How my imperfect COVID-projects has made me a better designer

5 October 2020
Nadja Toft

Author: Nadja Toft

Service designer. I love imagining what doesn't yet exist.

When lockdown sent most of us home back in March, the dust had just settled on my new home office before the thought kicked in: now is the perfect time to learn a new skill, take up a new hobby, completely reinvent myself!

The problem is, all that ‘extra’ time usually spent on commuting, hasn’t transformed me into another human being. I’m still me.

But like many others, I insisted on doing something productive with my new home-bound life. So I took up knitting and started a sourdough. I think they’re what you would call classic-COVID-projects. And, laugh all you want at the COVID-project-people out there — these analog activities has made me a better designer.

 

The recipe for experiments: Simple ingredients and a matter of mindset

When I first started experimenting with a sourdough starter, I was optimistic. I mean, water + flour + time. How hard could it be? Ask my friends and family and they will tell you that I grew more and more frustrated when I realized the starter didn’t rise as it was supposed to and I had to throw it out and start over. To be honest, I don’t know how many times I started over (I stopped counting at one point). Luckily I had my dear colleague, baking guru, and fellow sourdough newbie, Nour, to cheer me on, and together we finally made it. We were ready to make bread!

 

How has experimenting made me a better designer?

The sourdough process reminded me of how far you can get with a few simple ingredients. It amazes me how water, flour, and salt can become the most delicious sourdough bread — but even with these few ingredients, it took a lot of failed attempts for me to get there. I believe succeeding comes down to a secret ingredient: Having the right mindset. Carol Dweck has spent a lot of time studying human motivation and the factors that make us succeed or not. According to her studies, if you have a growth mindset, you believe you can learn and improve your skills. Someone with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, thinks it’s impossible to change — their qualities are simply something they’re born with.

 


Iterations of sourdough bread. I’ve been perfecting folding techniques to strengthen the gluten

 

Experimenting and iterating are some of the cornerstones in design and so is starting with a minimum viable approach. Try, test, and learn. Then try again. If you don’t believe you can learn and improve, you’re almost doomed to fail — which is why championing a growth mindset in yourself and amongst your team is essential to creating an experimenting culture where no one is afraid of failing.

 

“When entire companies embrace a growth mindset, their employees report feeling far more empowered and committed; they also receive far greater organizational support for collaboration and innovation.” – Carol Dweck, HBR

 

Starting small can actually have a big impact. Before dreaming up a whole new dish, looking at the newest tech trends, or launching a big strategic initiative that spans over months and involves everyone in the organisation, try involving just a few people. Get them on board, and learn something about your customers. You might already have the ingredients in your cupboard to serve the perfect meal. You just need your customers to point you in the right direction. Keep it simple and champion a growth mindset.

 

Vulnerability creates the foundation for a close-knit team

While I’ve been more or less alone on my sourdough-adventure, my mum helped me get started with knitting. I’ve been wanting to take up knitting for a long time. Mostly because I’m fascinated by how you can be doing (and producing) something while watching TV that isn’t scrolling on your phone. And also, I like how these old-fashioned skills are undergoing a renaissance. I figured, as long as I had my mum by my side, I’d get there in no time. 6 months and counting and I only have 5% of my knitted vest. Maybe I should have gone with a hat, but that’s beside the point. What I’ve enjoyed about knitting is starting from zero, learning something new and being okay with not knowing how to do something. I’ve been reminded that it’s okay to ask for help again and again until you get it right.

 

Learning to knit has required me to ask for help — which I think we should do a lot more

How has vulnerability made me a better designer?

Whenever I got stuck with my knitting, I simply had to ask for help, because I had no idea how to get unstuck. And that was okay, because I just started knitting. But at work, sometimes I think ‘I should probably know this’ or ‘I’ll figure it out myself, no need to bother anyone’. Especially when working from home, you can’t just poke your desk buddy or ask for a second opinion when you bump into a colleague in the kitchen. Even though I’ve enjoyed the quiet and focused work some days, I miss the random kitchen chats and on-the-fly feedback that gets my knots unstuck. Reaching out to each other is also a way of checking in and acknowledge that we need each other.

Being comfortable asking for help is a sign that you’re okay with showing your vulnerability and not afraid of taking risks and admitting when you’ve made a mistake. In a study done by Google on team performance, they found that establishing psychological safety was the foundation for high performing teams. Showing vulnerability as a leader inspires your team to do the same, it encourages people to speak up and share their ideas, because no one is going to laugh at them.

 

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

 

If you want your team to come up with innovative ideas, try thinking of ways you can establish psychological safety in meetings and projects. Be an example and name a few ‘bad’ ideas yourself, to encourage others to share their immediate thoughts. Present quick sketches instead of always having perfectly polished presentations. It makes others feel comfortable showing their early work off, too. Be honest and admit when you’ve made a mistake— it shows that you won’t be punished for sharing bad news.

 

Learning to embrace imperfections

We’re used to striving for perfection. We see perfect lives being curated on Instagram. We look at our friends and think they have a perfect life. We look for the perfect job, perfect flat, perfect partner, perfect sweater. But not much in life is perfect and learning to embrace imperfection in work and life is a valuable skill. Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese world view that centers around the acceptance of imperfection.

 

Wabi-Sabi is “a way of life that appreciates and accepts complexity while at the same time values simplicity” Richard Powell — Wabi Sabi Simple

 

I see imperfections in my knitting and I see it in my baking. The flaws annoyed me at first, but it reminds me that it’s handmade and homemade and didn’t come out of a factory. When I look at pictures of my sourdough bread, I can also see the progress I’ve made, which is a nice string of evidence proving my learning process.


Don’t wait for ‘perfect’ — test your ideas early and often to learn

 

 

How has embracing imperfections made me a better designer?

My aunt once said to me “It’s not art — it just has to be done” and I often remind myself of that. Sometimes designers can get confused and think they’re artists. They go out of their way to design the perfect solution only to put it in front of users and realise it isn’t perfect. Services are meant to be co-designed in the real world, not exhibited in a museum. The more human we make our services, the more humans will like and use it. Our services will get misunderstood, they will be used without a manual. The more we put our imperfect solutions in front of users, the more we learn. The more we see our services’ flaws, the more we can help the user solve their problem in various ways.

 

The more human we make our services, the more humans will like and use it.

 

Throughout most of my education, the best idea and the perfect result has been celebrated. I’ve grown up believing that if I worked hard enough, I’d be rewarded. With praising words, with a high grade, or just with the satisfaction of a job well done. This habit, built up over many years, is a hard one to break. But design doesn’t go well with perfection. You never get anything done if you’re too afraid to test your concept because it’s not “perfect” yet. According to Carol Dweck, it’s something that we can change if we shift our focus of praise from result to process.

 

“Praising the process that kids engage in, their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement. This process praise creates kids who are hardy and resilient.” — Carol Dweck

 

Experimenting, showing my work before it’s perfect (most times; the earlier, the better), encouraging a growth mindset in myself and others, and working towards a minimal viable effort approach is something I will continue to work on. Knitting and baking have been great activities for me to change up my usual thinking patterns, remind me of basic design skills, and embrace imperfections.

I hope this have encouraged you to take up a new hobby or skill or take a look at your team culture. If you have any similar anecdotes, I’d love to hear about them.

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