Critiqued by Christina Beard Inside the Minds of 23 Leaders in Design
by Christina Beard
ISBN: 9780321897411

This book grew from Beard’s thesis project. Her plan: meet with almost two dozen established and respected figures in the design world, learn about their process/perspective, and incorporate their feedback into the next iteration of her poster. As a result Beard made dozens of posters on her chose topic, hand washing.

The feedback and advice Beard was given led to dramatic changes in the poster over time, including several fresh starts. Beard’s format could seem too repetitive, but is saved by the curiosity — what will the next designer say about the poster? What bits of wisdom will we learn?

Some of the bits that stood out to me (in a good way) were:

Drawing has taught me the more you don’t know in your mind what you’re going to do, the more it comes out in your hand. You learn from looking, and look from making, and make from looking, and it’s all part of this ongoing process. – Jessica Helfand

Collaboration is tough to begin with because there are two forces are at odds with the process itself. One is of level of politeness, you know? Like, “Uhh, your design sucks.” But you don’t want to say that, right? So you have to transcend the fear of being honest and being hurt to get to a better place. It’s not your place, it’s not my place, it’s where we push ourselves. – Rick Valicente

I think you have to broaden your definition of what a designer is. You take information and you tell a story, and you convince an audience that this information is pertinent to them. And hopefully in doing that you don’t go working for cigarette companies, but you work for companies you believe in. I think that’s always been our role. – Michael Vanderbyl

…for me [not researching is] like a chef not caring if the patrons of his restaurant like the food. You want that branding feedback. You want to know how people respond to it, how they relate to it, what they see into it, what they experience; and I think that is really critically important for any design process. – Debbie Millman

There were also bits that stood out to me not in a good way. There were too many references to “normal” people, as part of a “general audience” that felt particularly jarring given the topic of the poster (hand washing = not a specialist activity). The understanding that of of course as a designer you want to avoid the “obvious” thing was also a bit grating, again considering there are times when the obvious thing, well, works.

Most annoying of all was that the experimentation here is entirely in the design of the poster and at no time does anyone suggest to Beard she run an experiment. Sure, she goes to check out different bathrooms as part of her research — but she never counts how many people wash their hands, slaps up a poster, and sees if it actually changes behavior.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Beard does tell us that “the poster wasn’t really about the message. Rather, it serves as a vehicle to look at current approaches in design.” Yet I think this irritates me even more. The idea that many current approaches in design are this removed from real world impact strikes me as a problem, one that designers should be working to overcome. It isn’t that expertise doesn’t have a place, rather that expert opinion is still just that (opinion) and that individual opinion isn’t the best gauge for impact. Why aren’t more luminaries suggesting real world experiments to measure the success of a design — particularly in a case like this one, where the message is tied to a specific and measurable outcome (incidence of hand washing)?

I may be guilty of drinking the minimum viable kool-aid, but this feels like a big miss to me. As the poster went through iteration after iteration, I realized I probably wasn’t going to find out which was the one poster to rule them all, because the purpose remained theoretical: the posters were not coming to a bathroom near anyone, not even as a test to learn about the design.

Still, I did overall enjoy the book. I imagine process nerds will be eager to glean whatever they can from how other folks work, and there are lessons to be learned here about incorporating feedback and balancing ego and idea. Just know there’s more here about executing an idea than implementing for impact.

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