Infused Design Attitude

I recently listened to an interesting episode of the podcast “The Design of Business | The Business of Design”, in which Jessica Helfand and Michael Bierut talked with Mariana Amatullo, who teaches strategic design and management at Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York.

One of Mariana’s fields of research is how and when design works in large organizations. According to Mariana, whether design-oriented approaches to business succeed or not is largely determined by the level of a “design attitude” found not only in designers but also leaders and organizations as a whole. This design attitude consists of five dimensions:

The first one is empathy. We really work with design students around this notion of empathy.

The second one is creativity — being able to look at the novel.

The third one is engagement with aesthetics, and thinking about a multisensorial environment.

The fourth one is ambiguity tolerance.

Number five is connecting multiple perspectives — the divergence we talk about a lot in design thinking methods.

In my work with clients of all sizes, I found this indeed to be true: The more pronounced the elements of this “design attitude” are in a person or a group of stakeholders, the better the outcome of a design project will be. If you are working in an agile setting and are building a lot of prototypes, for example, you will always encounter reluctance if the people looking at the work have a low ambiguity tolerance, which means that they are getting extremely uncomfortable if things look unfinished, raw, and not precisely defined yet. In design though, especially when you consider today’s diverse, heterogeneous environment we need to design for, it is almost impossible to precisely plan upfront. You need to be comfortable with tackling completely new problems with only partially pre-determined processes with uncertain outcomes. Clients often struggle here, because they are used to having control over things and making decisions before the work starts. But that’s not how iterative design works nowadays.

The same is true though for the teams creating the design. Each one of the aforementioned traits is crucial if you want to build a product based on considerate, appropriate decisions together because you are able to avoid long discussions arising purely from matters of taste or snap judgments. The level of design attitude can then also make a difference when it comes to articulating design decisions to a client – and also if you need to defend those decisions with vigor if needed. I have seen more than a few design teams struggle not because the clients didn’t “get design” but because parts of the agency were obviously lacking a design attitude, too.

Design attitude can be seen as a form of design literacy. The more design-literate your organization is, the more it values design which in turn results in better user experiences. Someone who often brings this idea forward in articles and talks is Jared Spool. While he has been getting a lot of pushback recently for repeatedly stating that everyone involved in creating a product is influencing the design and thus everyone is a designer, Jared is certainly right with the basic idea that to become more design-literate, teams need to spread the knowledge and expertise of design beyond just designated designers:

Every developer and product manager must become literate in the differences between bad design and good design. More importantly, they must also be literate in the differences between good design and great design, so they strive for excellence at every opportunity.

An organization that successfully makes the transition into an organization where everyone has a high design literacy – by consistent exposure to users, a solid vision of the aspirational user experience, and embracing a culture of continuous learning – can then reach a state of “infused UX design”, as Jared calls it.

While I already had a good understanding of the why and the how of improving design literacy, the what still wasn’t that clear to me. What traits or skills should we focus on if we want to improve design literacy in our organization? Mariana Amatullo provided a possible answer to this question.

I really like the idea: Becoming a design-infused organization by facilitating empathy, creativity, aesthetics, ambiguity tolerance, and the ability to connect multiple perspectives – in every individual in your organization.

Infused design attitude, so to say.


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