Joe Cardillo

Design Can Scale Joy in Project Management

By: Joe Cardillo | October 14, 2013 | 


By Joe Cardillo

Design has crept into my life. But I’m not a designer.

In fact, on a semi-regular basis I find myself asking an actual designer for something, and immediately follow up with “Never mind. That’s a bad idea.”

That’s how Not a Designer I truly am.

That said, there’s just something about creating curves and lines and maps and shapes that intrigues me, whether it’s architecture, graphics, or even industrial (have you ever considered how strangely elegant a hammer is in both form and function?).

Design is Beautiful

Fortunately, I have no problem connecting to, and appreciating, talented creators. I think it’s because what the best do is create beautiful, intuitive structure…and that stuff fascinates me.

As a marketing and operations guy my bread and butter is not “how do I add more process and SOPs/workflow” but instead “how do I remove barriers to collaboration and let people create and communicate simple, intelligent things?”

Design is Collaborative

A few months into my current job, we brought Damian and Alexis on board. The three of us sync’d right away, and when they presented the first draft of a site redesign, I instantly saw where they were going.

But Damian also said something that stuck with me:

“A designer’s responsibility is to get you to ask questions about everything, and if s/he can’t answer then it becomes instantly clear what needs more work.”

What I love about that approach is that it reinforces two things:

  • They don’t work on some Platonic Ideal, they work on things the rest of us live and breath and dream with and for, and as a result they need us to inspire and question them. Before then I’d never considered my perspective to be important – perhaps even critical – to the success of a designer.
  • There is a boundary to what a non-designer can and should ask a designer to do. A good chunk of people I know (myself included) regularly have conversations with the kind of client who says “I don’t want to be prescriptive” and then proceeds to do exactly that.

Design is Awesome!

Up until meeting Damian and Alexis I’d always appreciated creators and respected their work, but I didn’t really relate to it personally. What changed was that they communicated, clearly and beautifully, what they needed from the rest of the team to do their jobs well.

There’s a deeper thread, though: Amazing design is not just useful, it’s also instructive for the rest of us.

Before this year I’d learned about design, but it hadn’t occurred to me I could also learn about managing a project, structuring a team, or communicating.

In fact, it’s even forced me to think differently about the core product I work on. Because we’re an on-demand marketplace for infographics, it’s easy to backtrack into the trap of thinking we are automating a product or process. After watching our team collaborate a couple of months ago I re-focused on scaling/automating the experience of awesomeness.

Now instead of asking “how do I scale the project start phase,” I’m asking “how do I scale joy?”

That’s something you could only learn from a designer.

About Joe Cardillo

Joe Cardillo is a product/ops guy turned marketer and digital evangelist for San Francisco based design marketplace Visually. He digs writing, journalism, media, PR, design, rocanroll, startups, anything science-y, and thinking about how to become a better human.

  • I’m not a designer either although I tried to be and, let’s just say it didn’t go so well!! But I love design – and what Damien and Alexis said to you makes sense…even if you can’t create the design, you can still participate/manage/matter in designing. Love it!

    • yvettepistorio Ha, yes…I’ve only had minor thoughts of being a designer but those were quickly adjusted when I saw I didn’t even meet requirements to join the Kids Stick Figure Art Club. 
      What’s interesting about the whole thing is that it also readjusted how I looked at collaboration. I’ve always seen it as a soft skill, something that’s nice to have and that helps me work and play well with others, when actually it’s a hard skill and necessary for business of any size, but especially for rapidly growing companies.

      • JoeCardillo We should start our own club…

        • yvettepistorio JoeCardillo call it MS Paint Rebels?

        • JoeCardillo Done! Let’s get t-shirts made…

        • yvettepistorio JoeCardillo Ok I was going to hoard this all for myself, but, —>
          The one titled “Aces” is amazing.

  • I’m still laughing at the hammer comment. This reminds me of a story I read about the 37Signals founder who decided to learn Ruby on Rails so he could relate better to his employees. I not only love that you relate your non-designer skills to being a more collaborative colleague, but some of the ideas you’ve ignited in my brain to think about leadership a bit differently.

    • ginidietrich For the longest time I used to think, hey I should know what I’m asking other people to do. But it’s more than that, it’s an awareness of and dedication to better work, that’s what great collaboration is really about. One of the reasons IA / UX is a useful lens for other parts of a business.

  • Always a treat to read a Joe post. I’ve always thought of myself as Not a Desiner too. Function over Form. Then this weekend, assisting set up on a beautiful wedding, I was in awe of my friends who could create such beauty and joy by considering both in tandem, and I realized I’ve been short sighted. This line-“how do I scale joy?” Is lovely. Thanks for your thoughts!

    • RebeccaTodd Right? It’s ALL information design. Writing another blog post about scaling joy as we speak. One of the questions I regularly ask (and probably drive my team nuts with) is “what would this be like / how would it feel if it was as amazing as it could possibly be?” 
      You learn all sorts of things when you stop hanging out in the weeds cherry picking problems.

      • JoeCardillo RebeccaTodd Amen and Amen on that weed/cherry picking thing!

  • I would like to let you know that I shall be using the phrase ‘experience of awesomeness’ obsessively and without caution. 
    In other news, this is a great post. I love reading about a communications medium from someone that isn’t actually working in that medium. It gives a really organic and honest perspective. I’ve worked with good designers and bad and with the good we are an extension of each other. We will go into a branding project, exactly as you said, with questions for a client to answer, with images we want them to help create for us (and for themselves) and then I’ll bring thoughts, ideas, images to life through words and the designer will do so through visual. When that synergy works it is like this exciting firework event that makes me dance around in circles. Why this experience of awesomeness (TM- Joe Cardillo), the collaboration between our two different yet complementary skills makes each one of us better. 
    We can learn so much from the areas that aren’t in our wheelhouse, from the way those creators think, feel, see the world. Expanding our frame a bit based on this knowledge can help us be better at everything we do. This post is a great example of that!

    • LauraPetrolino Excellent, have at it the phrase is all yours
      I have seen exactly what you describe, that total freedom that comes when everyone thinks “whoa, if we could collaborate like this all the time we could do almost anything.” 
      Have you read much of Jeremiah Owyang’s stuff on the collaborative economy? He has some great posts, and in fact just changed his day job to focus entirely on the idea.

      • JoeCardillo ohhhh! I haven’t! I’ll need to check him out. I get all giddy over stuff like that! Thank you!!! (ziplines over to google Jeremiah now)

        • LauraPetrolino JoeCardillo He’s great, you are going to like his thinking

  • I know just enough about design to be dangerous (and probably annoying to actual designers). A result of doing production (paste-up — yup!) on my college paper and working with many designers over the years. But I do respect the craft and try to restrain myself from being too overbearing. (More kerning, please!)
    So, yeah, I enjoyed this, Joe!

    • RobBiesenbach I was once like you Rob, I used to tell designers to make that line thicker but not too thick 😉 
      But seriously, no matter what the discipline, design has a lot to teach the rest of us. And we have a lot to teach them, for that matter. A good chunk of the time asking insightful and useful questions is all it takes to start an amazebirds collaboration.

      • JoeCardillo Ha! I’ve gotten better, I swear! These days I talk about objectives, audiences, tone, messages (explicit and implicit), etc. I very much believe design and content should go hand-in-hand. Usually design is brought in at the end of the process. Even worse is when content is the afterthought.

        • RobBiesenbach JoeCardillo 100% agree. It’s the reason people tell me  “I hate infographics.” I know what they are talking about (crappy, basic infographics that are lazy content marketing / linkbait) and I don’t like it either. One of the reasons I point to yourself and other storytellers on a regular basis as the basis for a good visualization.
          Not that you should ever skimp on it, but I am honest with people: if you had to choose one thing, you should choose to start with story. “Making something pretty” without having a story / narrative or clear direction is actually somewhat dishonest….when I think about my own reaction to that tactic, it’s this sort of “oh, that looks cool > huh, so that’s not really about what I thought it was.” And you can’t come back from that.

      • JoeCardillo RobBiesenbach “Thicker. But not too thick.” BWAhahahahaha!!!

        • belllindsay JoeCardillo RobBiesenbach Lindsay I’m so glad you commented on that…it was taking all of my self-control!!!!

        • LauraPetrolino belllindsay JoeCardillo You are a couple of dirty birds.
          Getting this back to a higher plane, one of my first projects at my first job (at a small nonprofit) was to create a newsletter for members/donors from scratch. As we were working on design of the physical product, the executive director’s instructions, immortalized forever by the rest of us, were “slick, but not too slick.”
          In a way, he had a point. It should look professional, so well-heeled donors and foundations would be comfortable that we knew what we were doing but not so slick that they’d think we’re throwing their money away.
          But it became larger than life, representing the eternal struggle to meet this person’s impossible demands.

        • LauraPetrolino belllindsay JoeCardillo RobBiesenbach Trouble makers.

        • RobBiesenbach LauraPetrolino belllindsay JoeCardillo Great example Rob – words like “style” “look” and “slick” aren’t evil (although they can be frustrating). It’s that we have different ideas of what they mean, and clearly communicating them has to be a priority otherwise we just say “well I know what slick looks like but this person has no idea.” 
          That’s a whole lot different than “please use Hex: #98FB98.” There is a place for the former but it requires better collaboration to execute on. If you say “make it slick” a great designer who knows how to collaborate will say “ok, you got it – can you provide an example? Is X, Y, or Z what you are thinking of?”

        • JoeCardillo LauraPetrolino belllindsay RobBiesenbach Ok, let me just state here as FACT that ‘innuendo’ NEVER crossed my mind!! I was laughing at the dumb stuff we all say to other people in our daily jobs. I remember in TV-Land asking my editor to cut 2 frames!! LMAO! He would just stare at me!!!

        • belllindsay JoeCardillo LauraPetrolino Uh-huh. A likely story!

        • belllindsay JoeCardillo LauraPetrolino RobBiesenbach Let’s just blame LauraPetrolino for the innuendo. And I hope I never have to look at a list of all the stupid things I’ve asked an experienced designer or producer to do. Fortunately, I’ve gotten good at the internal check “do you know anything about this? No? Then just say I don’t know anything about this and need help”

  • The sentence that most stands out to me (and transfers far beyond design) is: “A designer’s responsibility is to get you to ask questions about everything, and if s/he can’t answer then it becomes instantly clear what needs more work.” // In a non profit that provides insurance to uninsured children, we have SO MANY PARTIES involved in pieces of our work. It’s so challenging (often) to get past various turf/fear/bureaucratic hurdles — the champions of the actual original mission often have their voices muted (in my opinion). It’s a little (or a lot) idealistic to hope that everyone would say “what are all the questions that could come up?” and WELCOME them as opportunities to do better as opposed to annoyances to getting the most pared down job done with a minimum of conflict. Long way of saying: great post.

    • biggreenpen Really well put Paula. That is exactly the challenge my team faces on a daily basis when building a marketplace model – how do we empower everyone involved in a project to be good to and for each other? I’ve seen clients not just work well, but also inspire a designer or other creative talent, and it has inspired me personally too. In fact, I was just rehashing what you talk about with our UX designer Alexis last night, we want to create a Style Guide for Collaboration that helps set light framework for how people can better work together. Will gladly send you that afterwards if it’s of use.

      • JoeCardillo biggreenpen I’d love that – thanks!

  • Design isn’t just about making it pretty and visually appealing, though — it’s also about making something function smoothly and remove pain-points. Whenever I’m in an airport, I pay close attention to wayfaring signs and think, “does this help or hurt?”.

    • jasonkonopinski Amen. What’s amazing, is the overwhelming mass of junk structure out there in the world. Nothing like getting preached to about beauty, simplicity, and elegance in information by people who love their Apple products but are willing to put you through mindless workflows and SOPs…
      Do you read Design of Everyday Things? There’s a somewhat famous book of that name but also a great blog I think you might dig —>

  • rdopping

    OMG Joe Cardillo. Those comes from a designer who, as a project manager, leads designers to execute architectural projects. I just love theway you put that and believe me I will be sharing this post with as many people (non designers) as I can.
    What’s brilliant here is that I am knee deep in the forest every day and most likely take design process for granted. Design is not a linear process or at least good design isn’t. In communicating what we do as designers I have found the challenge of aligning business process to how designers work best. It has always been about putting a round peg in a square hole. Odd that the design process has not been better understood across a broader spectrum.
    If you want some further insight into the correlation between design and business take a look at the book Opposable Minds by Roger Martin who is the dean of the Roman School of Business in Toronto. Eye opening stuff.
    Cheers Joe. You are a good man.

    • rdopping Thanks Ralph = ) Yeah I’ve found that non-designers often see design as a) an after effect and/or b) something unconnected to the normal business process, both of which lead to missed opportunity (sometimes design is about telling a story and sometimes it is about helping define the story as it’s told). 
      I’ll check out Roger Martin, and links to anything on design collaboration (your blog or otherwise) are welcome. Love that Ai Wei Wei quote up there now, the most inspiring creatives, clients and co-workers that I talk with care deeply about being accountable to each other, and it’s really the heart of what I’m working on right now and the true basis for this post.

      • rdopping

        JoeCardillo Thanks Joe. Yes, the Ai Weiwei exhibit is showing in Toronto right now and I am looking forward to his film. Very inspiring guy.
        Thanks for the mention and kind words.

  • Great, Joe. I have a fascination with design, too, and could watch designers over their shoulders all day. I have the privilege of working closely with our only designer (I’m the only writer), so I’m involved in the process probably more than he would ever want me to be. : / But it does give me a deep appreciation of the art and technical skill involved.
    Automating the process as you mentioned is what many people think we do…as if designers (and writers for that matter) dump stuff into a template and send it to the printer. We’ve felt at times as if we are more on an assembly line. Not very conducive to creativity. 
    So I loved this and that it mattered: “What changed was that they communicated, clearly and beautifully, what they needed from the rest of the team to do their jobs well.”

    • Word Ninja Oh I’m sure your designer just loves you. 😉
      The automating part is hard – sometimes the conversation around design mimics what Gini and her team talk about in regards to PR / Marketing, which is that you can replicate tactics but replicating strategy and vision is rarely wise or effective. Helping people do something together well, and (seemingly) effortlessly

      • JoeCardillo Great meeting you in person, too.

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