Founding principles

Quite a number of Monday evenings this year were spent working alongside Big Motive as a design coach on the Catalyst Co-Founders programme.

For those with even an inkling of a product idea, Co-Founders offers invaluable early validation (or otherwise), outcomes can be entry on to fully-fledged incubation programmes, a pivot on the original idea, or abandonment. The latter outcome can still be termed a ’successful’ outcome. Some folks who could have poured months or years of their lives into something that simply had no inherent value learn the harsh truth much earlier than they otherwise would.

Based firmly around the d.School design thinking model, and led by Big Motive, Co-Founders takes small teams through a process which forces them to examine the essence of a product idea. Using tried-and-tested tools a set of tools, they deconstruct the problem they are trying to solve, then reconstruct their solution with greater clarity and objectivity. It may have its critics (and let’s be clear that all successful frameworks and processes do) but design thinking, when fully committed to by stakeholders and teams, the process simply delivers.

I’ve been amazed at the resilience and inventiveness of the individuals and teams. Participants tend to be full-time professionals, with an idea they just can’t let go of. It may or may not be related to their day jobs; but in each case they want to find out if their idea can play out in practice the way they have developed it in their heads. Watching teams go from being at a loss to what they can possibly do next, to becoming resourceful and forceful in progressing their product idea is so rewarding.

I’m not overly familiar with Yogi Bhajan, but my word is he a great source of quotes:

“If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.”

I have lectured and coached increasingly over the last five years, and I’ll vouch for this. In many cases, I’ll agree to these engagements because – selfishly – I know how much I will get out of it personally. I’ve been integrating design thinking techniques into client work, and more recently in Puppet, for the last decade. But teaching it, and seeing the enlightenment it brings, continues to inspire me.

Looking back at the year of 2018, I’m filled with a lot of gratitude for all kinds of experiences. Yogi Bhajan has my back again:

“An attitude of gratitude brings great things.”

I attempt to surface this very feeling in all that I do, again for selfish reasons. Gratitude is, I believe, the most sustaining and affirming feeling available to us. We can encourage it and cultivate it. Working with Big Motive is a pleasure and I’m thankful to them for inviting me in as one of the coaches.

Running the UX Belfast meetup has provided me with a number of transformative encounters during the year, not least with attendees who come from all manner of organisations and businesses. Book authors we have spoken with have been utterly fantastic in terms of the amount of time they have been prepared to lend to offer to a small group of designers perhaps halfway around the world. The insights and knowledge they have been prepared to share with us has been similarly impressive.

Most recently, Jorge Arango was particularly inspiring while talking about his book ‘Living in Information’. He has since become another key individual I follow and look up to as I continue to develop as a designer and a professional. I heartily commend his newsletter and blog for its sheer quality of content. And of course the book itself. In keeping with the original topic of this post, here’s a piece from Jorge in November 2018 where he puts forward a model for teaching (and learning).

I’ll cut this short of a comprehensive 2018 retrospective. Suffice to say it was another year in which I was conscious of growing and developing. Thank you to everyone who offered me inspiration in the last twelve months, whether in person, in writing or on video. The experiences of 2018 have given me ideas and new inspiration for 2019. You can’t ask for more from a professional year.

A criminal past

My name is Patrick Stuart Monro, and I have a criminal past.

Some weeks ago this thought occurred to me:

It had begun to feel that so much of what I was saying, whether on Twitter or off it, sounded like that old stereotype of the ex-smoker whose every utterance forms an unrelenting diatribe against their former habit.

Moving deeper into the wold of user experience research and user-centred design has turned my professional sensibilities on their head; I’m a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. From an inauspicious start at a design sweatshop, successive developments brought me to increasingly align with principles that should have been ingrained from day one, but were not.

I envy those who realise early in their design careers – perhaps through effective education – that people should be at the centre of their work, those who will consume the outputs from it. My early career was a series of exercises in aesthetic futility, recurring attempts to prove something about myself that rarely manifested itself in user-centred design of any variety.

Graphic work particularly was more often than not an exercise in Photoshop promenading. Maybe I would shoe-horn in a new typeface that I liked the look of, usually in wilful ignorance of the ultimate audience or purpose.

That said, no-one suffered, no-one died. Every piece of work I produced was signed off by a client as fit for purpose (not necessarily an endorsement of it being effective of course), and the work I was doing was no better or worse than numerous design projects created every day around the world.

What my tweet made me aware of was that I wish at times I could address my younger self (doesn’t everyone?), and begin to plant the seeds of responsible design earlier.

An opportunity has become available to do something approaching this, as a contributing lecturer to the Interactive Multimedia Design course at the University of Ulster. I can at least begin to make amends for my own lack of understanding (something I can’t solely attribute to poor levels of design education) by passing on some of what I’ve learned in 20+ years as a designer, albeit far too few of those spent as an effective one.

I find it cathartic to admit that I really haven’t been the designer I should have been for most of my career. But – as with all personal transformation – admitting aproblem is the first step. Followed by taking each day as it comes, and working to improve, one day at a time.

And I use each day to distance myself as far as possible from that younger version of me; the one who didn’t appreciate the privilege of working as a designer, and the responsibility that it brings with it.

I remain an eternal student of design. There are those in the industry (the ‘design’ industry in its widest possible sense), both globally and locally, that I look to now to help me make up for lost time. And it’s time I acknowledged them.

And with that, the subject of a future post becomes clear.