Eames: Never Delegate Understanding

I recently watched a film on Charles & Ray Eames. It tells the story of their continuing influence in design. Scattered throughout the film were fascinating glimpses of their design process.

I don’t think I could summarize their processes better than this:

Perhaps more enduring than some of their designs was the method by which the team created: later dubbed the “Eames design process,” an intentionally cultivated unfamiliarity toward the problem at hand was regarded as the only way to begin work. Operating by the conviction to “never delegate understanding,” teams would approach assignments Socratically by asking fundamental questions that manufacturers had lost sense of. They did their own research and testing, ceaselessly iterating to adapt products for those who actually used them, and for how they used them. By so doing, they kept a powerfully creative tension between intellectual and artistic discipline and childlike curiosity which would become the permeating characteristic in all of their work.

– Brandon Dorn

How the film inspired me

Learning and researching can sometimes feel purely academic and heady. “I will understand this problem after I sit and listen and interview and watch.”

Watching the Eameses think through problems while experimenting reminded me of the value of learning that comes from building and testing. Much more can be learned of a problem when you try to solve for it.

Additionally, I was reminded to not just build and assume any first idea is on-point. I must learn; I must test. I must not pass on opportunities to deeply understand problems. Either at the outset when discovery is needed. Or through learning via experimentation.


Co-creation with clients generates shared ideas

Map is a London-based creative consultancy borne out of industrial design beginnings. It touts itself as having a “strategy-based” approach to its projects. The firm was recently highlighted in a Co.Design article where much was shared about their design processes. While a few ideas caught my attention, including their practice of designer-led research, this section of the article is particularly intriguing:

“It’s not just coming up with creative ideas and innovative ideas but being able to explain why those are the right ideas for our clients,” Marshall says. To that end, Map works incredibly closely with its clients throughout the entire process.

Map doesn’t operate in the typical client-agency model of spending weeks holed up with no communication, then making a splashy presentation a la Mad Men. Rather, it hosts workshops, asks its clients to come to the studio, and often goes to the client’s office (if its a big brand). Map frequently works with in-house design teams and other designers, which Marshall says can lead to some friction since so many people are involved.

During the ideation phase, it’s about getting many ideas flowing then navigating through them to find clarity and make decisions. “By doing that not only do we create really great work, out clients feel as much ownership over it as we do,” Marshall says. “We also don’t have to ‘impress’ our clients with big time-consuming presentations about how good our ideas are because they’re also their ideas.”

How A Philosophy Of “Informed Creativity” Drives Design At Map
Diana Budds, Co.Design, August 21, 2015

From my personal experiences, I’ve seen enterprise software end-users during usability and prototype tests noticeably come alive not only with interest and appreciation, but ideas. Despite the fact that I haven’t engaged clients to the level that this article describes Map as doing, I believe that co-creating with clients makes so much sense.

I can imagine that these sessions make the agency/vendor more enlightened to root problems and therefore more equipped to create. This looks to be yet another reason why there’s great benefit to engaging clients early in the processes of problem-solving.