The Oldest Methodology In The Book: Adaptation

Inspired by Damien Newman's process
Inspired by Damien Newman’s process of design visualization

That’s a 30,000 foot view of Damien Newman’s process of design. It may be crude, but it’s absolutely clear: the unknown heading into Research leads to the sparks of Ideation and culminates with the clarity and details of Design.

While being a universal axiom of both art and design—we all start in a fog as we attempt to narrow down to any clear form of visual or behavioral communication—what it doesn’t begin to touch upon are the moving parts found within the various methods that we must employ in order to participate within & contribute to a product development team.

I’ve been thinking about the evolution of my own creative method for a while now, as I’ve moved from personal expression to participating within and creating Design methodologies for both start-up & large organizations over a 20+ year-long career. So if you’re inclined to join me on this journey, be warned up-front: I’m going to start at the beginning and that goes way back.

Being an Artist

Before, during and after art school, I was a drawer on most days, and an illustrator when things got fancy. As a drawer, I’d usually go directly to pad with either pencil or my rapidographs, often attempting to remove cognitive processing altogether with blind contour drawings. My portfolio for art school was filled with them. The subject matter was mine to define, and I finished when I felt it was complete.

As I became more serious, I’d spend time understanding the subject matter, find inspiration, and prep in a number of ways—taking photographs, sketching, cutting images out of magazines, you name it. If the illustration was for a class or a client, I’d spend time up front to understand the concept I was attempting to illustrate. My creative process evolved to include other people’s input for the first time.

artist ad design
“Dunk” (1988) & Sunkist: Nature’s Temptation (1991)

Undergrad Advertising Design

My illustration focus at Crouse College quickly took a turn to advertising design, and with it, a whole new set of creative challenges and processes were introduced. We discussed campaign parameters in studio, sequestered ourselves to research, sketch and write copy, and then returned to present three concepts and be critiqued by our peers. Repeat, narrow down, complete. It may not sound like much at first, but being able to clearly pitch an idea, and then take criticism as constructive rather than negative, is almost as important as the ideation process itself.

Towards the end of my undergrad career, we began to collaborate with Newhouse copy writers, prepping us for the machinations of a real world creative team (I never pursued a traditional print & tv agency career). With no developers to speak of—let alone bottleneck with our conceptual work—this was a pure commercial design process, but one with greater degrees of complexities than fine art and illustration when it came to client input and production (I’m not going to bore you with the details of setting type and creating animatics).

Designing Games

From ’94 to ’97, as I spent my days designing CD-rom games (I landed an internship at a production studio during college), the notion of a downloadable patch or version updates simply didn’t exist.

Just imagine if that were the case developing modern day apps or sites; would Agile even be a concept? As such, production houses didn’t concern themselves with developers constantly being busy shipping product. We began the project with one clear goal of burning a gold disk to take to a reproduction house as our literal shipping deadline (one day I’ll tell my story of a late night, deadline-pressed, speed-limit drive to Lancaster, PA to do just that). As such, there was no rollout plan aside from the inherently defined big bang and the design/development methodology took that into account.

big bang product development
From nothing to everything

We often started with a non-linerar, node-based script >> storyboarded key frames and interface behavior >> sketched sprite and background details >> and then focused on final animations and artwork. As we did so, the development team would ramp up their technical architecture and take new input from the creative staff to iterate their approach and code base. So yes, we intensely collaborated and dev prototyped & tossed out code, but it was more similar to the collaboration found on set and in pre & post-production for a film than a web-based product with an MVP.

Our reputations (and often compensation) were dependent on releasing a finished product that found a market. And from our publisher’s perspective, releasing product into the sales channels that existed prior to the robust long-tail online retail world existed, well, we only had one chance to make a hit impression with both reviewers and customers. So if you ever see me twitch when an MVP is mentioned, that’s simply muscle memory from a product age long ago. It subsides with a good night’s sleep.

Agency Life

As east coast game production dried up, I transitioned to the web and cut my teeth within a couple of agencies, first as an art director, and then as an information architect.

The creative process as an AD was somewhat similar to undergrad—though pitches and critiques absolutely stepped up in intensity—and my experience in the gaming world prepped me for collaborating with a development team. Similar to gaming, online campaigns, websites, screensavers, etc. were a first impression venture—both from a philosophical perspective and often logistically—so the notion of updates and additions were limited to fixing bugs. As an IA, the work was more focused on translating user requirements into sketches, schemas, taxonomies, etc., but the ideation, presentation and executing processes were similar.

In the late nineties, when agencies were in the luxurious position to offer soup to nuts service, development teams didn’t have complete agency in terms of driving innovation, as they were somewhat separated from the Design process—minus feasibility reviews of deliverables—in order to control costs. Only the best of the best shops could honestly tout a record of pushing the boundaries with their work, and those shops were doing it with pretty amazing collaboration and financial wrangling across the board.

linear design process
Traditional process for one-off production

Being truly iterative in a manner that fosters innovation is a rare bird for far too many engagements, and it has nothing to do with the skills of the people involved. Unless a firm has a well-funded retainer, most clients will devise a release plan and agencies will simply drive to meet those deadlines. Most will run a linear design process (some might iterate in varying degrees) and once specs are in the hands of development, the design firm will tend to fall out of the picture, leaving future iterative feature development to the client.

This is the future that all potential clients (from the perspective of an agency) are moving towards. They may invest upfront to bring in a shop to provide specific thinking or output (that often needs to come from the outside of the organization), but they’re leaning more and more on their in-house product design teams to take the majority of iterative responsibilities moving forward.

The very DNA of agency work makes a traditional definition of “innovation” difficult (think: an agency releasing an app on the scale of Google Maps), but if viewed specifically through the lens of expert, outside consulting along the lines of brand, behavioral design, technical approaches, etc., then an agency can most definitely help foster innovation within this business climate.

Collaborative method for ideation

It’s ok that the halcyon days of Silicon Alley are coming to an end, if they’re not already dead and buried. The industry, in general, needs to adjust their method from running processes that create documentation to ship a product for their clients to processes that, first and foremost, provide immediate returns on innovative thinking and design, such as with variants of Design Studio methods.

Innovation will be even more important for these firms to position themselves for future work as the client ecosystem continues to shrink and become redefined. The challenge is moving to business models and methods that can adapt to the shifting world around them to redefine what innovation looks like and how an external team can provide it.

Spin-Off Consultancy Within A Global IT Shop

I wanted to include this experience as it represented my first time working within a development-centric organization. Hired by the recently appointed corporate creative director—who was brilliant to work with, btw—my charge was to develop an information architecture practice with an operating methodology that could be rolled out the firm’s satellite agencies across the US.

Aside from forming strong allies with creative directors in each office—which became a difficult line to toe as they, understandably, felt comfortable running their own teams as they saw fit—the largest problem was that the business (business analysts and developers, in particular) operated in an object-oriented, UML methodology—beginning with JAD meetings that bore stacks of business requirements and development documentation bordering on ceremony for ceremony’s sake.

When I realized the client work was primarily website engagements, with the random software project that escaped from the IT sales team, it became apparent the scale of the challenge ahead of me.

How to drive a designer crazy, 101
How To Drive A Designer Crazy 101

My primary goal out of the gate was to figure out how to get tech management on-board with user-centered design in the midst of client engagements constantly kicking-off across the country. What I immediately discovered is that IA had to own as much of the actor-driven UML documentation as possible or we had no leg to stand on. While we were successful in taking ownership of certain aspects of the process—from key insertion points to deliverables—we just couldn’t nudge the overall methodology, which was a nightmare.

As we attempted deeper degrees of change, my efforts quickly became a game of tug of war with management, but this was the time we lived in (2001)—most of my design peers were experiencing similar struggles with development-centric organizations across the industry. Convincing an entrenched executive technology staff that Design needed to have a seat upstream to inform development of what users needed in their interfaces and in a way that would reduce documentation (read: billable hours) quickly devolved into a street fight.

The daily struggle for optimizing how Design fit into a potential innovative space created a blindspot for me to the possibilities of more collaborative opportunities (think Agile). Over the next five years, I unceremoniously took on the sub-conscious role of being a change agent for Design, which unbeknownst to me at the time was as important to me as producing innovative work.

Product Design in an Environment Not Ready to be a Product

In the period following my uphill battle within the IT world, and just prior to the rapid evolution surrounding Extreme Programming & Goal-Directed Design, I took a position to design streaming applications in the financial industry. Not only was this particular domain ripe for Design to impact innovation, but the industry as a whole was chasm for our craft. As with my previous stop, it took results to seal the deal of institutional change.

Over the three years that I was in their employ, Design moved from a position of downstream, last second patchwork application to an upstream presence that impacted every aspect of the brand made available to the public. But to describe our methodology in a simple sentence just isn’t possible; the firm knew they were providing a service to their clients, but at the highest positions internally, the authenticated space simply wasn’t perceived as a proper product. It was treated as the flip side of the marketing layer; the logged-in space that had a lot of traffic who were paying clients, so downtime was not an option.

cooper design
We ran a modified version of Cooper’s Goal-Directed Design

The history of the (acquiring) firm had Business providing Development with direction that described desired front or backend projects, with Marketing providing all visual assets when applicable.

After successfully navigating the domain for a few years, I was given the opportunity to staff a UX Design team to design the new trading platform. We operated in more of a waterfall manner than not, but since our front-end team was in our group, they were constantly prototyping wireframes. Without this approach we would’ve stopped development in their tracks, but our team collaboration was top-notch. At any given time we had 10-15 active projects (pre-Basecamp or Teamwork era), which could have ground our productivity to a halt if it weren’t for how our internal processes adapted to produce on-time and above expectations.

We pushed forward within a Goal-Directed Design framework to produce solid work for our clients, both internally and externally, though the opportunity to proactively collaborate cross-functionally in a broader manner—addressing the needs of n number of other client touch-points in an innovative manner—was limited as the projects continued to stack. True collaboration between Design, Development & Business had a ways to go.

On My Own… And Sometimes Calling The Shots

Fot the past ten years, I operated a one-man design shop that would flex in size depending on the opportunities in front of me. Similarly, the particular engagements I landed (and the domains behind them) greatly influenced the process and methods available to employ.

For almost two years, we engaged with a huge player in the media industry and our design process with the internal project management and development teams was steeped in an early-stage (2007) Agile method. The project was a ground-up content management system specific enough for the needs of all internal users, but generic enough to be used to publish to a handful of prominent websites with millions of daily viewers driven by television traffic.

After beginning the gig with a large round of research to inform the general parameters of the product, my team (located across the US) would hold our own daily scrum each morning prior to joining in for the client scrum in the afternoon. We (myself, the PM and dev lead) discussed which features (from the approved scenarios) that we’d focus on completing over the following three week period to get us close to an MVP. The process gave our design team a week to sketch and specify, and then iterate with dev over the following two weeks.

Diagram of the iterative design and critique process. Warfel, Todd Zaki. 2009
Diagram of the iterative design and critique process. Warfel, Todd Zaki. 2009

While that was a rather optimal situation for us to cross-functionally innovate within, the most important aspects of a Lean process had to be handled in more conventional manners. This was an internal application for a huge, high-profile publishing organization with a certain degree of politics surrounding its rollout. We simply couldn’t prototype, receive feedback and ship in a cyclical manner. Those decisions were out of my hands.

These methodology decisions matter, as method—collaboration, iteration, agility, etc.—directly impacts the possibility of creating a useful experience for people and positively impacting the bottom-line. Unfortunately, one only has so much input into design/development processes when one is an external design consultant.

So Can I Have That With A Side Of Innovation?

We began with a process of design, which seems ridiculously simple looking back across this essay, and here I am, fully taking in how much I’ve had to adapt to my environment over the years to thrive, even survive at times.

While I’ve admittedly operated to nudge others to shift their perspective on how to work with Design over the past 20 years, the evolution of my understanding of Design, and how it fits across industries, form factors, and customer types has immensely changed as well.

Just as industry leaders shift their operational tactics as the world evolves around them, we designers must also evolve in order to produce quality work in an ever-shifting technological environment with varying expectations from our clients.
Adaptation to circumstances

My d/Design interests have never led me to submitting entries in an awards chase and my fight to establish Design titles, processes, positions upstream, etc. within an organization/across the industry ended when I started my own shop (thankfully, Design lost its training wheels in our industry over the last decade).

My interests today lay squarely in the realm of contributing to excellent product concepts and executing their design to the point of them becoming wildly successful.

Managing a design team within an innovative space whose expectation of designers—once artists free of parameters, input, and time constraints—is that they are not only able to see the forest through the trees, but do the difficult work of collaborating to nurture features into a production lifecycle; to refine a smart idea into a working behavior and onto a great product… that’s the rare orchid I’m looking to catch out in the wild.

UPDATE: I may have found the orchid in MedBridge. Let’s see if/how it blooms…