Inspiration and the Frankenstein Design

It’s possible to design a program or service that hits every note for some and becomes a monster for others.

One of the principal outcomes of good design is inspiration. As I’ve written in a previous post, inspiration is the primary dividend for any design project and one of the few outcomes that are a must for any initiative that involves the users or designers having choice.

If you cannot inspire people with your design — no matter how small or grand – to some extent, you are doomed to fail. While implementation is often a critical point of failure with many design projects (they are created, never implemented or implemented poorly) there is also another failure point: when things work out perfectly without inspiration.

This is the Frankenstein Design. I regret to say that I’ve been a part of these projects in the past and can attest to their destructive power just like the ‘monster’ in Mary Shelley’s classic work.

Bad Math: Design – Inspiration = Frankenstein

How might we create something with all the right research, problem framing, creative ideas, and robust prototyping and still produce something awful? One of the reasons: lots of design thinking and a lack of systems thinking.

We see this in non-profit work and human services all the time. While there are a litany of examples of where public services are designed for bureaucrats (anyone see Brazil? ) or corporate parameters (See Falling Down) there is a lesser known issue with service design I call the Frankenstein Design. It’s when we design and release a program or service with good intention only to have it become an enemy to those who create it (and others).

If good design’s primary outcome is to inspire then it needs to inspire those who deliver it as much as it is those who receive it. Why? Have you ever created something that other people love and you despise? One of the best pieces of career advice I was ever given was this:

Don’t worry about you’re not good at, be more concerned about what you are.

Why? Because when you’re good at something or create something people want they will continue to ask more of it. We see this with artists all the time. They create ‘hits’ — songs, plays, shows, visual works etc.. — and build a fan base who want to see more of this. Can you imagine if The Rolling Stones toured without playing Satisfaction, Jumping Jack Flash, or Start Me Up and instead focused on their B-sides or new songs? All but their most die-hard fans would likely balk at paying hefty prices for their tickets and their stadium tours — pre- or post-COVID — would be reduced to much smaller revenues and venues.

Now imagine if Mick, Keith and the boys loathed these songs or worse, felt that playing them prevented their ability to be creative in their work and producing new songs that they liked? If they did, they’d have gone from creators and artists to the role of hack. It’s what Seth Godin speaks of as the difference between a professional, amateur, and hack.

When you’re good at something or create something successful there comes with it pressure to ‘do it again’ or ‘do it some more’, which is not what is conducive to sustainable innovation. When the system changes around you, understanding where you sit in relation to things matter a great deal and what is considered effective and useful does along with it. But this is more than about un-inspired success, it’s about sustainable innovation.

If the scenario about the Stones is true (and I’ve no idea if that’s the case or not) then this situation is a Frankenstein Design where the creation is now the enemy of the creator. We and them have created the conditions where they no longer create great things to the same extent because one user — the ticket- and album-buying public — wants and benefits from something different than they want. And they are feeling beholden to that.

Creating New and Better Monsters?

One of the greatest conceits of design and design thinking is the role of empathy and user-centred design in the absence of systems thinking. By systems thinking I am referring to an understanding of the constellation of users and roles associated with a design. Every service or product has primary users, secondary users and others that are touched by it. There are those whom we design for primarily — which is where user-centred design is focused — but there are others. Good empathy and design must consider as many possible system perspectives as possible in shaping what is created.

Take, for example, primary education. There is a distinction between what a good design looks like for students, teachers, parents, educational administrators, and citizens (among others) alike. A great design must be inspiring to as many of these as possible, serving multiple needs and creating different outcomes. This distribution of effect isn’t necessarily equal — we can still have a primary or secondary user in mind — but we need to make considerations for all of them. If students are happy with a format that burdens teachers or parents, it will be hard to sustain. If it’s convenient for administrators alone, we’ll have resistance from teachers (maybe others, too).

What we see with user-responsive designs – particularly for those in public services — is this tilt to the end-user at the expense of those who are delivering programs (who are users, too). If this happens, we see staff stress, organizational inertia, and overall resistance to the benefits of design and design thinking among those involved in programs. Without designing for those delivering programs, overseeing them, and supporting them along with end-users we risk simply creating better monsters. We are also creating the conditions that contribute to why cultures of innovation struggle.

Inspiration must scale across service touchpoints, even if that scaling is uneven. To do that, we need systems thinking to map out, consider, and design for those across this system, not just some.

A Gummy monster — like Dan Piraro’s illustration — might be tasty, but it will leave indigestion for many in its wake just like a poorly conceived design.

Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash and Bizarro by Dan Piraro. Thank you both for your generosity in sharing your work with others.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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