it than I am with what I have expertise in, such as design.

I found it easy to talk about the Arduino and what it means in the world. Most people think it’s something for kids, but I was there in part to correct that assumption. Arduino is the stuff that’s hidden inside of most of the products we use every day, but because it’s hidden inside folks don’t relate.

Which is why people are so easily excited about 3D printers. The stuff that comes off a 3D printer looks like something they might own or see in a store because 3D printing provides the skin of a product. Arduino is the guts. And it’s much easier for average folks to identify a person by their skin than by their guts, right?

Once I got them looking at the guts, I explained with a very simple example (servo sweep), how hardware and software work together to make our stuff do stuff. And then I explained how what we prototype on an Arduino can be made into a circuit board diagram and manufactured in USA, in a batch as small as three boards! And that was it. People got it. And they were amazed. As they should be. The democratization of this type of technology is amazing.

Thank you, beginner’s mind, for helping me tell that story.