Advice to Design Students II: Design With Your Whole Body

Design with your whole body

Design with your whole body

The need for creative problem solving is abundantly evident. Without diving into specifics, it’s clear that most systems and institutions in our country need to be reformed. More often than not, though, age-old problems are tackled with age-old solutions. Ever heard the definition of insanity? It’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As a teacher, I am grateful to play a role in preparing design students to tackle problems differently, today and in the future. I'm noticing that the biggest hindrance to that kind of creativity is an inability to design with the whole body: the head, the heart, and the gut. I know this well because I'm not so good at it either.

Here's my basic understanding of each of the parts and what it means to design from each.

The head is for thinking.

Thinking is about analyzing problems and imagining possibilities. But, as Teju Cole shared with graduating students of Harvard Graduate School of Design, “Design is not an intellectual exercise.” Beyond our brains, there are bodies, people who experience our designs. Connecting to the "end user," also known as other humans, requires more than your brain. Beyond that, thinking can lead to overthinking, which doesn't lead to effective design—and it often stifles the work entirely.

Design is not an intellectual exercise.
— Teju Cole

The heart is for passion.

Passion fuels our creativity. It's essential, but I see designers, myself included, who are afraid to let their hearts guide their work. I think it's because we're scared to get hurt. We temper our passion so that when we fail, it doesn't sting so much. Yet the world’s most significant problems need our hearts if they are ever going to be solved—and even less significant problems need passion to find the best solutions. Our hearts will be broken, we will be broken, but we will get back up even stronger for it. A mentor of mine says that good design is like Rocky Balboa: the more you beat it up, the stronger it gets. Rocky had heart. His opponents—who were often more substantial, stronger, and smarter—didn't. Let your heart hurt for something and design a solution from that place.

Good design is like Rocky Balboa, the more you beat it up, the stronger it gets.

The gut is for making.

Without the gut, what’s in our hearts and minds will never be manifested. Frequently, it may seem that the parts are not in sync. Maybe your brain is blurry and your heart feels numb, but your gut is alive (or perhaps all knotted up). Sometimes to design is simply to express that weird feeling in your stomach and see what shows up. There's this story of a pottery class that was split into two sections. One section made as many pots as possible. The other focused on creating the perfect piece. No surprise, the best pots came from the first group who didn’t concentrate on perfection. They let go and left room for serendipity. They likely forgot the six-step design process, perhaps even the end user, and made as much work as possible. Afterward it still took a brain and a heart to discern the “perfect” pot. Too often in design schools and work, the emphasis is on analyzing first, then making, but this exercise shows the value of flipping the order.

The best design happens when you don’t concentrate on perfection.

Combining all of the parts into your process is a great challenge. If you can do them all at once, great; you’re gifted. But for most of us, it’s helpful to create space for each throughout a project. I spend a lot of time in the beginning connecting to the heart of a project. If my heart’s not in it, then I’m not in it. That often requires spending time with the client and their stakeholders to understand why the project matters to them. I love this part of the work and would opt to stay there forever if possible. But all that heart needs a plan if it’s actually going to have an impact (or execute). That’s where the brain comes into play through additional research and strategy development. All of which builds momentum and intention to create art and copy. It’s not that I don’t write or design prior, but at this point my gut has a sense of the objectives and what will or won’t work to meet the project targets.

It’s never that neat or linear though. There’s no such thing as a perfect creative process. Design is messy and scary and so are the world’s problems. When in doubt, it's easy stick to our comfort zones. But what the systems and institutions in our country need is our whole bodies. That whole-self investment is the only way to create change.

Take some baby steps. Experiment. Give yourself space to think about a strategy for execution (head). Spend time considering a cause you are passionate about and connect it to your practice (heart). Step away from the computer (or turn off your wi-fi) for a few minutes and draw without erasing (gut). Lastly, share what you learn. We need to encourage one another in this pursuit.