Thinking like a designer during this uncertain time

I started studying design very recently. I am not a design-thinking guru. Nor am I a ‘professional’ designer (update: I am now). But here is what I know - we all solve problems and that makes us all designers. Based on everything I’ve learnt over the last few months, I’ve realised that we all could use a little design thinking in our lives. I am not here to give you a “10 step guide to enlighten your soul/turning into a Unicorn/some magical shit”. This is my attempt to help you look at things differently. What you do is up to you, so let’s get started.

Ambiguity

All of my life’s education up until now — physics, chemistry, math, engineering (bachelor and master), calculus and what not — has trained my mind to be super-analytical. Any problem I come across, I start looking for patterns and start thinking of solutions based on what I know. To top that, I work as a data analyst. You get the point.

While being analytical and banking on your existing knowledge is a good thing, it can be really frustrating to be in situations where you don’t know everything or things are unclear. We all have the need to know everything. It all has to be tangible. We naturally tend to resist uncertainties and that makes us anxious. This is where design thinking can help us.

It is simple - be okay with ambiguity. Embrace it and trust the process. This will help you focus on what you do know and you can find something to hold on to, to see yourself through to the other side of this mess. It is really important to understand that we all don’t know when this will end, but we’re all trying to figure it out. 

Empathy

The very first class I attended, we were given some stationery and asked to design a game for our lecturer. So, off we went, brainstorming ideas and building stuff. Some pretty clever games we all came up with. But here’s the thing — we all overlooked one big aspect of design — the user. No one asked the lecturer what game he actually wanted (remember, we were designing a game for him). We learnt our lesson - on day one.

empathise
/ˈɛmpəθʌɪz/
1 intransitive. To show empathy; esp. to comprehend and share the feelings of another; to identify oneself mentally with a person (or occasionally an animal) in such a way as to understand his or her feelings, experiences, etc.

Empathy can be an immensely useful tool/skill for everyone at any point in their lives, not just during difficult times. By being able to step into others’ shoes, you start seeing things differently. You might have thought that a sneaky swim at the beach might be okay; what harm could that cause anyone, right? Now step in to the shoes of a frontline medic — you are putting your own life at risk by treating and helping patients. Suddenly, the little unnecessary visit to the beach or friend’s place looks very different.

Do the same when you go out shopping, or think about hoarding, or come across someone who needs help. Empathise, think about the bigger picture, and then act.

Optimism

Designers are a hopelessly optimistic bunch. I’ve spent weeks reading, and re-reading a design assignment. It was so vague and open to interpretation that it was frustrating at times that there was no structure that could be followed. Somehow, given the fact that dealing with ambiguity was a skill I needed to develop, I managed to remain positive about the output. I was hopeful that the final product would be interesting. And so it was. The vagueness allowed me to explore creative paths I would never have, otherwise.

Being optimistic gives us hope that we will come out on the other end, better than how and where we started. It allows us to embrace empathy in a positive manner and spread that positivity in the community. It helps us believe in the good in people. It helps us to strive to be better irrespective of the setbacks we face. It is what makes us human.

There’s nothing I’ve talked about above that you already don't know. And this certainly isn’t a guide to live through these uncertain times. It is simply a reminder that we are all humans and we need to look after each other.