Was Mao Tse-tung a Designer?


Understanding the parts necessitates understanding the whole, and understanding the whole necessitates understanding the parts — this is the hermeneutic circle.

A product, any product, cannot be be created a feature at a time. Well, OK, it can, but it will result in a Frankenstein. The same goes for a beautiful product that over time has features added without addressing their impact on the whole. Sometimes you need to go back to the drawing board.

Of course old wives tales abound. Maybe if we rub some garlic on our designs everything will come out just fabulous? Or at least ensuing product may be vampire proof. The thing is, when it comes to design, there are a bunch of these ideas that all point in the same direction — so for the sake of argument let’s examine a few.

“Always design a thing by considering it  in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”
 — Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950)

Similar, right? Ever been in a conversation where the idea of an MVP means start coding straight away, maybe “build it and they will come?”, to coin a stolen phrase. On that score in an agile context at least “Sprint Zero” has ushered in a more considered approach to understanding the whole body of work to be undertaken. But even then, only when this is a multidisciplinary exercise and not just a technical one.

Here’s another, by the wonderful Frank Chimero.

“The creative process, in essence, is an individual in dialogue with themselves and the work. The painter, when at a distance from the easel, can assess and analyze the whole of the work from this vantage. He scrutinizes and listens, chooses the next stroke to make, then approaches the canvas to do it. Then, he steps back again to see what he’s done in relation to the whole. It is a dance of “switching contexts, a pitter-patter pacing across the studio floor that produces a tight feedback loop between mark-making and mark-assessing.” 
— Frank Chimero, “The Shape of Design.”

It's also worth noting that an artist will sketch their whole composition first. Making, erasing, fixing, until they are satisfied that the direction is correct. Additionally, an artist might sketch many versions before settling on the one (prototyping).

Pulling back (or as Frank would say, stepping back) out of the digital context it's easy to see the role of Customer Journey as another layer. The digital component of an experience within an organization is just that, a single touchpoint amongst many.

From this perspective how do the journeys interrelate? Cross each other and layer upon each other? Design as a discipline contends with all of the above. How an organization itself is structured and how the processes work within it - all of these are designed, and how they are designed impacts the whole.

Going back to our original premise, what does Mao say on the subject? Was that the click bait that drew you in? Well, surprisingly, though not known for being a designer as such, some of his writing strikes for a similar intent.

In studying a problem, we must shun ... one-sidedness ... To be one-sided, for example, to understand only China but not Japan, only the Communist Party but not the Kuomintang, only the Proletariat but not the bourgeoisie, only the peasant but not the landlords, only the favorable conditions but not the difficult ones, only the past but not the future, only individual parts but not the whole, only the defects but not the achievements, only the plaintiff’s case but not the defendant’s, only secret revolutionary work but not open revolutionary work, and soon... This is what we mean by looking at a problem one-sidedly. Or it may be called seeing the part but not the whole, seeing the trees but not the forest.”
— Mao Tse-tung

So, where am I going with all this? In short, Design is not only UX and UI, Service Design, or Brand and Marketing material. Though the footprint design has established in many organizations is a relatively recent outcome of digital (and the almost faddish obsession with customer experience), many still only see the application of design and the designer on a small scale. For design to mature, it must break out of the beachhead it has established to deliver on the promise of more human (and humane) companies.

The Design Maturity Project (TDPM) hopes to help point the way. A guide of sorts — for what’s missing. And for that, it needs to be actionable. By which I mean moving beyond design maturity models that tell us, ‘you are here’, step 3 or level 4. A maturity model, like a map, tells us where we are. But unlike a map, current maturity models do not help us to understand how to get to where we want to go to. The TDMP aims to close the gap by illuminating the ‘how’. Its purpose, “to build empathetic human organizations through the power of (human-centered) design” and its vision is “every organization in the world with a Chief Design Officer (CDO)”.

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