The Importance of Listening

Great design begins by listening.

Listening allows a designer to understand the beliefs, the expectations, the perspectives and the biases that a group of people share. Asking the right questions and allowing the dialogue to take over provides the insights necessary to build a foundation of understanding for collaborative work. Too often, this initial first step is bypassed for other strategies, but I’ve found listening to be an instrumental tool for seeing an organization as it is and what it wants to become.

By simply listening, and giving the opportunity for expression, you learn things, provocative and interesting things, that can direct design forward. And that can provide you with the first step into how and what you design, but most importantly, give you a reason why you design.

Here are a selected group of insights, from several projects, that I have found to be thought-provoking….

“I want my students to represent their ideas in plastic.” A first grade teacher responds to the question: Why is 3D printing interesting to you?

“A library should glow in the dark…” 4th graders, talking about what they want their library to be.

“In our library, you should be able to climb on monkey bars…” Indeed. More insights from fourth graders…we should be more like 4th graders.

“Develop experiences that challenge our kids in the moment.” Parents, discussing the need for spontaneity in learning and in experience.

“I want to build a robot in art class.” A student, seeing a different and personal pathway for what “art class” is.

“An innovative lesson is based in the interests and passions of kids and engages them in the construction of new understanding.” An administrator discussing what constitutes innovation. The school is in good hands.

“We should always be wrestling with our learning…” Admins talking about professional development.

“We want students to chase learning.” Teachers, talking about their hopes for kids and for their learning.

“The future of learning is to turn a classroom into a learning gym.” Kids, with their thinking unencumbered in the best of ways.

“It’s student-driven, wind them up and let them go.” A teacher, talking about the future of learning.

“You have a footprint of real-estate and the studio is a mindset and a way of interacting within it.” Administrators, talking about the tension between classroom and studio, and how the two spatial ideas relate.

“Within the framework of predictability, you can still color outside of the lines. The lines give students reassurance.” Admins, talking about the need for structure in a life exceedingly in beta.

This is the good stuff. This is what matters, and providing the opportunity for deep and thoughtful ideas to surface is incredibly important. The design process demands this, and weaving these ideas together allows the narrative of an organization to emerge. From there, the opportunity to pivot to a tangible design solution, and one that matters, is a very real opportunity.

Designing alongside an organization means understanding their DNA at the deepest level. So, take the time, provide the forum, honor what is being said, and use that information to inform the design path. Do this first. And…keep listening as you move forward.