There is a remarkable beauty found when given the opportunity to orchestrate positive, creative works. My own abilities lie less with the technical skills and hands-on process of creation (though I do a fair bit of it on the quiet, by myself), and more with the “production” of creative works by more talented others.

To set something in motion and watch it emerge from the hands and hearts of creative people is something I have only recently appreciated completely. I cannot prevaricate endlessly on my insightful management of the creative process. Well, that’s not true. I could indeed prevaricate endlessly on the subject, but it would be highly improvised and mostly fiction. Nonetheless, I can only say that to set a process in motion and watch it grow at the hands and hearts of highly creative people is a beautiful thing. And no matter how many opportunities I have had to do so, I have to admit that there is perhaps more magic than method to it.

There are of course stuff like best practices to help out. To me, best practices provide an entry to the design problem. I know that there are those best practices that some designers consider inviolable rules. But for the life of me I seem to be making them up everytime I encounter a new problem to solve. Perhaps not entirely, though. I know there is method to my madness. I search for starting points. I consider my assumptions. I get tired of my assumptions quickly and approach problems from different angles, with new assumptions. I wonder if, in my case at least, my guesses (aka assumptions) are the most original elements of the process. That’s worth some thinking on.

When I have people to direct, I often find myself looking for an opening move that will generate activity. I’m not even sure if the activity really matters all that much. I just want discussion, engagement and ideation. And I want us to be fearless. I want us to explore and experiment. I want us to prototype and let successive prototypes teach us more about the problem, the process and even a bit about ourselves.

It sounds a bit messy, yes? I don’t think so. It’s just not linear. It’s not conservative and it’s not sequential. It is courageous and opportunistic. It moves us from one imaginative space to another quickly. So quickly that it is all the more important to create prototypes. Prototypes give substance to all those imagined spaces, but they also focus our attention on where we are going with the design.

Several years ago I taught a graduate level course called Fundamentals of Biological Imaging. It was a course in optical and digital research microscopy. I had graduate students (the majority from the school of pharmacy) apply their conceptual understanding of the technology and capabilities of research microscopy to experiments that they designed during the class. The experimental designs were at first mostly fanciful and not terribly well grounded in the realities of the technology. So I urged them to get their experiments to a stage when they could make slides and start taking micro-photographs. When they did so, the impact was so profound!! For most, the initial look at those images was a sobering reality, but upon study provided really great insights into the nature of their experiment, the experimental design and the possible outcomes. The effect was so remarkable I began referring to it as the “Principle of First Images.”

Imagined spaces evolving over time. Like clouds in the sky. But so important to keep things real with prototypes, whatever form they take. Sketches, wireframes, mock-ups, iterations of a process, observations of a chemical reaction, a sentence read and re-read over and over for cadence and flow. The reality of the event swims within all those imagined spaces, being informed and steadily evolving.

And so it moves forward, this something of a design to be designed, handled by my creative team at times too roughly, at times to timidly. Steered in directions I object to but come to see the value in. I hear the suggestions and comments which I quickly want to dismiss, but by deliberately burying that dismissal and engaging with some open-minded interpretation the ideas move in productive ways and there it is: the hook that makes the design work. It is a human process. Fallible. Powerful.

I don’t seem to be able to consider things as done. They only reside in a particular state of being serving a specific purpose for some time. The process to get there has generated other ideas and stimulated other experiments. Projects may be delivered, but they still live and breathe in some other iteration or prototype somewhere.

These days I see this process in nearly everything I do. Lately, it has been manifest in course and curriculum design for a small design college. We are only now articulating the power of this thinking in the design of higher education processes. It is powerful because we are designing interactions between humans, And that strikes at the heart of teaching and learning. Human-centered negotiations.

So, I find a remarkable beauty in the process. We are not just creating an object. We are shaping an experience, imagining spaces of opportunity, and ultimately it is entirely about human interactions of all the various and confounding sorts. Quite a remarkable beauty.