Chapter 02.

Refining Intent

Refinement is something that all designers do organically. The practice can come so naturally that often the problem isn’t in the iteration itself but in knowing when to stop. For most of us, self-control often looks like knowing when to put down the pen. Many of us can agree that intent is burdensome, yet to think well about intent, we must first think well about refinement.

The practice of refinement is an ancient one. You can trace it back to when humans first began making things with their hands. It is laborious and often taxing—on not just our bodies but also our minds. In our modern design practices, refinement has evolved into iterative design. However, the mental image that still captures me most is that of blacksmithing or elemental purification. It takes great friction, force, and elbow grease to work out the imperfections. The toil of refinement is what makes the finished product feel right or complete.

And so refinement should conjure the same feeling in our work. We should look at our work with pleasure and assurance, knowing that it took valuable energy to mold.

If left unchecked, our own intent often gets convoluted in the smoldering foundry of refinement. Honestly assessing our own intent might enable us to course-correct and better move toward the problems we’re seeking to solve.

The pitfalls of prideful design

Designers love being heroes because humans love being heroes. It’s incredibly fulfilling to have someone applaud your work. This instinct within us often catalyzes our design processes. But our hero complex can also seduce us into solving problems that don’t actually exist. And this is where our pride comes into play. We can so quickly project challenges onto the world around us that aren’t real roadblocks at all.

Intent requires us to keep this tantalizing desire in check. I’ve found that once I remove the false layer of heroic design, humble vulnerability can cut to the core of my intentions. Through collaboration and critique, we can ask others to help us refine the foundation of our approach. With the right eyes on our work, we can hopefully avoid the pitfalls of prideful design and embrace design practices motivated by true compassion.

Designing with compassion isn’t cheap sentimentality, and it requires more than just sympathy. This type of design requires an empathetic approach to our creating. Only by beginning to understand the plight of those whom we’re seeking to help can we start to resolve the issues at hand.

Embracing critique

Refinement is quite difficult to do in a vacuum. Anytime we open our laptops or grab our set of tools, we naturally hop right into refining our work. It is a fundamental aspect of design. It’s why software has a save function; it too knows you’re never really done.

In design school, receiving critique was one of the hardest practices to learn. I remember the shaky knees and clammy hands that accompanied any presentation. I’d often deliver lines with a shudder, awaiting the onslaught of opinions. I also remember the resounding advice regarding this constructive feedback: “Don’t take it personally,” and, “You have to separate yourself from your work.” It was incredibly hard not to internalize feedback— and darn-near impossible to separate myself from my work.

After a decade of getting more and more comfortable with critique, I’ve found that only one of those pieces of advice is worth its weight in gold. It’s probably a good idea to separate yourself from your work. Because design is personal. Its outcomes impact real people in real places. It often advocates for refining environments and forming new ecologies. It will involve us interacting with the actual hands that will touch our work. I can hardly think of something more personal than that.

It’s important for the people we serve to have a say in our work. After all, it’s serving them. I think about this idea of ownership often. From my perspective, design ownership looks more like stewardship or resource management than it does a signature on a piece of artwork. When a project is complete, the keys are handed over not only to the paying customer but also to the community it’s serving. The final design is theirs to continually refine, theirs to determine its value.

Embracing this new reality of relinquished ownership may sting at first because it’s uncertain. However, with practice, I think we will find it to become the most freeing aspect of our work. Allowing others into our work can complicate a lot of things because we humans are good at that. Yet to truly refine the intent behind our work, we have to embrace others and their critique. And this dialogue—between our point of view and theirs—becomes our lifeblood.

The danger in assuming

Assumption is poison to design. Design thrives on a certain kind of intimacy with people and problems, and we cannot solve what we do not know. Assumptions are shortcuts that appear appealing for a variety of reasons. I’d like to spend some time unpacking this idea so that we can better avoid the enticing fantasies of assuming.

On the surface, decisions informed by assumptions can look aesthetically pleasing. An unfounded solution is often quite sexy. However, it is a roadmap that leads to a dead end.

Products founded in assumptions begin to crumble when transferred into real hands, and users are left scratching their heads at the proposed solution that has nothing to do with their reality. There are a thousand apps for alarm clocks, checklists, and inboxes, when really we just need a loud noise to wake us up, a box to check, and one inbox to deliver that email. Are there endless ways to perfect how to be woken up by a smartphone? Of course. Is a new alarm clock app solving any new problem? Probably not. Sadly, this realization often takes a while to sink in. How many times have we grativated to new products like moths to a flame? We use these products, and then after a while we start to realize that the product might actually be using us in return since the issue it “solves” was never an issue in the first place.

We do the exact same thing in our design process when we start with a solution instead of the problem. Often the solutions are quite simple. Not easy, but simple. Users often have an idea of how to fix their issue, but they rarely have the resources to accomplish the solution. Design reflects back to people the reality that they hope to see. But only by hearing that vision and letting go of our assumptions can we facilitate the solution.

Refining the future

Refining our intent is patient, iterative work that cannot be done alone. Seek out a community that you trust to speak into your work. This will create an atmosphere that not only fosters refining feedback but also welcomes it and will only further the effectiveness of your design.

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02. Embrace real people.

Sure, people are messy. They are often hard to understand and even harder to love, but they are who we serve. Whether our design is directly or indirectly serving our audience, we know our design will impact real people. Finding community with others is risky, but its rewards allow us to realize a more complete design vision.