Tools are vital. Our days are made exponentially easier than every generation before us because of them. Tools power our lives and our professions, and whether analog or digital, tools are how we work.
Designers have dynamic tools at their disposal. Hardware, software, and gadgets of the trade have never been more accessible or easy to use. Even artisanal tools have attainable learning curves, and we have an infinite sea of online tutorials teaching us to make just about anything we have the wherewithal to attempt.
The wide availability of tools, however, can also be distracting. In reality, designers only need to perfect one tool: curiosity. All else is peripheral.
Curiosity can be maddening. How nice it must be to view an object and experience it in real time without immediately attempting to reverse-engineer it. Our interest drives our devotion. In other words, curiosity is the designer’s fuel. Begging us to learn something new about our surroundings, curiosity brings insight into the ordinary. When we stop long enough to pay attention we see that our environments are filled with the fingerprints of others. We create our value by observing humans in time and space. It is only by seeing where footsteps naturally tread that we know where new paths are needed.
Whether informed by pure curiosity or compassion, this human-centric approach to studying systems will allow us to create from within rather than spectate from outside the glass.
A series of inquiries
Questions are foundational to human interactions. We exist in a call-and-response world and depend upon conversation. We are social creatures that communicate not only through nonverbal cues but also through words laced with endless meaning. Conversation isn’t just an evolutionary adaptation. We communicate with one another for pleasure, not just for practicality. We ask questions because we are inherently curious. Humans long for intimacy with one another. We feel known when we answer the questions of others and see others live out this new knowledge.
Designers should be experts in asking insightful, targeted questions. Though we can treat question-asking as a soft skill, I’d argue that it’s more crucial than any technical expertise we can develop. In our question-asking and answering, we pause and reflect, making room for contemplation. And especially now in our accelerated, modern context, a series of inquiries can be invaluable in our work. Simply, it means we’ve paused long enough to be thoughtful and compassionate.
Questions also foster empathy. By actively listening to responses, we begin to form a mental image, placing ourselves in the scenarios being described. Active listening also helps us battle against our assumptions by hearing directly from those we’re serving. Asking the right questions can refine our work better than the countless hours we could spend searching for solutions on our own. In the right conditions, this inquiry-driven empathy should drive us toward informed action.
For most of us, big questions can feel unsettling. They’re difficult to ask ourselves and even more nerve-racking to ask those we’re serving. People tend to be more comfortable at the surface level. We see this mirrored in our casual conversations. We don’t greet each other with, “Hi, I’m Jeremy. What’s your deepest fear?” We must first break surface tension in order to dive deeper, and it’s in these fathoms of curiosity that we find the heart of design.
Often the projects will start at this surface level. It’s not difficult to create metrics for success from the endless feedback spewing from boardrooms. In my experience, clients usually come with a well-articulated idea of what success looks like. These can often be distracting goals. We must get to the heart of the issue first. I often start by trying to learn more about my client’s mission. This sounds cliche, but it’s true. It’s really important to me to hear someone be able to articulate why it is that they do what they do. This isn’t a trick question. Often where this question naturally leads is to folks letting you in on their dream of what they hope to accomplish. You may see where I’m headed. Organically, this leads to folks beginning to open up about what is keeping them from achieving this grander vision. This clarity only comes through allowing there to be space for questions. If you immediately start marking up a whiteboard with ideas, you will miss the critical insight that lies behind a thoughtful question.
Overemphasis on mechanisms
As an Eagle Scout, I was raised to appreciate tools. I was also trained during those adolescent adventures to relish the scenarios in which I had limited tools—like the reality show fantasties we have about being helicoptered into an undisclosed location, with only a Swiss Army knife in hand. Maybe not everyone has these fantasties. However, only when we’re without the instruments or systems we need can we fully appreciate their value.
I fear that design communities overemphasize the role and importance of tools. Design literature is often aimed at developing newer, more efficient ways to use tools or hacks to make life easier. Competition has reached a fever pitch in this sector as well. Every day I see another essay written to persuade me to jump ship to a rival design tool, each option promising a brighter path forward.
Because we’re tempted to make our tools like extensions of ourselves, we tend to forget that their purpose is to actualize our craft. In other words, our vision to design supersedes the tools required to bring our idea to fruition. This doesn’t chip away at the inherent value of tools; it simply puts them in their proper place. Some tools upon the horizon have proven themselves to be so abstract that we aren’t even sure what their eventual use could and should be.
There’s an entertaining debate happening in the tech world around robots creating art. Sure, a robot could master Rembrandt’s lighting or Van Gogh’s impressionistic strokes in the span of an afternoon. It could likely master tools and algorithmically learn our tastes and produce art to match. But would it produce meaningful work informed by the lived human experience? Definitely not.
Just when advancing technology tries to push toward polished perfection, we collectively bend back towards something much more human. Whether in a low-fidelity recording or hand-lettered type, we yearn to see human hands in the work for it to interest us.
A lighter toolbelt
Most tools are simple to learn. While we face some growing pains when we embrace them, they usually involve repeatable steps and can become muscle memory with enough time and energy.
But designers need fewer tools.
I can hear Dieter Rams in the back of my mind repeating, “Less but better.” Tools can often get in the way of our work. Many times I’ve forced an idea into reality using the flashiest technology when I just needed to make it work on paper. Calling for a lighter toolbelt doesn’t diminish tools’ importance but rather pushes for them to be conscious and deliberate.
A curious way forward
Curiosity connects us not only as designers but also as humans. When we allow our senses to study the world around us, it’s amazing how refreshing our solutions will feel. We’ll imagine on behalf of real people in real places and in real time. This spirit of curiosity is our greatest tool.