John Ellison

Day 67: UX Club Special—Metadesign with John Willshire

8 min read

john willshire introducing metadesign to clearleft

On Day 67 we kicked off our day with a really fun UX Club Special on Metadesign. John Willshire and Fraser Hamilton from Smithery were kind enough to join us and bring some insightful perspective to the conversation.

The idea for the UX Club Special on Metadesign sprouted when I wrote about John's 'Popular Thing for Broken Thing Workshop' on Day 43 of my 90 Day journey working at Clearleft.

John Willshire and I exchanged thoughts about Metadesign after I wrote the article, and we thought it would be valuable to set up a chat here at Clearleft to talk further and invite others into the conversation.

The Provocation

A few days before our chat, John Willshire sent a few seeds to spark the conversation around Metadesign. He suggested watching John Wood talks for a bit of context:

John also posed a question to get us thinking about Metadesign in relationship to what we're doing now:

Perhaps we do it anyway, but without thinking about it?

The Conversation

We started off with a little context to introduce the discussion to the group and I asked John Willshire if he wanted to add any additional information to set the stage of our conversation. I like the way John talks in front of groups, he always has a tone of mystery and intrigue in his voice. It's not as if he already knows the answer to the question, it's that he's truly curious and his tone conveys the curiosity more than words could do alone.

We decided to split into two different groups and employ the Lean Coffee format of discussion. If you've never done Lean Coffee discussions before, they're really easy and loads of fun.

Here's how it works:

  1. Each person grabs a stack of sticky notes and a sharpie.
  2. In clear letters they write any question, topic, or argument that comes to mind.
  3. Once everyone has finished writing, someone introduces a sticky note and explains why they wrote it.
  4. As the rest of the group introduces what they've written, the facilitator begins to organize them into categories.
  5. The facilitator may choose to label the categories if it is necessary, but otherwise the group then has a chance to vote on which topics they want to talk about most.
  6. The topics with the most votes are discussed first. Equal amounts of time are allotted to each topic.

Groups & Topics

In our group, I had the fortune of discussing Metadesign with Fraser Hamilton, Anna Allan, Rich Rutter, Chris Green and Andy Thornton.

The first topic we discussed was an obvious one: "What is Metadesign?", we ended up smashing it together with the next question of "What are examples of Metadesign & what can we learn from them?" in order to aid in our definition of the term.

What is Metadesign?

what is metadesign? what are examples of metadesign?

Most of us had seen John Willshire's talk at dConstruct 2015 and were somewhat familiar with the term metadesign, but even still, the concept seemed elusive and our understanding seemed transient.

But even with a lack of clarity, within a few minutes of starting the conversation we quickly had a few working definitions of Metadesign:

  • Metadesign is the context, environment and process by which design is performed.
  • If design is concerned with answering "what" then Metadesign is concerned with answering "how?".

Rich raised a few valid questions about whether or not designing a workshop is metadesign. Maybe we've been doing metadesign all along we just haven't been calling it anything or paying as much attention to it. This was a very relevant point and I think Rich also touched on the blurred boundaries between where design ends and metadesign begins.

When we talked more and more about the concept and tried to create logical boundaries, the more complex the discussion became.

Fraser asked "If metadesign is this difficult for us to articulate, then how can we expect to articulate its value to others? We have to keep it simple in order for it to make sense."

We carried on to talking about specific examples of Metadesign to provide clarification.

What are examples of Metadesign & what can we learn from them?

I started us off by introducing John Willshire's "Popular Thing for Broken Thing" workshop as a perfect example of Metadesign. The Metadesign problem is "How do we iteratively generate startup concepts in a collaborative design workshop?". The structure of John's workshop is the solution. The outcomes of the workshop is that every participant leaves with a strong understanding of one startup concept that they found and refined throughout the workshop's activities.

Andy T raised John Willshire's Relativity Matrix as an example of Metadesign and we talked through a few other examples and examined them from the perspective of the definitions we'd discussed in the first topic.

Musical Color

During John Willshire's talk at dConstruct, I thought of a project I worked on a few years back called Musical Color. It was a personal project aimed at creating a deeper understanding of music theory, sight reading, and the relationships between emotion and musical composition.

I introduced an output from my project called the Musical Color Wheel. The wheel demonstrates the relationship between every scale in Western music by intervals of fifths. I began creating associations between a specific color and specific notes in order to reduce the cognitive load of reading sheet music, but in this wheel it also allows the mind to see patterns of colors instead of letters and symbols.

musical color wheel

Even for someone who does not understand music theory at all, a person can glance at this diagram and begin to make deductions and even conclusions about music theory and the relationship between scales. If you gave someone a piano with a colored keyboard and music sheet, this wheel might instigate some interesting and otherwise unexplored combinations.

musical color keyboard

musical color score 1 bar song sheet moonlight sonata

Offloading Complexity

There are some really interesting patterns that arise when you redistribute the cognitive load of a system onto a simple visual tool. It allows you to step back from the system's complexity and allow your mind to create patterns and relationships naturally.

There is something profound about creating simple visual tools to offload complexity and allow creativity to reign freely. We often force ourselves to think within our heads instead of thinking visually or thinking out loud. Maybe 'thinking visually' is an important principle for us to consider as we further explore the domain of Metadesign.

Why Metadesign? What problems does it solve?

In our next topic, we discussed how Metadesign could be applied to the problems that we experience as designers in a design agency. From culture change, upskilling, workshops to creating shared understanding—we all agreed that Metadesign has loads of different potential applications. What we weren't so sure about was how to approach these problems with Metadesign. There is no rulebook for Metadesign, and no one seems to know exactly how it works, so it was a fascinating discussion talking around a largely undefined topic.

How does this change what we currently do?

This conversation brought references to several of the projects that Clearleft had worked on recently. It seemed important to spend more conscious effort thinking about how we interact with our clients, how we communicate and execute our process. The idea of a 'Metadesign' role came into conversation. Ultimately we were wondering "Is this something that has explicit value? Can we sell this? Does it need to be called Metadesign?"

Its been great to see conversations crossing over from project to project. Patterns emerging out of seeming chaos and randomness has always been one of my favorite parts of being a creative problem solver.

Brining The Conversation Back Together

discussing metadesign at Clearleft for UX Club

At the end of our 30-minute discussion, we brought the two groups back together to discuss what we learned in our separate groups. We provided an overview of our discussion and a new organic discussion evolved from it. Ben Sauer related the topic of Metadesign to a project he recently finished and we wondered whether a full-time Metadesigner on future projects could be valuable.

John Willshire suggested that a designer could play the role of a designer on one project and the role of a metadesigner on another project. Playing two different roles and seeing two different perspectives could be an very valuable strategy. It could also spread someone's responsibilites too thinly, but the idea is interesting to explore, for sure.

We talked about the boundaries between design and metadesign, and many people referred to the metaphor of a box. Design is about creating a box. Metadesign is about creating the context in which a box is designed.

These were our definitions at least. I am looking forward to hearing other people's thoughts about the topic of Metadesign: What is it? Why do we care? and What problems does it solve?

It was great to have John Willshire and Fraser Hamilton at the office. I enjoyed hearing about Fraser's journey cycling unsupported across America to raise money for charity. You can read about his journey on his website.

I'm looking forward to exploring this domain of Metadesign further and seeing its potential. Maybe we'll see an interesting new discipline emerge in the coming years.


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