The team at EightShapes consistently amazes us with their thinking. In addition to producing beautiful designs and impressive frameworks, the team itself works really well together. It may be no surprise then that founding principal Dan Brown has authored a new book “Designing Together: The Collaboration and Conflict Management Handbook for Creative Professionals”.
Dan believes that collaboration and conflict—that’s right, conflict—are the basis for good design. The book itself evolved from his Surviving Design Projects card game. Dan joins us for this podcast to discuss his book, and his thinking around collaboration and managing conflict.
Adam Churchill: Hello everyone, we’re back at it in the “UIE Book Corner” series with a look at “Designing Together: The Collaboration and Conflict Management Handbook for Creative Professionals,” with Dan Brown.
It’s always great to see what others are saying about the book. One Amazon reviewer described this book as one that will likely save countless design teams their sanity, leave them producing brilliant designs and learn about themselves as people who can grow and become better.
Super excited. Dan was able to carve some time into his busy schedule to discuss the new book. We’re going to record it so you folks can listen in and hear what he has to say.
Dan Brown: Hi Adam. How are you?
Adam: I’m doing great. At first glance, the book’s subtitle sort of caught my attention. It talks about what many perceive to be the bookends, the positives and the negatives of team dynamics, conflict and collaboration.
What can you say? Can you say a bit more about that perception? Is it the good and the bad? Does the book try to dissuade that?
Dan: It’s interesting that you position it as positive and negative. I think that’s one of the things that, when I talk to people about conflict, it’s actually one of the first things that I ask is, “Do you think design can happen without conflict?”
Regardless of their answer, what’s clear in answering that question is that they perceive conflict as a bad thing. Either they’re saying “No, it can’t, because all of my projects are extremely hard and I always fight with my colleagues.” Or they’re saying, “Yes, it can happen with conflict, and that’s where no one ever fights and we all get along really well.”
What I’m trying to do is actually position both of these things as essential ingredients to modern web design processes. That is to say, conflict is really the engine of design. It’s that back and forth that allows us to get into the details of really complicated web design projects, such that we can really flesh out what all the functionality is, what the design needs to be, how it needs to work responsively. That back and forth is really essential to the design process.
By the same token, because we need to engage with each other in that way, we need better ways of collaborating. Not just coordinating our activities and not just communicating better, but really making sure that each person does his or her part on the project.
Adam: I need to be honest. It’s not on my desk right now. But…
Adam: No, no, no.
Dan: Go get it. I’m just kidding.
Adam: [laughs] The card game deck, “Surviving Design Projects”. It’s always on my desk and for some reason it’s not there now, so just trying to be truthful for our audience. Is the book an evolution of the card deck?
Dan: It really is. Just to provide a peek under the hood, I’ve really been thinking about this topic ever since my first book came out.
My first book is about documentation. Whenever I would teach a workshop on documentation, inevitably the conversation would turn to people saying things like, “My colleagues don’t actually read my documentation,” or, “How do I work better with my colleagues?” The documentation is really just an excuse.
I’ve really been noodling on this for a long time. I almost felt like I was tilting at windmills. It was really challenging for me to figure out how to take this topic and turn it into a book.
As I was thinking about it, I zeroed in on this model of, there’s situations that we face on design projects. My favorite one to use as an example is “distracted by shiny objects.” As designers we’re inevitably on a project. Someone shows up and says, “We really should be using Flash,” which is what they said 10 years ago when I first got into this business.
In addition to situations like that one, there are these techniques that I’ve started to cultivate over time to help me deal with those situations. Those techniques are not so much brainstorming games that we might play, but actually little phrases that we can use to frame and position our perspectives on these projects or in these situations.
Then the last leg of this stool is traits. These are, in a sense, the emotional baggage and stylistic baggage that every designer brings to the table, in terms of what he or she prefers or how he or she perceives situations.
It’s really these three things. Once I zeroed in that model, I started to formalize how I was thinking about this so I could classify something as a situation or as a pattern. Then, out of that, I started cataloging all of these things.
I thought, “It would be a lot of fun to teach a workshop on this,” and do some role-playing where we would set up a situation and people would need to figure out what patterns they could use to deal with that situation.
I was talking to a conference organizer about this. This guy happened to be based in the UK. I was walking him through what I had in mind for the workshop, and he said, “We’ve got a real problem,”
I said, “Oh. What’s that?”
He said, “British people don’t like role-playing.”
I thought, “That’s interesting because actually most people I know don’t like role-playing.” I really saw the workshop falling apart before my eyes. I thought, “How can I teach people these things? How can I get people to internalize these patterns and recognize these things as situations without forcing them into role-playing-type situations?”
At that time I started playing a lot more board games and card games. I played this game called “Apples to Apples,” where someone plays a card and everyone else around the table has to play cards that remind them of that first card. The surviving design projects ended up being this mash-up of this model that I had come up with, with the “Apples to Apples” game design framework.
What’s been great about it is I’ve led workshops where people played this game, and I’ve talked to people who have bought and played the game on their own. What they say is that, “It gave us a nice, easy way to talk about our most challenging projects in a way that was not personal. That didn’t put people on the spot.”
You’ve asked me how the game led to the book and I didn’t answer that question at all. What I’ll say is once I had the game and I was teaching workshops on it, my friend Liz Danzico at the School of Visual Arts asked me to also put together a workshop on collaboration.
It was that spark that led me to marry the conflict stuff with surviving design projects and the ideas that I cultivated around collaboration. Those two things worked really well together and just made for a really nice narrative. That was the genesis of the book in probably many more sentences than you were expecting.
Adam: Dan, you spoke about some workshops there. Actually, in preparing for this podcast you told me that topics and discussions from your many workshops were really sort of the inspiration for this new book. Say more about that.
Dan: Sure, the workshop came first. Teaching a workshop about conflict management came first. It was through people’s participation in those workshops that I realized that there was a very keen interest in this. The game really led to the workshop, which is what led to the book.
In the workshops what was clear was that a lot of the ideas that I had been thinking about relative to this model of patterns, situations, and tricks, that all of those ideas were really validated. I remember in one workshop I taught I was talking about this idea of a pattern as a simple, little tool that you can use to dislodge or redirect a situation.
This woman said that she works with a business partner, and that her business partner uses the exact same pattern in every situation. No matter what the situation was, he would use the exact same pattern. Which was, even if people were disagreeing vehemently he would say, “Well, I think we’re all in agreement now.”
She said that he used that phrase all the time regardless of where it was. That helped me realize that this idea of a pattern — again, a simple tool that I can use — a phrase that I can use, a way of positioning something, are really valuable because people latch onto those and start to recognize those styles that they have.
Through these workshops it was great because people would start to flesh out the underlying game. They would add their own situations or talk about the patterns that they have used. That, again, led me to think, “You know, I think there’s potentially real interest for something more than just a card game here.”
Adam: Dan, any tips, or tricks, or specific how-tos that seem to be resonating with folks more than others?
Dan: Nothing comes to mind, but I think what the book lays out and what I’m really excited to get people’s feedback on is what I call “the four virtues of collaboration.”
I think we’re seeing a lot of books out there on collaboration. We’re starting to see some books on how to get people to work really well together, or to incorporate visualization into their projects and into their processes.
What I’m really hoping people latch onto is what I call “the four virtues of collaboration.” These are foundational or starting points that yield interesting behaviors that I think get people to work together better.
Those four virtues are clarity and definition, accountability and ownership, awareness and respect, and openness and honesty. It’s eight words but I’ve paired them together, because they really represent a range of foundational values that ultimately lead to, I think, better collaboration.
For example, openness and honesty is one that pervades everything. This idea that, as a designer, I’m going to be a much better contributor if I can be honest about how I feel about different design things that are being laid out in front of me, different design work, as well as if I’m getting honest feedback.
At the same time, that needs to be paired with something like accountability and ownership, so that I feel a sense of accountability as I’m making those design decisions, and I feel a stake of ownership in the design work that we’re doing.
Adam: Anything in the tips and tricks that people are going to find that has surprised people of the card game and maybe something that you expect to find with readers of the book? That there’s maybe a tip or a trick in there that’s going to catch them off guard a bit or make them see something differently?
Dan: I think some of the more interesting patterns that have started to resonate with people are things that ask them to reframe. We often get stuck in our own perspective. It can be challenging for someone to show up and reframe the problem or the conflict or the situation that they’re in.
One example of that is a pattern that I call “communicate implications.” That is really just to help people understand what the consequences of a design decision are.
This is really important to design. As we get more and more people involved, different types of people involved with the design process, helping them recognize that one decision really has a ripple effect throughout a design system that you might be working on, or an application that you might be working on, is really important.
It’s a mechanism for educating the rest of the design team but also clarifying in your own mind why some decisions are better than others. I call that pattern “communicate implications.” I’ve made a design decision and now… Or someone has asked me to reconsider a design decision. I want to frame that as, “Let’s think about what the downstream impact is.”
Adam: Dan, folks are going to read this book. What are the most common things that you hope folks will do differently after reading the book?
Dan: I think it’s a really interesting question. I was talking to someone on my team earlier this week. She had referred to it as a self-help book. That surprised me a little bit. I guess what surprised me was that I felt like it was actually a fairly natural label for it.
What I’m hopeful people take away, and I think what’s going to be hardest for them to take away, is the desire to reflect on their own behaviors and really take a very critical look at themselves and whether they can be doing something to make their design team better.
It’s a book that’s geared not towards leads or facilitators. It’s geared toward everyday designers who play a role in collaboration and play a role in team dynamics. The book asks them to look hard at what are they doing to make collaboration work better? What are they doing to make conflict as healthy and productive as possible?
In some ways, the book is a challenge in disguise, because it’s asking them to reflect on their own work, their own personalities, their own traits and their own contributions to the design process.
Adam: Dan, this was awesome. Thanks for joining us and for making some time for us.
Dan: Adam, I had a lot of fun. I love talking about this stuff. I appreciate the opportunity.
Adam: Good. Again, the book is called, “Designing Together, the collaboration and conflict management handbook for creative professionals,” and its author is the awesome Dan Brown.
If you love Dan’s work and teaching style as much as we do, I can’t encourage you enough to check out his other book, “Communicating Design,” which is another beautiful publication and sure to help your design team efforts.
Thanks, everyone, for joining us for this “UIE Book Corner”. Shoot us an email. Let us know what authors we should be speaking with. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Goodbye for now.