December 25, 2020

The Problem With Details

Joe Deptowicz

Details destroy good design

Yes, I said it. It still seems odd. Just a year ago, I would've dismissed myself and this radical claim. "Design is all about the detail" I thought. In fact it was a deep-seated belief, the ethos of an educated, professional designer constantly pushing the envelope on what was possible. Design thinking like that led me to the creation and implementation of successful wayfinding systems in large, historic sites like the Ohio Statehouse and many brand identities that surpassed just a logo, embodying a brand, their story and personality.

Let me be clear, I'm not dismissing the importance of details. In fact, I've become more detail-oriented as a business owner trying to make sense of operations, teams, and projects, amongst the rest of the plates spinning. Details matter, but in great design, what many regard as "detail" is often the cause of missed deadlines, spoiled relationships, and ultimately great designs reduced to a portfolio, never to be seen in the world where they belong.

Design thinking momentarily ditches detail for ambiguity

David Kelley, fellow Ohioan and founder of the groundbreaking design firm IDEO put it plainly, “Striving for perfection can get in the way during the early stages of the creative process.” In the design process, detail comes at the end or it almost always stifles creativity. Ambiguity is the key to a successful ideative process and for it to take center stage simplicity and wild thinking have to be unleashed, specifically by whoever is leading the process.

Design is simply creative problem solving at its best. Initially, the problem and those effected must be identified to kick off the design process, but after that ambiguity takes over enabling all present to throw out ideas. Many times the "creatives" are looked at for THE solution, but effective brainstorming sessions welcome the ideas of all. From management to the janitorial staff ideas are to flow freely. The wilder the ideas the greater the divergence of thought, gathering all possible solutions. This is key whereas detail immediately causes a group to converge on a singular idea. Below are three tips to successfully lead a design thinking session, whether it's surrounding a project timeline, business plan, or groundbreaking product.

1. Lead With Creative Confidence

I'll reference David Kelley of IDEO once more because of his brilliant book, Creative Confidence. It details the concept and what it means to lead well in the creative industry. In short, it is a collection of design thinking practices that amplify and clarify the creative process. The practices are extensive, yet still integral to our design thinking at Winmore. To have creative confidence is to have the ability to see and pull creativity out of those who wouldn't see it otherwise.

For example, imagine designing graphics that line the walls of a children's hospital. A creative team could easily combine color and art to create immersive environments transforming a hospital visit into a walk through a wonderland of sorts. But, when the initial brainstorming includes the nurses and even families themselves the end product isn't just a portfolio piece but a deeply personal experience, drawing from the very people interacting with it.

2. Draw From Personal Experience

There we sat in another design thinking session. A couple of designers, a principal, and a project manager. No, this is not the start of a joke. It's a recounting of an average, boring meeting that became something special when the project manager, a well known numbers man was forced to conjure the unthinkable, an idea. Out of seemingly nowhere he exploded with ideas only a project manager could think of. Some a bit too detailed, but nonetheless the ideas added an element that was missing. His practical, client-facing ideas struck a balance to a widely etherial design session focused on artistic ideas.

The artistic ideas always took center stage, but the introduction and reorientation to ideas purely surrounding the project schedule and audience gave the brainstorming session momentum. If you're a creative reading this than you're bringing an art-based, design heavy mindset but your audience may include people like the project manager that may enjoy art, but can bring much more to the table by looking at the project through their unique lens. This prioritizes your relationship with those in the room. If you know everyone well you'll be able to pull ideas from their unique perspective with ease. If you're dealing with a crowd of lesser known people you have the opportunity to flex your creative confidence and learn more about them and their roles.

3. Be Willing To Walk Away

Meetings can be exhausting and as exciting as creative brainstorming meetings can be compared to your run of the mill financial report, decision fatigue still lurks in the room. Odds are you'll come to a point where the ideas have ebbed and flowed and you're now left with a table/wall/board full of post-it notes and pictures. Now what? The creative process is full of diverging and converging thoughts, but true progress is only made when the convergence of ideas happens. If fatigue hits and no decisions have been made don't be too freaked out. Head to lunch or reconvene before the end of the day and try to make concrete next steps, emphasizing the progression of ideas and solutions brought forth by the team.

Finally, it's time for the details

Once the process of diverging and converging thoughts have been whittled down to a clear direction it's time to create a detailed solution. That's right. Details. What would've happened if details entered in during the creative brainstorming sessions? Creative confidence would've been lost, ego would've temporarily won and the team would be moving powerfully on a half-baked idea. The price of premature detail in the creative process almost always results in a lesser solution, and it also misses the opportunity to synergize teams.

The urge to introduce detail, especially when a great idea arises is all too tempting. However, the price is a sidetracked creative meeting. Great ideas are often lost when settling for good ones, good ones lost when settling for the average. Why? Detail. Resist the natural pull to the concrete. Embrace the ambiguous, embolden your team and confidently create like never before!

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