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When Did You First Realize You Were a Designer?

“When did you first realize you were a designer?”

Earlier on this Tuesday night, several friends in the Chicago area got together for pizza and wine and beer (maybe some whiskey, too) and sat around a table at the Coop and we bounced this question around the table. We each sketched a picture to describe our personal “a ha” moment and then we shared it with the group. There were twelve of us hanging out, each with interesting stories to tell.

Sketch by Sami Nerenberg

Sketch by @saminerenberg

For some of us, being a designer is an easy way of describing the myriad of things we do or have done — how would you describe a jack-of-all-trades who solves increasingly complex problems with continuously adaptive approaches and a specific aesthetic sense (or intention)?

I think when you find yourself spending more and more time on asking better questions rather than acting on someone’s answers, you may be growing into the role of a designer.

A challenge one might present to the Instructional Design community of late is that, in practice, there’s little focus on design. There’s adherence to a model that has the word design in it… but I will argue that if you can only brandish one tool, leverage only one way of solving a problem, you’re not really designing: you’re filling in blanks.

A different "TK Chat" at ASTD TechKnowledge 2012 with myself, @opensesame, @JaneBozarth and @LnDDave

At ASTD TechKnowledge last week, there was a “TK Chat” (a panel discussion) about authoring tools and HTML 5. There are a variety of new authoring tools for digital publishing span from broad-based authoring environments (text editors like Dreamweaver; XCode; Flash) to template tools (Articulate; Captivate; arguably iBooks Author) to object tools (ZebraZapps, Storyline). Someone in the audience asked a question to the panel: “As someone new to eLearning, what tools do I need?”

This question burned at me long after the panel addressed the gentleman.

If you are new to instructional design, the tools you need are a pencil and a good notebook. Some sticky notes would be helpful, as well as a whiteboard for you to claim as your own. Also helpful are a smartphone that can record audio, video and take really nice pictures.

These are artifacts of an impromptu Critical Success Factor analysis performed in the middle of a presentation given by @reubentozman and myself at ASTD TechKnowledge 2012

Record pictures and discussions. Share them. Reflect on them as you design and develop. Let these artifacts be a compass. And when you are done using these artifacts, dispose of them. There is no need to make permanent the things that act as a medium for ideas to become a product. Save a little something if you find value in it — as a totem. One doesn’t need to hoard.

Sketching on sticky notes to design a learning experience provides a lot of flexibility .

A designer makes more artifacts and sketches in pursuit of the new. Do that.

Figure out what are the challenges you need to help find solutions for and design, without thinking about what to build, the ways in which you might resolve those challenges and consider the people you’re supposed to help in that process. Start with that.

Only when you can answer the questions of “what does *better* look like?” and “how will I know it’s better?” can you really start to consider the tools. By then, it becomes easier to get to *better* — because you’ll be able to map how you design for that idea of “better.”

By now, I’m hoping you get my subtle point: you’re identifying yourself with what’s posted above and, by virtue of that association, you think maybe you’re a designer and this starts you on a path. Alternatively, maybe you’re not identifying with my small and shortly worded synopsis of what designers do and you’re wondering if maybe you’re not designing… and that starts you on a path, too.

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