Working with Humans

Design is a discipline that seems to attract introverts.  There are plenty of exceptions, but many designers I know spend a lot of time in their own heads, collaborating only where the process already suggests it.  

Blizzard has a design principle based entirely around this: "Avoid the Grand Reveal."  It exists because it's so tempting to just build something in isolation, wanting to make it perfect before showing anyone, often out of fear that they won't understand it if they see it in a raw state.  But things held close and quiet fail just as often, they just fail too late to do anything about it.  I would expect this to hold true for indie games as well, when they're not bold enough to seek regular input and feedback along the way.

This hesitance to collaborate is an interesting contradiction, because design more than any other discipline (except production perhaps) requires communicating with other groups constantly.  Many designers don't code and have little artistic talent, so knowing how to communicate ideas and get people excited about them is critical to making those ideas real.  On larger teams, designers often end up acting as the hub of creation, bringing the art and engineering together to make it into the actual game.  The more a designer learns to work with those other parts of the process, the better the final creation turns out.


What it really means to work on a Creative team

Ideas are sparks.  Glimpses of some potential direction a design might take.  Kept in isolation, fostered alone, they're weak.  Maybe they retain some purity, but they retain all of their inadequacies and blind spots as well.  They don't reach their potential.

You, the generator of an idea, are in the worst position to judge its merit.  You may understand what it's trying to achieve best, but it's only with the help of others that you can temper it into something great.  Those different perspectives, different focuses, different goals - they are what turn a fledgling idea into a well-rounded design.

If you as a designer are going to be stubborn, be stubborn about the goals you want to see achieved, not about how they are achieved.  The idea NEEDS to grow and change and mutate, but you can be the steward that makes sure it's still achieving everything important along the way, so that it's always getting better with each iteration.

This is the essence of working with a team.  You'll find allies and encouragement along the way, but you're also going to hear things you don't want to hear, and you're going to be debating with people who are trying to achieve very different things from you.  That's good.  Your creations will be stronger for it.  Feedback and iteration can be uncomfortable, but when used in the right ways, they will always make your creations better.


Working well with anyone

I have a very simple philosophy for working with every single human I've ever had to interact with:

Know your goals, and take the time to understand theirs.

That's it.  I use this with every type of personality and every professional specialty.  I use it with every person I've managed and with every boss I've had.  I use it with people I adore, and with people who regularly aggravate me.  And in every circumstance it has helped me immeasurably.

When I'm given a new task, the first thing I do is ask questions to understand what my boss is trying to achieve, and what everyone else working around the task is trying to achieve.  This immediately exposes if there's an existing misalignment that needs to be corrected, and immediately informs me what the size and shape is of the box I will be designing in.

When starting off a meeting, the first thing I do is ask everyone what they're hoping to achieve from it or what information they need leaving it.  This helps in keeping discussions on track and making sure meetings never prove to be a waste of time.  

When I'm collaborating with someone on something, the first thing I do is ask them what they're excited about and want to make.  Then as much as is possible, I try to make sure we're able to achieve that along the way.  This helps keep them motivated and happy, resulting in a better creation along the way.

When I'm going to confront someone about something I disagree with, the first thing I do is ask them questions to understand why they made the decisions they did and what they were trying to achieve.  Sometimes this points out perspectives I didn't see, and brings me around to their side immediately.  Other times, this helps me figure out what change might alleviate my concerns while still achieving their same goals.  And even if I still disagree on the other side of hearing their perspective, the simple fact that I've taken the time and shown them the respect to understand what they were thinking makes them more likely to respectfully consider any changes I might ask for afterwards.

It's easy to lose track of what you're trying to achieve if you don't take the time to define it, and that almost always results in wasted time.  It's also almost always fruitless to try to change someone's mind without understanding it first, yet people assert themselves while uninformed all of the time.

Ultimately, this all comes down to keeping yourself informed, being respectful, and being goal-oriented.  From there, smart motivated minds will always find their way to success.


Have any advice of your own for designers joining a team environment?  I'd love to hear some other perspectives.