Talking as Designing
Posted on 26th April 2012 by Nick Marsh -
I did a talk at London IA on Tuesday about the idea of talking as designing. This is something I've been thinking about for a while. I've embedded the presentation below, and the accompanying notes. As I say in the notes, this is the first thing I've done about this idea, not the last, and I'd love to get feedback from people about the idea. Think of it as a Minimum Viable Talk As I also said during the presentation, this is pretty rambly, as you'd expect from a first talk, and the notes reflect that!
I'm here to talk about talking as designing.
I've decided to do a talk about this as the first thing, so you are all guinea pigs. Sorry. And also, its not lie I've been doing a pHD into this and these are my findings. This is the first step, not the last, so if you are hoping for a big answer or something, sorry.
Its basically something I'd been thinking about for a while - and as I'll talk about, talking is often the first thing you do when you have an idea, after thinking about it.
Anyone who knows me will know that I talk a lot. In part, yes, its because I like the sound of my own voice, but also, I've realised that its also because its a really important part of designing stuff, and I really don't think is been talked about much. Which is weird, because the more I tell people about the idea, the more people give me more ideas and say 'yeah, I haven't really heard much about that idea'. So it seems important. And to be clear, although I'm not overly defining anything I'm generally talking about talking in a verbal sense, not 'talking to people through writing', and obviously in talking about talking I’m also talking a lot about listening.
In fact, I think in the design and software community we're actually very blinkered about the importance of talking well as part of designing things, to the point where we're actually saying to ourselves that talking is a bad thing.
I use the example of good for nothing not to pick on them (they're great) but just as an example of how shallow our discourse is around the role of talking. Talking here is positioned as the opposite of doing. Which is stupid. I think they really mean talking about doing stuff and the NOT doing it. Which is totally different.
Another thought I had is that the design and software community don't like talking about talking much because we're generally quite introverted. Which is a good thing by the way.
I went to a talk the other day with a woman called Susan Cain who has had another one of these 'd'uh' ideas, that introversion is under-rewarded in creative processes. Its fascinating. You should watch her TED talk.
However, being naturally introverted means we've self-selectedly decided that we're better at communicating through drawing or code than through verbal means.
Unfortunately, however amazing you are, or however introverted, Talking is a really, really important part of doing stuff with other people, which in my experience is pretty much the only way to do good stuff, so we should talk about it more.
In fact. of all the ways of 'doing stuff' talking is the one that emphasises collaboration the most (although talking to yourself is actually quite useful as well).
- Proper Making
So to say that talking isn't doing is silly. Talking is absolutely essential to doing anything, and I'm surprised that we don't talk about it more, in try and teach it at design school or anywhere.
Hands up who got taught anything formal at school about conversation? Did anyone have any lessons in rhetoric? Who took part in formal debates?
Ok, now, hands up who has to have conversations as part of their daily job? And hands up who has to persuade other people of stuff in their daily job? Hands up who hates it when the bossiest loudest person makes all the decisions? OK.
Basically, when you start thinking about it this feels like quite an important topic. Getting good at understanding when talking is important to designing things will help us design better things.
OK, so what am I going to talk about today. Here's a slide.
Its going to be rambly. Sorry. And please interrupt me if you have ideas etc. I'd like this to be the start of something rather than the end.
OK. so the first thing I'd say is that in order to understand how to be a good talker in designing you have to think about why people talk to each other during design processes.
I'd say there's two high level reasons:
1. Deciding something
2. Having more ideas
Most formal stuff about talking sits on the left.
- Rhetoric - persuading people
- Debate - deciding something
- Discourse - explaining stuff
- Dialectic - also deciding something (often called logic)
- Conversation - this is different, and is often not about deciding, but building or exploring
As we all know, deciding stuff and then having more ideas goes together, and I find the design process is often like a fractal, where at any point you get these convergent and divergent points.
Or one of my favourite ideas, the concept of the wobbly line shows this really well. You draw a line to decide, but leave it wobbly so there's room for more ideas.
BIll Buxton talked about this in his amazing book Sketching user experiences, and I also found it in this book 101 things I learned at Architecture school.
I find the process of talking is often the moment of inflection from convergent to divergent thinking - ts the point where ideas have the most potential, and the way in which the most people can participate in their production.
Good creative talking is full of wobbly lines - ums, ahs, pauses, strange structures - that help you have more ideas within a framework.
So to go back to our formal approaches to talking,
The bit of talking as designing that I think is probably the most interesting to ficus on is 'conversation' because I think this is the thing that is the hardest to think about is its the most natural, and the least studied in formal creativity.
At this point I'd like to bring in the dreaded design thinking. NOt sure who here is still interested in this, but for me the big standout idea from the past 10 years of 'design thinking' thinking has been the idea of 'abductive reasoning', or a logical approach to finding answers that emphasises thinking of completely new solutions, as compared to infering solutions from existing phenomena.
Basically what it means is the idea that designers and associated types are good at coming up with new ideas.
BUt in doing my (very sketchy) research for this talk I couldn't really find any formal theories of talking that seem like a theory of 'abductive discourse' - i.e. talking styles specifically engineered to help you have more good ideas. Maybe they do exist, perhaps in the worlds of improv and acting. Not sure.
When you think about it, talking is very very related to your person, so probably we should look to acting and the stage for some ideas.
So, if you start reading around conversation, you find loads of books about it. Which is great, but they are mostly about manners and etiquette, not making stuff together.
However, I found one book that had a really god summary that I thought I'd share at length. Its called the art of conversation, and it has four main points that to me are absolutely on the money in terms of how to talk well in the design studio, or, talking as designing.
"Don't talk too long without pausing for a reaction. more than a minute is too long. Forty seconds is ideal."
"Never flatly disagree with the other person. It is an implied insult."
"Don't be too forceful or emphatic in stating your opinions until you learn the other persons attitude."
"Give the other person intellectual freedom and cooperation and claim them for yourself."
The thing that is missing a bit I think is passion. In 'normal' conversation its great to have a bit of passion, but if you are just chatting its kind of weird if people are really really passionate. But that is actually something you do want in a design conversation - a passion for the idea.
If you sum this lot up, you get the thing that everyone knows is the most important characteristic in the world of design and making things and making new things - strong ideas, weakly held. That's the best kind of person, and thats the best kind of talking.
So, building on the idea that conversation is important, I've come up with a list of talking / conversation styles that I think are useful in having more ideas, rather than deciding things. I'm just going to go through them with some sort of examples, and then that will be the end of my talk and we can have a bit of a conversation about it.
- On the tabling
- Throat punching
OK so what’s next?
Personally, I’d like to expand the catalogue a bit. I’d like to find out more about other disciplines use of talking to help with creativity, maybe acting. Id also like to try out some more practical stuff to aid better designing. Here’s some ides to think about.
Pair programming. Programmers, of all people, are starting to really get into conversation! What can designers and other creative professionals learn from pairing?
Johanna Kollmann pointed this out to me, but the school of life has conversation menus during its dinners, designed to prompt more conversation and thinking.
Surely there’s a little big idea in here about getting people to do more talking for the sake of it. I’d ike to do an exercise to design something just using talking, no writing or drawing. what would happen?!
There’s also something big about context, and creating the right atmosphere for talking.
Steve Jobs used to always have his important meetings whilst walking.
I think that’s great.
Here’s some more stuff that people said after I did my rehearsal at work
- learning to talk happens when you are a baby and is used in all subsequent learning so its hard to formalise
- secondary orality
- influence of job/education on talking style - e.g maths
- neuro-linguistic programming
- ‘brainstorming’ is often a form of structured conversation
- roles in conversation - personality types and group dynamics
- digital mediation e.g skype
- body language