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4 Ways Hip-Hop Changed the Way I Work

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May 01 2017

I wanted to try something new this year. Something that scared me a little bit. (Okay, a lot.) So I signed up for a hip-hop class. On the first day I almost didn’t go, but an hour into class I was covered in sweat, smiling from ear to ear, and high-fiving my fellow classmates. On Monday morning I found that what I learned in class had followed me to work. It was more than just the music in my head—there were other lessons to take from that class. Here’s what I discovered about how hip-hop can make you a better designer:

1. Get out of your head

When the music comes on, I let go of what’s in my head and let my body take over. Learning the steps mechanically will never get me into the groove—I have to connect to the music to find my flow.

Design work is no different. Exploring the future of the credit card (yes, that’s part of “design” work here at IDEO) probably won’t have you jumping out of bed; you have to find something in the challenge that moves you. In this case, it was understanding that the card could be about access—to that trip you often dream of taking, to the most amazing cup of coffee in a little-known cafe, to that stunning bag that is clearly missing from your collection. This shift, from payment to access, unlocks a whole new way of thinking about the opportunity. When you move beyond executing the mechanics and find a way connect to the opportunity on a deeper, more personal level, you will be able to bring your best creative energy to it.

2. Learn as you go

In class, we don’t see the full routine at the beginning. We learn it in parts and build as we go. This requires trust and patience: trust that the parts will add up to something bigger, and the patience to go through a process of trial, error, and repetition.

This runs counter to how I (and many people) work. Designers like to move fast—to begin with a vision and quickly start building it out. For example, imagine a smart, voice-activated delivery service for an older adult. You can probably already envision a prototype in your mind. But how will the service interact in a way that feels appropriately human? If the user asks the same question again and again, how will it respond to her? How might it share relevant information with her family and caregivers? Designing these details is critical to getting the service right. Even when the vision comes easily, following through requires is an exploratory process that requires patience. Putting in the time and effort to learn something new is sure to pay off when some unexpected revelation emerges.

3. Add your flare

Once I know the mechanics of the dance, the real work starts: a subtle swing of my hips, the way I hold my hands, adding my flare to a key transition. This is where I make what I’ve learned my own.

It can be scary to take something that’s been expertly designed and change it. When working through a new digital ecosystem for a retailer, a visually compelling user interface could stop you from questioning possible disconnects in the customer experience or retailer mechanics. But being part of a design team is about looking for places where your unique perspective adds depth and insight to what you collectively create. So don’t be afraid to put your post-it sketch on top of a beautiful screen. Sharing your point of view gets you to an even better design.

4. Get inspired, not competitive

During class I seek out the people in the room who pick up the moves quickly and execute them perfectly. When I start comparing myself to them, I always lose. But when I shift my perspective and instead draw energy and take pointers from those dancers, it opens up a world of possibilities. My moves improve and so does my confidence.

We all have high expectations for our work. But when you look at other people as reference points for how you’re failing, self-doubt invariably creeps in, preventing you from doing your best work. What if the next time you start to judge yourself, you pair up with a designer who inspires you to explore the challenge side-by-side? Your design jam session may not get you as sweaty as a hip-hop jam session, but you'll likely still find yourself smiling—and doling out a few high-fives along the way.

Illustrations by Yue Yuan.

  • Melanie Bell-Mayeda

    Partner and Managing Director, IDEO San Francisco
    Melanie Bell-Mayeda is a Partner and Managing Director in IDEO’s San Francisco office, helping to lead the Design for Change studio. She is also the instructor of IDEO U's new course on Human-Centered Service Design.
  • Yue Yuan

    Interaction Design Intern, IDEO San Francisco
    Yue is an interaction designer, illustrator, and photographer. She loves creating novel hybrid digital-physical experiences and always thinks about how to integrate technology in a more playful and humanized way. She is shaped by Asian, European and American Culture, and is planning to travel to as many places as she can.
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