TextSniper is a godsend for cutting and pasting text via OCR, because sometimes cutting and pasting text from a video / website / app / photo isn’t possible or straightforward. So instead of CTRL-C for “cut”, TextSniper allows you use a different hotkey to capture text via Optical Character Recognition (OCR).
I’m trying to kick myself back into writing again, after a drought of not writing for a full year.
It’s not that I haven’t written anything whatsoever for a whole year, but just not exercising this type of longer form writing.
This poses an interesting question: where has all my writing gone for a whole year?
Well, 2022 was a pretty intellectually and educationally intense. So a lot of my writing went into notes, learning and teaching materials.
Last year in May, I signed up to co-teach alongside Mary Wharmby her Change Management Through Design course at CIID, which was a pretty heavy 3 weeks despite taking up only a few hours each day rather that 3 full-day weeks. A lot of writing went into the prep, emails, course materials and communicating with students.
Then in July, I signed up for Fritjof Capra’s Fall course on the “Systems View of Life”, a course on systems applied to all living things. This was intellectually and existentially challenging (the scope is humanity and our place and role in Gaian ecosystems). The course lasted 12 weeks, but I persisted even further through very rich and active study groups, and have extended my engagement with the course and fellow study group attendees for the Spring 2023 term. I took tons of notes from the course and study groups.
Then, that wasn’t enough because I discovered a free, also fairly intense (perhaps too academically intense), systems thinking MOOC course taught by ETH Zurich, I couldn’t help myself and my FOMO won over. Because the content was expiring, I spent hours trying to capture as much material as I could.
Then, in addition to that, I signed up for Joe MacLeod’s Endineering course early this year, on ways to understand and intentionally tackle the characteristically ignored aspect of consumer experiences at the end of product and service lifecycles. It felt like a natural yet practical extension of the Capra Course learnings (re: topics on sustainability and environments). Again, more capturing, more notes.
I think I’m ready to admit this is getting to be some kind of “learning” addiction.
But to the point of this post, I think this accounts for where a lot of my writing has gone to — taking copious notes and content from all these various courses. And to be fair – copy-pasting content from courses doesn’t count as writing.
Then, there’s work-related writing — Slack messages, powerpoint slides, Miro boards, Confluence pages, documents, emails. Writing that gives work substance, a voice and a presence, so colleagues can use it, engage with it and relate to it. There is a whole year’s worth of that.
Then there’s domestic life writing — e.g. Evernote or Notion pages for shopping comparisons, task management and productivity work, DIY and home improvement work, travel and holiday preparations, and hobby-related writing.
And the rest is social media, messages, personal emails… general communication.
At the end of the workday, I’m completely exhausted and all I feel like doing is stare at a wall. But I often have to go downstairs and cook dinner for the family.
I have a heuristic that pops into my head quite often, that it’s a muscle and not a means. I use it because I actually really suck at the muscle thing. Things like exercising, going for a walk,… but also, writing longer form, reflective, content.
I need to give myself some more pragmatic, lower effort ways to build that muscle. I might try with weeknotes, and see where I go from there.
Principal designers navigate unconventional career paths as they grow. What can we learn from these messy paths to navigate transitions?
This is my contribution to the Designed Transitions publication, featuring perspectives on transitions, design, leadership, careers, and coaching. Big thanks to my friend, Jason Mesut, for starting this initiative and letting me share.
My 20 year career has taken me from software development to UX, and now into areas like strategic / service / systemic design though they’re still a bit fuzzy to me. I’ve line-managed others but felt it wasn’t my calling, so I chose to be an individual contributor (IC), spending more time tackling messy problems. Some organisations support IC role tracks, and I’m currently a senior principal designer on my organisation’s IC track.
What is a principal designer?
The principal designer role means different things depending on who you ask. Often, it’s a role for a higher-level of seniority, experience, expertise, and responsibility where most of the work is non-managerial. It can be applied to specialists as well as generalists. I’ve also seen founders of small design companies call themselves principals.
Some principals take on line-management responsibilities, though it’s uncommon to have principals dedicated to it otherwise the roles would carry labels like “lead”, “head”, “manager” or “director”.
Principal designers are diverse in their skills and focus areas. There isn’t a simple explanation of how designers should “become” a principal apart from taking on more responsibility. For my work, I’ve ventured into adjacent spaces like product management, systems thinking, service design, strategy, and organisational change, as a way to deal with bigger challenges. But it might not be the same for others.
For me, transitioning as a principal designer has been rewarding but not easy, straightforward, or linear. I’ve learned a lot, but I don’t feel I’ve arrived. I keep discovering new horizons, I’m still transitioning and learning. And since learning never ends, the challenge is how to build it into the day-to-day work, into the spaces I work in, the people I work with, and into our shared solutions.
What has stuck with me so far? Here are 4 things I’ll share.
Nurturing and maturing specific points of view — Principal designers transition from designing for experiences and towards shaping and clarifying why and what makes a difference.
Experimenting and evolving our design approaches—Principal designers transition between a skills-and-making approach to a critical perspectives approach.
Not doing it alone and making the work social—Principal designers add value to others’ work through design, not to design things for them.
Embracing, supporting and growing the whole self and others—Principal designers navigate a change in themselves because of the change in their work.
I don’t know if these apply to all principal designers, but I hope they’re useful for those whose paths don’t quite fit the conventional craft or leadership ladder.
Nurturing and maturing our specific points of view
Principal designers transition from designing for experiences and towards shaping and clarifying why and what makes a difference.
This transition is about developing relevant points of view to navigate problem spaces that designers can help facilitate and shape.
At increasing levels of complexity and seniority, all sorts of things get scrutinised by people around us, so it’s worth knowing and developing points of view on:
why some things are worth scrutinising over others,
why some things are the way they are, and
why some things should change.
After awhile, it will feel insufficient to make a difference through design alone while closing an eye to things like strategy, operations, organisations, technology, and other things that also make a difference. This of course requires learning from other domains, but critical thinking is also needed to make sense of it all together.
5 years ago when I led the design work for a large CMS transformation project, the work of designing the experience of the several hundred sites also needed to factor in how administrators of those sites needed to support the sites, how our developers wanted to build the system, how our proposed content and CMS approach improved the strategies of different businesses, as well as taking on board the design team’s approach and abilities. I remember how difficult that transition was, to relate these different points of views together in helping to navigate and shape our design solutions together with everyone.
While it still isn’t easy today, I put much more emphasis on understanding and collaborating on everyone’s different points of view than purely on the design alone.
The story above relates to internal points of view, but external points of view are also needed to support outside-in perspectives. Courses, conferences, books—these are necessary but not enough. Not everything can be easily applied. For me, applying systems thinking, service design, strategy or organisational change still requires trial-and-error, adaptation and experimentation, with much going back and forth and across things. Even new knowledge has to be scrutinised—what works in one place might not apply to another.
I think it helps to relate, rather than apply, things back to the work we’re doing, not forcing or overdoing things and allowing solutions and insights to emerge rather than dictate outcomes, this will help us and others maintain sanity.
Navigating this transition has helped me tackle more complex issues, with more collaboration, and so on. It also helped me address fundamental issues designers have about getting a “seat at the table” —I think much of this comes down to understanding and navigating points of view. Post-transition, design can sometimes feel like an echo chamber, to which Dave Gray’s work on liminal thinking (below) can help illuminate.
Experimenting and evolving our design approaches
Principal designers transition between a skills-and-making approach to a critical perspectives approach.
Skills-and-making refers to the iterative learn-make approach we’re used to as designers. It’s how we apply craft to our chosen mediums towards design outcomes.
Critical perspectives just means questioning, learning, seeing, and articulating why different points of views make sense. This includes questioning design itself.
Developing critical perspectives is a byproduct of working at the limits or edges of our design work in its interaction with everything else.
For example, when we’re so used to designing for digital-only use cases, we find it hard to factor non-digital contexts into our designs. Or, when we’re only used to designing for single users, and we find it challenging to design solutions that involve interactions between multiple user types. Or, when we’re designing for service journeys which are somewhat sequential in nature, and we find it hard to design for ecosystems, networks or systems with feedback loops.
It’s challenging to learn outside our comfort zones if we pay attention to design through a specific lens (e.g. digital product design). Operating within a specific lens of design offers security and comfort, because it feels more accessible to level up our work, but there are trade-offs.
On one hand, new knowledge developed for designers is becoming increasingly available (e.g. design ethics, product management for UX), but sometimes this removes useful detail, substantiation, and context when “translated” from its source references.
On the other, learning directly from other domains and communities can feel alienating, technical, elitist, bureaucratic, argumentative or academic — think of books, theories, explanations, experts that don’t agree with each other, etc.
Developing critical perspectives is a byproduct of working at the limits or edges of our design work in its interaction with everything else.
I think there is a healthy middle ground that helps us build bridges between those gaps, by using our design skills to make sense of complicated things through making, experimentation, iteration, learning, and trusting our design intuition and approaches to encourage solutions to emerge. This isn’t about objecting to the new knowledge that feels inaccessible, but about engaging with it in different ways, with the same intentionality, care and understanding.
Eventually, this actually turns into a good thing, something design can offer back to other knowledge domains. Where our skills-and-making approach can blend and add value to critical perspectives.
An example of this is the lives and work of Charles and Ray Eames, who demonstrated a unrestrained design philosophy through their lives and work by approaching new things with a broad scope and a learning-by-doing approach. I think the video below by architect Eric Reinholdt explains this in a really nice way.
Not doing it alone and making the work social
Principal designers add value to others’ work through design, not to design things for them.
This is another kind of transition, but one that also relates to the craft itself.
The term “individual contributor” is ironic. There’s nothing individual about the work that principal designers do, especially if it requires more collaboration, facilitation, learning about people and their work, and supporting them.
Another thought is principal designers doing the work of “silo busting”, but this overlooks our natural tendencies as humans to work in sufficiently stable networks (“natural” silos), and we should to be mindful that our design solutions can upset the livelihoods of other colleagues and people.
So, when new paradigms are being introduced and shaped through design work, e.g. changing an organisation’s transactional approach to services to a relational one, there’s a lot of thinking and operating on behalf of other people who need to execute on the work. This is also part of the work, alongside learning and designing, mentioned previously. All these things go together.
So, the idea of a single individual contributor’s job going around and making change happen isn’t realistic nor practical. Instead, there is a lot of designing with groups of people, for groups of people, and in groups of people.
Making the work social involves getting along with everyone else’s way of working. For example, I’ve learnt the hard way not to impose new learnings and approaches without due diligence – on one hand, colleagues say that I’ve introduced valuable perspectives to our work, but also that some people don’t find my perspectives easy to understand.
I once had a panic attack when my line manager once said “I don’t know what you’re doing” at a time when I was trying hard by myself to understand a new part of the business I had transitioned into while also learning new things in order to learn about the business, but I also realised I needed to help others understand what I was doing, particularly those I needed to have close alignment with.
So, new perspectives and learnings are important, but it needs to be worked on as a social activity — i.e. where people are involved and contributing. If people are feeling excluded or isolated because of new learnings, then it’s not very social.
Embracing, supporting and growing the whole self and others
Principal designers navigate a change in themselves because of the change in their work.
This is a funny transition because it’s both personal and professional, and it isn’t always easy to separate professional and personal perspectives.
Design is a job that involves a “whole” person approach—empathy, intentionality, craft, people, systems—all the things that makes work-life hard to compartmentalise—our full selves become more entangled with our professional selves.
In my work, it helps to care about what I do. It improves the quality of my work and collaborations. But in order to care, I also risk bringing my whole self into my work. My authenticity, vulnerability, energy, motivation and so on. And because I collaborate with a lot of people, how I show up and how consistent that is to others also reflects on our collective work as a wider group. It’s important to keep things in balance, but it feels like that adds another layer of complexity, so maybe my approach to dealing with this balance is to approach things holistically.
Taking things holistically, rather than one aspect at a time, helps me navigate work that is often more situational and unpredictable. At the same time, having a set of healthy foundations in life (e.g. habits, friends, commitments, agreements between my colleagues) helps me navigate the ups and downs of change and growth. A holistic, humane approach will also be helpful in collaborations as transitions can often be things that groups navigate together.
Transitions across new areas can get quite lonely because it’s harder to connect with others as they might not understand what we’re going through and how we feel, sometimes even with my fellow design peers I’ve known with over the years. Discussing my struggles with other advanced practitioners in various community spaces has helped a bit, though.
When transitioning to new spaces, it helps to find new, often different support networks. Communities of people who might not be designers but operate in adjacent spaces (e.g. systems thinking communities for me), peers who have trodden similar messy paths in their career, other professionals who are of a similar experience level, different mentors, etc. I see this as a natural byproduct, and it’s healthy to seek out new connections with others who share similar experiences and struggles.
The four perspectives came out of a realisation that at increasing levels of seniority and responsibility, the career transitions become more about shifting into different gears—i.e. different points of view, different problem spaces, collaborating differently, changing ourselves. Our work as designers can evolve and be radically changed as a result of these transitions.
Meanwhile, we remain simple human beings—we cannot clone ourselves, we don’t want to suffer a clash of conflicting identities, we have to work with more people, and we also don’t want undesirable design solutions—much of which is not always in our control. One way forward as seeing growth and transitions as part of working with other people.
I say this about transitioning as a principal designer because perhaps, our growth paths are far more a function of our environments and relationships with it than it is a career plan, hence it is a bit messy and it means having to go with the flow a bit and a bit of risk taking too.
As a passing thought — as to what we call ourselves, I think we get to call ourselves whatever we want when we feel the time is right, because only we would know how it speaks to the work we do that makes us special. 🙂
Thanks to Sam Yuen, Laura Dantonio, Jason Mesut, Tomomi Sasaki, Lori Ho, and Seb Wachholz for their feedback.
originally published here on Medium: https://medium.com/designed-transitions/transitioning-as-a-principal-designer-4791b7c1e965
I was part of the first cohort when Mary and Grace Ascuasiati kickstarted it years ago and I’ve have hugely benefitted from it since that time.
And since then the course has evolved to include a blend of perspectives from strategy, systems thinking and strategic design… without losing focus on what’s important: people.
I feel fortunate to be invited to teach alongside Mary and we are both now working hard to update parts of the course to make it more even relevant for change practitioners to tackle complex, ambiguous and continually changing nature of change within organisations through design.
If this the sort of work you are tackling and this is up your street, we hope you can join us.
I also want to extend thanks to Mary, Grace and all of the contributing partners alongside CIID who have made the course what it is today. And thanks for allowing me to be part of its continuing journey!
We got a free 3 month access to Apple Arcade and I’ve so far enjoyed Sayonara Wild Hearts and Lego’s Builder’s Journey – which has had a special appeal to me since I enjoyed both Monument Valley 1 and 2.
You play a lego character and solve puzzles on each isometric level. There’s a bit of a narrative going on, but in the end, that’s pretty much it. The music really suits the tempo of the game too.
I’m in the process of finishing up some reflections from a FutureLearn course I took on service design… watch out for an update on that. And it’s going to be published in conjunction with the Service Design Advent Calendar organised by Jason Mesut and Niclas Ljungberg — see the first post from Andy Polaine which has gone out just today!
Interestingly, I’ve also contributed to a few other things in the last few months which I can’t quite announce yet but I’m really excited to see when it launches… touching on some topics like sketchnotes and Roam, which I wrote about recently. Watch this space.
All this seems to have cropped up quite suddenly towards the end of the year. Maybe it’s a sign that the COVID season seems to be moving past a phase-of-sorts. It’s refreshing and prompting me to unpick at my dusty list of side-project ideas waiting for attention. If not for my love for energy conservation…
It’s been 2 years since I started improving up my home office setup to aid productivity and ergonomics. Just before the lockdown happened, I had decided to work from home more often. I was working with colleagues who were based in the US or Europe, so being in the office wasn’t really necessary. But when COVID hit, work from home wasn’t optional anymore.
I started out with a not-too-large 120 x 60 cm IKEA table top and popped it on a height adjustable table frame, then added a decent monitor – the LG 27UL650, a felt table mat. And for awhile, I worked directly off my macbook and the attached external monitor, and after my wife started upgrading her setup to function more ergonomically, I started getting ideas.
I had a spare anglepoise arm lamp which I propped up onto a TEE bookshelf which I had lying around. That gave me enough working light in my otherwise dim north-facing British box room. I also installed a magnetic whiteboard, although I admit it’s not got much use since I capture most of my things on software these days. For some reason, I still like having it next to me.
Then I decided to move to a separate mouse-and-keyboard setup, and added a Logitech K380 keyboard and a spare Apple Magic Mouse I had lying around.
Despite the anglepoise lamp next to me, I found myself really struggling with the lighting situation. I was really tired looking at screens the whole day, and I was looking for solutions. After awhile, I found the BENQ screenbar plus, which I’d never thought of before but after some research and consideration, took the plunge and now I can’t live without it. It’s made such a huge difference making my environment conducive for the work hours.
Later, I switched from a magic mouse to a trackpad, which was also a big ergonomic upgrade for me.
I also added a few small creature comforts over time. During the summmer months when it got quite warm and sweaty, I bought a little clamp USB fan which was good enough to cool me down or help the air move a little bit. Then I recently bought a cheapy desk clock and a magnetic alarm to help me not get too sucked into the screen and countless app and browser windows.
But I think I’ve crossed a line now — I’ve just bought a podcast USB microphone (the Fifine K390). I’ve yet to really use it for recordings and demos, which was the main reason I bought it. It feels like a luxury purchase, but I suppose remote calls are not going to go away anytime soon.
I’ve been comfortably working from home since lockdown started since I’ve never really needed to be in the office. My colleagues are based in different parts of the world, commuting sucks up too much time, and I’m more productive at home.
Friday actually started out with as a plan to meet a friend up in the city at the closest major station to me, which wouldn’t require me to go all the way to the centre. Then, Virgin Media alerted me of possible broadband disruptions. Then, my colleague Phyllis was going to bake muffins. And I just happened to need 2 simultaneous witnesses to help sign some documents so 3 of my London-based colleagues would fit the bill. So the office gods were putting the pressure that day and that’s how I ended up in the office.
I had a lot of fun! I wasn’t very productive, but it was really good seeing everyone… chatting over muffins, doing team lunch, running design huddles around a screen, jumping into a room with a big whiteboard… stuff you typically don’t do at home. I did one zoom call, that was about it. And some slides. It was a good call for an important piece of work I’m leading. But it didn’t need me in the office for that.
I could see myself doing the odd one-day-a-month thing. I’d probably want to maximise my office time for group-related stuff. I wouldn’t do office for office sake. This is all the typical stuff you see everywhere, I’m just really late to the game.
I like the flexibility. I like the productivity. I also like meeting people. I like having options. It makes a lot of sense, and only nonsense if you’ve been trapped in a bubble the whole time and woken up from a time machine after years of cryogenic sleep.
This made me think a bit about climate change. The reason why we’re having so much trouble with that is that we don’t really feel climate change like you do COVID infections. And it’s likely that many of us in privileged positions won’t feel obligated or motivated to change for the climate at a visceral level. It simply doesn’t affect us at that level.
It affects our conscience and morals, sure. But that’s not the same as experiencing death from climate change which few of us suffer from. So, I wonder if the only way is start with what we do struggle with (moral, conscience) and gradually force ourselves to suffer by changing and letting go parts of our “old” lives….. getting rid of the car, replacing the boiler, paying more money to install solar panels, installing water and heating limiting devices, travelling less…
Maybe the problem is that we’ve been framing change as a motivation-oriented thing (e.g. obligation to do our bit). Maybe, somewhat counter-intuitively, we need to frame it as a phased mourning which doesn’t kill us but lets us pragmatically accept that we have no way but to let go of the past, and one step at a time, adjust over to a different way of living…. and in that process, find ways of dealing with those negative emotions over time.
A forced mourning that lines up with the time cadence of the planet’s change rate, which works to a different beat to our daily cycles. A forcing of lost hope so that we can let go of whatever things we’ve been clinging on to, hoping for an easy way to transition out.
I think we severely lack coping mechanisms. Everyone is hoping for a nice, smooth transition to a future, more sustainable life. All of us are scared to let go. I’m scared to let go.
Maybe this is what’s missing – a space for dialogue about coping, mourning together, accepting that the loss is real even if we don’t feel the climate effects, and somehow cobbling together a new life bit by bit… accepting that not everything has been worked out yet, but pressing on anyway.
Maybe we can start by finding ourselves… the mourners. The copers. The ones at neither ends of extremes.
I don’t do well with mindfulness apps. Actually, I don’t do very well with mindfulness exercises. I’ve learnt it, I’ve done it, I think it’s good, and I’ve benefit from them. I just can’t get into the habit of doing it.
So instead, I’ve replaced it with Duolingo. It’s not the same thing, mindfulness and learning a new language… but it helps me keep my mind off things and distracts me in a way that gives me nourishment.
I started using it heavily back when I was travelling to France and French-speaking Canada and I wanted to learn some basic French. Then I lost the habit, but the nice thing about having Duolingo is that you can pick up from where you left sort of.
It’s ironic that I find Headspace quite competitive and stressful (be mindful! now! breathe! 30 seconds! relax! now!) which is not what it’s supposed to be. I find thinking about Headspace more stressful than thinking about Duolingo.
However, there’s one app I absolutely love, which is great for mental health and requires very low intervention. It’s from Action For Happiness, who do monthly calendars and has an app that sends you daily advice from their calendars, but the app is also used for people to share encouragement and reflections with one another around each day’s advice. Every day I get the day’s piece of advice and each time I read it, I do feel better about life and so on.
No clicking. No breathing. No timers.
It’s simple, it works, and it’s free!
I like free things that work well. The world should have more of these things.