A few years ago, one of my best friends bought me a poster. It arrived in a large envelope, folded up into quarters.
As I pulled it out, I could see that one side was blank white and, as my fingertips soon discovered, the other side was covered in a thick carbon film. It was impossible to remove the poster without getting the carbon all over my hands… With every movement, my fingers acquired more powder and promptly dotted the periphery of the blank white side with black smudges.
At first, I was confused. (What the heck did my friend send me?) Then worried. (Am I ruining it?) And then, as I inadvertently smudged more and more carbon, I realized that the black powder was clinging to previously invisible words. My fingers, now with purpose, smeared across the face of the poster. To my delight, the following sentence emerged:
THE FUTURE BELONGS TO THE FEW OF US STILL WILLING TO GET OUR HANDS DIRTY
It’s become one of my favorite quotes. And yet those words haunt me. Because the honest truth is that I don’t feel that I get my hands dirty very often these days. When I introduce myself in a professional setting, I say that I’m a designer by trade. I pride myself on the fact that I started designing websites in 1995 and that I’ve designed user interactions with websites, mobile apps, wearable devices, and robots.
But I’ve left that world behind. Today I help my clients design the journeys they want their customers to have and cultivate the organizations they need to in order to deliver those journeys. That sounds like service design, right? And yet, it also feels like No Man’s Land between Design Thinking and Design Doing (a.k.a. “getting my hands dirty”).
I don’t push a strong Design Thinking agenda with my clients. In fact, in many of their organizations, “design” is considered a four-letter word. And the tasks that fill my days feel completely disconnected from my earlier Design Doing work. As a business owner, I spend a ridiculous number of hours dealing with attorneys, accountants, bookkeepers, and insurance agents. Design Thinking? Design Doing? Ha! Not even close.
But although my traditional design practitioner days are long behind me, I still consider myself a designer. Design is the red thread that connects all of my professional experiences. It’s in my DNA. It’s how I relate to the world. It’s who I am.
Somewhere in between Design Thinking and Design Doing, I am Design Being
You might identify yourself as an active Design Thinker or Design Doer. (If so, fantastic! The world needs you desperately.) And yet, I’m guessing that a handful of the visitors to my site (maybe more?) might just feel the same way I do. Perhaps you started out as a Thinker or Doer. And now you’ve moved into a management role at a public or private organization. Or you spend your days in meetings, trying to convince others about the importance of customer experience. Or you started teaching and sharing your ideas with others. Or your skills and passions have morphed your career into some unexpected shape that’s hardly recognizable to the Thinker or Doer you once were.
Whatever form it takes, this No Man’s Land might feel confusing—or even scary at times. But I’d argue that Design Being is a natural evolution of people’s individual design practices. And, more to the point, I think it’s essential in order for the design discipline to thrive.
Design can’t have a meaningful impact on the world if it has only one definition, one instantiation that all people and all organizations must adhere to. The scope of potential design problems is way too large for a one-size-fits-all approach.
Therefore we must all internalize design, make it our own, make us our own. We must Be Design, stretching and growing, pushing beyond our previous conceptions of our design selves, determining what design means to our professional and personal lives, sharing our passions with non-Thinkers and non-Doers, and sometimes becoming non-Thinkers and non-Doers ourselves (if even for the briefest of moments).
In short, we must each become our own self-defined Design Beings. For me, this means coming to terms with my favorite poster and redefining what it means to get my hands dirty. On some days this means guiding my clients though their first customer workshop. Other days it means discussing the design field’s biggest challenges over drinks with a friend. On others it means taking care of the administrivia inherent in my business. And on occasion, it means exposing my fears and vulnerabilities through my writing.
That’s what my Design Being looks like. How about yours?
This post is adapted from my regular column in Touchpoint Journal, published by the Service Design Network.