XXVI.4 July-August 2019
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Rise of the meta-designer

Uday Gajendar

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It's often said that one should not "go meta" because things simply get too abstract and unwieldy in the mind, trying to make sense of it all at varying levels or dimensions. But perhaps it's exactly the right time for designers to go meta, at least as a useful respite from the daily grind of that which is becoming automated and instrumented ad nauseam—and maybe more dramatically, for our professional survival, with a reframing of authentic, substantive design value.

Algorithms, automation, instrumentation: Designing is becoming increasingly routine, predictable, and systematic for the sake of efficiency and reliability, to safely ensure high-velocity outputs. The poetics of human-computer interaction have evolved into prescriptions for scaled, scheduled delivery. From distributed symbol libraries to computerized usability tests, what then becomes of the designer? What is now the reason for being? But perhaps the true realm for a designer's value is starting to reveal itself. Against this backdrop, I wonder if there will be the rise of what I call meta-designers, whose fundamental aspects are strategic, humanistic, and—dare I say—philosophic.

We see this starting to happen somewhat with the emergence of design thinking in corporate boardrooms, with newly appointed customer experience chiefs charged with defining a holistic model that ties disparate business elements together for delivering customer-based market value. In effect, such trends signal the daunting challenge of, well, designing design itself—the meta-design that makes such customer-centric capabilities and sensibilities possible within organizations. The design thinking movement scratches the surface of this notion of meta-design, with the initial breaking of conventional business management chains to free up attitudes in support of problem reframing and "fast fail" iteration, backed by empathy-friendly mindsets. Meanwhile, customer experience provides a business-friendly governance framework to spin up an "outside-in" value-making machine (i.e., making money!) that focuses on the customer. It involves highly complex coordinations among the marketing, sales, customer support, and product management teams with an integrated sense of how to ensure cohesive messaging, workflows, and branding, where the customer is ostensibly at the center of decision making, or at least of ROI analysis. Finally, there's user experience, which, as a product development concept, is basically a remnant of the dotcom boom of the late 1990s ("the UX of websites"). It has now popularly come to refer to the delivery or use of any and all digital products or services reflecting best practices drawn from HCI, cognitive psychology, interaction design, and other related fields molded into a compelling interactive encounter (for a website, application, smart device, etc.).

Tying together all these levels of design into an organizational apparatus that lives, breathes, evolves, and amplifies itself into a force-multiplier of sorts—this is the profound challenge of meta-design: actually designing the conditions for good design to emerge and thrive, for the long term, with a sustained sense of continuity and value, not some random spark of luck or defined by a single strong personality. There's a sense of legacy here—something that endures beyond any specific group of people themselves.

This is the profound challenge of meta-design: actually designing the conditions for good design to emerge and thrive.

How does someone (or a globally distributed multidisciplinary team) design the essential services, systems, structures, cultural vibe, and process models that both operationalize design into something tactical and shippable and also spiritualize design into something meaningful and critical, pursuing deep questions about the organization's value and purpose and adding to a sorely lacking humanist dimension? Hmm, that's quite daunting. And, let's admit, these are not necessarily the typical wonderings of a modern design leader. But such thinking will be necessary to ensure the long-term vitality and value of teams beyond daily routines. Otherwise you will be constantly on defense, reacting to shifting circumstances, per the whims of others (i.e., business and tech executives) or aspects outside the field of view—the blindspots of daily delivery-focused myopia—rather than being proactive. We expect our products and apps to be anticipatory in providing a great experience for their users, so why not expect that of our design organizational ethos? How can we get to that place where we're anticipating what's next as a culture and spirit? Where we're iteratively and critically designing designing?


Part of that involves knowing what it takes to be a meta-designer. Sure, much of this could sound like just being an astute, proactive, resourceful design leader—and to some degree, yes, that's certainly important! But it's always reframing your perspectives and actions in a designerly way that fertilizes the ground for both peers and challengers (from other departments or teams). In this respect, the core principles that guide such a meta-designer may be the following:

  • Reflection in action: Consideration of inferred relationships and potential consequences in the midst of designing. This is impacted by today's high-velocity needs to execute outputs with little time allocated for such reflection, a "ship it now" mentality of moving fast and breaking things for the sake of vanity metrics and investor dollars. Yet such reflection would yield benefits for the individuals (their career growth), the team (habits of excellence), and the product too (are we building the right thing for the right people for the right reasons?).
  • Strategic forethought: Looking ahead to connections among an organization's disparate functions, decisions, attitudes, and outcomes. This is made difficult by deeply siloed and globally distributed teams or the lack of true partnership and collaborative contexts with honest questioning of dependencies, which could lead to a disastrous convergence, or even dire misalignment. Nobody wants a rude surprise at the end of a laborious journey; seeing connections (or the lack of them) can help prevent that surprise, preparing teams to get proper processes and maybe hold useful "intervention" moments before things get crazy.
  • Intellectual humanism: Lending a nuanced vocabulary informed by critical lenses and depth of analysis around problems. This is heavily challenged by the rapid-fire cadence of thoughtless tech talk optimized for efficient communications (thanks, high-velocity delivery deadlines!) filled with internal jargon, acronyms, and clinical or even stereotyped descriptions of customers—often with little patience for questioning their motivations. Yet enrichening daily discourse with language that speaks to a desire to go deep into unraveling the layers of complexity, shaped by genuine human curiosity—that might make eyes widen with realization, and sharpen our mindsets a bit.
  • Creative provocation: Suggesting that which is radical and speculative to spark risky dialogues and enable fresh perspectives. This absolutely runs counter to attempts to ensure the safe, reliable, predictable efficiency of output generation—but is essential to the lifeblood of any organization that values human-centered innovation! To provoke is to challenge the current/mainstay and inspire alternative ideas that push the boundaries of tolerable risk. But that's often the point of why we keep demanding that we "change existing situations into preferred ones," as Herb Simon said of design's core characteristic.

Following these principles are actions that typify a meta-designer's practical work:

  • Foster critical thinking, questioning, and argumentation around design process, system, culture, and values as interrelated and dynamically impacting elements.
  • Create, interpret, and apply frameworks or models of thought toward such aforementioned issues. This will necessarily require quite a bit of mapping/diagramming/storytelling, as it's abstract and needs to somehow become more concrete to engage with non-design peers, help them be active in the meta-designing—and hopefully see the utility of the outcomes.
  • Define integrative design systems that are both material and cultural: The origin, creation, application, and adaptation of them are what matter. This will require designing for multiple teams (again, often buried within silos) and having that cross-functional overlap vibe, with full transparency across teams. This will foster a sense of trust and team unity.
  • Have a strong aptitude for lifecycles, ecosystems, platforms, and journeys, with an unapologetically humanist outlook, asking: How are human values championed and supported end to end, across the horizons and paths? This is crucial as we blaze forward into an algorithmically driven future of optimizing efficiencies for a system. Humans are messy and values are fuzzy—it's like cutting cubes from clouds! Negotiating such inherent humanistic fuzziness while upholding basic human values and needs is vital and must not be compromised while system and business architectures are being developed.
  • Critically and robustly tackle the political/social/ethical aspects of business and technology; it's a key aspect of advocating humanist values in thought and practice. It's not enough to just deliver something meaningful; that something (and the culture and process enabling its existence) must be respectful and supportive of people, without causing harm—or creating the opportunity for damage and abuse. For instance, someone on Twitter had suggested teams should write a Black Mirror episode for their product—tell the tale of the worst possible abuse and then work backward to prevent it from happening. Constantly raising those questions, shaking that red flag in the face of... well, it's not really opposition, per se, but the runaway train of high-velocity delivery for the sake of metrics.

It's not enough to just deliver something meaningful; that something must be respectful and supportive of people.

Of course, some of this sounds like organizational behavior and psychology or simply being a corporate therapist of sorts. There's no doubt about that! Yet the notion of meta-design is key here, because of the confluence of both intention and significance with practical consequence—which happens in action, not mere rhapsodizing on a whiteboard with multicolored stickies and voting dots. There is a deliberate shaping of forces and frameworks to empower and enable pivotal outcomes, which is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Every organization, from startups to multinationals, must be regarded differently, on its own terms, requiring variations of process and culture to support customer-driven goals. This means a deep questioning of the context and purpose, and of viable outcomes.


Meta-designing in this sense could be the next grand frontier of design practice, imbued with a strategic sense for humanism and intellectualism, which are necessary elements if we are to make design thinking + customer experience + user experience into more than a checklist of ingredients for a "successful business." What will you do to advance this approach? It's admittedly aspirational and fuzzy to tackle, but that doesn't mean it's not feasible or valuable.

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Uday Gajendar ( has been a prolific UX designer and leader for more than 15 years, shipping designs for PayPal, Facebook, Citrix, Adobe, and others. He also enjoys coaching startups on UX fundamentals. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2019 ACM, Inc.

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