Welcome to episode 267 of The Digital Life. A show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
Our special guest this week is design strategist, Ben Sauer. Ben, welcome to the show.
Hello. Thanks for having me, guys.
Sure. For our topic this week, we’re going to take a look at secret design skills. Ben, could you give a short intro on the thesis behind secret design skills?
Yeah, sure. So I’ll try and keep this short. I, for a long time, in my career, have been having these conversations at conferences or with colleagues, which led to me a realization or a hypothesis that many of us designers, we usually bring something to design that we learned elsewhere. Either from our education or our previous professions. Many of us who were a bit older, like me, when UX, for example, wasn’t a thing when we started our adult lives, or it was in its very early stages, and I realized that some of these skills are actually really critical to who we are as designers. And because they’re not talked about as design skills I wanted to start exploring the idea that these skills should be discussed and gathered and that is why I’m writing a book about it.
That’s awesome. I love this thesis. I think it’s spot on and, actually, I relate very much to the sort of evolutionary career path that you described there, Ben. So as you were thinking about secret design skills, what are some of the observations that you’ve made? What are some of the in-field realizations that came to you and how did secret design skills manifest in what you’ve seen in your career?
Sure. So I have a very mixed background. I’m from South London, in the UK, and I did a lot of theater and literature at school. And I became a developer for a few years and then I realized I was no good at writing code, so I went into the thing that interested me which was design, or usability as it was known back then, and over time I started to realize that I had a natural ability to present and to tell stories. And then it was only after a while that I realized where that came from and, in fact, I wrote a tribute to my drama teacher just before he retired not so long ago because I realized that, as a designer, sometimes in your career you have to be able to stand up and tell a story about a piece of work that you’ve been working on.
And the design is going to sink or swim based on how you’re able to present that idea. So you could be a much better designer than me, and you could have worked on it for an entire year, but if you can’t kind of get up and tell that story in a compelling way, well, then maybe the idea sinks. And so it’s an example of where I had these skills that have been incredible important to my career as a designer but I didn’t even realize what they were or where they came from until I’d been doing it for a while.
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I mean, there is this focus of late that I’ve seen on, what I call, the production skills of user experience of UX. So the things that bring a piece of software closer to production, whether they be creating a workflow, or screen layouts, or pattern libraries it’s a very tactical, and even when there are strategic elements overlaid on top of this, they’re not really the same kind of broad exposure that I think, maybe call it the V01UX designers in the late nineties, sort of brought to the table. And seeing that lack of broad exposure, I mean, to me, I really value those skills that come from other fields. So I guess my question to you, Ben, is does it alarm you that user experience seems to be getting more specialized, and honed, and tactical in some ways?
It hasn’t alarmed but what I think I can relate to in what you’ve said is the idea that somebody is going to go straight into a career in design without exposure to anything else. And when I talk about the concepts of the book to younger designers I get a very strong sense that there are deeper things they want to explore and learn about in design that jumping straight into UX from college is not going to give you. And that’s why I think there is some value in bringing these ideas together and in the book.
So I read your intro manifesto, which I enjoyed and I think is a good initial intro to this book idea, and you talk a little bit about … you have a story in there about Ghostbusters that I was hoping you’d share. Just because it’s funny. Could you tell us? And it relates back to your secret design skills so I thought it was fair game.
Absolutely. Yeah, I knew you were going to make me do this. So I started to think about the idea of performance and storytelling and what was my earliest memory about that? And why did I go down that path? And it was actually in a small primary school in South London. The music teacher would just let us kind of make up shows. There must have been, I don’t know, seven, eight or nine, I’m not exactly sure. And then we would come and make up stories and go and perform them in front of half of the school and one of my most enduring memories is that I was actually more interested in the music at the time and I was obsessed with the Ghostbusters soundtrack. Because I had it on cassette.
And I can remember just sticking it on and kind of dancing around in front of the school, and I probably didn’t care anything about the story, I just was being highly externally validated in that moment by dancing to Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters theme in front of my school. And that is my earliest performance memory and so it’s kind of funny.
Yeah. I can relate. Ghostbusters was a big movie for me as well. Dirk, I wonder, you’ve had exposure to a lot of different fields. In particular I’m thinking about all your work in designing board games and game design. I mean, you’ve done that for years and years, and have had a lot of success doing that, and have created some really wonderful games that listeners can check out at Artana Games. What is that? artana.com, I think. Dirk, could you tell me or tell us a little bit about how game design maybe influences you in the world of UX and software design, if you wouldn’t mind?
Sure. I mean, I haven’t done a lot of UX and software design since I started doing game design, right? So the reflective parts of that are less applied but I’ve learned a lot in game design. It’s such a different field than UX and software design and some of the lessons from game design, first, the one that has been most profound, for me, is an axiom that I call, “The friction is the game.” So in UX, particularly, 10 plus years ago when I was practicing and, typically, also in consumer contexts, where you have users who are impatient and looking to get what they want, like, friction is just a really bad thing. You wanted to just remove all friction at all costs and I developed that as a design bias of my own in that process. What I learned as I went into game design is it didn’t serve me well because I would go into the game and I would strip away all the things that made it a game, basically, in service of elegance and efficiency and these other things. And so what I’ve learned about game design is that I need to build in friction. I need to build in things that are superficially boring so that other things in the game can be exciting in contrast to the slowness and the boredom. There need to be normal points and then high points because if they’re all high points then, you know, if everything’s important nothing’s important, right?
So, for me, the most profound lesson that I’ve taken as a designer from game design is that notion of, “The friction is the game.” And, related to that, friction is not always bad and you need to look at the context. You need to look at what is being crafted to determine what that narrative and what that story is.
That’s really interesting. I would think there’s, especially, I hate to use the gamification buzzword, but I imagine that there’s lots of different kinds of overlap between the creation of the game mechanics, and games in general, and the way experiences are designed. Whether they’re software or services.
Yeah. Something that’s really interesting coming out of game design is the relationship of game design as a field to psychology and the fact that in game design they’re much more actively and productively using human behavior and human wiring to inform what is being created. I think of people like Amy Jo Kim and Nicole Lazzaro are two of the many who come quickly to the top of my mind of people who are really deep into that and influencing the field. It’s something that actually frustrated me when I was in UX and software design.
I mean, going back to the early 2000s, when I gave talks I talked about the importance of, that we had the ability to more intentionally design, manipulate is the wrong word, there’s a negative connotation there, but to certainly orient ourselves into how and why people behave the way that they do and, still to this day, I think in the software UX field that that’s not being done either much from an applied perspective but also from from a scholarly thought leadership perspective. I think it’s many years behind where game design is. There’s some cool stuff happening there.
Yeah. That’s pretty compelling. I mean, elements of psychology are becoming, especially when you’re thinking about behavior change, right, and thinks like digital health, which sort of take into account that area, those elements are particularly important and manipulation can be, especially if it’s a behavior that you want to stamp out, that can be a positive thing as well. So I think, at this point, maybe I’ll share a little bit about my background as a writer coming into the field of user experience. And I’ve noticed, of late, that writing as a design skill has become sort of celebrated. At least a little bit, I know that John Maeda mentioned in his design and tech report that writing was a key skill for designers, and it may be self evident but, for me, language and the construction of how you put together a piece is really quite relatable to the work that I may be doing as a user experience designer.
For instance, I mean, a lot of the information architecture exercises are, whether you’re grouping, doing affinity grouping, or sorting through items, are really language exercises at their core, and then understanding how people think about language and labels, and things like that. Additionally, there is some value, as well, for being able to put together a convincing argument. Ben, you talked about being able to present. I think I can do a good job with a proposal because I can write about why a design might be important. It’s not quite as compelling maybe as an in-person argument but the writing skills I’ve found, over time, have really supported me in my work in the design field and I’m heartened by the fact that there’s more attention being paid to that now.
In fact, it would be my recommendation that younger designers take a writing class, or an editing class, or something like that. Dirk, you’re a writer as well. I mean, I assume you’ve experienced some of the same things that I have in that capacity. Is that true?
Definitely. Yeah, and I think, Ben, you’re a writer as well. For sure. My undergraduate work was in English and my graduate work was in popular culture which, at the time, in my quick explanation of popular culture, was just like English but instead of reading Shakespeare we watched Seinfeld so I’m very well educated in writing too and it’s a natural tool for me and, for sure, getting into design as someone with a liberal arts background, writing was a key cornerstone for me and also in a lot of the other people who I’ve met who are from the early days of UX. I think it’s a lot of liberal arts. A lot of writing. You know, Ben, when we’re talking about these secret design skills, how do you view them sort of in the bigger picture? Is it each of us as designers have this sort of unique and interesting take, an anecdote, that is our secret design skill or are the secret design skills, in some sort of systemic way across all of us, communicating something bigger about design? What is your metanarrative around secret design skills?
So the book that I’m working on is kind of currently in its hypothesis stage.
The work that I’m doing at the moment is to interview lots of designers to try to discover what the metanarrative is and what other ones are the most common and the most valuable to bring those to other designers. But to answer your question, I think the metanarrative has to do with something that they do try to teach at art schools and design schools which is an ability to interrogate a subject in a deeper, dare I say it, more intellectual fashion, right? Because that’s the thing I share with you, Dirk, I did an English degree at a university in the UK and I have a natural ability to interrogate and sense the subtext, or the themes, or the metanarrative of a thing.
And when I read Medium articles or I look at the screen obsessed outputs that seem to happening in digital design I sort of worry that that deeper interrogation, or the tools to help people do that deeper interrogation, are being missed or people are going too quickly into a career and missing out some of that stuff. Whether it be how to tell a story, how to frame it through performance, how to improvise, or how to critique a subject so that you find something deeper in it which is what you’re mainly taught to do in literature.
And I think, on that note, part of my hypothesis about the book is to take some pretty fuzzy concepts that I’ve discovered with other designers but then if you’re at a stage in your career where you’re past going back to university, for example, is to try and make some of those secret design skills highly accessible and practical. Like, how would you apply the critical thinking that you would apply to literature to a subject matter you’re designing? Let’s say ordering a coffee, right? Something as mundane as that. How would you apply the kind of deeper thinking that I’m thinking about to something like that that you might be asked to design?
That’s cool. You mentioned that you’re just sort of sorting out the thesis as you’re doing these interviews, so I apologize if I’m jumping the gun with some of these questions, what is the distinction or are you drawing a distinction between skills that are sort of trained and learned versus things that, I don’t even know if skills is the right word but are more inherent? I didn’t think of this as a secret design skill but when I think to whatever degree I’m a good designer, what is my best and most important thing for that? And I think it’s, for me, it’s that I am sort of biologically wired to deep dive on everything and anything. When I get a problem I just consume it voraciously, and I hit it very hard, and I’m also good at sort of seeing the bigger system that it relates to. Which can lead to me to quickly get to good solutions. Not necessarily the best one but good ones that sort of accelerate the process.
So there’s a couple of questions in there. Is that sort of thing a secret design skill which is more of just biological wiring and or, I don’t know, I’m so interested in the concept I’m trying to figure out the boundaries around it.
Well, I can tell you a little bit about some of the things I’ve been exploring and I’m remaining open minded on your particular question around innate skills versus trained. I think that all of us have these innate biases. Things that we love to do and things that we love to move towards and I think that I would like to take some of those things which are actually biological in nature, I’ll talk about one in a moment, and kind of make of them highly practical and relatable. So one of the ones I’ve discovered recently is dyslexia. So we don’t frame dyslexia as any kind of skill in society but when you start understanding how it changes perception it’s actually a really, really useful lens as a designer and I’ll give you an example.
Dyslexia causes people to misinterpret things. So if they hear a word or a concept, or if they read a word or a concept, and then what the compensating factor that goes on for a lot of dyslexics is they will try to iterate and kind of find three or four other interpretations to find out what somebody really meant. And the example I was given by a dyslexic designer the other day was, they went to a presentation where somebody was talking about the concept of physical presence. So, you know, “I am physically present for someone.” And they were talking about mobile use or something, right? Like, where are you in the world? And this person misheard it as, “Presents.” Like, as in, Christmas presents.
And his brain went off on this whole meta creative journey around, “Well, what does it mean to give presents as a present?” And so this beautifully innate creative skill falls out of dyslexia which, of course, is treated in schools as though, “Well, you’re just a dreamer.” You know? “You’re just slow.” And hearing these stories is kind of heart wrenching because you realize that society has missed a deep trick around how we could generate ideas. Or to see things through different eyes.
And I’ve actually found some exercises which help designers do that. In fact, Chris Noessel, who we were with, Dirk and I, were on a retreat with in Norway, actually, teaches some of these ideas. Like, how you can very quickly take a concept and just explode it out into a wide generative space of ideas.
So there’s, and I don’t think I’ve answered your question, but I am exploring both innate and learned skills, yes.
Yeah. You have a phrase in your manifesto or intro statement about learning new ways of thinking, right? That being part of what makes secret design skills important, and I couldn’t agree more, I think that’s sort of a great way of putting it. And, for the longest time, I mean, my other obsession, maybe similar to yours, Ben, around music and I’ve spent an awful lot of time practicing at the piano, starting at a young age. And so I too sort of wonder about the things that I learned both playing in ensembles and solo piano, et cetera. How that may or may not affect how I think about designing things. Whether it’s taking things from music composition, or working in jazz trios, like how the human interactions there around improvisation, have had an affect on ways of thinking.
So I’m really going to be fascinated what things you dig up and especially if you’re going to be exploring secret design skills around the liberal arts and otherwise. When you’re interviewing folks, are you actively looking to talk to more designers right now? Or at what stage are you at in your research?
So I’m pretty early on. I’m very interested in talking to designers, particularly if they have ideas about what those skills are at the moment. Although the interviews are a process of kind of exploring what those things are. There’s been moments of self-discovery in interviews I’ve been doing so I’m very interested to hear from designers who have a story to tell and, particularly, when it comes to practical impact. Where you can identify moments of, like, “Oh, wow. This is my superpower. This is my magical thing that no one else in the room can bring.” I really love those moments of realization and if people have them then, yes, by all means, I’m open to hearing them.
Excellent. Well, Ben, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your thesis on secret design skills.
It’s been a great pleasure. I’m really glad to get the idea out there.
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If you want to follow me on Twitter I’m @dknemeyer, that’s D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening. Ben, how about you?
Yeah. So I’m @bensauer, S-A-U-E-R, on Twitter and I’d love to hear your story. Yeah, please get in touch if you have one.
Excellent. So that’s it for episode 267 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.