In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is. — Yogi Berra
We all like to believe that there’s someone else in the room who has a grasp on what’s going on when we’re feeling in over our head. Play it cool man. Pretend like you’ve done this 1000 times before. I totally got this, and if I don’t, someone else does and will tell me what to do. Until it’s time to produce something, and you realize everyone around you is in the same boat, and it’s called the “SS Please Send HALP.” 🤦♀️ (Who names their boat like that?!)
I was leading a design team meeting one day when this very topic came up among our designers. We were urging our team to use vulnerability and humility to figure out when to say “I don’t know” to a colleague — or harder yet, to a client. What will the client think? Isn’t that what they need us for, to know stuff? Why did I spend 4+ years in design school? WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE GIVE ME THE ANSWERS? 😭
These are not stupid questions.
What do you do when you’ve built yourself up as an expert about something that takes you outside your comfort zone? 🤔
Working with Clients
Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design. — Dieter Rams
If anyone’s ever told you that it’s possible to make a design system without working as a co-creator with your client, they lied. Co-creation goes beyond collaboration, and straight to the complexity of figuring out how to solve design problems together.
And if you felt naked before, brace yourself for the experience of exposing the nooks and crannies — or lack thereof — in your process. 🙅🏾♂️
Luckily for us, we had brothers and sisters in arms with our client when we worked on a design system together. This team was sympathetic to the chaos of the design process, understanding of that being-sure-that-you’re-unsure feeling, and receptive to the idea that complete transparency is needed in order to build something great. This required a lot of trust, open communication, and feedback from both parties. We all realized very quickly that the more transparent we could be, the quicker our team would progress.
This meant getting very comfortable with being uncomfortable, super fast.
(At Rangle, we’re super agile, even with our own insecurities! 🙃)
Working with Vulnerability
Building habits of group vulnerability is like building a muscle. It takes time, repetition, and the willingness to feel pain in order to achieve gains. — Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code
As time went on in our design system project with our client, I began to notice a few themes, and they weren’t what I expected. One of the lesser-known requirements of co-creating with other people — and not just on design systems — is that co-creating requires specific behaviours more than iron clad processes. If a design system is built on the foundation of missions, values, and design languages, then the act of building a design system comes from formational behaviours of empathy, vulnerability and curiosity.
So back to the original question: What do you do when you’ve built yourself up as an expert about something that stretches you outside your comfort zone? 🤔
Getting to the answer means going against your initial instincts of maintaining an impenetrable all-knowing facade. No one needs you to know the answers, but they do need you to be willing to find out. And to do that, you will need to cultivate the feeling of being vulnerable and expressing self-doubt in an uncomfortably revealing way. But, wait, it’s really not so bad! In fact, your ability to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know pairs very nicely with that burning curiosity to find out what’ll make you a more successful systems thinker, designer and overall human — in every context. It also helps build your confidence within yourself and for others in what you do know, because you can be sure it will take a lot of confidence to say “I don’t know…yet.”
Every design system is uniquely crafted to address a client’s business challenges, needs, processes and culture. Designing something that will work for their context will only happen after months of collaboration, co-creation, trial, error, vulnerability, and feedback loops.
There is nothing pretty or pleasant about learning all the ways you’re wrong about your hypotheses as you continue to build, test, and validate. Finding the gaps in understanding often leads to awkward and sometimes painful interactions that seem very counterintuitive to what we think smooth cooperation looks like. But what no one tells you is that this awkwardness and tension is completely necessary to the process. These moments always lead to highly productive outcomes, greater work, and stronger bonds — but only if we’re willing to be vulnerable and to say “I don’t know.”
We may not know the answers but we are prepared to admit that! And then find them out! Together! WOO! 🤘(“HuzZzah!” they said faintly in the background… 🙆♀️)
When you lead with your natural curiosity, everyone wins. The next time you find yourself in a moment of disagreement or insecurity, may I humbly suggest that you ask more questions instead of providing what you think are the answers. The productivity might surprise you. 🧘