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Step away from the laptop: the path to better design synthesis

Data — can’t live with it, can’t live without it. It’s the information that propels a company forward and determines the course of action it will take to rise above the fray and compete amongst the masses. That’s how it’s supposed to go anyway, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes data can hold a company back, put it on the wrong path, and ultimately cause more harm than good. The key step most companies miss is design synthesis — the process of translating data and research into knowledge — and the opportunity for innovation is lost as a result.

Author of Exposing the Magic of Design, a practitioner’s guide to the methods and theory of synthesis, Jon Kolko could be considered the patron saint of design synthesis. He serves as the Executive Director of Design Strategy at Thinktiv — a venture accelerator in Austin, Texas. He is also the Founder and Director of the Austin Center for Design, an educational institution that teaches interaction design and social entrepreneurship. He’s built a career advocating the importance of design synthesis in the consumer electronics, mobile, and web industries, and his work has even translated to demand planning, supply chain management, and customer relations. But the ability for a company to embrace synthesis is often rooted in the core of its design culture.

“A lot of it comes from the perspective on how data-driven they are and how much of an engineering culture they’re used to,” Kolko said.

“For organizations that are really regimented and have some type of mission critical system, it makes sense that those who have managed to rise to the top are much more analytical. NASA is the quintessential example of that. But you find an extremely rigid culture that is hesitant to embrace a lot of the playfulness that’s required of you in design synthesis.”

Get Playful & Embrace Bias

No, this doesn’t mean turning the conference room into a miniature golf course. As fun as that would be, Kolko recommends a different type of playfulness. One where everyone is encouraged to embrace individuality and think in more creative terms.

“I suppose it’s true of the world over, but especially in the United States and Europe, that over-analytical, over-data driven attempt to manage and control stuff is so ingrained,” Kolko said.

“I think what people have a hard time with is the idea that it can be both. Sometimes you need to embrace a rationalistic point of view, and sometimes you need to be much more intuitive and use inference. It’s not all one or the other. Yes, I absolutely want the most hardcore, objective engineer working on the airplane I’m flying in to make sure it’s safe, but I want someone who embraces the emotive inference side to make the seat not a piece of f***ing steel digging into my back.”

But all creativity must be rooted in thoughtfulness. Design synthesis is about marrying the two worlds of objectivity and intuition, which can be a challenge for many designers.

Break Up With Your Laptop

It’s not you, it’s me. This is one of those instances where that statement is actually true. The reliance on technology has become a crutch for many designers, so Kolko recommends breaking up with your laptop while doing design synthesis. Simple, right? Not exactly.

“That’s actually been one of the most difficult things to teach design students,” Kolko said.

“It’s such an easy thing to do. You simply close the laptop. It’s really that easy, but with how socially plugged in we are, simply closing the laptop is actually really difficult.”

Kolko advocates projecting and organizing research and ideas onto a giant wall. By externalizing the data through a process called spatialization, it will be easier to identify patterns, anomalies and outliers — all of which contribute to the innovation process.

“You probably learned to trust statistical significance and understand appropriate sample sizes to minimize outliers,” Kolko explained.

“But those outliers are what I call cues for provocation. I realized the intent of design is not predictability but provocation, so then I do everything in my ability to self-provoke or team-provoke. Anomalies and outliers tell stories about how life would be different.”

The Importance of Empathy

“I think for most aspects of any type of design field, technology is an excuse,” Kolko asserted. “I’ve seen it used as a rationale to not have to talk to real people.”

The human element can often get lost in the design synthesis process, and that is at the core of every design project. The end product means nothing without understanding who it’s for and why.

“There’s no way that any of this complex design research is sensible or valuable if there’s no empathetic thought or underlying structure to it,” Kolko said.

“And empathy has gotten so disjointed that in many business schools, it’s actually taught as a method. Like ‘go learn the empathy method so you can build empathy in 15 minutes.’ That’s just not how it works. You gain empathy over your life or over a period of years, not over 15-minute increments. So you can use the word crutch, but I think technology is more of an excuse to not have to face reality.”

Kolko finds this situation to be especially prominent in the design field.

“A lot of designers like to claim to be really user-centered and empathetic,” he said.

“But they just aren’t able to not use an Adobe product. Like the notion of sitting in front of a human being and having a discussion with them scares the s**t out of them. And I come back to design education because when you’re learning how to do design work, all the emphasis is placed on what the thing you made looks like. When that happens, you’re going to spend a lot of time honing your craft and making beautiful things, but that’s not the same craft that goes into spending time with human beings.”

Just Do It

Design synthesis remains a difficult concept for many to grasp, and its advocates are often met with resistance. Kolko finds that involving stakeholders in the design synthesis process is the best way to enhance the experience and help them understand its importance.

“Do it. Do design synthesis,” Kolko said.

“Just doing the research doesn’t get you anything at all. It’s a waste of time and can piss off your stakeholders. If you’re looking for that magical insight, it’s going to come from design synthesis. And that has to be forced – it isn’t going to happen naturally. That means setting aside time and budget and resources to actually do these activities.”

Elissa Vallano is a contributing writer to Mindjet. She’s based out of Philadelphia and is also a regular contributor to MyCityWay.

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