In a way, my career in tech started with graphic design. And as a not very good graphic designer, I eagerly looked for ways to improve my work. Nothing beats inspiration and skillful effort, but sometimes finding inspiration is a matter of changing how you look at the subject. There are some exercises that can help with that and sometimes offer a shortcut to inspiration when all else fails.
Consider an illustration project in which you need to represent a subject. How do you make it interesting? If you get stuck, you might try the following:
- Invert or knockout the subject (also more broadly useful)
- Look for negative space
- Outline the subject, then the negative space
- Use thicker lines
- Use (mostly) straight lines
- Use (mostly) curved lines
The results of those exercises are unlikely to be any good on their own, but they can help break a design block. Others can suggest even more ways to find inspiration as well as tips to developing long-term skills.
Product leadership design exercises
Often, the first and most important product priorities are barriers to adoption, gaps in the product, and reacting to shifts in the market. But successful organizations are also challenging themselves and their understanding of their long-term priorities with exercises that force rethinking commonly-held assumptions about those products. Like the design questions above, these exercises won’t make you a great leader, but they will help you spot opportunities and risks for your product.
As an engineering leader, how might we:
- Reduce costs by 2x or 10x?
- Improve performance by 2x or 10x?
- Improve reliability by an extra 9?
- Decrease time from commit to deployment by 2x or 10x?
Keep this in mind: even if you’re not thinking about how to reduce costs and improve performance, you should expect your competitors to be doing so.
As a product leader, what happens if:
- The cost of the product/service can be reduced by 2x or 10x? (Jevons paradox)
- A key design constraint for your product (or customer interactions with the product) could be eliminated or changed, possibly leading to…
- The key value proposition of this product can be delivered faster or more conveniently via different mechanisms? (Providing instant gratification, as Netflix streaming did to Blockbuster)
- Barriers that prevent your customers from considering alternatives are eliminated (how PCs killed minicomputers, and smartphones reshaped the digital camera market, among other disruptions)
None of these lists of exhaustive, but they’re a start, and rarely should any organization immediately prioritize concepts resulting from exercises like this. But they can be helpful in challenging the product strategy and avoiding disruption. And if you can plot a path toward dramatic reductions in cost, improvements in performance, or removal of constraints, you should consider it the implications thoroughly and potentially incorporate those in your roadmap.