Three things I learned from a Designer

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Recently I had the pleasure to work with Giovanni Pagnotta. Giovanni is not only a great person, he is also a gifted designer. He designs tables, chairs, and other things I would love to have in my office. Design is maybe a matter of taste. Giovanni hits my taste like a hammer a nail.

Currently he is raising funds on Kickstarter for an extraordinary project. He designed a 3d-printed titanium pen. It looks amazing, and that reminded me on our collaboration.

The work with him was intense. Our collaboration was different from everything I experienced before.

Months after the project ended, its impact is still huge on me. I doesn't feel like Giovanni was my customer. It is more like he was my teacher. Let me share three of my biggest takeaways with you.

Pagnottas P22

(Above: Giovanni Pagnottas P22 project, currently on Kickstarter)

1. Specifications can block us

When I first met Giovanni, he was full of ideas and had a vision. I told him to write down a specification. He sent me a PowerPoint presentation. I got an idea of what he meant. My gut reaction was: PowerPoint? Not enough! But then I reconsidered. I understood what he wanted. Did I need more?

It is safe to force customers into specs. It describes exactly what you are doing. For some reason I felt this was not right in this case, and I just tried to code what I understood. I showed him my results early, and we went on from there.

In the following weeks we meet up on Skype as often as we could. I coded, showed the results, and he gave me feedback. Things started to look good. Giovanni told me what elements needed adjustments and which did not.

Specifications are maths. You can calculate dimensions but also your budget. I failed with the estimation of hours I would need for this project by a factor of four. But with a specification, you are committing yourself to a deterministic result. A specification would never have met the vision of Giovanni. He knew what he wanted, but he was no writer. A specification would have forced him into the role of a writer, which he is not.

2. Design can be agile just like code

I showed my results early and Giovanni told me what was wrong. Specifications were not necessary, I just followed a structured path to develop visuals. Sometimes I felt something was not right.

Don't get me wrong: I am not a designer. I have no clue. But there are some technical expectations we mere mortals are used to. I told him what I expected.

To my surprise he reconsidered. He would say "I have to think about it". Then he went back to his "cave" (not actually cave, I was just thinking of his design office like a cave). And finally he came back and blew my mind with another idea I loved.

You think designers are full of ego? Well, I have at least one experience that proves this is wrong. Like a good coder, Giovanni iterated his design and developed it further and further. Until it was "good". Just like we developers do with refactoring and peer reviews.

Again, a specification would have killed this kind of peer review. I would have gotten one idea, implemented it, and finally we might have made a change request. This would have meant more costs and unhappy people.

Design can be a process, it is not necessary one event in time.

Pagnottas P22

3. Proportions

One day on Skype Giovanni told me minimalistic design is hardest. And he said, proportions and dimensions matter most.

It is true. When I was sharing my screen, he was saying one element should go a few pixels to the left. A few pixels? I put the element to the left and it all felt more comfortable. I could breathe again, if you know what I mean by that.

I started a browser extension which showed a ruler. From a mathematical perspective I was right. But it felt wrong. My brain told me Giovanni was right.

Usually I believe in math. But does it matter, when my gut feeling says it is wrong?

Giovanni is incredibly talented when it comes to seeing such things. I have no other choice to rely on math. I guess, this is why people like me need people like him: he can tell, when math is not going to work well for the brain.

Sucks.

Conclusion

I would not be able to do a similar approach with many people. To be honest, only a few people are as gifted as Giovanni Pagnotta. He was able to tell me exactly what needed to be done at which time. He could structure the steps of the manipulations I need to perform.

In my early days I worked with many people who called themselves "businessmen" or "designers". The approach I used for Giovanni Pagnotta would not have worked with them. I am happy that I decided not to stick to my rules this time. I learned a lot. It made me see more and understand design better. Thanks, Giovanni!

Tags: ux, design, process, methodology, agile