Surviving Design Projects

December 20, 2013 by UX-RADIO


Dan Brown believes that design work is fraught with conflict. Some is good, moving the project forward, and some is bad, stalling progress. Either way, most designers find themselves ill-equipped to deal with the variety of conflicts that arise. They lack the skills necessary to ensure their conflicts aren’t caustic and counter-productive. Since most projects don’t have a built-in mediator to resolve conflicts, designers must take responsibility for dealing with them.

Collaboration and conflict exist in every design project. Dan Brown, a founder and principal (along with Nathan Curtis) at EightShapes, talks about why conflict is important in design and reveals how to direct passion in a positive way.


Welcome to UX Radio, the Podcast that generates collaborative discussion about information architecture, user experience and design. Here is your host, Lara Fedoroff.

Lara: Hi everyone, this is Lara. Thank you so much for tuning into UX Radio. In today’s podcast, I’m talking with Dan Brown. He is the founder and principal at EightShapes along with Nathan Curtis.

Dan has truly figured out the secret to success. He is a happy and fulfilled father, husband, designer and entrepreneur.

Dan and Nathan started EightShapes with several principals in mind, mainly exceptionally high standards of quality and also customer service for not only their customers but also their employees.

Let’s jump into the story of how Dan got started.

Dan: The beginning of the story is when I went to college in the early 90s. So I am older than many of the people at this conference. And I was in the humanities, I was a philosophy major in college because it turns out that if there was a world wide web in the early 90s, not many people knew about it and it hadn’t really taken off.

And my parents for a graduation present got me tickets to a a SIGCHI conference, so “Chi” stands for computer human interaction.

I had gone to a SIGGraph conference thinking maybe I would get involved with computer graphics. It was fine, but it was kind of big and flashy.

That is where I learned about computer human interaction, this whole field about thinking about how people interact with computers.

So I go to this conference and it was like coming home, I showed up and I just looked around and I didn’t know anybody there. But I felt like these people were thinking about and talking about the exact things that I found fascinating.

In the early 90s and before, growing up with computers, computers were a tool — a means to an end. But with computer human interaction, and with the emergence of the web, we started to see the computer starting to become an end in and of itself — a medium in its own right.

And that was not beyond gaming. That was not something that was big. But now with the amount of consumption that we do digitally, it is even hard to conceive that the world was so analog back then.

So I went to this conference and I knew this is what I had to do — this changed the way I looked at the world.

After I graduated from college, it was 1994 and there was a bit of a recession then so jobs were hard to come by. So I started dabbling in HTML and just teaching myself web stuff. Then I finally got a job working at a small book publishing company, which published technical books. So I worked on one of the first bookstores online that sold these books at this publishing company while having a bunch of other jobs.

So like anyone working on the web in those days, I was a jack-of-all-trades — I was doing design, programming, interaction stuff.

I was really bad at most of those things which is what happens when you are a philosophy major trying to do these things.

But what I was really good at was thinking about how all of those pieces fit together. And that eventually became information architecture; that became this idea of this underlying structure informing all the rest of the parts of the web site.

When I moved to Washington DC in 1997, I got a job at an internet consulting firm called US Web. And it was there that I really started to focus exclusively on information architecture.

And that’s about as much of my origin story as I can share.

Lara: I like how you said that it is the underlying structure that informs everything. We know it but it is kind of a nice visual that it is a solid foundation for which everything flows.

Dan: Yeah. It is in some ways… My belief, and everyone is going to have a different opinion, but my belief is that underlying structure, that is in some ways the most intangible part of the site. It informs a lot of the design decisions that we make about the interface or about the way things look or behave on the site.

I make a decision that I’m going to classify content in a certain way. And I may never expose that classification to the people using the site.

But it is an important piece of the design process for us as designers to come to an agreement — when we look at this type of content, we are going to think of it as long form content. Or when we chunk out content, or when we think about the overall flow, we are going to call it these things so that we as designers can have a meaningful conversation about it even if that doesn’t necessarily make its way into the final interface.

Lara: So walk us through the next step of your career.

Dan: So US Web became March First which was awesome. That lasted about a year. And we preserved the March First office in DC which got bought by another company.

So I was still doing consulting right up through 2002. Obviously 9-11 happened in that time and lots of things fell apart. And TSA (Transportation Security Administration), which is a government agency that got stood up, and one of my colleagues ended up there and she brought me along with her.

TSA was a complicated and challenging chapter in my career. But I really learned a lot about big projects, how the government operates. And working for a mission rather than working for the bottom line.

It was very educational but it wasn’t a good fit. I started getting too far away from design work.

So I stayed with the government but started engaging with different government contractors. I worked at the Postal Service for a little while and the FCC, Federal Communications Commission, for a little while.

Those were really good steps, they allowed me to flesh out my portfolio, revisit design, get back into information architecture.

Then in 2006, my first child was born and the government contract that I was on didn’t allow any flexibility. I wanted to be a father my whole life. And so to have this lack of flexibility where I had to spend 40 hours a week chained to a desk in downtown DC and miss out on my son’s growth and development was not acceptable to me.

Right about at that point, my business partner had started in touch and we started forming an idea for EightShapes, which is the design firm that Nathan and I founded together.

And when Harry was born, it was an interesting personal moment for me to think of myself as a risk adverse person but also to understand what it means to take a risk. And EightShapes was such an important risk for me to take and it has really paid off in more ways than I can possibly imagine.

The partnership with Nathan alone has been fantastic; it’s been a fantastic seven years and it has allowed me not just to be the father and husband that I want to be, but the designer that I want to be.

Lara: That’s very cool. So how do your skills compliment each other with you and Nathan?

Dan: That is a very complicated question. Nathan and I are in some ways very different people. But what makes a partnership work is the ways in which you are the same.

We have high standards of quality. We prioritize two big things — the satisfaction of our customers but also the satisfaction of our employees. And the reward that they reap from participating in design projects and being given the opportunity to grow.

We founded the company on a variety of principles, things like transparency — it’s really important for us to be up front and honest with our clients, with our employees and each other.

It’s really important for me and Nathan to never completely divorce ourselves for the design work in and of itself. So we participate in lots of the projects that we do.

All those principles are really the common ground that we have and I think that’s what really forms the strength of the partnership — less about complimentary skill sets if that makes sense.

Lara: Definitely. I know you were talking a little bit about your card game and conflict resolution. So before we start talking about that, let’s talk about a real scenario you dealt with where you had some of those challenges and what instigated you to create this game.

Dan: Great question. I am going to answer both things but with different stories.

So the first book I wrote was called Communicating Design and it is a book about documentation — the artifacts designers create to communicate their design ideas.

I would give workshops and I would talk to people about it. And what was fascinating to me was they wanted to talk less about the artifacts and more about the conversations they had around those artifacts which is one of the central premises of the book — the fact that an artifact is really just an excuse to have a conversation.

But the real struggles they had was not in preparing the artifacts, but preparing for engaging in those conversations. And it was really those soft skills that a lot of the people I spoke to about it, were more interested in talking about.

So even as that first book was coming out, I knew this was an itch I needed to scratch. I knew I was really interested in the dynamic of a creative team.

The story I like to tell in the workshop about conflict is, I was working with another designer and we were working on this project where we were given a blue sky assignment which is actually the bane of every designer’s existence — you never want to work without constraints.

I took the project, we were running after it. And my colleague said, there is no way I can blue sky this — I need to lay out a better plan for how we were going to attack this problem.

So I said, the client is really asking for us to come up with lots of different ideas but if you feel strongly and I get this, we should assert our process.

So we create this document that describes what we think is the right approach for this. And we show up to the meeting and we present this plan and I will never forget the tone of voice when the client says to us, I am very disappointed.

Those three words are really hard to hear. Even an experienced designer doesn’t want to hear, “I am very disappointed.”

That really got me thinking about how do I deal with this situation? How do my colleagues deal with this situation? We are in a client services business, we need to make sure they are happy but also preserve the integrity of our approach and our process.

I am not going to say that’s the one incident that precipitated all of this, but it is one of many incidents and situations that we all face literally every day in our work.

The impetus for thinking about this stuff was trying to give designers a meaningful tool set for dealing with these things. We each have our own style, we each have our techniques, we each have our own biases in the kinds of situations that we are good at.

But we are all forced to deal with these situations on a daily basis.

Lara: In some of my experiences with conflict, it’s interesting because you know you are both working towards the same goal. But then there are these different paths that veer off where someone can hold so tightly onto the belief that they have to have this one thing or this one part of it. Whereas the other person might not agree with that and want to go in a different direction.

Then you have political constraints going on during that. It’s really challenging with people you either already work well with or people you kind of already know are maybe passive aggressive or whatever.

There are all kinds of personalities and they all have their own agenda for their business function. So what does the card game do to help everything come together to really focus on the end goal and going there together?

Dan: One of the things that you are talking about, one of the things that I try to distinguish is this distinction between healthy and unhealthy conflict.

A lot of the politics or egos we deal with are unhealthy conflict. Because even if you resolve them, they don’t move the project forward — they just make this person happy. Or they just sooth an ego or address someone’s agenda but they don’t actually move things forward.

Conflict is the engine of design. I believe that because great designs don’t just spill out of our heads, they come from an interaction around the ideas — to elaborate and create detail around those ideas.

The game tries to provide a variety of very simple, very granular techniques to help people deal with these situations maybe by exposing them to techniques or creating ways to frame up a situation — to redirect it from something that is unhealthy to something that is healthy.

dan-brown-cards-face-2I call these patterns and in the game there are about 36 patterns. I’ve got a book coming out that details all of these — I think I’ve gotten it up to about 45 patterns.

So 45 different little things that people can say or do to try and nudge a situation into a better direction. But they all really fall under 4 different categories.

  • One is empathy or empathize which is a way of helping someone understand that you are hearing them.
  • Another is called involved; this is another set of patterns that really tries to draw someone into the design process.
  • Another is called reframe. So this is a category of behaviors that asks us to use a new language to think about the situation because maybe we are just talking across purposes.
  • And the last one is redirect. So redirect is where we are focused on the wrong things so I am going to use this pattern to get you to focus on the right things.

So it is really those 4 kinds of behaviors that the game tries to teach — not necessarily teach but help designers practice. Because I might be a great listener but I may have trouble reframing a conversation. So by using those patterns, I have an opportunity to try out my skills in those areas.

Lara: I’m just curious how you approach a corporation or a group to play the game — no one wants to say, “We have conflict, we are screwed up!”

Dan: You’d be surprised. A lot of people are happy to admit their dysfunction.

The circumstances I’ve used the game are more workshop settings. I have been invited by a couple private firms to conduct this workshop. I do it at school of visual arts to help design students… I mean this is not something that is taught in design school.

Yes I was a liberal arts major but even we didn’t have conflict management. We had group projects but no one ever said, “Here is how to work effectively as a group.” No one teaches you how to work effectively as a group or deal with breakdowns of communication.

It’s just not skills that are taught. So most of my experience playing the game and using the game, and hearing about other people playing the game is within the context of team building or within a design team where they realize this could be fun, this gives us an opportunity to talk shop, to talk about our own experiences in a much safer environment — one that is outside a context of a particular project or a particular interaction.

Lara: So maybe you could share an example of healthy collaboration.

Dan: Sure. One of the techniques that we use, it’s not a conflict management technique but it is born out of this idea that we need to go back and forth in order to really generate meaningful design decisions.

We use sketching studios and a lot of designers are writing about this at the moment.

The idea here is I am given a design problem and I’m given a certain amount of time to sketch up my ideas on how I would solve that problem.

And I do that in a group setting, I do that in a way where a bunch of us are doing it — and maybe it isn’t just designers, maybe it is business stakeholders or engineers or quality control people. Wouldn’t it even be nice if users came to a design session where we are all sketching out our different ideas.

That’s just half of it though. The other half is being able to provide constructive criticism — something beyond “I don’t like that, it kind of sucks.”

Instead, providing meaningful criticism so I can then iterate on the design. And that’s really only a part of it — the ideal is we’ve all iterated and designed our own a couple times, now let’s work together as a group to collectively sketch what we think the best solution is.

Maybe we are amalgamating different parts of different design ideas. Maybe we’ve come up with new design ideas based on stuff we’ve bounced off of each other. But ultimately we are sketching as a group to get to something where we’ve collaborated in such a way where we’ve all kind of validate and get behind an idea.

Do we use that sketch as the final design direction? Probably not but it gives us good insight into what our stakeholders and our colleagues are thinking is important to them.

Lara: It is so refreshing when you can work with someone and not just say that sucks but to say, I don’t think we should do it this way because of X,Y,Z. What if we looked at it this way? And they say, we could add this or this!

And then you have this superior design with two brains working as one but you aren’t being offended along the way. You are just like, that is how I see that healthy collaboration where you are both respectful of each other — you aren’t cutting each other down but you are still being really honest.

Dan: One of the things that we try to do at EightShapes is cultivate a collaborative culture where people feel comfortable having those kinds of conversations with each other to the extent that we are sort of draining all the ego out of those kinds of conversations.

And it remains challenging, as effective as we are at it; it remains challenging because people feel really passionate about the work that they do which is great. The challenge of any designer is to direct that passion in a constructive and positive way.

You had mentioned being honest and being open with each other, it is clear to me as we are building this collaborative culture at EightShapes, that there are really four virtues of collaboration — transparency and openness is one of them. But there is also accountability and ownership.

So I feel a sense of ownership for the design but I’m also accountable for the decisions that I make.

Lara: Do they have it out there?

Dan: It is being published in June.

Lara: So you were talking about the four virtues…

Dan: The four virtues of collaboration that kind of inform people’s behaviors in here.

So if they feel accountable for their work, they feel like they can take responsibility for it without fear of being punished for failure.

Lara: Like you aren’t fired if you screw up.

Dan: Right. Obviously it depends on the screw up. But I think part of transparency is also setting expectations — we are working on a project that I don’t feel entirely comfortable with.. I’m going to give it my best shot but I might seek additional input from you. So you have an understanding of where I am coming from.

Lara: Yeah, I think it is good to be able to say, you are right, that doesn’t really work well so I’m going to go back and change it based on your input.

So being able to sort of own up to it is very important.

I’m just curious about the creative side of it, you want to keep your hands in that part of it… What part of design gets you most excited?

Dan: If I am playing to my strengths, I am very good at that information architecture side — specifically taking that step back and understanding how all the pieces fit together.

But for me, engineering a well-oiled machine in terms of the team working together is also incredibly satisfying.

So is that design? I don’t know but it feels like without it, design can’t happen. So I guess it is part of design in my opinion.

I just rolled off a project for a local software vendor in the DC area and it is a really esoteric project — lots of weird data visualization stuff that needs to happen… Very obscure audience. But it was incredibly satisfying because my team gelled really well — we had clear role definitions.

And I was able to be that authority on the team of here is how all the pieces fit together.

So maybe the other guys didn’t understand all of the esoteric connections but they knew they could ask me to clarify those things while at the same time, I didn’t necessarily feel the need to own every last decision in terms of the visual design.

I don’t know if that answers your question, but that interaction to me was extremely satisfying.

Lara: Yeah, like the vision and helping the team move in the same direction.

Dan: And there are important detail decisions that need to happen about how these things fit together. Or what are the key parts of that underlying framework that we were talking about before.

Those are design decisions and they are fairly detailed ones but they aren’t necessarily the ones that get exposed in the interface.

Lara: So share with the audience when your book is coming out and where to find it.

Dan: The book is called Designing Together and the subtitle is the collaboration and conflict management handbook for creative professionals.

It will be everywhere June 13th and it is being published by New Writers.

Lara: Great. And what about workshops?

Dan: They can contact us at and if they want to do a private workshop, we can definitely talk about that.

Lara: Awesome. Thank you for being on UX Radio.

Dan: It was my pleasure. Thank you.


What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with the author? What inspired you from this episode? What did you learn? What resources were most helpful? Please add a comment and share your thoughts with us!


Dan Brown is founder and principal at EightShapes, LLC, a user experience consulting firm based in Washington, DC that has engaged with clients in telecommunications, media, education, health, high-tech, and other sectors. Dan has been practicing information architecture and user experience design since 1995.He authored the book Communicating Design and designed the game Surviving Design Projects. His new book is called Designing Together, the collaboration and conflict management handbook for creative professionals.

Prior to founding EightShapes, Dan consulted with organizations ranging from the US Postal Service, the World Bank, and the Federal Communications Commission to USAirways, FirstUSA, and Fannie Mae. From 2002-2004, Dan was a Federal employee, leading the content management program for the Transportation Security Administration. His portfolio includes work on public-facing web sites, intranets and extranets, and addresses most aspects of the user experience, from information architecture and content strategy to interaction and interface design.

Having earned a bachelors in Philosophy from Wesleyan University well before the web was mainstream, Dan attempts to reference Plato as often as possible in his design work.