From Communication Design to Conversation Design
To evolve from an economy of extraction to an economy of care we need to evolve from Communication Design to Conversation Design. While Communication Design builds one-directional relationships between corporations and consumers, Conversational Design builds frameworks and pathways for communities.
I have not talked about it much, but today is a good day to tell you that I joined a not-for-profit organization at the beginning of 2023 and it is challenging my way of thinking about design.
The job title they gave me is Visual Conversation Design Lead at Dark Matter Laboratories. DML is an international not-for-profit collaborating with communities to reshape and rebuild their institutions, instruments, and infrastructures.
I have felt the urge to use my design skills and knowledge to improve the world we live in, on and from, for many years, but did not know how. I was frustrated about seeing human systems destroying us and our planet and not being able to do anything about it. Designing a poster and posting it to social media felt useless. I mean, I get it and I don’t criticize designers doing so. It is what comes to the designer’s mind first. Paraphrasing the saying “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”: When all you have is the creative cloud, everything looks like a poster on Instagram.
We do not have no power as designers, we just use our skills for the wrong things, in the wrong context, and for the wrong purposes. When we design a post on social media we try to teach individuals that have no power either and probably are in our network, because they already think like us.
This year I realized that we DO have power as designers. We have the power to say NO to certain clients, tools, and trends and we have the power to say YES to work with innovative experts and decision-makers in leverage positions that need our help. We can’t do it alone. We need to join communities of practice.
From Communication Design to Conversation Design
To evolve from an economy of extraction to an economy of care we need to change complex systems with multipolar problems. This is only possible if we form trans-disciplinary, trans-institutional, and trans-everything networks. To bridge these gaps we need to evolve from Communication Design to Conversation Design. While Communication Design builds one-directional relationships between corporations and consumers, Conversational Design builds frameworks and pathways for communities.
Communication Design has been strongly influenced by the system it has been used for. In most cases, the attempted kind of communication has been one-directional with the sole purpose of convincing a person to become a customer. As the Visual Conversation Design Lead, I am trying to unlearn the strategies of consumer building and learn the strategies of community building.
In the following 10 points, I tried to outline the key qualities Conversational Design should have:
While we need to understand the world in its complexity, we need to strive for simplicity in design. The simplest solution is the solution that wastes the littlest time, energy, and material. Simplicity in Conversational Design does not mean reducing the complexity of information. It means creating flows of knowledge, allowing to join the conversation from different points of view and levels of understanding.
We make our texts as comprehensible as possible, in terminology, structure, and typography. We have clearly identifiable hierarchies to allow fast navigation. Longer texts are always left-aligned, not too small, not too big, not too narrow, not too wide, and sufficiently darker than their background. All of the settings are responsively adapted to their display.
We always credit and reference. Our work is the materialization of flows. It emerges through relationships. Making these relationships visible allows our ideas to be questioned and evolve. While staying readable through simple hierarchies, like titles, sub-titles, introductions, and subheadings, we offer opportunities to deepen the knowledge through side-, foot- or endnotes. Transparency also means avoiding layers of concealment that distance us from the matter, like decorative visual or verbal language.
Without considering the possibility of being wrong or ignorant, and the wish to listen and learn, there can’t be conversation. Conversational Design has to express a certain degree of uncertainty. Techniques to make the design look unquestionable should be avoided.
Frictionless design is the enemy of constructive conversation. The frictionless design confirms one’s beliefs, even if wrong. We need to welcome different perspectives and positions if we want to evolve. Design should create and not hide friction to stimulate conversation.
Communication Design seduces consumers. Conversational Design treats its partners as equals. Design should not dumb down, but be challenging. Design can be a chance to evolve visual literacy and stimulate compound learning.
Leave space for the design to evolve and emerge. Think about the constants and variables of your system. What are the variables and how can they be used to show the emergence and evolution of the design? In a world of constant change, everything planned is likely to break. A flexible system able to adapt is more likely to survive.
If it is our aim to enter into conversation with humans we need to become aware of the conditions under which they are confronted with us. To communicate adequately we need to adapt in size, form, and tone according to the context in which the conversation should take place. Contextual design is about using the right tools for the right people in the right context.
Visual eloquence means moving away from simplistic visual messages like logos and embracing the diversity and complexity of visual languages. Everything that makes us visible is an identification element. From the people of our organization to the output we create. Whatever is seen most, matters most to the Visual Identity.
Above all rules, we follow the principle of humanity, which states that when interpreting our conversational partner we consider his or her perspective as true to their reality, although it may appear untrue from our perspective. In Conversation Design, we need to be hard on the matter, but soft on the people, to reach a common understanding of a shared faith.
The ten points mentioned above are influenced by experiences and talks I had with my colleagues at Dark Matter Laboratories, like Indy Johar, Arianna Smaron, Gurden Batra, Leon Seefeld, Jayne Engle, Ivana Stancic, JP King, and many more, which aren’t documented and can’t be referenced here, but there are a couple of readable references that helped me with my thinking and I would like to collect them here.
This is an ongoing thought process and I would appreciate every hint from you to more relevant sources regarding the creation, application, and implementation of Conversational Design in communities.