Ask Better Questions

Question Designed by Rémy Médard for the Noun Project

Question Designed by Rémy Médard for the Noun Project

Renowned American architect and engineer George Keller once said, “To think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted.” But as creatives, we sometimes trade creativity for speed only to meet deadlines with work that we aren’t proud to put into our portfolios.

In an old blog post, co-founder of Basecamp (and co-author of ReworkJason Fried, compiled a list of every question he asked when looking at a design-in-progress. Some of the examples: 

  • What does it say?
  • What does it mean?
  • Is what it says and what it means the same thing?
  • Do we want that?
  • Why do we need to say that here?
  • Where’s the idea?
  • What problem is that solving?
  • How does this change someone’s mind?
  • What makes this a must have?

Most of the time “is it done?” isn’t a good enough question.  If you plan ahead and build opportunities for structured feedback into your design process, you’ll be able to ask some of the aforementioned questions that will dramatically improve the quality of your work. It’s simple – if you ask better questions, you’ll get better answers.

Beyond the context of a design-in-progress, learn how to ask better questions from this Harvard Business Review primer here.  

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The Best Opportunities Are the Ones You Create for Yourself

By Josh Patterson

By Josh Patterson

To take your idea, business, or career, and turn it into something truly successful, we have to be capable of taking full advantage of the opportunities that come our way. However, despite what many of us have been led to believe, the best opportunities for success are often not the ones we stumble upon by pure luck. As Twitter co-founder and Jelly CEO, Biz Stone, explains in an article for Harvard Business Review, the absolute best opportunities are the ones that we create for ourselves:

Some people think of opportunity the way it’s defined in the dictionary—as a set of circumstances that make something possible—and they talk about it as if it just arrives organically. You ‘spot opportunity’ or wait around for ‘opportunity to knock.’ I look at it differently. I believe that you have to be the architect of the circumstances—that opportunity is something you manufacture, not something you wait for.

To “architect the circumstances” for opportunities, as Stone puts it, requires a few key critical components for creating our own opportunities:

Take even the lightest risks

“An extreme example of creating an opportunity led to my first full-time job,” Stone writes. While working late one evening as a part-time mover for a publishing company, Stone decided to secretly submit a design for a book cover project he saw sitting on a desk, even though he had no formal design training. The result of taking that risk? The company loved the design so much they hired Stone to be a full-time designer.

Audit who you surround yourself with

It seems obvious, but how often do we step back and take note of the individuals we surround ourselves with and, when possible, choose to work with? If we’re not surrounding ourselves with people who energize and inspire us, “smart and funny people” as Stone put sit, we’re likely missing out on opportunities to do great work. For Stone, surrounding himself with—and pushing to consistently work alongside—really intelligent and fun people is what allowed him to not only work at Google, but also allowed him to co-found Twitter and start his latest venture, Jelly.

Constantly push to evolve your ideas

Twitter was founded when an idea Stone and a co-worker had one day while talking about the value of brief status messages and the power of cell phone texting. The idea for Twitter only evolved when the two took their idea to Stone’s mentor (and boss) to flush it out into what would eventually become Twitter. They took what they learned at Google and Twitter and later made Jelly, a “search engine for everything in your mind.”

Communicate, more than you think you need to

Lastly, Stone emphasizes the importance of communication, sometimes more than you think is enough. “Our company is only seven people right now, and we’re all in the same room, so it’s easy to assume that we’re all on the same page,” Stone says, “But we’re not—I have to work to make sure we get there, even if I spend 50% of my time communicating.”

To create opportunities for yourself, you must be willing to take risks, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, work to evolve your ideas, and communicate often. Follow these guidelines and undoubtedly opportunities will start to appear.

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How to Avoid Getting Stuck in the Trap of Bad First Ideas

By Levi van Veluw

By Levi van Veluw

Sometimes your very first idea is the one. The first business name that sprung serendipitously to mind, the first illustration presented to a new client, the first object prototype, or the first concept for a new online course are often framed as sparks of genius. More often though, first is worst. Creative projects, no matter the medium, most often require iteration, development, research, and evolution.

In the effort to ship fast, we often experience tunnel vision surrounding our first solid idea. Academics call that “design fixation.” We experience a creative sparkle with our first idea and so, subconsciously or not, get mired in proving it works rather than exploring alternatives. Sometimes the fixation is fueled by a mental bias towards our first concept, but it can also be exacerbated by an inside-the-box culture (risks = bad) or a limitation on resources (first idea = cheaper and faster). Regardless, it can be difficult to tell whether or not that first idea is a keeper, which is dangerous. In theory, becoming fixated on your first idea would be fine if it turned out to be a one-in-a-million revelation, but much of the time first passes are just the start of a contemplative creative process.

Luckily, there are ways to overcome the fixation and remove the first idea blinders. In an analysis of a study of how 13 U.K. designers deal with design fixation, FastCoDesign shares a few suggestions for how to overcome the mental block of the bad first idea:

PEER REVIEW: An isolated designer only has her own perspective to draw upon, while working in a team can bring in more outside experience. “We do… technical peer reviews where you bring in somebody who’s not related to the project to challenge you as a project leader,” an interviewee explains. These outside observers can say, “‘Oh, why have you done it like that?’ Or: ‘Show me your rationale for how you’ve done it.’”

USE MORPHOLOGICAL CHARTS: Morphological charts, a design tool used to generate and organize potential solutions, were the preferred method of systematically reducing the effect of fixation. “[You] build a matrix that forces you to consider all of the various different options, forces you to fill out alternative approaches,” one designer describes it.

MAKE A MODEL: Sometimes, you don’t know how misguided your idea was until you see it in real life, and something just doesn’t work, advises one interviewee: “Typically, in a brainstorm, people fire off the immediate ideas in their head. I can imagine they would be biased by things they have seen recently or whatever, but I think when you actually come to build things, then the physics of the world kicks in, and you can’t really cheat that stuff.”

These tactics are great safeguards for ensuring you don’t get stuck regurgitating old ideas or being blind to creative alternatives. The ironic beauty of these approaches is that they may actually turn out not to elucidate key iterations, but rather to solidify a first idea, strengthening the sense that the initial concept was indeed the best bet. You’ll never know until you embark on the process.

The early bird often gets the worm; but slow and steady wins the race.

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Every Project Needs Three Plans: An Upside, Regular, and Downside

by Yuda KP

by Yuda KP

At the precipice of a new project, is it possible to mitigate most of the predicted risks? Just how far into the future can you accurately plan ahead? Failure to visualize the divergent possible outcomes of a project will reduce your chance of starting off on the right foot. Not being able to visualize success will impact your ability to inspire your team. And not being able to visualize failure will diminish your team’s confidence. 

Before you start your next project, you should know what you’re getting yourself into by conducting a sort of “pre-mortem.” Author Ben Casnocha spent 10,000 hours with LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whom he later co-wrote The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age with), and discovered that when you align around three simple scenarios, as a team, you can calibrate your expectations and invest accordingly. 

Upside: If everything clicks and you even get a bit lucky, what’s the likely outcome of your project? World domination? A successful product launch? A bestselling book? If this “upside” case isn’t very compelling, you might not want to embark on the project in the first place—or at least you might calibrate the level of investment. The upside case for what you’re working on needs to be exciting.

Regular: If things go fine but not great, what’s the ‘regular’ scenario look like? To use a golf metaphor, if you hit the fairway – not the green, not the rough, just the fairway – with your effort, what happens?

Downside: If your project stalls or goes sideways, what’s the downside case look like? Is it mortal – i.e., are you dead (reputation-wise, financially, etc.)? Or is the downside quite survivable?

Set expectations early, and then start your actual project. Even with limited information at the outset, you can still manage expectations as you go. Brett Harned of Team Gannt suggests reviewing expectations on a regular basis. Harned recommends creating shared to-do lists, delivering possible bad news early, and asking clarifying questions:

What it comes down to is that you must communicate early and often, document conversations, and continuously follow-up with the collective project team in order to keep things straight. If you passively let things work out on their own, you’ll not only kill your project, you’ll lose the trust and respect of your team. So be proactive in setting expectations and keep an open line of communication, and you’ll find that sparkly unicorn.

Starting a new project requires a leap of faith. Between where you and your team presently stand and the expected outcome of the project, there exist multiple questions and variables. Your team’s ability to traverse that uncertain bulk, to stay focused, and to overcome any obstacles will ultimately determine whether or not your project will be successful. Ensuring you’re calibrating expectations with the upside, regular, and downside scenarios will help you visualize the road ahead as far as possible. You can never be too prepared, especially when you’re managing the expectations of a team. In the wise words of Sun Tzu, “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”

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To Spark Creativity, Pursue Happiness


[optimistic from CHris Jimenez on Vimeo.]

If you want to increase creativity, it helps to be happy. Positive emotions increase our curiosity in the world around us and open our minds to new experiences, skills and ideas. In PBS’s series This Emotional Life, they discuss the link between creativity and positive emotions:

Researchers have found that creativity is less likely to occur in the presence of sadness, anger, fear, and anxiety—and that it is more likely to occur with positive emotions, such as joy and love. One study found that people are more likely to come up with a creative idea if they felt happy the day before, and then they feel happy when they are creative. Creativity contributes to an “upward spiral” of positive emotions and greater happiness.

Just by being creative, we can kick start an upward spiral of positive emotions which allow us to handle the often negative environment we create within. In an interview with Core77, Vice President of Design at Sonos Tad Toulis discloses that the best part of his job is spending time with people who are “pessimistic optimists.” This immunity to negativity is an essential trait for creatives. To remain pessimistically optimistic, Toulis explains the most important quality in a designer:

Stamina and thick skin. Design is an activity where you’re daring to think of something that doesn’t exist. And that takes a certain amount of hubris. And you hear no so much, and you’re told why things won’t work so often, that at some point it really does engender people who don’t seem to listen to that. And that’s a strange trait; I think it happens because you just get immune to it. But I do think perseverance and stamina are tremendously important traits in being a designer.

What happens when the stress becomes too much to bear? We can create our way out of that as well. In an article from The Telegraph, they suggest three activities inspired from our childhood to reduce stress: coloring, writing and physical play. By focusing on a simple repetitive task, coloring calms our mind and acts as a meditative technique. Writing for 15 to 30 minutes about a stressful life event improves not only your mood, but also physical health, memory and sleep. And how could jumping on a giant trampoline or playing in an adult ball pool not put you in a good mood?

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Being Wrong Can Be the Best Thing to Happen to You

By Cristina Pagnoncelli

By Cristina Pagnoncelli

Making a mistake, screwing up a major project, or seeing your business fail sucks. Being wrong on any scale is a blow to your self-confidence, makes you question the path you’re on, and cripples your motivation to move forward. But there’s another way to think about failure: it’s inevitable. James Clear writes over on his blog:

For some reason, we often expect our first choice to be the optimal choice. However, it’s actually quite normal for your first attempt to be incorrect or wrong. When it comes to complex issues like determining the values you want in a partner or selecting the path of your career, your first attempt will rarely lead to the optimal solution.

So if failure is unavoidable, what does that mean for reaching success, and how do you reframe it as productive? Clear has collected a handful of helpful learnings from his failures over the years as an entrepreneur, writer, and photographer. When you’re next mired in a mental miasma over a serious misstep, consider his reflections:

Choices that seem poor in hindsight are an indication of growth, not self-worth or intelligence…. If you know enough about something to make the optimal decision on the first try, then you’re not challenging yourself.

Given that your first choice is likely to be wrong, the best thing you can do is get started. The faster you learn from being wrong, the sooner you can discover what is right…. The best way to learn is to start practicing.

Break down topics that are too big to master into smaller tasks that can be mastered…. If you want to get better at making accurate first choices, then play in a smaller arena.

The time to trust your gut is when you have the knowledge or experience to back it up. You can trust yourself to make sharp decisions in areas where you already have proven expertise. For everything else, the only way to discover what works is to adopt a philosophy of experimentation.

So not only is being wrong a great thing, given that it more often than not represents an opportunity to grow, it’s an essential stepping stone to success. You can decrease your failure rate by dividing huge ideas into smaller, actionable mini-ideas, and by getting lots of practice experimenting, but you won’t be able to skip straight from lightbulb to history-making glory.

The trick here is that you have to work out the mental muscle that can recognize failure, learn from it, and leverage those learnings into moving forward. Being wrong is only awesome if you use your error in the right way. As economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford writes in his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure:

Success comes through rapidly fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right first time.

So screwing up isn’t bad. You just have to make sure you’re listening closely to yourself and the feedback of those around you to gauge when, why, and how a failure went down in order to spin it into gold.

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The Danger of Assuming What Your Client Wants

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by Duncan Beedie

If you want to fill your customer’s needs, you have to listen to what they want. Donna Carpenter, owner of Burton Snowboarding, learned this firsthand when she became President of the company in December 2011. She focused on making Burton the brand of choice for women snowboarders, though after they hit a rapid growth spurt in the ’80s and ’90s, Burton had become male dominated and lost their female customers’ voice. In an interview with Edition F, Carpenter explains:

…We had a children’s snowboard for boys that had robots on it. A woman in our soft goods department then said, ‘I know there’s a demand for a girls’ snowboard.’ So we went to graphics and said, ‘You have to give us a girls’ snowboard.’ They just turned it purple and it still had robots on it. We laughed and said, ‘No one is going to buy it. A girl doesn’t want it, because it has robots and a boy won’t buy it, because it’s purple. And then you’re going to say girls don’t want snowboards.’ So we insisted that they put little girls’ graphics on the board like butterflies. It exceeded pre-season projections by 250 percent. Everyone wanted to have it. But the guys didn’t know how to do it. They just said, ‘We’ll pink it and shrink it.’ That doesn’t work. Women consumers see right through that. They don’t want that.”

For Carpenter, understanding her client meant also having that same demographic hold leadership positions within the company. In this manner, Carpenter was able to have her own customers readily available and on staff to provide insights and understanding. According to IDEO, human-centered design is about hearing from your users in their own words, not assuming you know what they want. Carpenter’s research found that not only do female snowboarder not want purple robots on their snowboards, but that they approach the sport in a completely different way. Male customers compartmentalize their sports, whereas women view it much more holistically. They were interested in the sport as a lifestyle, which required marketing to tell a completely different story.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to partner with your direct client on a permanent basis. However, IDEO recommends that interviews can unlock the same understanding. In their design kit The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design, they stress writing down exactly what the interviewee says, not what you think they might mean. It is also important to observe their body language and surroundings, especially if you have the opportunity to interview them in their home or office. You can learn so much more about a person’s mindset, behaviour, and lifestyle by talking to them in their daily surroundings. As with all research, come with an open mind and without preconceived notions. The goal is to design to the actual needs or desires of your client, not your perception of what they are.

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