Today I am going to share some design advice that you aren’t going to get anywhere else. They don’t teach you this at the university. You won’t find articles about it in the glossy magazines. The design blogs won’t touch the subject. Research would inevitably show that there isn’t a market for this kind of content. It’s the kind of advice you will only get from your friend Adrian, the guy who writes every Saturday about the dirty side of creativity. Pull on your rubber gloves, it’s time to get real. Let’s talk about...
No, this isn’t a joke about your polished design turds getting flushed down the drain, although that idea is worth a chuckle. I am talking about an actual leaky toilet, the one in your bathroom that is constantly running. What can it teach us?
A leaking toilet is the kind of problem you may never notice. Perhaps the spike in your water bill will catch your eye. Maybe the constant sound of water running will alert you to the problem. Maybe you know it is a problem but you are actively ignoring it. Or maybe the problem will escape your attention for weeks, months, or years. How do you fix something if you don’t know there is a problem? This is the first design lesson the toilet will teach us. Let me explain...
The amount of stimuli competing for our attention is infinite. Most of it gets filtered out by our pattern recognition machines. We can’t fix what we don’t notice. So how do we change ourselves so that we notice important things that normally get overlooked?
Have you noticed that the day after you purchase a white Ford Fiesta you will start to see white Ford Fiestas everywhere? The world didn’t change. What changed was you. Now you care about something you never cared about before. The things we notice appear based on what we assign value to. So when you notice the leaky toilet, what does it mean? It tells you that there is a part of you that cares about that toilet. Once you care you can begin to take the steps to fix it.
What makes designers different? It’s that we notice things that others miss. Our observational skills are primed to see objects that can be improved. It’s not because of art school. It’s not because we have a pathological need to decorate things. It is exclusively a by-product of one thing: we care.
I can’t tell you what type of work is beneath you. Maybe you are too proud or too important for physical labor of this kind. But I can tell you that the words, "that’s not my job" are toxic. I believe that this phrase, more than anything else, has lead to the silos that plague the design industry.
It’s not a designer’s job to write copy. It’s not a designer’s job to understand code. It’s not a designer’s job to do marketing. On and on designers absolve ourselves from responsibility until our job is so narrowly defined that the only time anyone thinks to involve us in their projects is when they need a jpg of the company’s logo.
Many designers are satisfied pushing pixels and letting experts do the real work. If that’s you, go ahead and walk right past that leaky toilet. It’s not your job. But as we already established, you care. And since you care you can’t help but want to fix the problems you notice. THAT is your job. You aren’t getting paid to apply makeup to financial reports. You are here to fix real problems.
What makes designers different? We claim responsibility for solving problems outside of our job description. We are so curious, so desperate to improve things that our immediate response to every situation is, "This might not be in my job description but I can’t help myself." Yes, it is going to take you out of your comfort zone. It’s going to challenge your assumptions. You are going to come away from the experience with a new respect for an object that you never fully appreciated before. But maybe, just maybe you will be the person who actually fixes the problem.
You probably have a vague understanding of how a toilet works. You know there is a tank that fills with water and a handle that releases water with a flush. Beyond that, how much more can there be?
Your decision to repair your toilet takes you on a research expedition. You can’t repair it until you understand how it works. New knowledge changes your mental model. What started out as a crude sketch evolves into a flexible understanding of moving relationships and complex concepts. Your refusal to let the leak be someone else’s job has opened your eyes to an invisible universe. Your porcelain throne ceases to be a simple appliance, it has transformed into a symbol of human evolution. You realize that the humble toilet is the result of centuries of design iteration. You make a surprising discovery: toilets are fascinating.
Design is often mistaken for the pixels on the screen, but pixels are the result of the design process. The actual work of a designer is a constant reconfiguration of mental concepts. You hold your understanding of the toilet in your mind and work on it. Ideas appear and you test them. The inevitable hangups aren’t dead ends, they are a chance to expand your mental model. And amazingly, this process never ends. The more you look, the more you see. The toilet isn’t a foreign object with no relationship to you beyond utility. It isn’t an unknowable specialty reserved for people with degrees and certifications. The best design happens when our mental models are synchronized with the realities of the physical world. If we can reach that point, the pixel pushing is the easy part.
What makes designers different? Our mental models are always changing. We effortlessly abandon assumptions. Where others cling to their knowledge as dogma, we are free to expand our understanding. Our ideas aren’t brittle arguments that must be defended in order to preserve our pride. Unexpected questions are opportunities to challenge our understanding, to evolve our thinking. This is why designers are equipped to solve problems that elude others.
Although I did spend last weekend repairing my toilet, this story doesn’t actually contain any practical tips for repairing your toilet. The toilet is just a metaphor. I don’t need to go into detail about the various ways that our world is filled with stinky problems that need to be solved. But as a designer you are different, you have abilities that other’s don’t:
You notice things others might miss. Because you care.
You invest yourself in solving problems that others might dismiss as beneath them. Because this is your job.
Your mental models are flexible, you can find the ideas that will make a difference. Because the more you look the more you see.
If my words penetrated your pattern recognition machine it means you care. Thank you. I will be back next week with more stories from the dirty side of the design industry. Stay creative.
Next: Outrageous Side Projects