Skip to content

July 16, 2014

Beyond the Buzzwords

by allisonmwong

– Allison Wong

design jargon

The unrecoverable situation we’ve all faced

Being thrown into a new environment (the law) has forced me to think a lot about communication, specifically – how to talk about design.  As one of my mentors from the NuLawLab, Dan Jackson, was telling me today, it’s probably an extreme environment in which to practice talking about design, because for lawyers, words are really, really important.

As you can probably imagine, I am frequently faced with situation inside and outside of my internship:

what are you doing this summer

Me (right), at my Fourth of July potluck.

Other variants of this question: What are you doing at a law firm?  So what are you actually doing?  You’re studying design – so what do you want to do with that?

Although I consider myself to be pretty knowledgeable about design and practiced in bringing design to different contexts, this question and the subsequent conversation still tend to make me stumble.  It’s been especially hard since a lot of my work so far has been trying to define a set of parameters for what I can actually accomplish.  And I still have a lot of questions about the role of design in law.  If I was more quantitatively-minded, this internship would be a great opportunity to collect some hard experimental data about successful communication.  What words work?  What explanations leave people confused?  How frequently are certain questions asked?  Nonetheless, it has been a great testing ground for me to hone how I talk about design: what am I doing, what is the role of a designer, why should anyone care.

Why should we care so much about language?  Isn’t the product of our work – its physical existence in the world – the only thing that matters?  While words are superficial, I’ve learned the superficial can be very important.  Striving for clarity is important in itself, but language can easily turn people off.  As a first entry point into deeper discussion, surface explanations can either make people excited and invested in hearing more – or confuse and alienate.

Especially since design has become so visible in popular culture, the risk of using design buzzwords is substantial.  It’s great that a wide range of people have heard about “design thinking.”  I love when people ask me, “Do you know about IDEO?”  However – while I think designers should capitalize on this excitement for new approaches, I’ve learned firsthand – through Design for America – that it can be really hard to earn someone’s trust and respect if you aren’t communicating on the same wavelength.  Buzzwords get in the way more often than not, but they can be very hard to avoid.


So, what AM I doing this summer?  Here’s a version of the words I’m currently testing out (it’s a work in progress):

I’m bringing my point of view as a designer to the formation of a new public interest law center in RI.  As I see it, designers are skilled at understanding how people interact with the man-made world around them: services, products, systems, and institutions.  We discover what’s not working, look at what’s working well, and think creatively about how things could be improved to better work for people.  To do so, we try to deeply understand people’s needs, desires, and experiences.  

In the context of the new law center, I’m hoping to do research that builds a greater understanding of housing related needs (the law center will be focused on housing in the first year).  To do that, I am observing community work and legal proceedings already taking place, and I will be having conversations with individuals about their experiences.  My work can inform the future work of the center and show a process for how similar work can occur in the future.  I believe this kind of design approach can create a legal system that is more responsive and accessible.    

Here are some of the key things I’ve been learning so far about communication:

1. Tailor to different audiences.

If at all possible, relate what you’re doing to the experience of the person you’re talking to and gauge how much they already understand.  For some people, I have to start by explaining what industrial design is.  For others who already somewhat get design – but might be confused about the legal context – I like to throw out something like: “So it’s become a popular thing to put designers in hospitals to come up with creative solutions to making the hospital a more patient-centered place that works better for humans.  What do patients see when they arrive?  Where do they wait?  How do they take home information?  Instead of designing for health care, I’m looking at how the legal system can be a more responsive environment.”

2. Use concrete examples whenever possible.

Most people will not understand when I say “observational design research methods.”  They will understand if I say, “I’ve been sitting in on utility clinics held at the George Wiley Center.  Individuals who are falling behind on utility payments come in to meet with a woman from National Grid.  I’m watching and listening to learn more about people’s experiences with utility issues – how they arrived at the Center, what other issues they’re dealing with, and where they’re directed to go after.  Are there similar opportunities for me to observe the work of your organization to better understand the needs of the people you work with?”

3. Design is not new.

Some people get confused because what you’re describing has been happening for a long time – but just hasn’t been called design.  Perhaps it is a new application of tried methods, or a new bridging of people who didn’t used to work together.  But people have been engaged in creative problem solving for forever, and it’s important to respect that when communicating.  It might look more like policy, or ethnography, or public health – but we need to consider where our practice fits into a history of people who understand, challenge existing structures, and critically make.  In being passionate, optimistic innovators, we risk sounding like we think we can use design to solve everything fast, or that design is always the right answer (it’s not).

Though I’ve been thinking a lot on this matter, I think social design as an emerging field still has a lot to work out about language and framing.  I certainly, am no expert.  When I worked on A Better World by Design last year, I helped plan a panel titled “Beyond the Buzzwords: Examining the Limits of Social Design.”  Clearly, you can see a lot of people were as excited about engaging in this topic as I still am –

Buzzwords panel

Awesome panelists included Briony Hynson, Kyla Fullenwider, Joe Zinter, and Gilad Meron

If you’ve conquered the design jargon pitfalls, mastered the way of communicating elegantly about design within other sectors, have other thoughts on this topic, or just want to ask me what I’m doing this summer, drop me a line!  I’m always down to talk about talking about design.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: