A Cure for Bad Collaboration: Designerly Virtues

March 24, 2021

In my decades of design work, collaborating with a wide variety of people from all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds, personalities, and work styles, I’ve noticed that the attitudes most helpful for doing good design work are often reversals of conventional virtues. I’ve developed a habit of humorously flouting these common virtues and valorizing their opposites.

Over time, this exaggerated oppositional attitude has become my own weird style of professionalism, and these inverted vices have become what I am calling designerly virtues. This list can be seen as a companion piece to the Collaborator’s Bill of Rights.

Cooriginality — Designers prize dialogical creativity over individual creativity. We are proud to have contributed to new ideas that pack more insight and expertise than can fit inside the mind of any one person. Cooriginality challenges the modern ideal of the self-sufficient lone genius, who hatches original ideas with no help from anyone.

Epistemic humility — Designers are so accustomed to being wrong, that they eventually become cheerful about the inevitability of being refuted, usually where they least expect it. This acceptance of inevitable error is the mark of experience, not pride that one’s theories will be proved correct. Epistemic humility challenges the desire to be the guy who’s alway one step ahead, who knew all along.

The following three virtues are probably components of epistemic humility or examples of it:

  • Impertise — Impertise is the opposite of expertise. I guess I could have called it anti-expertise. It is a kind of receptive “beginner’s mind” attitude that constantly tries to perceive all possible novelty in what a more superficial expert glance might dismiss as a redundant, derivative reinvention of the wheel. An impert will try, and almost always find something unprecedented, significant and exciting, to inspire cooriginal creativity. Impertise complements the ideal of expertise, which surveys every situation, classifies it and prescribes a known solution, by adding a critical awareness of expertise’s current limits.
  • Blindsight — Everyone has blind spots. The most perverse characteristic of blind spots is they are blind most of all to themselves. Right this minute you have two blindspots in your field of vision where a optical nerve pokes through each of your retinas, and in each region your vision is interrupted? See it? No, you don’t. When we are blind, literally or metaphorically our vision continues, uninterrupted, right across what we are failing to see — the unknown unknowns — and nothing seems amiss. Blindsight is insight into how blindness really works, and abandonment of the effort to map our blindnesses and compensate with theoretical knowledge, because more often than not, our blindness conceals where we are most blind. Blindsight relies instead on one’s peers — especially the ones we conflict with most — to point out realities to which we are truly oblivious, and think simply do not exist. Blindsight challenges the ideal of corrected vision — the notion that through conscientious calculation, scrupulous adherence to technique and using un-distorting “lenses” we can adequately neutralize our worst subjective blindnesses, biases, and train ourselves to perceive more objectively and justly.
  • Receptivity to be taught — Everyone wants to be a teacher, but the best teachers have something to teach precisely because they have been receptive learners. This is very different from knowing how to inform oneself, which leaves the learner in control. To be taught is to submit to learning: to allow an other to control how the information is presented. Every subject of study has its own effective ways to present its own distinctive kind of knowledge. A math student who comes to a poetry class to interrogate the teacher on the theorems and proofs of verse creates needless obstacles. Human subjects share this characteristic with academic subjects: it is best to invite the teacher to teach, then hand over control. But this is a rare and difficult art especially for people who strongly prefer to play the role of the teacher. Receptivity to be taught complements the ideal of taking the role of teacher.

Phronesis — Phronesis is tacit know-how acquired through hands-on experience. Being tacit, phronesis doesn’t always lend itself to explicit language, but rather, demonstrates itself in practice. When people who understand theory very clearly and who can explain it eloquently, struggle to apply that theory effectively and to adjust their methods to fit contingencies, phronesis is what is lacking. Another reason phronesis is important is “intuitive” design harnesses existing or easily-acquired phronesis to enable users to skillfully interact with a system without having to explicitly figure out or memorize how. Phronesis complements theory with tacit skills that enable mastery of theoretical and physical systems as well as effective improvisation where explicit methods are not available.

Apprehension tolerance — Sartre was right when he said “hell is other people.” Trying to align with other people on how to think about phenomena with no pre-fab interpretation is an intensely anxious undertaking, and frankly, it freaks many people out. Experienced designers learn how to handle this apprehension, and in fact come to see in it a symptom of impending breakthrough, especially when breakthrough seems impossible. Apprehension is the birth pangs of profound insights. With practice we learn how to breathe, relax and deliver radically new ideas. Apprehension tolerance challenges the ideal of the peacemaker who steps in and defuses tension and conflict and restores harmony.

Principled disloyalty — Many designers are afraid to be excited or attached to new ideas, because these ideas might turn out to be wrong, infeasible or otherwise inadequate. But design is inspired and propelled by precisely this excitement and commitment. A good solution to this dilemma is to cultivate an equal and opposite proud and disciplined readiness to reject a beloved idea when it is time to say goodbye. The virtue of principled disloyalty challenges two ideals at once: 1) the passionate champion of the believed-in ideal, and 2) the objective detached rationalist who holds no strong position, out of fear of becoming a passionate champion.

Personal goodwill — Good designers must care more about their colleagues and the people they serve more than their own ideas, and must constantly reaffirm this commitment: “I care more about you and my relationship with you than I care about any of my ideas.” This kind of goodwill is absolutely necessary to do the deep, challenging and often painful work of design. The ideal of personal goodwill challenges the ideal of the true believer whose principles, creed, or ideals matter more than anything else in the world.

Pluralist comparison — There are many good solutions to any problem. Those who believe there is only one ideal solution will be tempted to cling to the first eureka. Sometimes that first solution turns out to be the best. But teams that keep going often find other solutions to consider, and sometimes they find those later solutions are far preferable to the first one. Pluralist comparison challenges the ideal of the discovery of the right solution that is searched for until it is found.

Tradeoff sense — Designers understand that perfection is always a function of certain kinds of partial attention, and that closer scrutiny always reveals unobtrusive trade-offs. The goal is not a solution without trade-offs, but rather a solution with tradeoffs so optimal that they go unnoticed when the solution is encountered in its intended context. Inexperienced and naive idealists often approach problems with impossible standards (and usually highly distorted criteria of perfection) — which lead not to the ideal solution but lackluster ones whose chief virtue is flawlessness according to one unexamined standard. Tradeoff sense challenges the ideal of perfectionism, and all the expectations of perfectionism, especially the belief that the right solution requires no tradeoffs, and everything that does is therefore not right.

Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance, this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First, empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights open new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. The agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesissynesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”


This is my first list, and it might not be complete. It is a good start, though, and I am relieved to get it out of my head. For more information on designerly ideals, see Design Collaborator’s Bill of Rights.

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