3: Range and Craft

In which a discussion of David Epstein’s book Range leads to a consideration of craft, practice, and the medium of leadership.


Jesse: On that note, would you like to take us out?

Peter: I never took us in.

Jesse: I know. Well, you can do the intro first if you like.

[theme music]

Peter: Welcome to Finding Our Way, the podcast where Peter and Jesse welcome you to their journey as they navigate the opportunities and challenges of design and design leadership. I am Peter, and with me is Jesse James Garrett.

Jesse: Hi, Peter. 

Peter: So I actually was wondering, are you on Twitter at all right now?

Jesse: Am I on Twitter? Intermittently? Obviously, there’s a lot there that, at some point you have to turn it off, but yes.

Peter: I’m asking cause I recently posted to Twitter, I’m reading the book Range by David Epstein. Are you familiar with this book?

Jesse: No, I don’t know this book.

Peter: So it’s a book that basically makes a case for generalists in a world of specialisms. and there’s a lot of different stories about a lot of different things, but the basic theme is, people should sample many different things before choosing what it is they do, work-wise. And it also talks a little bit about where I’m at, is kind of “career winding.” And anyway, the reason I bring it up, the reason I tweeted about it, is it has caused me to reflect on design and engineering programs in colleges and it kind of reaffirmed my distaste in undergraduate design and undergraduate engineering programs as they get people to focus in on something fairly narrow early on before they actually understand what is out there. I’m wondering what you think.

Jesse: Oh, well, I mean, so there are several different ways that we could go with this. You know, generalism versus specialism is, I think, an interesting thing, especially as you think about how you scale design teams and different approaches that, that we’ve seen taken to, to that question of how much generalism versus specialism do you encourage or support on your teams, and how do you structure your teams to support each of those different types of designers?

I have my own complaints about design education and how design education is done. And we can certainly–

Peter: That’s probably a whole other episode. 

Jesse: There was a, there, there was a phrase that you used in there that I’m curious about. You, you said “career winding,” is that what you said? Tell me more about that. 

Peter: Well, in the context of this book, he talks about how within society, there’s this assumption that it’s better to lock into a career choice earlier on and then hammer away at that. Right? You go to school, you’re pre-med ‘cause, you know, you want to be a doctor and you just kind of stay on that path.

And one of the things he points out is that that’s actually not true in terms of that being the best way. And oftentimes many of the people who are most successful are folks who did, maybe not very different things, but different things in their career before landing on whatever it was that, this idea of matching your interests and the career world. And the issue is when you specialize or determine too early before you’ve had a chance to explore, your match might be off.

And so one of two things happens. You either continue persisting in a path that you just don’t like, but you end up doing it anyway, or you end up feeling, you, you at some point you just break and you move to something else and then take on a lot of guilt about that. And, I, you know, as I’m reading this book, one of the things that I find myself reflecting on occasionally is, is how, when we started Adaptive Path, none of us had formal design degrees.

We all had different backgrounds. And I think that is something that has been lost in successive waves of design and designers, kind of creating designers. That as design has gotten more professionalized, as more and more universities offer design degrees, we’re missing that generalist.

Liberal arts or even engineering, whatever.It was, science background that people who, when we came up, there weren’t design degrees, so we had to have one of those backgrounds anyways. But I actually think it’s a, I think there is something lost, when folks aren’t able to draw from a broader foundation before choosing to focus in design. The last thing I’ll say that’s kind of more relevant perhaps to the theme of our podcast is one of design leadership. You know, I think, as a designer grows, and this is one of the key things that Range points out, is that when you get a design degree or an engineering degree, you are immediately worth more in the market because you have a marketable skill.

But over time, people with more generalist backgrounds actually catch up to and surpass folks with more specialist education. and I suspect it’s because it’s easier for them to grow in kind of management and leadership capacities because they’re able to oversee a breadth of activity.

Whereas if you’ve been on this narrow. Design or engineering track from day one it’s harder for you to interact with, engage with or oversee other functions.

Jesse: I can see that. I can see that. I think also, that overseeing a multiplicity of functions requires a certain flexibility and adaptability of mindset and of management style. That someone who has previously worked in a variety of different roles or functions is going to have a little bit more of that kind of facility than someone who has come up within a single function in the organization.

And so who has never had to do that sort of rapid hat switching that is asked of someone in a management role where they’re overseeing a diverse range of functions? This is very interesting and it speaks to, I think, some of what you and I’ve been talking about recently about the different kinds of design leaders and how people get to be design leaders.

What are the various paths to design leadership that are emerging and what those leaders end up bringing to the role and how the role ends up being shaped to reflect the strengths of those leaders as a result.

You had an initial wave of generalists, moving into these leadership roles who were generalists by necessity because there was no way to specialize in digital product design, there was no way to get any kind of formal training in it. So you had to piece it together. You had to adapt. You had to find mentors or people that you could learn from and you had to sort of make your own education, and so they are going to bring a certain sort of a management style as a result of that path, which is going to be a little bit pieced together from a lot of different sources and is going to be a little bit, scrappy and a little bit DIY, let’s see what we can lash together from, what bits of things that we can find to get the job done. Because that was how they got the job done to get where they were.

Another sort of pattern of the design leader that you and I have talked about is the design leader who actually doesn’t have any background in design, formal or otherwise, who finds themselves, it’s like, “Hey, congratulations. You’re running the design team now because you seem to be good at something that we, the executive leadership, considered to be vaguely adjacent to design” and people who’ve had to adapt their management skills from other areas, notably, I think from, from technology, and, to some extent from the sort of the marketing and advertising and branding worlds, had to adapt those to this skill set in between. And so how they are going to manage it, it’s going to be different again, because it’s going to be rooted in the doctrine that they came from.

And somebody who spent, you know, 25 years in brand marketing before they took over a UX team, they are going to have a whole frame for that work that they’re going to bring to it. And that’s going to influence how decision making happens. And that’s going to influence how they define the roles on their teams and the processes. And all of those kinds of things are all going to be informed by this background culture that the leader has come from.

Peter: And then I, I was wondering if there was another path forward. Cause I can think of one other one which is emerging, which, I don’t know enough about the implications of, but it is, you know, now that for the last 15 to 20 years, you do have people who were trained as designers in undergrad, or at least in grad school getting jobs, working as designers, becoming design managers, becoming design leaders.

I haven’t read her book. I should, Julie probably will mispronounce her last name. Julie, Julie Zhuo, from Facebook. I believe Facebook was literally her first job out of grad school, as a designer and she was there for quite a while and grew to being a VP of design. She wrote this book,  The Making of a Manager, which is about her experience and her path forward. And in this regard, and now I really want to read the book as I’m thinking about, I wonder, given what you said, how her background steered her in a way that would be different from me as someone who fell into design early in my career, but don’t have a formal design background.

And, and I’ve definitely kind of had a bricolage approach to how I’ve managed my career that other archetype, which, I’m assuming this is who you had in mind. Who came to mind for me in terms of the person who leads design without any real design background or having really worked in design, was Scott Zimmer at Capital One, he was the head of design who acquired Adaptive Path, and he led a design team. When he joined to lead it, there were about 40 people. His background was in brand marketing. There are about 40 people in Capital One’s design team, and when he left Capital One, they were about 400. And he had a very, I thought, interesting, approach to leading a design organization that was directly informed by being a brand guy. In particular, I remember him talking about, ‘cause he knew he needed to scale his organization. So one, he was able to sell design internally better than most design leaders because he’s a branding and marketing person. So he knew how to frame design to the other executives in a way that they realized they wanted more of it.

But then he realized in order to recruit and hire, he had to be a compelling place to work. And so he was very attuned to how brand influenced people’s decisions on where they worked. Then, acquiring Adaptive Path that had a brand name in the industry. And so, because he knew he could get press basically about how this bank is hiring all these design leaders from these companies you’ve heard of, and that allowed designers to go, “Oh, that’s a place I can work and feel comfortable at, ‘cause I recognize those brands.” So that brand marketing approach was one of the most successful I’ve seen as a design leader, and from a person who has never practiced design, that’s not in his background. 

Jesse: There is an interesting sort of continuum that you highlight here between the person who has no formal training in design, but a lot of experience in design, versus the person who really is coming in from a complete outside perspective.

And so it feels like there’s this, like, tipping point, beyond which you can’t call yourself an outsider anymore because you’ve been doing design work in some form…

Peter: For too long…right, right, right.

Jesse: …And so like, somewhere along the way, Scott Zimmer became a design leader by sort of inventing…

Peter: …And, and, and inventing a role is that at the time was, exceedingly uncommon. Not being ahead of design, but being a head of design for a 400 person design organization. I mean, you could probably, at the time he left Capital One, there were maybe ten companies that had a design team that large, and one of them happened to be this bank that isn’t even one of the anywhere near the largest banks in America.

Jesse: So, you know, we’ve been talking about how people who find themselves in find…

Peter: Sometimes it feels like it’s an–

Jesse: …accident…

Peter:  …accident I, I don’t, I don’t know how intentional I was in becoming a design leader, but yes.

Jesse: Hmm. Well, that I, hmm.

Peter: I mean, we…

Jesse: That is an interesting question…

Peter: Right? I mean, when we started Adaptive Path, I mean, we had the kind of experience where when we started Adaptive Path, there were seven of us. We were equal. And then over time, As we grew, okay, I guess we’re the leaders now. And I think that’s true for a lot of folks. Leadership kinda just happens as things happen around you and you have to figure out how to accommodate to that.

Jesse: I think that’s true. And actually, you know, that leadership can take a lot of different forms. I think about some of our earliest clients at Adaptive Path when user experience was a very new idea and needed champions, needed advocates, needed people to take an intellectual or a strategic leadership position in the organization, regardless of their position. regardless of the authority that their position held. So you had people who were very close to UX problems by virtue of whatever role they did hold. You know, you’re a webmaster, right? And, nobody asks you to think about this stuff, but it keeps coming up. So you start researching it and you realize there’s something there, and then, congratulations, you’re now running the UX department, when you just happened to be the person who was closest to the problem at the time.  

Peter: Right. 

Jesse: And I think that to some extent the intent of formal design training is to give somebody that foundation so that they don’t have to piece it all together out there in the wild from, you know, whatever people they can find on the street who will strike up a conversation with them about design leadership.

[music break]

Peter: Something we were talking about and maybe we can get into now, is this idea of what is the craft of design leadership? Designers talk a lot about craft, possibly more than any other role. I guess engineers might talk about craft. I don’t know if that’s the language that they use to talk about the work they do, but essentially it’s a craft discipline as well. And then as designers become design leaders, there’s this question of, well, what is the craft of design leadership? What is my relationship to craft? Do I let go of my old craft? Is there a new craft to embrace? 

Something kind of in parallel that I’m starting to see, is around product management. People talking about “What is the craft of product management?” ‘Cause I think there’s a recognition that there is an opportunity to make clear what that role does. Because so far, that’s a role that has been defined by doing what anyone else is not doing. That is what product managers do. And that’s not any way to, that’s not any way to define a practice or craft. 

But, similarly for design leaders, maybe because we’re so wired to think about craft and think about technique and think about process as we become leaders, we kind of fall back on those models and those frameworks of how to work and it’s not clear how, how applicable they are. 

I teach a workshop on how to design your design organization and I’ve taught workshops for, I dunno, shit 20 years now. And we taught a lot of them in Adaptive Path. And when we taught workshops at Adaptive Path, they were about craft design. Strategy is a craft, design research as a craft, interaction design is a craft. And you could teach methods and you could teach technique. And when you teach those workshops at the heart of the workshops are activities, right? We were always very activity-based, usually group activities. Sometimes you did them on your own, but they were ways that we could teach methods and you could teach a discrete method. Here’s how you conduct an interview. Here’s how you construct a persona. That’s very teachable.

A challenge I’ve had, in teaching my new workshop on designing your design organizations is, it’s not a process, it’s not a method. It’s not really a craft. I’m not teaching them how to draw a better org chart. I’m just, like, using it as a way to get their head in this game. But the bulk of the workshop is a deep conversation. Right now, my hypothesis is that the craft of design leadership is conversation and communication.

Jesse: Yeah. Well, I think there is a lot there. You know, if you went to design school, what you were taught was that what they were teaching you, What’s the source of your power? That is, that your, your strength and ability, your capability as a designer was rooted in your mastery of craft.

And, for people to get so good at that, that people want to take it away from them as they ascend to a leadership level and to have management basically say, “All of that stuff that you’re so good at, we’re so impressed by, please stop doing all of it,” it can be a really jarring transition and can leave the designer feeling unmoored and adrift and without that source of power that they have, come to rely on, to drive their work and their sense of confidence in their work. I think it’s interesting that you call out conversation and communication, in part because, I feel like we have talked about that as an element of the designer’s craft for a long time from a very pragmatic standpoint that you can’t sell an idea that you can’t explain to people. And the necessity of persuasion and politicking, to some extent in order to get creative ideas realized and get them off of the mood boards and out there in the world.  And I think that’s been a theme for us because it tends to be something that is almost an invisible craft on the part of many of these designers who are good at it, that because their definition of their craft doesn’t include it, they might not even realize how critical that conversation and communication stuff is.

Peter: So that skill is actually not specific to management. Definitely not specific to design. Right? Anyone benefits from better communication skills, and I think it’s a matter of figuring out how do you apply these non-design skills to what you do in your new practice as a design leader.

Companies don’t pay nearly enough attention and provide nearly enough resources for new leaders, new managers, new leaders in terms of training them up on new skills that they need in order to succeed. ‘Cause as you said earlier, the skills that got you there to whatever this leadership position are no longer the skills that will carry you forward.

But, you’re just kind of, most companies put you in a sink or swim mode. when it comes to figuring out how you can excel.

It’s one of those fixed mindset versus growth mindset things. I think a lot of folks assume that those non-craft skills, you know, You can either lead or you can’t, and I’m here to tell you that, Nope, you can grow those skills like you grow any other, you just need to recognize that they are growable, that they are not fixed within people, but that we can all learn how to do them better.

Jesse: I think that for me, regardless of how much you believe the skills are growable, you have to act as if they are or else they definitely won’t be, right. You have to approach it as if you can develop new abilities because the belief that you can’t is going to guarantee it.

Peter: I think, you and I unknowingly, had a benefit in our careers in terms of becoming design leaders, which is that we worked in a consulting capacity for so long and consulting is all about communication and conversation. 

There’s things that you develop as a consultant that you might not even realize that you’re developing, but consultants are constantly having to sell their work, sell their ideas every day because of your relationship with your client.

There is almost a negotiation happening that is different than when you’re simply in-house. And I think some of the more successful in-house design leaders are those that have that consulting background, because they’ve learned how to communicate with non-designers, right? ‘Cause as a consultant, often your clients were not people who were designers, so you learn how not to get so caught up in your own thing and to speak other people’s languages. And you learn the presentation and storytelling aspects that allow people to be brought along. And so while I’m not going to encourage necessarily everyone to become a consultant, or to spend some time consulting, there’s something about that experience that probably needs to be brought to bear in an internal context where people think, well, I don’t have to do that because I’m internal and these are my coworkers. 

But those practices and those habits of communication that you learn as a consultant become immensely valuable. 

Jesse: One thing that I’m hearing that’s implicit in what I think both of us are saying about this is that design leadership needs to be approached with the same level of intentionality as a practice as design is in the same way that designers are encouraged to think about how they develop their practice, how they cultivate their practice, how they continue to keep their practice alive, you’re not leaving that behind when you become a design leader. Your practice is a new practice now.

And it’s going to involve the integration and synthesis of some new skills and maybe, some reevaluation, and, reassessment of your existing skills to see how those can be applied in these new contexts. So one of those has to do with conversation and communication, some of those skills that we develop, in consulting context.

But also I think that it’s about kind of looking at what all of your strengths are as a designer and figure out kind of what is the version of this that exists in this new realm of design leadership?

And this, I think, is one of the key functions of the design leader, of anyone in any kind of a leadership role, which is to create shared understanding. And so the designer having this natural strength in creating shared understanding now has the opportunity to take that into this new realm where they’re creating understanding around different ideas, toward different outcomes, but they’re still using that same tool set that they’ve developed. And I think the other thing that comes up, when you are someone who’s done a fair amount of consulting work, is that you’ve had to use these tools in a range of different contexts, which is to say that you’ve had to explain a range of different kinds of problems and a range of different kinds of solutions to a range of different kinds of people. And I think that’s really key because I think it’s really easy for our communication skills to get sort of super-optimized for the people that we communicate with the most or the most regularly, which is how, when a communication style sort of becomes the dominant communication style of an organization, people can get really good at that, and be really successful in that organization. And then as soon as you take them out out of that organization, that skill set doesn’t transfer because they were too good at working within that highly specialized context, to bring it all the way back around to generalization versus specialization, and they haven’t had the opportunity to grow those communication skills in a diverse range of contexts. So for designers who want to become design leaders who want to develop those skills that they will eventually need as design leaders, I think resisting that, that natural tendency to over-specialize our communication style and to cultivate the habit of learning how to communicate in different ways according to different people’s needs, I think is a skill that you can use as a designer.

That eventually as you move into design leadership is going to serve you even more.

Peter: What does it mean to be a design leader? Different from a business leader, different from, a technology leader, right? There’s going to be shared leadership practices perhaps around communication, but what are the interesting things based on these different people’s different backgrounds that they can bring to that function. 

It’s a distinct component of what it means to be an organizational leader, with a design background. You can bring facilitation, you can bring visualization, like what are those things that given your design background, you’re bringing to this organizational leadership conversation that maybe others aren’t. 

So I’m now kind of circling back to craft, cause I still think there’s a role that design leaders play in leading design, even if they’re not hands on in the craft anymore, they’re leading a team and a design leader still has a responsibility in that context.

You know, things like mentorship, teaching people how to do the craft. I think critique becomes very important in this regard. And through critique you can communicate elements of craft and practice, and help people think about how they refine how they behave Right. 

Let’s say you’re a design leader. Let’s say you’re a head of design. How do you make sure that your team is delivering quality work? The quality work that your team is doing is a result of their craft. You’re no longer practicing craft. So how do you bridge that gap? And so there’s a lot of work that a design leader needs to do to establish quality. What does quality look like? What expectations do we have around quality? That’s it’s not a craft, so much for a design leader, so what might be an opportunity for them to still keep a little bit of their craft in play, right? I think for me, I discouraged design leaders from quote, practicing their craft, because it means that they’re no longer leveraged.

Leadership is about leverage, and if you’re delivering assets, you’re not being leveraged anymore. But if you’re practicing your craft in a way that is, explicitly about influencing others then, yes, there is an opportunity for you to practice your craft. So anyway, thinking about leadership, it’s thinking about maintaining quality. And then how do you help your teams deliver at that level of quality? 

The only model I can think of that is relevant would be the military model that kitchens use. Right, where your most senior chef is someone who has made their way, literally touching every station over the course of their career before they become that most senior chef.

Now, as the most senior chef, they are responsible for the quality of everything that goes out the door. But they are not at the fish station. They’re not at the sauce station. They’re not at the grill station, right. People doing that work, but it is up to the executive chef to make sure all those folks are doing it to a level of quality and a level of craft that is appropriate.

Now there are problems with applying the restaurant model to the work we do. It’s not practical to expect a design leader in the contexts that you and I operate in to be, an excellent visual designer, and excellent interaction designer, and excellent information architect, and have gone through all those stations with a level of technique such that when we are now the ultimate leader, we can teach anybody how to do any of those things.

Whereas that is more achievable in a restaurant context. 

Jesse: I find myself wondering how much personal responsibility for mentorship is sensible for a design leader to take on, because, assuming that they got where they are because of not just their abilities, but their taste, right? Their ability to discern a good solution from a bad one. And that’s the part of the craft that they continue to exercise in those critiques and so I guess my question is, to what extent is it appropriate that a design leader try to pass on their taste, their judgment that critical skill in some way. As opposed to simply, here’s how you, you know, get that wicked effect in Photoshop or After Effects or whatever.

Peter: Well, the way I get that wicked effect is through Kai’s Power Tools. the most wicked. Speaking of taste and aesthetics, I think it’s still the responsibility of the design leader to articulate why they would make a decision and maybe they are the ones responsible for it. So why they are making a certain decision. “Of these eight solutions, this is the one we’re going with.” And then they explain their reasons, their rationale. But being explicit about it, not just saying we’re going with, we’re moving on, but providing a reason for why we’re going for direction four out of eight, so that others can start understanding that leader’s taste, because that becomes important.

But another aspect of this is, How does a leader help their team members develop their own senses of taste? Right? You don’t want to dictate taste. You want folks to develop their own aesthetics and their own understanding of how to navigate these decisions, figuring out how to communicate your taste in a way that breaks it down to these components. I know when I’ve provided critique around designs, I do so by communicating, if something’s not working for me, it’s not just, “It’s not working for me.”

It’s, “Oh, that’s not working for me because it feels unbalanced. There’s a weight issue on this screen where this component on the left is overwhelming the components on the right,” or whatever it is. You talk about it in a way that folks can develop a language for their own critical eye.

I guess this is part of design as a reflective practice, as we design, to be able to, upon looking at something we like, why do we like it? Being able to unpack that and communicate that, that becomes part of what you are teaching your teams, is that ability to talk about their work, not just a, “I followed these procedural steps. And so my design must be fine because I did the process,” again, ‘cause you could have any number of outcomes of those processes there. There is that last stage of the process where it’s not just, did you follow the steps, but has it come together? Has it jelled? Has it cohered into something compelling, interesting, desirable? And that’s where we need this language to be able to articulate, why something is working, why it isn’t, why you think it’s working.

And then that becomes this thing that you can start talking about when it’s not just like, “Because I said so, because it feels right.” But because of these reasons.

I think design leaders offer mentorship and critique, at the level that they are at. So if you are a new design leader, if you’ve recently been a practitioner and now you’re a manager, you are offering the craft help that you have just come from. But as you get farther and farther away from that, as you become a manager of managers, what you are mentoring, you’re not mentoring those designers anymore, but you’re mentoring managers on how they can do their new craft better.

Jesse: Yeah. I think it’s really true that you and I might have a different point of view on whether a particular design solution is, you know, visually balanced to use your example. But we can’t even have a conversation about that if we don’t have a shared understanding of the concept of visual balance itself. So, In a lot of ways, the question is, does your design process have built into it opportunities to educate designers as to the considerations that go into your critique.

Educate your designers as to the considerations that went into your craft that they should be mindful of. And it’s more about enhancing their mindfulness, enhancing their awareness, making sure that they are continuing to ask themselves the right questions as they’re going, so you don’t have to ask them, ideally. So this is a way of kind of commoditizing your own expertise in a way so that you can level up and be focusing your attention on more meaningful things.

Peter: I mean, that’s the heart of leverage. Leverage is commoditizing your expertise.

Jesse: Mm. Yeah. A lot of good stuff there.

[theme music]

Peter: Well, once again, we’re wrapping up another episode of Finding Our Way. As always, Jesse and I are interested in hearing what you have to say and think about what we’ve discussed today. So, find us on Twitter. Send us an email, and tell us what you think, and if you have ideas on what you would like us to talk about, please share those with us.

We are looking forward to hearing from you and reflecting on your thoughts and comments in our future episodes. So thank you for taking your time to listen to us.

Jesse: Thanks everybody.

Jesse: What’s it called again? What are we doing here? Our podcast is called,  “Help. We’re lost.”

Peter: That’s right. We were finding our way and look what good it did. Look what good that did.

Jesse: Our podcast is called “Send someone to fetch us. We’re in Saskatchewan.”

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