Design communication: Risk and Reward of Change

Design meetings suck. Why is that? It seems the more people talk about how wonderful design meetings ‘can be’, the less confident I am.  It all begins to sound like BS.  But, it’s not BS.  Design thinking and good design teams are important.

I want design meetings and communication to improve.  I don’t know how, exactly.  But here are my thoughts about 4 elements of design teams. I’ve highlighted each of these area’s risks and rewards.


Teams must communicate.

Collaborative thinking


Groupthink happens. No one takes ownership of the design (product or process) which leads to poor standards and flagging motivation. Conflict, most often in the form of overly critical, personal or non-constructive feedback, erodes esprit de corps. In order to be creative, I think you have to be safe and trusting.  Otherwise you don’t take ownership, your motivation dies and you end up with groupthink.


Team power (aka esprit de corps or morale), which means that the sum is greater than the parts. We call this the ‘Voltron effect’ and is the reason why Ben and I work together.  Our diversity of perspective, skills and experience make us a stronger unit and help us to be more productive.


Emotional energy is required to do something insanely great - like a world changing design or a National Championship


I’ve been thinking a lot about emotion lately after reading Aaron Walters book designing for emotion.  When thinking about team emotion, especially now during March madness, I think about when players on defense slap the floor. When I see that happen in a game, I know shit is getting real.


Emotional transfer- what started as a comment about the color scheme is now a fight about washing coffee cups in the break room.  Emotions are impolite. They don’t follow rules and they have a serious disrespect for power. Yet, we want (AND NEED!) people to bring their emotions. We want them to slap the floor and get angry – just not at each other.


Sites and businesses and design teams must have personalities. Those personalities have emotions and provoke emotional response. It’s how we relate as humans. It’s also how we motivate ourselves and each other. Without an emotional connection all of our interactions would be flat and dry. Tapping this uniquely human trait is how awesome happens. Slapping the floor is awesome.

Bonus tip: It’s up to the boss to keep emotions ‘on the floor’ and  directed at the other team (I’ve got basketball on the brain).  In our case the emotion must be directed at the design challenge and not “He Said, She Said”, inter-personal, ego driven drama.  Is there someone or something to direct that emotional energy towards something positive… who or what could it be…

Roy Williams, the Tarheel coach, speaks truth to power

Power and Hierarchy

Someone has to be in charge –  if for no other reason than to set the expectations, tone and goals of the group. It seems power and conflict go together.  Could conflict be necessary to good design meetings? Regardless if conflict is good, bad or necessary, conflict happens and must be managed. Power and hierarchy are in a position to do so in a clear and straightforward manner.


When faced with unresponsive power and holding a dissenting view, a group member has to make a choice: fight or flight.I suppose there is a third option, freeze.  I’ve called it “don’t rock the boat” in the past.  However when you’re frozen (or walking on eggshells) you are not contributing to the group. When you don’t contribute, it leads to bad production, no production and it starts fights. You have to be dishonest. He have to hide and it leads to things like “cooking the books”.  It also leads to superficiality – like slapping the floor because somebody told you to do it, like it was in the SOP. It’s a focus on the outward appearance (the measure, the stats) and not what they represent, the passion and the winning.


When they are working correctly, power and hierarchy set the structure for meetings and the relationships within the team. This creates a safe environment and emotionally supportive atmosphere for people to collaborate, take risks, give honest feedback, and solve problems .  Bosses are generally assholes – but as long as they are consistent (throw out fair and balanced – never happens) it will work. Power and Hierarchy don’t start fights. They settle fights. Egos are bruised, but not broken.

Bonus: I think a big problem on my design teams has been “Power without authority”.  My boss had power over me.  She fired me.  But, she had no authority. I didn’t, in hindsight, respect her or allow her to influence me.  Teams must reach consensus about power and authority within and over the group.

The play where the UNC point guard broke his wrist. Lots of FUD surrounds the team. Can they rise above it tonight and win? The future is uncertain, says the 8 ball.

Fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD)


Stress Disorders- some people don’t react to stress in a healthy way. Stressful environments make them retract and shutdown. Stress isn’t seen as a challenge to overcome. It’s seen as a minefield to avoid. Avoiding challenges is a serious danger in a design team. My Army buddies had a phrase for this called “meet the standard”.  We would grumble this to each other when faced with impossible tasks (in training – I’m not a vet), in much the same way we would grumble “don’t rock the boat” in graduate school.  Basically, we checked out, but kept up as much of the appearance as we could for as long as we could.


Blessed unrest- is a term used to describe the feeling that something is not right and should be made right. It’s an unsettling feeling that helps you rise to the challenge-not shirk away from it. You are willing to risk it and overcome the fear. We want people willing to ‘boldly go’ and face the uncertain with audacity.  Guess what?  No one can predict the future.  We all have to face FUD.  Shouldn’t we develop teams and businesses (and schools and governments) that help us to do this, to help us face our FUD?

Dan Brown said in summary of his thoughts on managing conflict in design meetings: You’re not alone.  It sort of sounds like he surprised him when he said it.  I think it was an honest response – “You’re not alone.”  It may suck, hurt, and make you want to run. But you are not alone.

Other folks talking about this:

 Co.Design Blog Post: Innovation Is About Arguing, Not Brainstorming. Here’s How To Argue Productively

Adaptivepath Blgo Post: The Nine Pillars of Successful Web Teams

aBetterUserExperience Blog Post: 6 Ways You Make Bad Meetings Worse (And What To Do About It)

IDEO CEO Tim Brown interview: T-Shaped Stars: The Backbone of IDEO’s Collaborative Culture

EightShapes Founder, Dan Brown game: Surviving Design Projects and book – Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning

Edward de Bono’s parallel thinking or Six Hats give insights in how to collaborate.  I’ve never done it or heard of anyone rave about it’s implementation.  But, it sounds like it could be a benefit to teams.


We're all in this together. We aren't alone. We can make a difference.

Summary: Why Fix this?

To solve problems. To be a better more healthy workplace. To save the world. Design thinking is what the world needs, I’m convinced. We have large problems to solve. It’s going to take design teams – awesome design teams – that have addressed the issues above and come up with a better way to communicate and produce. It is going to take a leap of faith.  The leap is away from the old way of doing things and towards trusting ourselves and each other.

What is your responsibility in all of this? Another Army quote fits: “Safety first and always” It means that we are all responsible for safety.  It’s up to you to manage your own safety and those around you.  Every team member is responsible for the safety of the group.

Do you call bullshit when you see the environment turn unsafe for a design team member? Do you whisper to your teammate “don’t rock the boat”… “meet the standard” Do you blow the whistle, stand up, scream “You are not alone!”, and slap the floor?   Metaphorically speaking, of course.

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