Why stepping out of design is the best thing you can do for it
Focused effort is a fallacy
Oftentimes, we push forth the value of focused effort in one area. People are encouraged to become passionate and specialized in one field, instead of dabbling too much. For example, if you’re a designer, you’re encouraged soak up all of the design-related knowledge in your field. Keep going to design conferences, talk about design, get mentored by designers. Most people visualize this career ladder that they can ascend.
“Jack of all trades, but master of none.”
Quotes like the one above reinforce the danger of dabbling.
However, what if this approach isn’t actually the one that makes you the best designer or leader you can be? What if too much focused effort in one area actually limits your breadth?
What if dabbling in seemingly unrelated fields can actually give you some of the best ideas?
The “unrelated” can shape your future
Legendary Steve Jobs created the idea of choosing your own typeface by hanging around the campus of Reed College. He audited the occasional class (after dropping out). One of those classes was calligraphy, and it was taught by a Trappist monk named Robert Palladino. This is where Steve Jobs got the idea for different typefaces years later.
This small decision is what shaped the creation of your beloved Papyrus, and Wingdings. Yes, it was unrelated to the field of technology. It was unrelated to any course on entrepreneurship or group dynamics or hardware design, which is what would have impacted Jobs’ future career path.
Years later, in his commencement speech to Stanford in 2005, Jobs encompasses why it is important to step out of the “tunnel vision” approach:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
Oftentimes, we’re so focused on the end goal of a “great design,” that we may lose sight of some valuable detours in the middle that could change our designs or creations for the better.
Competitive analyses and understanding the design trends in the industry are certainly important parts of the design process, but there are countless ideas in the world we can take from other, seemingly unrelated sources.
Nature inspires more efficient designs
Biomimicry is defined as “the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes.” By basing designs off of biological entities and processes, there are have been monumental gains in efficiency and output.
Take the example of the mighty leaf. Leaves might not seem like the best inspiration point for building a bridge, but if you think about it, they are often at the mercy of windy, rainy, and other adverse weather conditions. Yet, they remain intact.
Wanda Lewis of University of Warwick’s School of Engineering used the process of form-finding to create a bridge design that needs minimal maintenance or repairs, all based on the arrangement of leaves.
People like Lewis had to take the time to connect those dots and see a relation between the seemingly disparate fields of nature and design. One such important figure in history who connected these dots is Leonardo da Vinci.
Da Vinci as an artist and scientist
Leonardo da Vinci is an artist. You may have heard of him.
However, what many do not know is he was not just an artist. Da Vinci spent years studying geometry, flight patterns, and anatomy. He would go as far as pick apart the human body from the inside out.
You might be wondering, isn’t a painter supposed to be in a cabin in the woods with a paintbrush in resting in his mouth? What is a painter doing picking apart human guts?
The art historian EH Gombrich argues that da Vinci did not take up these different areas of learning to take on different roles than a painter, but rather to “elevate its position.”
Da Vinci began his career under Andrea del Verrocchio where he studied metalwork, the human form, plants and animals, optics, perspective, etc.
Why did he interest himself in seemingly unrelated fields? Perhaps because these learnings improved his art. By understanding human anatomy, geometry and perspective, da Vinci was able to draw accurate figures in 3D space. In history, this sort of accuracy and closeness to reality’s proportions had never been achieved.
Thus, it seems those who have made great strides in their realm have actually stepped outside of their discipline.
Modern examples of dabbling
When I look around in the cutting edge designs being released, I see more and more blending of disciplines and ideas.
One of the designs I recently found the most joy in was playing with the Apple watch’s kaleidoscope interface.
When you turn the knob, the pattern behaves like a real kaleidoscope. There’s this moment of thrill and joy a user gets from doing this. Why is this such an important design choice?
Rather than simply trying to emulate the satisfaction of an analog watch’s weighted, ticking hands — which would more than likely be unsuccessful — Apple used the digital interface to its advantage by introducing an element of joy that relates to the turn of the knob.
In order to think of this, though, the designer had to have used a kaleidoscope and known what it was. This idea could have come from a childhood experience, an old antique shop…we don’t know. However, I guarantee it did not come from reading a book like How To Be A Better Designer. It came from experiencing a world outside of technology.
Let’s explore beyond our field
Ironically, our greatest roles as designers seems to be not to dive deeper into technology, but do our best to make sure we’re seeing what lies beyond it first, so we can take elements from the world and incorporate them into delightful designs.
Dabbling may sometimes be frowned upon, as people crave focus in a world of distraction. However, perhaps dabbling can be one of the best things we can do for joyful, efficient design.
As Sheryl Sandberg once said, “Successful careers are not ladders. They are jungle gyms.”