This is the fifth post in a 6-part series from Ziba's Industrial Design Director, Paul Backett, on rethinking design education. Read the Introduction to the series,Teach Less, Integrate More here.
Designers in the real world almost never work alone, but students frequently do. One of the great failings of modern design schools is how rarely they expect students to work in groups or with external partners, and how little attention they give to the mechanics of teamwork. Just as much as sketching and modelmaking, design students must learn to share their own ideas and build on the ideas of others; to produce and receive constructive criticism from their peers.
The most successful projects I have worked on professionally came from a collective rather than individual vision. Realizing that vision isn't always fun and games though. Great ideas come from passion and tension, sometimes even arguments. Students need to be objective, to put their personal feelings aside, to not take criticism personally and work for the greater good of the team. These skills can be learned in school, but it's far more common for students to work independently, under a culture of competition or even coddling.
Students need a sense of humbleness and openness to outside ideas, and there's still no better way to develop it than tough, exacting critique. Leela Morimoto of University of Oregon's ID program gives a mid-term presentation.
My professors were tough. They took no crap off their students and called us out when we hadn't put in full effort—sometimes dramatically. Based on my interaction with students from dozens of design programs over the past decade, I'm not sure this happens enough these days. An element of cockiness is natural for designers, but it's up to professors to hand every student enough humbling experiences that they develop respect for the ideas and work of others. It's the same in the professional world: we have to be open and honest in our evaluation of ideas. The more exposure students get to this type of discussion, the better. In the early stages of a project I often see students struggling to come up with new concepts, unaware that group brainstorming is ideal for kickstarting the process. I don't believe students are being taught the techniques to make this important early step effective. Brainstorming is our bread and butter at Ziba. We have many projects going on at once—often every member of the ID team is on a separate program—but anyone has the option to call a group brainstorm if they need to build, refine or problem-solve on any given project.
There are a few elements that reliably make for a productive brainstorm, and no student should graduate from a design program without being well-versed in them.
First, a clear objective - What are you asking the team to solve in the next 30 minutes? Is it a quick, broad exploration or focused idea generation? Your objective should be stated clearly and concisely at the outset.
Set the context - A character board introduces your user and their perspective on the world. A 360 model paints a picture of the product's physical surroundings and how it fits into the user's life. The design theme provides the team with stylistic direction. Brainstorms, in fact, are ideal for testing out design themes, as long as someone is paying attention to the team's responses.
Provide inspiration! - Designers tend to be very visual and tactile, so an empty room will produce a great deal of nothing. This is your opportunity to pull out all those orphaned but interesting materials and samples you've been hoarding for the past year.
One idea per page - This simple rule is one of the most helpful; as important in its own way as the requirement for students to keep a sketchbook. One idea per page allows ideas to be posted on the communal wall live, and this encourages collaboration. When you're stuck, simply look at the wall and build on what you see.
Communicate! - Brainstorms are never silent affairs. Many students are naturally precious or protective, and it's the teacher's or facilitator's job to get them sharing and explaining. This means actively encouraging participants to build on existing ideas, and to submit at least one new idea every few minutes. A good name for the brainstorm can do wonders to break the ice and get the team going—some of my favorites over the past few years include 'Ring of Fire' for a frozen curry project and 'Show Me the Glove' for a hair coloring program. Brainstorms should feel playful; good ideas rarely come out of a slog.
Inspiration for a brainstorm can take many forms, from magazine images to material and product samples.
When all these elements are present, ideas come thick and fast. A packaging project, for example, begins with a user introduction: in a recent case, a woman looks for a natural experience to transport her away from everyday routines. The team surrounds itself with packaging and product samples that she—not they—would love. The brainstorm begins with a discussion about these products, the reasons she loves them, and the roles they play in her life. It quickly reveals that this is a woman with a busy, cluttered life, and she wants as little additional complexity as possible. The desired attributes of the packaging become clear: pure, simple, manageable and easy to understand, in contrast with the fussy styles that currently dominate the market. With such a clear aim, ideas begin to flow rapidly, kickstarted by well-planned preparation and prompting.
Another great way to harness the power of the team is with group critiques. I encourage my students to share and discuss ideas regularly throughout their design process. Presenting a clear train of thought is essential. If students can develop these verbal skills in school, it sets them up for presenting to clients later on. As with brainstorms, presentations need a clear goal and concise explanations, and rely heavily on research tools. Integrating all these abilities is a great skill for students to master. I insist on having them write down whatever feedback they receive, and encourage their peers to actively find faults and ask for ideas on how to resolve them.
Industrial designers frequently find themselves collaborating with experts from other fields, like these two bike builders at Signal, in Portland.
Effective collaboration means more than just working well with other industrial designers though. Designers in the real world must share, exchange and negotiate with broad multidisciplinary teams, including social scientists, engineers, marketers and a host of other creative professionals. And while ID students don't need to become expert at these other disciplines, schools must get better at exposing students to them. It's vital that they find ways to connect these departments within their educational establishments, for the benefit of everyone involved—ID isn't the only field that needs to play well with others.
In the end, we're talking about a shift in design school culture, away from a rockstar mentality, and toward one where idea-sharing is expected and teamwork is celebrated. Individuals can then be graded on how they identified the right idea and took that idea forward, developed it, and made it real.
When I hire designers, I'm not looking for the solitary inventor. The technical skill must be there, but if it's attached to so much ego that it interferes with team interaction, that's a deal-breaker. Students who can show how they harnessed the power of their team in the early stages of a project are far more likely to succeed. Ideas are cheap, after all; in the real world, it's how you take them forward and craft them that matters most. They may not be as obvious as top-notch sketching skills, but humility, teamwork and a desire to learn from peers are essential traits for any designer.