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18 ways Doctor Who can make you a better designer

How Doctor Who taught Jason Cranford Teague to design.

Doctor Who has been with me since the very formative years of my life. As a you pre-teen in the US of A, I discovered my life-long hero one wonderful afternoon when I turned on the local PBS (Public Broadcasting System) channel. Where I lived in the early 1980s, Doctor Who came on everyday at 5:30pm, and I watched him every day at 5:30pm.

Needless to say, the good Doctor has had a profound impact on my life, so I was not too surprised when I realized that most of the lessons I have learned as a designer over the years tied back to what I learned watching the charismatic Timelord.

01. TARDIS: Time and Relative Dimensions in Space

Design is about more than the visual (space), it’s also about the temporal (time). You know, “Wibbly-wobbly, Timey-wimey… stuff”. With interface design, thinking about how your work behaves in space and time has become a necessity.

02. It’s bigger on the inside than the outside

The best designs are always outwardly small and simple, but inwardly deep and complex.

03. Whenever you go into a new situation, you must always believe the best until you find out exactly what the situation’s all about. Then, believe the worst

In interface design, we have something called the ‘happy path’ which is the direction we hope most people will be able to follow, but we have to think just as carefully about the alternatives, since those are often the spaces that our audience will be the most frustrated and need the most help.

04. The trouble with computers is, they’re very sophisticated idiots. They do exactly what you tell them at amazing speeds

Computers are stupid. We often forget that because they are so fast at doing math. But a computer has no intuition and can’t make assumptions about a persons actions, that takes the intelligence of a designer.

05. Spoilers, sweetie

Always let the audience know what’s coming up, but don’t give away too much before they need to know.

06. Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow

Even the most complex problems can benefit from a different point of view. I regularly turn design problems around to try to find better answers.

07. Even the sonic screwdriver won’t get me out of this one!

Your tools will not make you a better designer, but they can make design harder for you if they are not the right tool.

08. I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important

We often think about personas in design, individuals who represent our audiences, and that six test subjects is plenty. But I prefer to get out and talk to as many people as possible, I can never get enough feedback from the people actually engaging with my designs.

09. The least important things lead to the greatest discoveries

Small elements in a design often need the most attention, because they can lead to the greatest impact if done effectively.

10. Answers are easy. It’s asking the right questions which is hard

Answers are often obvious in design if you are asking the right questions, but sometimes finding the question is the tricky bit.

11. Time will tell, it always does

When the answer to design questions is not obvious, I’ve learned to wait and see. Either wait until the development phase or even wait until after launch to see how it works in the real world conditions before making the final decisions.

12. Hold tight and pretend it’s a plan

Design intuition means that I can see an answer often before I can explain it. Sometimes that means the people on my team have to rust me, which is not always a given.

13. I love humans… always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there

We see patterns everywhere, because we are hard-wired to do it, especially faces, phenomena known as ‘Pareidolia’. This is a powerful tool for designers since we can draw audience’s attention to or from objects on the page using patterns.

14. Would you like a Jelly Baby?

Surprise and delight are powerful tools for crafting an effective interface design. Giving something, no matter how small, to the audience always helps to get them on your side.

15. The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their view

Content is the ‘facts’ around which we fit our design ‘views’, but so many designers expect their content to fit whatever they design. I always try to start with the content I am design for first, and then work to make the design fit to that.

16. There’s always something to look at if you open your eyes

Never stop looking at your designs. You may want to walk away for a bit, or reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, but always keep the designs you are working on in the corner of your eye, even while working on something else, because you never know when inspiration will strike.

17. There’s a lot of things you need to get across this universe. Warp drive… wormhole refractors… You know the thing you need most of all? You need a hand to hold

Designers are often thought of as solitary figures, busily sketching away. But what I have learned is that having partners – companions, if you will – always makes for better creation.

18. We’re all stories, in the end… just make it a good one, eh?

Every design, no matter how seemingly simple, should tell a good story.

Series 9 of Doctor Who starts tomorrow on BBC One in the UK.

Words: Jason Cranford Teague

Jason Cranford Teague is a Senior Creative Director at Capital One and teaches workshops on experience design for developers, development for designs, and temporal design thinking.

3 ways to stay inspired when working in house

Alexandra Humphry-Baker considers how to stay motivated and relevant as an in-house designer.

Recently, there’s been a growing trend for companies to move from employing design agencies to building their own in-house teams. It’s time to revisit the in-house designer’s role, and the opportunities – not just the challenges – it provides.

A few months ago I was catching up with a few fellow designers when talk turned to work. Two of them worked in agencies and were recounting bitterly how they were losing jobs – not to other agencies, but to a previous client’s recently created in-house team. A little digging showed me that this was not a one-off occurrence.

Service design agency Adaptive Path was purchased by credit card company Capitol One, Teehan+Lax ‘partnered’ with Facebook, and just a few months ago design giant Lunar was bought by management consulting firm McKinsey. In the UK, banking giant Barclays recently grew its in-house team from six to 67 in just one year.

It’s understandable that companies are investing in internal design teams. They allow for a faster route to market and greater gains through institutionalising knowledge and brand expertise – two things that traditional agencies struggle to achieve. Of course, change is always uncomfortable. However, as design becomes recognised as the differentiating factor in business and gains market share, new paradigms are emerging where we, as designers on the inside, have the potential to drive change in business at a more meaningful level.

Nevertheless, much has been written on the subject of the ‘disappearing business of design’ – the essence being that internal design teams struggle to remain creative and innovative in a corporate environment. Companies with huge internal design teams, such as Twitter and Spotify, have paved the way in countering this by investing heavily in building a design-led company culture.

However, for the rest of us working on the inside without the budget for ‘war rooms’ or design laboratories, it’s crucial we find other means to keep on top of our game. Below is some advice I’ve picked up working client-side for the past few years.

01. Never stop learning

To borrow from Mike Monteiro: “Like any craftsperson, a designer is only as good as their tools”. It’s important to review them often and stay on top of what’s new. Turn repetitive jobs or boring tasks into opportunities to learn a new skill or try out a new programme.

02. Share your process

If you are part of a small design team, it’s crucial to bring other members of the company into the design process. Luckily for us, design is fun and people are naturally drawn to visuals. So the first step is to take over the walls with your works in progress. Pin up your research, wireframes, quotes from users, or anything that pulls people in and encourages ‘water cooler chat’.

You’ll be surprised what insights so-and-so from marketing has about your users if you give them a space to share them. Take this a step further by inviting them into your process by running workshops that explore an idea you are working on or that needs buy-in from other departments. Gamestorming (gamestorming.com) is a brilliant toolkit to get you started facilitating co-creation workshops within your company.

03. Fill the well

Working in-house, it’s more important than ever to stay inspired by exposing yourself to a multitude of situations. Go to galleries, join a print workshop, read fiction, do whatever you can to add to your internal library of ideas. Otherwise you’ll be left scraping the barrel and reinventing the old.

Next, get out of your comfort zone. Attend events. Better still, speak at them, because formulating and articulating what you do is the best way to bring people into your process and recreate that studio environment.

Finally, make time for side projects. Some designers build products in their spare time or run a blog. I myself opted to start a CreativeMornings chapter in my city.

Whatever you choose, immerse yourself in something outside of work, however removed from your current role. I guarantee the return on time investment will be tenfold.

Learn, build empathy for your role and keep the inspiration well topped up. These are the first steps you need to take to help you, as an in-house designer, stay inspired, motivated and relevant.

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