Smile, You've Got Personality!


“Moral maxims are surprisingly useful on occasions when we can invent little else to justify our actions.” ― Alexander Pushkin, Tales of Belkin

Personalities - we've all got 'em. Some are so caustic (or pleasant) they repel. In an office environment, we do a kind of psychological dance around the various personalities we engage, day in, day out. Many of us are equipped with our Myers-Briggs inventory, or Jung assessment (or this) that purports to inform us why we are the way we are. According to the experts, you can mitigate the perceived negative aspects of your personality by having a general awareness of how they manifest. But you can't fundamentally change your personality, at least not without extensive therapy and/or heavy drug use. Even then, you're likely to revert on some levels.

What you can control through awareness is your behavior. Or, more precisely, you can pay close attention to the behavior of others and adjust your own behavior to match the intensity or submissiveness of theirs - or somewhere in between. I keep a guide to DISC assessment at my desk and refer to it often before crafting an email to someone high up on the chain of command. It's all about how you craft your message.

As a Designer you learn to navigate the personalities & behaviors of your audience at each stage of a project - or at least you BETTER if you want to have any kind of longevity. Even more importantly, you gain a sort of Zen-like neutrality when listening to ideas or feedback. Especially feedback. I mean, you BETTER. You better be the Switzerland of every meeting. If you don't, can't or won't develop that ability, well then you, my friend, are an artiste and you're going to cry. A lot.

When I was first in the position of hiring a Designer (in this case an exhibit designer) I made a huge mistake. As I looked through the candidate's portfolios, I coveted the most impressive artistic expression. If I'm honest, I was thinking that we could up our visual impact if we could hire some sheer artistic talent. Mistake. I hired an exceptionally talented "designer" with a meticulous eye for detail. It took about two client reviews for her to come completely apart at the seems. I'm telling you there was a river of tears.

You see, she was an artist and a brilliant one at that. Her work had value to her well beyond whether or not a client felt it conveyed their brand message. And she had a big personality which she could not bring herself to separate from the work. And I get it. But, she had to go. Actually she left; floated away on a river of tears, hopefully to a rewarding career as a visual artist.

Don't get me wrong, Designers are artists to be sure. It is a craft and there is art in the creation of beautiful solutions. There are those among us who walk the line between art and design, but they are luminaries, set apart from the rest of us by clients with major fundage who are willing and able to walk that line with them. But artists, who express the human condition innately as from the bottom of their soul, are not Designers.

The art in design is centered around the ability to root out and define, and then tell, a story. In the midst of crafting the story, we are every bit the artist feeling the world around them. Responding to the minutiae of life, listening intently as stakeholders, users, customers and various personas tell their stories. Working tirelessly until a masterpiece is born. 

But unlike the artist, who is free to articulate the intricacies of their creation with every bit of flamboyant flair that is their essential being, we do not have the luxury of injecting our own personality into the pitch. It ain't always easy to accept the manner in which clients will craft their message. Our feelings do, indeed, get hurt. But unless you're a Stefan Sagmeister, you must not flip anyone the bird (full disclosure, I've never heard of Sagmeister flipping anyone the bird, but he will show you his junk) and you must listen. You're not after a spot in the Louvre. You're trying to tell a story.

The story is also our best defense against toxic personalities or moral maxims, or whatever personal "deal" someone brings to a design brief or project review.
As human beings, we respond to stories. They can help us develop deeper empathy in the present and create more vivid images about the kind of future we're trying to create. Paying attention to the human dimension is important, because designing is not just about processing questions. It's also about people, and not just the people you're trying to serve. It's also about you and the mindset with which you approach a project. Like art, design starts inside, not outside. Louis Pasteur, explaining the role of discipline and preparation in scientific discoveries observed that chance favors the prepared mind.*

This is an underlying reality that sets the context for innovative design, in much the same way that Einstein's law of relativity accounts for the movement of objects in the space-time continuum. The most fundamental natural law of design is that the only certainty is uncertainty. Unfortunately this physics is very different from the one that usually informs the design of organizations.*

Reality number two is that human beings - customers in particular - are terrible at envisioning things that don't already exist. Reality number three; If you insist on home runs, chances are you're not going to get very many singles (or many home runs either). Certain personalities just can't live with this last reality, so it's up to a designer to craft a story around the beauty of the game, or something like that, so that a vision of success can start to form that encompasses all personalities, all experiences, and everyone's personal baggage.*

Historians Neustadt and May refer to something they call "thinking in time" - or figuring out how to connect what you know about the past, with how to think well about a new future. And the tricky part of this is not extrapolating from the past, we all know how to do that. It's spotting where the future may diverge from the past and creating a story around that vision.*

Even the most curmudgeonly curmudgeon is susceptible to being won over by a talented designer telling a whopper of a story that resonates with a moment from their past or an aspiration they have about the future. Great design draws emotion past the shell of personality into whatever reality the Designer has crafted.

If you're a Designer, be conscious about how much of your own personality you're injecting into your art.

*Props to Professor Jeanne Liedtka of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business - I'm currently enrolled in a Design Thinking for Innovation course through their executive education program and much of the more scholarly points I made can be attributed to the course material, though not verbatim.

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