Crafting the design conversation

Crafting the Design Conversation – Design In The Space Of Listening

Sanjay J. Balan

“Out of chaos comes order” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Communication is a principal aspect of collaborative working, especially when it comes to Design in the context of the present market. This is one component which cannot be slighted when what is involved is a multitude of opinions – across large teams, both voiced and un-voiced that is present from the get go all the way through execution and completion.

The notion of a ‘Star’ designer, as the sole beacon of enlightenment within the team has lost its significance. The current market conditions require the wisdom and expertise of many, to realise projects with unprecedented complexities, within ambitious timelines. Rather than attempt to quell or bypass this evolving democratic nature of design decision making – we ought to embrace it positively. And that is why Design conversations become critical.

Who/ what informs the design? –the context & the constituents

The projects of today are in a very real way the products of tomorrow. Therefore, every design initiative must originate in a visioning exercise that engages with the broadest spectrum amongst the project’s stakeholders and harnesses the power of our groups and networks toward informing the design. The design emerges in the context of catering to both public and private domains – as the people (living, thinking, feeling, sensing, human beings) we design environments for seek to move seamlessly across the domains they inhabit.

How do we achieve this?

Collective design thinking

A powerful next step that follows a successful visioning exercise is the design charette. And, the nature of the charette, its components, composition and forms of output that take the design conversation forward in iterative cycles of design investigation – proposition – critique – evolution. How this is done will establish the depth and success of solution that emerges.

Voice of the customer

This era of rapid innovations and ever expanding end-user expectations, forces market leaders  to seek out innovations for tomorrow or risk becoming quickly obsolete in a market  where loyalty can no longer be taken for granted and must be earned and reaffirmed moment by moment. An access to that is – The voice of the customer program. It could be viewed as a larger, continuous stream of evolving product design thinking.


No designer is an island, therefore the need for them to integrate with larger teams. Design for habitation and our environment is required to address constantly evolving human needs that are diverse.

The quality of the design solution and by extension the product of design is defined by the quality of the design conversation. A conversation that occurs is not on a one-way street (in an age where a two-way street could also be viewed as static) – but a conversation that interweaves various streams together dynamically, with purpose.

To put it the ‘Indian’ way…Yeh Dil Maange More…Listen to your Heart(s) collectively.



Be here & now – powerful listening happens in the present

The simple discipline and practice of putting away our devices, silencing phones, and getting rid of anything that distracts us (including preconceived notions about the meeting) from simply listening to what is being said – will allow for powerful listening. It’s the most important thing at this moment.

Your Mind has to be a Blank Slate in the Listening Space.

Be approachable and receptive

Each participant in the process of visioning and review/ critique has something important to contribute that is of great value. Create the opportunity for enhanced participation by providing an abundant space of being heard and acknowledge each one for their participation and contribution.

Recognise the privilege, as designers to be having a conversation with real live people whose time and energy are precious commodities. Let them know you’re grateful for their time.

It’s more than what they’re saying

As questions are raised and inputs solicited, recognise that it’s a two-way process. Answers to questions sometimes give rise to more questions and that’s a GOOD thing. It’s important to understand that just as we don’t have all the right answers, we rarely have the right questions at the beginning.  Look for the pain points, because opportunities for design and innovation come out discovering the real problems and challenges beneath that what is initially expressed on the surface.

This is where the interview goes beyond a conversation. Pay attention to context, behaviours and non-verbal cues. If someone is having a difficult time articulating a thought, a drawing or visualisation will catalyse the discussion and achieve clarity and resolution.

Combining the strands

The information gained from the visioning exercise and charette phase of design are the most valuable resource for design and innovation. And in most cases it will be obvious that the responses don’t match up with our previous assumptions. That’s okay too! Let these insights drive the ideas, making the innovation actually relevant and actually making a real difference. These basic steps can take design efficiencies to a whole new level, cutting down the time to arrive rapidly on workable solutions that resonate with the client – in contrast to the significant amount of time and resources that would have to be spent in creating multiple design options to fathom what is really required.

It is not about coming up with cool new innovations in forms and then selling people on how much they’re going to love them. It’s about asking, listening, taking the required actions and reliably delivering a design solution that works. Making the entire design process profitable for the designer, client and the end-user.