Design through or design around

Every Apple fan has fantasized at least once in this post-Jobs era: Why can’t Jonathan Ive, the creative guru, Jobs’ right-wing man and best friend, the greatest industrial designer alive, take the helm? But as of now, there is no hint of him aspiring beyond the design lord, and the current king of Appledom, Tim Cook, is the second greatest Apple CEO ever behind Jobs in everybody’s eyes. Case closed.

Designers aren’t known as “aspiring” as marketers, MBA-ers, salesmen, or even accountants. This article tries to explain why relatively few designers are willing to create a startup. Its conclusion is that maybe the designers don’t know the joy of the “designing the process” (meta-design) instead of “designing things.” Once they broaden their view, they might enjoy and even thrive on being a CEO.

It’s not enough to just love to design. It’s about loving the process so much that you want to design your company from the ground up. As Gentry Underwood, former IDEO-er and co-founder of Mailbox explained to me, “thinking like a designer means being better suited for the open-ended ambiguous problems that epitomize the startup journey and having the skills needed to iterate towards product-market fit.” You’re excited to apply the design mindset to rethinking organizational structure, go-to-market strategy, and the many other challenges that inevitably get thrown your way — “opening the aperture to what it is they are designing,” is how Neil Grimmer, co-founder/CEO of Plum Organics put it.

I myself am not a “designer” in the traditional sense but I did have creative control over design in my field: documentation. As the article says, the fundamental element of design is problem solving, and documentation was no exception.

After enjoying designing templates and formats for a couple of years, I thought it was time for me to “broaden” my view and apply what I had learned to other areas. There was only so much a piece of document could do, which was the firefighter of product hazards. Why not prevent the disaster before it happens by fixing the product itself?

So I stepped out of document design and marched into human interaction design. Can we make a product so efficient that it does not even accompany a manual? “Die manual die” was echoing in my head. I admit, my motivation was tainted.

But then I hit on a big wall: Humans. No, they were not the humans I was trying to save from Rube Goldberg machines (a.k.a. Users), but the humans I was working together to save those humans (a.k.a. Coworkers).

In document design, I was absolutely the king of the world. I could move every text, line, and color down to a pixel by just a command (click). I could even change the whole structure in one afternoon and redo it the next day. I was God in my small sandbox. No, I was more than that god: I didn’t need six days and a day off to create an entire universe.

Working on human interaction design was literally working with people, which was, as we all know, a force of nature. Humans moved on their own terms, said yes when they meant no, and what remained true until the day before was no longer true the next day. Nothing was predictable. Unlike a fixed solid object, the perfectness of human being was in its imperfectness. We were created by a lazy guy who took god-awfully long seven days to finish his job, remember?

I believe the same issue applies to running a company. There is a reason why every company says, both truthfully and showing-off-ly,  that people is their greatest asset. That statement is slightly exaggerating. People isn’t a company’s greatest asset. People is its only asset. To run a company is to control unpredictable humans by an unpredictable human. Wanna try it?

With documents, I could design through them. With people, I had to design around them. If a designer is to switch from designing things to designing an organization, what he has to change isn’t just a matter of adopting a “process” mindset. He has to give up being an almighty god in his sandbox and turn into a servant in the schoolyard.

Are you willing to stop pretending to be a god? That is the question.