Designing A Beautiful Life

By Liz Massey, October 2017 Issue.

Each October, I make an extra effort to tie this column to a creativity-related topic for Echo’s arts season preview. Over the years, I’ve written about things like artistic burnout, lessons learned during the five years that I published a blog on the creative process, and even the relationship between LGBTQ people and the “Maker” movement.

If I see creativity everywhere in my life, it may have to do with how I was raised. My parents immersed their three children in an environment where there were opportunities to draw, craft, make music, dance and act around every corner. Some of the strongest memories I have as a small child are sitting around the piano with my family and singing folk songs together.

My mother, in particular, has always had a talent for using whatever resources were available to her to create the environment she wanted for herself and her family. Sometimes, those solutions were eye-catching and magnificent; at other times, they were more humble looking, but they reinforced for me the importance of approaching difficult situations as design challenges, rather than a series of punishments.

It may well have been my familial influence, then, that led me to feel intrigued when I recently read the book “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The authors, who are on the faculty of Stanford University’s design program, use the discipline of design thinking to help readers create vocational and personal lives that are satisfying and well-functioning. Their method goes beyond rigid pre-planning or bouncing around from one symptom-relief tactic to another. As they say in their introduction, “Designers don’t think their way forward. Designers build their way forward.”

Those two sentences provide a good working definition of design thinking. Tim Brown, CEO of the design consulting firm IDEO, has written that “design thinking bridges the knowing-doing gap,” and I can’t think of a place where that gap is more poignant and painful than when it comes to figuring how to lead one’s life, including how we conduct our relationships, how we serve our community, and how we advocate for justice for LGBTQ and all marginalized peoples.

Rather than trying to impose excessive amounts of order on the messy chaos that can comprise our lives, design thinkers work with what they have, and keep tweaking until they arrive at the best possible solution. There are a few steps in the design thinking process that are important to follow as a would-be “artist of life.” Burnett, Evans and Brown provide some guidelines for how to think like a designer when crafting a more satisfying existence.

1. Discover

Something triggers us to think about a life situation or challenge. Using empathy to explore how this problem impacts everyone in the picture (including us), we can collect a variety of data, so we have plenty of unbiased information to take with us into the next stage.

2. Define

Once we have gathered enough “field notes” about our situation, we can begin to shape a hypothesis about what successful resolution might look like. Real-life designers often draft a “creative brief” at this stage, a document that articulates the challenge placed before them, what they know about the parameters of the challenge and their best guess of how to provide a solution.

3. Develop

This stage is where the knowing-doing gap gets filled in. The viability of possible solutions that were explored in the Define stage are tested with hands-on, low-fidelity prototypes, which are rough approximations of how a solution might work. Corporate trainer Andy Eklund writes that making prototypes forces a problem-solver to think visually, saying that “by using your hands, you have a better sense intuitively if your ideas are right or wrong, and how to improve [them].”

4. Deliver

Once we’ve crafted crude mock-ups of our solutions, we get to test them out, always with the idea that if they crash and burn, we can learn from their glorious failures and try again with a new and improved version. Design thinkers advocate for pilot programs and limited-run editions of solutions, so that the “beta version” of these answers is constantly reinforced.

Eventually, using such a template, we may well come to the point where we’ve designed a life that we could never have planned or purchased into existence. And we may very well want to encourage others to do the same.

As Brown puts it, “We can learn how to take joy in the things we create. We can work within the constraints of our own natures — and still be agile, build capabilities, iterate … Think of today as a prototype. What would you change?”

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