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“rarefied vocational air”

[updated: comments now open]

The week has been insanely busy, but I couldn’t let it pass without pointing you to my colleague Dan’s post over at A Brief Message. In it, Dan takes up the banner against the excesses of Design Thinking, arguing that the emphasis of thinking over making does a disservice to the value that designers can bring.

In an excellent response to the ABM article, Khoi Vinh summarizes Dan’s point thusly: “It’s a provocative argument that seeks to let a little air out of the notion that designers have more to offer as thinkers and planners than as craftspeople.”

I have huge respect for Khoi, and have greatly enjoyed his work at the Times and his writing at Subtraction. I will happily follow him into the realm of conjecture, if only because I usually understand the point he’s trying to make. However, Khoi’s recent post takes an interesting turn when he tries to sort out the why behind Dan’s perspective. To wit [emphasis mine]:

Dan works at Adaptive Path, one of the most well-respected interaction design studios in the world, and he has successfully and deservedly cultivated a reputation as one of his discipline’s brightest thinkers…

It’s conjecture on my part then, but I’d guess that because of his position he breathes a rarefied vocational air. That is, he works in an environment where what’s expected of the best designers, by and large, is that they will ‘graduate’ to less tactical duties, away from the grind of doing design and towards a mode where they mostly think and talk about design. From that vantage point, it’s understandable that he should lament what might seem to be a mandatory relinquishment of craft; watching people get so good at what they do that they are expected to no longer do it takes a lot of fun out practicing any trade.

I take no exception with Khoi’s presentation of Dan’s bona fides – from book to blog, project to punditry, Dan’s earned every bit of respect he and his opinions receive. I will say that I’m surprised that Khoi thinks Dan is responding to something internal at AP, however, when he goes ranting about the dangers of getting too far away from the work.

Putting a Finer Point On It

To be absolutely clear, thinking and talking about interaction design is indeed a possible career path for those who join Adaptive. It is, however, not the only career path. As an organization, we are wholly invested in the idea that doing good work gives us opportunities to learn interesting things, which in turn gives us a chance to share valuable insight with our peers. And wouldn’t you know, it turns out that sharing with our peers winds up increasing our opportunities to do interesting work. In other words, the doing informs the talking, and everyone winds up better off in the end.

Dan and I sit next to one another at AP, taking in huge gaping mouthfuls of that rarefied air Khoi mentioned with every breath. We do this because we’re happy to be here, and thankful to be surrounded by talented, dedicated and independent thinkers. Dan wants to fill this city of ours with amazing designers, and so he chafes when people like Bruce Nussbaum start saying things that, to Dan’s ear, tell people that the thinking part of design is more important than the doing. He gets pissed when he realizes that the curriculum of the design schools are starting to deemphasize the actual design work.

No one here at AP is telling talented designers like Dan to forsake the work and become hand-waving ex-makers. Dan is responding to what he’s seeing out in the world.

We’ve Got A Lot to Say

Nothing in the above should be construed as criticism of Khoi or his perspective on Dan’s message. Khoi didn’t exactly go out on a limb by suggesting that AP’s culture might encourage people to develop their opinions and engage in punditry. I mean, we’ve enjoyed the company of more than our fair share of pundits. And then some.

I guess I’m reacting because I’ve just recently chosen a different path within the company, and I’m enjoying it. I’ve tried the writing and the speaking, but I’m able to see the difference in what I put out there from what Dan does. What he’s able to do makes me want to be in a position to support him and anyone else who we can get out there, speaking on issues that effect our work and our peers.

I like the hard problems I get to solve, and I love building an organization dedicated to solving those problems. There’s an internal recognition of the value we can all provide, no matter how far we evolve as practitioners. I’m happy to be somewhere that, as a Director, I’m encouraged to keep the dirt under my fingernails.

Hell. I’m just trying to keep the soap box sturdy.

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