Adaptation: A Framework for the Ages

That’s 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, culminating with the clarity and details of Design.

While such a process is a universal axiom—we all start in a fog as we attempt to narrow down to any clear form of expression or execution—what it doesn’t begin to touch upon are the moving parts found within the various methods that we employ in order to contribute to a product development environment.

I’ve been thinking about the evolution of my own creative method for a while now, as I’ve moved from personal expression to defining Design frameworks 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 art school, I was simply a ‘drawer’—I’d go directly to pad with either pencil or rapidograph pen, often skipping 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 focused on the craft of illustration in undergrad, I’d spend time ideating through the subject matter and prepping for the pen to paper by taking photographs to sketching to cutting images out of magazines. If the illustration was for a class or a client, I’d invest as much time conceptualizing as would illustrating. This was the moment where my creative process evolved to include other people’s input for the first time and the notion of problem solving

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 challenges were introduced.

We discussed faux business objectives and campaign parameters in studio, and then sequestered ourselves to research, sketch and write. Relatively quickly, we’d return to class to present three concepts and receive a full-on design critique. Repeat, narrow down, complete. Being able to clearly pitch an idea, and then take criticism as constructive without presenting a defensive posture is as important to a 20 year-old’s professional development as the ideation and execution process itself.

Towards the end of my undergrad career, we collaborated with Newhouse copy writers, prepping us for the machinations of a real world creative team (note: I never pursued a traditional print & tv agency career). This was a commercial design process, but one with greater degrees of complexities than illustration when it came to client input and iterations towards sign-off.

Game Design

After undergrad, I spent my days designing CD-rom edutainment games once landing an internship at a design and production studio. The biggest contrast between then and now is that the notion of a downloadable patch or a version update simply didn’t exist. We were pre-web, so production houses didn’t staff and operate with the approach that developers needed to be always busy shipping product.

We began each project with a clear goal of burning a gold disk to take to a reproduction house on a specific date far off in the future. There was no iterative approach, no outcome to meet other than great reviews. We were 100% big bang.

big bang product development
From nothing to everything

Our creative process looked something like the following:

  • the writer develops a linear script
  • our team translated it into a non-linear, node-based script and made material changes as necessary
  • we storyboarded key frames and the interaction model
  • environment, sprites, and animations were identified
  • we then focused on final artwork

As we made progress, the development team would ramp up their technical requirements and begin to shape their architecture; new details from the design team would impact their approach and they’d iterate accordingly. We would intensely collaborate, and the engineers prototyped both good and throwaway code. The process felt much more like collaboration found in film production than a web-based product.

Our reputations and compensation were dependent on releasing a finished product that actually found a market. We were 100% outcome based. Our distribution partner placed the product into the limited sales channels that existed prior to the robust long-tail of online retail, so we only had one chance to make a impression with both reviewers and customers.

If you ever see me twitch when an MVP is mentioned, that’s simply muscle memory from a product age long ago.

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 interactive art director, and then as an information architect.

  • The creative process as an IAD was somewhat similar to undergrad, though pitches and critiques absolutely stepped up in intensity. My experience in the gaming world prepped me for collaborating with a development team and similar to gaming, the market world of online campaigns, websites, screensavers, etc. were a first impression pursuit; the notion of iterative updates were known, but clients on retention primarily engaged about new work.
  • As an IA, the work was much more focused on defining and then translating requirements into sketches, schemas, taxonomies, etc., but the ideation, presentation and executing processes were highly similar. The “new” element was the explicit notion of documenting user requirements as a point in the process. Functional requirements (user + business + technical) and strategy docs were the foundation for how we ideated solutions

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In the late nineties, when agencies were in the luxurious position to offer soup to nuts services, development teams didn’t have the agency to drive innovation as they enjoy today. Engineers were explicitly beholden to the client initiative, which didn’t align with launching experiments in-market due to the economics of the time and our collective understanding of the medium. Aside from collaboration around information architecture and design deliverables, engineering innovation was boxed within the core vision of the client, the strategy team’s position paper, and the design process.

linear design process
Traditional process for one-off production

Only the best of the best shops could honestly tout a record of pushing the boundaries of the medium with their work, and those shops were doing it with top notch collaboration and deep client partnerships. My time spent time at Organic exemplified such a business environment. These days, firms such as IDEO and frog have diversified with such quality and talent that they can demand the proper price to bring innovation to the table.

Conversely, smaller studios and boutiques have to be creative in how they sell themselves, otherwise they fall into a game of pitching beyond their capabilities. Clients may invest upfront to bring in a shop to provide specific thinking—forever the value of an external team—but businesses are leaning more and more on newly formed in-house product design teams to take on the majority of design thinking and execution capabilities.

Collaborative method for ideation

While full development lifecycle innovation is difficult to find in the agency space, outside consulting can foster innovation within this climate through ideation around notions such as brand experience development, ideation workshopping, and targeted behavioral and industrial design execution. The challenge ahead for many studios will be to move to a business model and underlying IP creation method that can adapt to the shifting world around them to redefine a. what innovation looks like and b. how an external team can provide it with clear and understandable ROI.

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Engineering Leading; Engineering Billing

After stopping by for the tail-end of a startup experience (Tripod)—where method wasn’t much of a focus beyond design and build (unless the build already happened)—I experienced working within an explicitly focused development-centric organization for the first time. As the Chief Information Architect of a consultancy spun off from a global IT shop, my charge was specific—to develop an information architecture practice that leveraged a creative team methodology that was flexible and scalable, and could roll out across all of our domestic offices.

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 I faced was that ancillary teams (business analysts and developers, in particular) operated in a UML methodology where “user needs” was poorly tractable notions. Engagements began with client-focused JAD meetings that lasted days, sometimes weeks, and stacks of business and development documentation were produced for the project’s build.

I’m sure good thinking came out of those sessions, but it felt like more ceremony for ceremony’s sake, especially as I came to understand that the majority of the work turned out to be websites with less than complex degrees of engineering difficulty or user needs. The scale and complexity of the challenge ahead of me was clear.

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 kicking-off across the country. After rounds of discussions both outside and within the context of active projects, I realized that IA had to own as much of the actor-driven UML documentation as possible or we would have no leg to stand on when delivering user-centered experiences to our clients.

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.

As our team attempted deeper degrees of change, our efforts quickly became a game of tug of war with engineering management. This was the time we lived in (2001)—many of my design peers were experiencing similar struggles with development-centric organizations across the industry. The attempt to convince an entrenched executive technology staff that Design needed to have a seat upstream to inform development of what users needed, even with wins in tow, quickly devolved into a street fight.

Technical documentation = billable hours.

Looking back, the daily struggle for optimizing how Design fit into a potential innovative space created a blind spot for me to the possibilities of more collaborative opportunities. Maybe we could’ve figured out a pre-Lean UX / Agile approach, or complimented JAD with design activities. At the end of the day, I believe our intent was good—we wanted to build trust and deliver highly useful work—but we were too early to a philosophical problem that not enough people had yet encountered with clarity.

Over the next five years, I unceremoniously took on the role of being a change agent for Design, which unbeknownst to me at the time was as important to me as producing impactful products.

Product Design Where No One Considered Product As A Thing

In the period following my uphill battle within the IT world, and just prior to the rapid evolution of Extreme Programming & Goal-Directed Design, I took a position to design streaming applications in the financial industry—well before the FinTech descriptor was anointed. Not only was Datek Online ripe for Design to impact innovation, but the financial industry as a whole was a chasm for our craft to fill.

As with my previous stop, it took results to seal the deal of institutional change.

Over the three years that I was in the employ of Datek / Ameritrade, Design moved from a position of downstream 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.

Both firms knew they were providing a service to their clients, but at the highest positions internally the authenticated space simply wasn’t perceived as what we commonly understand Product to be today. It was treated as the “flip side” of the marketing layer; the logged-in space that pushed traffic to pages or applications that triggered trading revenue.

When Ameritrade bought Datek, the Business provided Development with direction that prioritized desired projects and Marketing was accustomed to providing all visual assets when applicable. After successfully navigating the domain for a few years, I positioned myself to staff a UX Design team to design a new trading platform after a deep, collaborative analysis of user needs.

The Active trader platform, Apex, was born and we had real, innovative work to do.

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

While our process was more waterfall than not, the front-end engineers were in our group (UX) and they were constantly prototyping our designs for user testing and skeleton development. Looking back, I considered us to be the D in an early EPD team, with the evolutionary notion of Product still stuck between the business analyst and project management roles.

Without this team approach, waterfall would’ve stopped development in their tracks, but our collaboration was top-notch. At any given time we had 10-15 active projects prior to the era of collaborative platforms (e.g. Basecamp). Our productivity would’ve grounded to a halt if it weren’t for how well our internal processes adapted to produce both on-time and above expectations.

We pushed forward within a Goal-Directed Design framework to innovate an experience designed specifically to support scenarios particular to our active trading clients. The opportunity to apply human-centered design thinking in a broader manner was limited by our place at the bottom of the engineering reporting structure.

True collaboration between Design, Development & Business had a ways to go.

Calling The Shots, And Not

For much of the past ten years, I operated a 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 for me to employ.

Example: Over two years, I engaged with a huge player in the media industry, Scripps Networks, building out my FT distributed team to six to completely re-imagine how they published to their online brands, which received millions of views per day.

Our design process with the internal project management and development teams was steeped in an early-stage (2007) Agile method with a blend of GDD, as we needed to understand and meet the needs of a cross section of internal users—editors, designers, media buyers and product management. It also had the challenging objective to be generic enough to be used by teams across multiple brands publishing to differing front-end templates.

After beginning the gig with a round of research to understand the role-based needs of the product, we kicked off the work by identifying key scenarios to pursue, beginning with the “publish and edit article” scenario.

My team, located across the US and the UK, 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 where we were in designing for the scenario in play, and what we’d complete over the following three week period. We would sketch, review, and specify, and then work with dev.

As this was an internal application for a high-profile brand, our iterative learning capabilities were limited to what Scripps was willing to expose. If I were in-house, I would’ve pushed harder to make such learning a reality. As a consultant, I did the best I could delivering what we had promised to deliver.

The lesson from that experience is that methodology decisions matter, as method—how we choose to collaborate, research, iterate, prioritize, be agile, etc.—directly impacts the creation of a useful experience for actual human beings.

Design Thinking With A Side Of Impact

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 survive, let alone thrive.

While I’ve operated in a manner 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 business leaders shift their operational tactics as the world evolves around them, design leaders must also evolve in order to produce impactful work in an ever-shifting technological environment with varying expectations from users in market to business partners alike.

My d/Design interests have never led me to submitting entries in an awards chase. I don’t care about patents or accolades; I care about results. My interests lay squarely in the realm of leading a team of practitioners, understanding human needs, contributing to a targeted product vision, and refining solutions to the point of wild success.

Nothing in life is certain, but I’m pretty sure that adaptation will continue to be central to my approach.

Tree Is Not Arbol (Unless You Add Silly String)


Bill Readings introduced me to semiotics in my undergraduate days at Syracuse University. His class was Contemporary Literary Theory, a 200 level course, so nowhere near enough knowledge to rest a proper degree upon, which was fine—Bill held space for us to focus for a few hours a week, learning how to both listen and think.

He had a wonderful way of illustrating his teachings, placing our 19 year-old minds into comfortable arenas where we could casually move towards comprehension and eventually grasp the core concepts of deconstructionism and linguistics that he tossed about with ease.

Aside from choosing Blade Runner as an explicit assignment to understand subtext, or his pointed call-out of us “numbskulls” to apply a “bit more apperception to your day-to-day existence,” the most visceral lesson that stuck with me was the one that centered around the English word “tree” and the Spanish word “arbol.”

Language Is Precise; We Are Unique

Roland Barthes on Saussure:

Until he found the words signifier and signified, however, sign remained ambiguous, for it tended to become identified with the signifier only, which Saussure wanted at all costs to avoid; after having hesitated between some and seme, form and idea, image and concept, Saussure settled upon signifier and signified, the union of which forms the sign.

English speaking folk first exposed to the authority of the Spanish translation of arbol might assume that the two terms have an explicit common representation across languages. Bill quickly informed us as to why such an assumption is wrong; while tree and arbol might translate into one another, as a written word they are only signifiers, whereas the actual physical objects that these words signify are called the signified and will most likely be very different in nature depending on who is uttering the term.

Saussure’s point in meticulously separating the intrinsic notion of the sign was to ensure there was no misunderstanding that a word and its recalled notion are without an inherent natural relationship. Edifying this truism in defining the study of language makes way for infinite variants of our personal mental model of the sign icon, where tree might equate with:


just as much as it might ring true with:


Flip the notion of a picture being worth a thousand words and imagine that an explicit term will be viscerally perceived millions of ways—when I hear the word tree spoken aloud, in my minds eye I see the 100+ year-old Oak from the yard of my childhood home.

Our individual experiences are far too precise to defer to common, explicit signified representations when translating the signifier.

Head deeper into the realm of the post-modern, and consider how the breadth of curated culture nudges us towards silos of explicitly defined perspective, relationships, even manners of behavior, hoisting upon us universally accepted paradigms of world views, ranging from the innocuous to the impactful. These silos have been refined over time, some stretching back thousands of years, all with language as the fuel propelling such edification.

In polite society, many presuppose that assimilation to constructs of our surroundings (e.g. religion, political parties, etc.) leads to a cross-section of success, happiness, and a further contribution towards a shared cultural experience. We tend to believe the notion of normality exists because there’s an assumption that an aggregate expectation for how individuals cognitively process and navigate our surroundings exists.

But why would we believe that normality truly exists when even the simple representation of a tree differs so greatly between us?


Shared language is powerful—it adorns the walls of town centers, fills the cultural coffers within national borders and establishes international truisms, all influencing inhabitants of this planet. It’s the vehicle for delivering and solidifying moral values as immediately as an arrow puncturing the skin, or over time as a potter might spin clay into a bowl. Language shapes how we understand the world, even as our unique experiences shapes language itself.

Into The Forest We Go

Whenever I stumble upon a conversation about knowledge and structure, such as Are trees natural? over at David Weinberger’s blog, the Bill Readings inspired information architect within me smiles.

One could posit that as a metaphor, we are each a tree with years of experience and branches sprouting outwards in unique directions with depth of purpose. When we enter any relationship, we overlap one another to form meshed nests of position, which ultimately reflect the state of our relationship with one another—healthy, in conflict or otherwise.

As no two trees are exactly alike, when in relationship the need to constantly nurture our positions to coexist in the same space, soil and climate is critical. When we process novel knowledge and negotiate our differences of opinion, we navigate our particular understanding of the world with one another, and as we find overlap and trust, we can move relationships forward, finding a path to civility within this complex ecosystem we’ve created for ourselves.

Broadening from individual relationships to community impact, technology now empowers us to assign associative signifiers (#) to information objects (video, images, sound, etc.), delivering additional context to interfaces made available to evolve our understanding of the world around us.

The degree of shared context that an individual can capture on the receiving end of such intent is determined by the degree of ones immediate understanding of shared (#) signifiers and a desire for exploratory investigation. In this alternative scenario of information retrieval—where the query is set in stone and the returned objects evolve based on the participation of the masses adding the same # to new objects—we more rapidly find signal online, leading to an increase of activity and activism; from egalitarian to capitalistic to creative to disruptive intent. High volume, serendipitous opportunities to reconsider and advance position through signifier infused objects will become the fabric of how we all experience online domains and traditional media.

When considering the trajectory of these times, this quote of Ferdinad de Saussure seems fitting:

In the lives of individuals and of societies, language is a factor of greater importance than any other. For the study of language to remain solely the business of a handful of specialists would be a quite unacceptable state of affairs. In practice, the study of language is of some degree or other the concern of everyone.

Everyone; Saussure would be blown away by how true that statement reads in today’s connected world of folksonomies and the effort of those in power to control not only language, but the underlying message.

A Tip Of The Cap

If Bill hadn’t stepped into the wrong plane at the wrong time in the fall of 1994, he would’ve witnessed exponential advancements of the inner-workings of the web—specifically the participatory meshing of topics, interests, desires, and perspectives via social tagging through citizen blogging, vlogging, podcasting, etc. His post-modern, deconstructive, subversive side would be beaming right about now; just as brightly as his multinational, cricket playing, pub perusing, molder of youth persona.

So in the name of language, relationships, connectivity and change, I dedicate this essay to my passed mentor. In Bill’s name, I’ll be busy late into the evening this October 30th, making a bit of a mess in someone else’s front yard, with someone else’s tree.

photo by heather allison
photo by heather allison

Tag! We’re It! Part III

I tag like a 15 year-old kid in the South Bronx with a box full of Krylons and a yard full of freshly sandblasted cars.

I tag like I just got jumped by a handful of punks who made the mistake of letting me follow them to their trailer park homes adorned with freshly cleaned aluminum siding.

I tag like I get told who I am, what I’m supposed to believe and how I’m supposed to act on a daily basis.

I go all city, hoping that one day, the vehicles I’ve touched get stitched together to form a complete sentence.


I tag because I saw you leave your mark and it was dope.

I tag because I know how to freeze, watch TV and (kinda) avoid the kissing bugs.

I tag because the words I drop in time will find a way to form a cohesive rhyme.

I tag because the world may be getting smaller, but it’s damn sure not coming together.


I tag your name, your spot, your position, your mood, your frame of mind when it’s too hard for you to see it for yourself.

I tag the expected terms of modern constructs.

I tag the post-modern undercurrents of miscellaneous descriptors.

I tag my tags so that when structure is forged out of chaos, you’ll know how to find me.

I tag so that it’s me you won’t be looking for.


When I tag, I’m regurgitating the meal I’ve caught for the chicks in my roost.

When I tag, I feel one with the universe of the collective unconscious.

When I tag, I can see the pillars of control quaking in their foundation.

When I tag, I experience therefore I understand.

When we tag, anything is possible.


Tag! We’re It! Part II
Tag! We’re It!

the zone


one step down
the next is quick to follow
soon comes a pace
my shins feel brittle and hollow
as i turn the corner
wading in deeper and deeper
i can feel my heartbeat sharply rise
and get closer to the reaper
or was that him i left in the dust
as i passed that parked el durado?
yo no se mi amigo
no era probablemente nada
as my spanglish slips into overdrive
while the corner homies sip on their tequila
my thoughts begin to jump around
from my work to mi familia
my passion is found in both
as they push against one another
never meeting at the cusp
my keyboard or my brother
but spinning round and round
like the bikers wheels who just cut me off
give us time and give us a chance
and we could make a doctor’s nads go *cough*
breathing hard
i start to glide
over broken glass
out of overdrive
into neutral
i find my flow
keeping a rythym
only one way to know
if i’ll be able to keep up
this crazy notion
of a long term commitment
of my legs in motion
i’ve got years to go
in this pace against time
so down comes my left foot again
ending this zoned-out rhyme