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August 23, 2016

Recap: Prototypes, Process & Play 2016

Erick Arias Design Director

The Tandem team had a chance to check out Prototype, Process, and Play last week. The conference took place at Columbia College and featured 16 speakers. Despite the name, the conference was mainly focused on design leadership. Topic include team building, company culture, ethics, and diversity. Here are just some of the things we learned.

Ashleigh Axios

Creative Director at The White House

The conferences started out with a delightfully funny talk by Ashleigh Axios about her time as Creative Director at the white house under Barack Obama. She told us stories about how design played a role at the white house and the lessons they learn over the years. It was interesting to hear about how they iterated on State of the Union experience, incorporating responsive design and social media year-by-year. It was also interesting to hear about some of the requirements, like accessibility, and the key role that played in decision making.

Adam Connor

Vice President of Organizational Design & Training, Mad*Pow

A little while later we heard a talk from Adam Connor. His talk resonated with me because he talked about understanding communication within an organization and the impact it has on individuals. An exercise he offered was the “Fish bowl exercise.” In this exercise, two participants converse in a room while being watched by a group of observers. Then they discuss how they felt the conversation appeared in terms of body language. I can’t lie, this seemed like a cool concept to me. May have to try it.

Key Takeaways:

  • “I should v. I’m supposed to,” helps us see the state of motivation.
  • Transtherorical States of Change: Pre-contemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance, Relapse.

Gail Swanson

Director of Strategy at 18F

Gail Swanson spoke about the “Designer in the Machine.” She focused on design leadership and the ideas of inclusion. The basic idea is that we should deliver ideas based on the audiences and that this would produce the best results. Often times delivering a message can be perceived as trying to prove someone wrong. The reason this idea persists, per Swanson, is because design is change and people feel defensive to change. She suggested we focus on seeing design as human centered change; herding people in a certain direction through a process of understanding, planning and action.

Key Takeaways:

  • Build upon the work of others – it’s easy to criticize, but you will find that there are very few people that want to be lazy. The battles are different than what shows up on the page.
  • Navigate Borders – Don’t ignore structural boundaries, but start with discussions with other groups. This helps break down barriers.

Randy Hunt

Creative Director at Etsy

Randy Hunt, Creative Director at Etsy, was the final speaker. He wrote Product Design for the Web, which is an excellent book if you haven’t checked it out. He, along with Shay Howe, discussed the importance of extending trust and vulnerability to your teammates in a fireside chat. He said that this allows teams to increase their collaborative maturity. He followed by saying that the most common way he has seen designers self-sabotage was because of ego and insecurity. These things close the door to collaboration. Stay away! At the end of the day, he emphasized, a good leader is not just about what you say, but what you ask. Great talk Randy!

Key Takeaways

  • There are two reasons an employee won’t do something, either they’re not capable or not motivated.
    Said sounds like it’s something said by a manager.
  • What’s the difference between hitting the ceiling or plateau in your career? Is there a way to move up or what is stopping you?
  • It’s not our job to design the best thing but to build a better business.
  • What are things design managers do wrong? That it’s all about design. The biggest leaps are when you change the organization by talking to executives. Getting from where you are to where you want to be.
  • How do you help a designer with too much ego? Communicating observations. Find a common goal.

Cennydd Bowles

Director of Strategy at 18F

Cennydd Bowles delivered a great talk about how and why companies make unethical decisions. He pointed to the fact that nothing we make is neutral. I understood this as that everything we create is in some intrinsic way biased, because it is shaped by our own experiences and beliefs. He then went on to list out what he thought were the root causes of unethical decisions by companies:

  • Lack of awareness
  • Workforce homogeneity
  • Toxic community culture
  • Toxic company culture
  • Scientism – applying scientific method to everything, blinded by the science.

He countered his list of indicators by explaining how companies can prevent this sort of behavior:

  • Have a code of ethics; it should voluntary and broad enough to keep up with change.
  • Have core values and design principles; they are ethical thinking in deep freeze.
  • Have channels for open feedback. People just want to be heard.

Key Takeaways:

  • Scientism reduces good principles into a method. Run from data driven decisions. Better to be data informed company.
  • Unethical organizations may have cultural red flags which could be: centralized and obscure authority, poor accountability, short-term results focus, undefined vision and values, low trust, and high aggression.
  • A company’s attitude to accessibility is a good litmus test for ethics.
  • It seemed like he pointed out negative things that minimize the humanity in an organization. For an organization to be ethical, it needs to take everyone into account, which leads to employees being happy. I thought it was a good assessment of how people become resources in a company.

Adam Cutler

Design Practice Director at IBM Design

Every conference has that one talk that leaves you wanting to get back to work, and for me that was Adam Cutler’s talk. Adam is the Design Practice Director at IBM Design. He gave us a look at how IBM design operates behind the idea that we are not our users. He gave examples of frameworks for iterating and how to spread the language of design through your company. F course he made everyone jealous with photos of IBM’s design space in Austin which was pretty much a designer’s Shangri-La. Basically, the place has been shaped-shifted and molded by the design team members to cater to them in a way they see fit. Looks like we have our work cut out for us over here at Tandem. Below are some of the frameworks used at IBM design found on there website.




Ian Swinson

Global Head of UX at Anaplan

Ian Swinson had some really good advice for navigating a career. Often times we don’t know what roles to take on in our organization. Measuring one’s role in an organization is massively important, he argued, adding that this one’s positioning in the company needed to be reviewed often. He presented an exercise in order to do just this. His framework broke down skills in three areas: core, personal, and team. A participant should rate themselves first, and then a manager would do the same. The gaps could then be discussed in an open and productive way. You could then take the results and create a chart illustrating where the skills and competencies of your team were, and then the methodology could be incorporated into the hiring process. Below are some slide from his presentation available on slideshare.




Key Takeaway

  • Why not treat careers like design projects?

Michael Lopp

VP of Engineering at Slack

The keynote for the event was Michael Lopp. He is the VP of engineering at Slack. His talk started out about how as consumers of so much content out there, that we should also contribute. He said that he started writing about 10 years ago after some resistance, but has since published 2 books. He called out the common fears of writing and basically called it irrational. He said, don’t argue with fear, just step around it.

The reasons to write he argued were that writing teaches you how to structure your thoughts, build an opinion, build an informed and defensible opinions. calms you down. To start the process, begin with the least resistance and remember, there is no right way to write. Right on Michael! Thanks for the nudge in the right direction.

Key Takeaways

  • Your career is the one project you exclusively own, make it great!
  • The writer’s nemesis: Where do I start? Am I doing this right? This is just awful. …step around
  • Find a say the hard thing editor, make a habit, hit publish, set audacious goals.

The Chicago Camps team really put on a great conference this year. We were really glad to be there. It was definitely a great learning experience. Looking forward to the next event!

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