Spinning the Top Of Mind

Right hand at shoulder height, palm open.  Close fingers and motion to the right.  Bring both hands toward sternum as if holding a ball, right hand held higher than left.  Rotate hands around the imaginary ball.  Move open palms shoulder width apart, still parallel to each other.  Flatten open palms toward audience.

Each gesture would embody a different step in the process of thinking like a designer.  If I could get these across, I knew I’d be turning heads.

There is something innately beautiful and satisfying about finding oneself in an organic position to excel and succeed, and the last place I would have thought to find that feeling when I first moved to Madison would be in a committee meeting for a young professionals’ organization.  My involvement in that scene during the two previous stops of my post-collegiate life was shallow at best; the need for me to make an impact just didn’t seem to be there.  Events would be attended by swathes of people of whom a small percentage, usually completely separated from the rest of us, seemed to have any clue as to what was going on and what the mission of the organization really was.  The events followed the same script and went on whether I was there or not.  So usually I wasn’t.

Maybe it’s the smaller group size of Madison Magnet that I found attainable.  Maybe there’s a greater sense of inherent spontaneity in tune with the vibrant nature of this city.  Maybe I just got to know the right people at a happy hour on St. Patrick’s Day a month after moving to Wisconsin.  Whatever it was, it got me to the April 2018 Professional Development Committee meeting where I could make my first impact regarding a particular agenda item which needed further discussion.

Me: What’s this “Magnet book club”?

 Committee Leader: Oh, it’s this event we’re thinking about starting where a Magnet member could present on a topic they’re interested in or do for a living and could assign articles ahead of time so people could better prepare for the discussion.

 Me: So it’s not really a book club.

 Committee Leader:  Not really.  We just don’t have a better name for it yet.

 Me: Well, I’ll do the first one on the topic of thinking like a designer.

And so the “Top of Mind” series was set.  First topic: how to think like a designer.  Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018.  One Barrel Brewing Company.  Be there or be square.


Even though this was a topic I was comfortable with, I was pleased to be given so much time to prepare and gather my thoughts.  I considered several varying angles, but I held one principle true from the start: this presentation was on thinking like a designer and I would be giving it as a designer, not necessarily as an architect.  I wasn’t going to be clicking through a bunch of slides showing napkin sketches transitioning to money shots of finished projects.  Not the time or place.  I felt I should guide those in attendance to effectively approach the kind of work they could get behind–thinking like a designer is inherently human, not just for those with a propensity to draw, paint, or lay out an accessible restroom.  It should be clear that anyone with a drive toward a topic in which they have expertise can approach problems much like someone in a traditional design profession would.  What turned into my introduction before I began speaking (and was the only part of the presentation that I wrote down beforehand) made this perfectly clear.

Thinking like a designer is about more than carrying around a Moleskine and a Micron, waiting for inspiration to strike.  It’s about understanding—encoding what exists in order to visualize connections and identify shortcomings.  It’s about synthesis—creating a broad framework to guide creative thoughts through production.  It’s about balance—orchestrating clarity and mystery, repetition and reach, simplicity and complexity in an appealing yet rational way.  It’s about communication—representing those ideas and empowering others to see things as they hadn’t before.  Thinking like a designer embodies not only the intrigue of an engaged individual, but the essence of a creator and a leader.

I would make attendees pick a broad topic that they were heavily invested in and knew everything about, because the first step of thinking like a designer is to understand all the workings of the topic at hand in order to identify shortcomings in those processes and propose a means of solving them.  This was about the experience of being a designer, intently focused on discovering that problem and crafting that solution where one didn’t exist before.  Here’s where I made an architectural touch: I set out drafting pencils and trash paper at each high-top table.

This wouldn’t just be a talk.  It would be a studio.  With craft beer.


I found it particularly intriguing that I would get to assign material so people could prepare ahead of time, and I landed on two readings and two videos that aligned with the design process I wished to illustrate.  I selected the videos first–they were natural fits, both of designers showcasing their craft and effectively explaining their respective thought processes behind the work.  First was a TED Talk by graphic designer Chip Kidd in which he not only shows his own array of designs but analyzes the designed qualities of everyday objects he encounters, focusing on their ability and necessity to evoke a sense of clarity or mystery.  He offers a sophisticated design critique while still coming off as humorous and personable, much as I wanted to come off in this talk.  The Kunlé Adeyemi video from Al-Jazeera’s Rebel Architecture documentary series is particularly powerful because of what he’s doing, where he’s doing it, and who he’s doing it with.  Third-world communities in Africa are so often seen through a lens of needing everything given to them whether it is to their benefit or not (The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz is a great supplemental read on this subject), and here is an architect smashing the mold to international acclaim.  I found the intensive, community-driven design work showcased here to be an extraordinary topic to cover.

These videos were good, but they were primarily focused on finished products.  Much of the design thinking was already done.  I needed additional material that captured all the work leading up to the production stage–how does a designer discover a problem and craft that “big idea”?

As any good urbanist would do, I started my research with Jane Jacobs.

Top of Mind 02.jpg

What I find so captivating about Jacobs’ writing in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is how each chapter reads as an independent article with a distinct underlying structure.  She always opens by explaining how a component of successful urban fabric should work, follows it up with how the “urban renewal” she was butting up against destroys it, and closes with a glimmer of hope as to how said destroyed component has been or can be saved or re-created.  The last chapter stood out because it offers a gamut of methods to approach a problem (be it right or wrong) while capturing essences of everything she had discussed in the earlier chapters; it was a critique on how she thought designers should be thinking.  I followed this up with an excerpt from The Social Animal by David Brooks, even though it had nothing to do with design in the literal sense.  Brooks gives a fascinating study about how humans process information and how that changes over the course of one’s life, each chronological chapter covering a significant stage in the life of the main character.  One chapter covers something that I knew every attendee could relate with: writing a term paper in high school.  I could convey that the means of collecting information and crafting a thesis–some “big idea” that guides the production stage–is a crucial step for every designer to address.  No matter what you’re doing and how much work there remains to do, that “AHA!” moment feels so good.

I nailed down these four pieces with ample time to dwell on them and shape what I would be discussing around their content.  I’ll remain blissfully optimistic that the attendees got around to getting through all of them.


The gist of the presentation came together quite smoothly.  I’d open with the aforementioned story about the “Magnet book club” and lead into explaining that anyone can think like a designer and that no one should be scared to use the pencils or trash paper on the table.  I’d then cover Jacobs and thought processes, Brooks and the big idea, Kidd and clarity versus mystery, Adeyemi and orchestrating the moving parts behind bringing a design to life, and some conclusion to tie everything together.  Kidd was the easiest to prepare a discussion around because of experience with my own design work to further elaborate on the ideas he was stressing.  I poured over Jacobs and Brooks for weeks, taking notes and pulling out the details I found the most compelling.  I was out taking a stroll around the isthmus one evening when those hand gestures I opened with struck like a red-winged blackbird swooping at the back of my head.

Right hand at shoulder height, palm open (pick a topic).

 Close fingers and motion to the right (learn everything about that topic).

 Bring both hands toward sternum as if holding a ball, right hand held higher than left (identify a problem).

 Rotate hands around the imaginary ball (propose a deliverable to solve that problem).

 Move open palms shoulder width apart, still parallel to each other (come up with that “big idea”).

 Flatten palms toward audience (design something).

Got ’em.

Jacobs and Brooks helped to illustrate this design process.  Kidd was just fun to talk about.  With a couple weeks left to prepare, I was still stuck on Adeyemi and how to close the presentation.  What could be broad and impactful enough for anyone, no matter what topic they got the most meaning from, to come away feeling motivated and energized?  I watched the video again.  I thought about it a little more and remembered what so many professors and mentors have reminded me about this profession: keep it simple.  All in all, he isn’t doing anything more than thinking like a designer and following that same process I was covering already.  I just needed to let the content of the video tell the rest of the story: thinking like a designer is for the greater good, and all the motivation you need to follow through on your design process is the satisfaction you see in someone’s face when they experience what you’ve worked so hard to understand and create.


By late August, I was running through the presentation every night.  At times I felt strong, almost boisterous, as if I’d be giving this in a college lecture hall and needed to keep “that guy” in the back row awake.  Other times, I was soft and subdued as if chatting with a friend over coffee.  I think I was somewhere in between those two extremes at One Barrel Brewing Company on Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018.

I was right where I needed to be.

Even with all the rewarding experiences I’ve had over the several stops I’ve made, everything about this presentation stands apart from volunteering to give it, putting in the research behind it, giving it, and receiving such great feedback from those who attended.  It was an honor and a blessing, and I truly hope it’s the start of a great working relationship with the city of Madison.

After I was done, a fellow asked for the conclusion to the presentation–the same conclusion I had grappled with up until the very end–which I’ll leave you with here.  Do great things, everyone.

 In summary, thinking like a designer means:     

Picking a broad topic and learning everything about it, not with the purpose of discovering what but discovering why;               

Identifying a process–an improvement over time–that the topic needs to undergo;

Coming up with a deliverable to produce which will aid in that process;

Creating a “big idea” to guide you through all the decisions to make during production;

Understanding the balance of what needs to be done correctly for the design to be functional and what experience you can mold when crafting the design;

And finally, the important step of orchestrating between the different parties involved to make sure the design is created as you and the intended user envision it.

You may be thinking to yourself, “I can do one or two of these.”  Or maybe I lit a fire under your ass and you’ll be up all night sketching away on your trash paper.  The point is this: be thoughtful.  Be engaged.  Think about all the design decisions that so many people have had to make in order to craft the world we live in.  Keep a sketchbook in your bag.  Encourage your peers to understand a topic deeply enough to feel like they can make an impact.  If you know someone trying to be creative and innovative, figure out where they are in this design process and give them pointers to push them along.  Give a critique as needed, but cultivate that creative spirit in them.  And if you’re the one with the creative spirit, stay in the saddle because I can tell you as a designer that there is no better feeling than giving someone a finished product and seeing it in their face that you nailed it.  Not only did you create something that was functional and solved a problem, but you gave them something that makes them fundamentally change their approach to the topic at hand.  And if we all think in this way and encourage others to do so as well, think of the good we will do for ourselves, each other, and this community.  Thank you.

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