Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Design is as design does

For a brief period of time after I gave up on Ceramic Engineering as an undergrad major (I had no idea it involved so much Chemistry - not my favorite subject), I seriously considered Industrial Design. Something about form and function, aesthetic and technical really appealed to my nearly even left/right brain split, but the pragmatist in me thought that getting a formal Engineering degree would open more doors, so off I marched towards the Tech Quad...

I never lost my interest in ID (not to be confused with my current day job, Instructional Design), and still get a great kick out of the thumbing through magazines like
I.D. in my local mega-book store.

The latest issue of
Fast Company (Oct '07) is focused on Design of all shapes and sorts and is a really interesting read (IMHO). One thing that struck me as I browsed the pages was a minor realization that although it wasn't an intentional goal (and certainly isn't as classically 'tangible' as other types of design), my interest in software, technology, and their hooks into learning have led me into the broad field of Design in a way that I might have experienced if I'd followed my heart rather than my head as a 19 year old.

Just how different is Instructional Design from Industrial Design, at its root? Just how far can you push the question (Software Programming vs. Interface Design vs. Architecture) before the differences begin to outweigh the similarities? Are there some fundamental commonalities that run, like a thread, through them all? Is it as simple as the urge to 'create' something?

The lead/cover article is on Yves Behar, the creative spark behind the much lauded XO-1 of Nicholas Negroponte's
One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, among other things. In that article, he shared an insight that kicked the question above into gear for me:

"The simplest definition of design is how you treat your customer. If you acknowledge their intelligence, and treat them well from an environmental, emotional, and aesthetic standpoint, you're probably doing good design." By that standard, he says, few CEOs come close. "They just don't know how hard it is, and what it will take on their part. There's a pain in transformation, pain when you have to do things differently." Most execs hope skillful marketing will make up for design shortfalls, or that word of mouth around an occasional well-conceived product will float the rest of their wares. Such rosy thinking overlooks the tensions that arise when design gets factored into a big business. "Marketing people are incented to come up with great ideas," says Mitch Pergola, fuseproject's vice president and general manager. "Engineers are incented to drive out costs." To resolve those conflicts, somebody at the top has to make the Solomonic calls. "If you want to be design-driven, " Behar says, "the question is, Who's driving?"

Although he is speaking of the design of physical objects, much of the sentiment he captures could just as well apply to Instructional Design (or Software Design, or...). At its core, good design requires some recognition and respect for your customer/audience. In training terms, acknowledgement that your (adult) learners bring something to the educational table, based on their background and experience. They are NOT blank slates that are poised to be filled with the blessings of the wisdom that has been deemed necessary for them to imbibe. Time and time again, when ID's step off their artificial platform of being the fount of knowledge and assume a position of being an enabler and facilitator of information exchange, everyone is richer for it.

Good design isn't window dressing on some more important, underlying core. It is an equal at the table of required elements for success.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Beginnings, Endings, and Head Fakes

Although pretty commonplace and unremarkable these days, I'm in the midst of a job shift and all the associated excitement & nervousness. I am, at once, sad for what I am leaving behind and amped for the potential of what lies ahead. Despite the fact that these sorts of shifts are so commonplace these days as to almost not being worthy of mention, I find myself reflecting on what this transition means to me, what I'm hoping for, and what is fueling me more and more as I get a little grayer.

Early in my career, I had an incredible and rare opportunity to study in an area of extreme interest to me (the combo of technology and human performance/education) at an institute that had a short but intense life, under a dynamic and controversial visionary leader. Out of the worldwide organization I worked for, only a handful of employees were given this golden shot to be 'assigned' to the 'project' of getting an M.S. while staying a full-time (fully salaried/benefitted) employee. Not bad a bad deal, at all! The last hurdle in the competition to procure one of the coveted spots was to have an in-person interview with the head of the program. Without his nod, no amount of corporate support would secure admission.

I was blessed/cursed with the awareness that this was a turning point for me, both professionally and personally. This single interview could determine if I was going to be allowed to comfortably pursue an area of interest in a way I likely wouldn't be able to do otherwise. The interview was as memorable as it was short. In a hurried and distracted fashion, the program director sat down and simply asked, "Why should I give a spot in my program to you?", then fell quiet.

I was tempted to rollout one of the buzzword-laden smooth-talking answers that had historically worked so well in landing summer jobs, undergrad admission, and my current consulting role, but I instantly knew that sort of an approach wouldn't fly with this guy - he'd see right through that sort of answer as the BS it was, and I'd be out on my ear. So I took a moment, did my best to not be (overly) intimidated by the silence in the room or the stare of the hulking presence on the other side of the table, and decided to take a chance on simply speaking from the heart.

I replied (in part), "When my grandkids come to me, sit on my knee, and ask what it was that I did with my working life, I want to be able to say something more than simply, 'I saved companies that made a lot of money even more money.'. That's something that any of hundreds of thousands of people will be able to say. I want to answer that I changed people's lives in some, perhaps small, but meaningful way."

With that, he immediately rose from his chair, returned to desk and began typing. A few seconds passed before I mustered the courage to say, "So, I hope to hear from you soon with your decision...", when he interrupted me. Without lifting his head for a parting glance or his hands for a handshake, he simply said, "You won't be hearing from me. If you hear from anyone, it'll be from someone with your company." He continued typing, head down, and I gathered myself and left his office.

As I shuffled down the hall to the other end of the building, I was sure I'd blown it and just watched a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity evaporate. I returned to where my company's representative was dispatching the next interview victim, probably looking a little shell shocked and crestfallen. She very subtly gave me a smile and quietly whispered, "you made quite an impression... he's said 'yes'."

From that moment on, I have tried to pursue that objective (more or less). There have been times that I felt compelled to be a little more practical and focused on the day-to-day of life, rather than my ideal pursuits (having a child and a mortgage will do that to you), but I've yet to lose the fire that was quietly ignited in that interview. My new employer has a formal policy related to community involvement, allowing for up to 2 hours of paid time per week to be spent helping to better the world in some way. I plan to take them up on the offer and lend my talents in eLearning to our local school system - maybe through Squeak, maybe via Dean Kamen's FIRST, maybe both, maybe something else, but something.

All of this has been brewing in my mind/heart for awhile now, but this morning I ran across a WSJ article and video that brought it all back front-and-center. It was a story about CMU CS Professor Randy Pausch and his 'Last Lecture'. I'd heard of Dr. Pausch before, based on his work with VR and immersive worlds, and knew him to be a legend of sorts. I had also heard of the new trend of some universities to ask their top professors to consider what they would share with their students (and the world) if they only had one 'last lecture' to present. What I didn't know was that Dr. Pausch had been told that he only has a few months to live, due to pancreatic cancer, giving his session a bit more of a literal (and heartbreaking) tie to the series title.

I'd encourage you to at least read the WSJ article and view the abbreviated video of his talk. If you have an hour and change of time, however, I struggle to imagine a better way to spend it than watching the full presentation. I won't attempt to summarize or highlight the talk (although others, including Mark Guzdial, have done a fine job) - suffice it to say that his concept of "the head fake" resonates with me (and is reminiscent of Seymour Papert's and Alan Kay's philosophy related to "hard fun"). And the way he weaves the concept into practice at the end of the talk (twice!) is nothing less than amazing and heart-breaking, considering his circumstance.

We all can't be Pausch's or Papert's or Kay's, but what I can be is the best me the world has ever seen (or will ever see!). I hope I found an inviting place to let some of these aspirations take flight with my new position/employer. I draw a renewed sense of energy and inspiration to make my mark, somehow and in some way, from Dr. Pausch's 'last lecture'.

Maybe you will too...