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Thinking Upside Down for Disruptive Design

By:   Date posted: December 10, 2013

UpsideDown_Fig3_700pxThere’s one main reason why I love working in the user experience (UX) industry — I have the opportunity to invent on a daily basis. I use design thinking to empathize with people. What do they need? How do they feel? What matters to them? I get to explore what people want, often even before they know they want it. There’s a bit of a high associated with this — to read people, understand what drives them, come up with ideas that later manifest into designs and solve real problems that matter to them. When I first entered the field of usability, I never felt the love. It felt more like I was making designs to fit a standard. It was about being safe, making sure people didn’t make an error and that they were satisfied; it was not about creating delight and love around a brand. To be successful in the field of UX today, you need to have passion for disrupting the marketplace, a love of risk-taking and a dedication to coming up with ideas that are innovative. You need to be addicted to the love of solving problems.

Thinking Upside Down

Let’s just pause for a moment to really think through what it takes to design in this way. Disruptive design thinking is damn scary. There’s always a bit of fear and anxiety when we challenge ourselves to turn things upside down. Upside down is backwards, awkward and definitely uncomfortable. Also, even if you embrace the concept, fears such as failure, mediocrity, culpability, rejection and being sacked, can weigh heavily on you. You can become your own worst enemy and prevent yourself from making the leap from how things should be done to how things could be done.

Yet, in order to discover and craft that innovative, hip and delightful new design strategy and solution, you have to keep that disruptive mindset. Fear can’t squash those dreams! You have to have a fair amount of gut instinct to understand and solve the problem at hand. Sometimes you can’t (or don’t need to) inform and validate every design decision with user research. Sometimes you need to trust that this “thing” you saw while observing the world is the seed of an upcoming trend. And, your instincts need to factor whatever that is into your design solution. Sometimes you need to trust that dream or vision you have of how you want the world to be, work or feel. You’ve got to go with that instinct to make things happen.

Remembering Your Muse

I have a few muses that help me remember to take these risks. One is the exceptional architect Antoni Gaudí, specifically his approach to building one of the most beautiful structures I have ever had the pleasure of visiting — the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Sagrada Família). Located in Barcelona and inspired by the Latin cross, Sagrada Família was designed in a neo-Gothic style and started in 1882 by architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano. Similar to my role when a company has started a project and we are hired to improve it, Gaudí took over the project in 1883 and made significant changes in an effort to fuse the architectural structures into a more sophisticated, modern and organic piece.

If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing this church, you were probably struck by the amazing use of light, gradient and space as I was. When you arrive, you are so overwhelmed by how these pieces fit together to form the whole that the entire experience overshadows the details (see the virtual visit).

La Sagrada_Fig1_700px

Seeing the Light

One of the most radical changes he made was to the church’s orientation. Churches across Europe were usually built on an east-west axis; the altar is at the east end while the main doors are at the west end, which ensures that the congregation is looking toward the rising sun and Jerusalem when they are facing the altar. Conversely, Sagrada Família sits on a north-south axis with the altar and apse at the north end. This change reflects the symbolism of the church’s three main façades. The Nativity façade, which includes plant and animal imagery in addition to the birth of Christ, faces east so the sun shines through it and illuminates these images of life each morning. The Passion façade, which illustrates Christ’s death, faces west toward the setting sun, which marks the day’s end. The largest and principal façade points south and catches the brilliance of the midday sun, illuminating imagery that celebrates the glory of Jesus and mankind’s road to God. Gaudí didn’t follow the standard. He thought about what he wanted to achieve, and then changed everything — even the basic, almost sacred orientation of this church to align the output with his vision. The light is my favorite example of how much Gaudí thought through the details and followed through with his instinct and passion; he didn’t just do what was easy or felt safe.

Another reason I find his work to be some of the most inspirational in terms of design thinking is how he created the plans for the structure. Let’s consider what would be in our design thinking toolkit in 1883. There would be no computers; we’d need to work with the raw materials at hand. So, how does one draw each angle — each permutation of how high the towers could be to capture the most light — and determine how the towers, nave and the other elements would work together? Gaudí, in all his brilliance, solved the problem by thinking upside down.

Thinking Upside Down to See Right Side Up

La Sagrada_Fig2_700pxTo experiment with ways to construct modern, balanced and restrained parabolic and catenary arches, Gaudí created a string model of the structure. He tied a series of strings together and weighted some of the loops with tiny lead-filled bags to determine the load the arches and vaults would bear, see how the towers would look together and ensure that the design aligned with his vision. Using a mirror, he could see the design right-side-up.

Rather than working out an endless series of cubic equations, Gaudí used strings and bags to bring the depth, breadth and height of his plans into perspective. His creativity and process to see the unseen, craft a vision and then prototype this vision without being limited by the available technology continues to inspire me to maintain a disruptive mindset and be fear-adverse.

Asking, “What if?” once will only get you so far. There’s a bit of common sense, practicality and “get-it-done” attitude that has to be infused in everything you do. In other words, you need to be a bit of a badass, like Gaudí, and make it happen.

Images of Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família taken by the author. Feature image courtesy of Instant Vantage. 






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For more than 15 years, Mona Patel’s ability to strategize quickly and customize solutions has set her apart in the industry. Mona’s special recipe combines The Secret, The Power of Now, sharp design thinking and a little bit of magic glitter to bring you the kind of success you didn’t even see coming. Her core expertise is in understanding why people do what they do — from banking with their mobile phones to buying specific baby bedding. She started Motivate Design in 2009 to create a place where clients could get what they need, rather than what an agency needs to sell. In short, she was disrupting before it was cool. She balances her hypersonic speed by being a certified yoga instructor. Mona currently teaches design research and strategy at Parsons The New School for Design. She holds a M.S. in Marketing Communications from Boston University and a B.S. in Engineering Psychology from Tufts University. You can catch Mona on LinkedIn and say “hello” to the Motivate Design team on Twitter.

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