Design like an astronaut
Managing your emotional state is fundamental to great design
When I think of the people who were the most influential role models in shaping my approach to business and life, I keep coming back to astronauts. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for astronauts.
You see, I’m an emotional guy. I cry easily at movies. My blood pressure rises when I see injustice. I smile when things are doing well. I get angry when things don’t change fast enough. I laugh when children laugh. I feel lonely when I’m left out. I’m sad when I don’t get the things I was hoping for. Over the course of any given day, I go on the emotional roller coaster just like you or anyone else does.
However, among the people I work with regularly, I’ve actually developed a reputation for seeming a bit stoic or even “emotionless.” Not in a brooding, sociopathic way or anything, mind you—I think most who know me would agree that I’m generally empathetic and cheerful—but more in the sense that I don’t spend a lot of time wallowing in negative emotions. It’s rare that anyone would see me particularly angry or sad, even when things are going completely sideways.
This perception that I’m unemotional confused me for a long time, because it totally didn’t fit what was going on inside my head. I’m going through internal ups and downs all the time, and I’m certainly not numb to them.
I’ve recently started to piece together where this perception comes from. When I look back over the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve learned from, the advice that has stood out to me, etc., I can see the underlying patterns that have shifted my responses and behavior over the years in ways that could easily lead some to see me this way.
Despite some of the misconceptions people may have about how emotional (or not) I am, I find that I’m actually very comfortable with how I handle things, and I believe that approach has served me very well over the years.
And for designers in particular, I think there are some tremendous advantages to be gained through awareness and management of your emotions, advantages that lead to healthier client relationships, higher-quality work, and better compensation.
How astronauts solve problems
I’m a space nerd. I’m not sure why, but I always have been. My wife Katie doesn’t see the appeal, especially after watching movies like Apollo 13, Gravity, The Martian, etc., which all portray just how horribly things can go wrong outside of the cozy comfort of Earth’s atmosphere. If the opportunity ever arises for the two of us to go into space, I understand that Katie will be staying right here on terra firma, and she understands that I’m totally going to go for it.
I was understandably excited, therefore, when I saw recently that Chris Hadfield, retired former commander of the International Space Station, was doing an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit. I immediately recognized his name and was curious to see his answers to people’s questions.
Buried deep in the conversation was a question that piqued my curiosity:
You had such an adrenaline fueled career, is it hard to ‘top’? Ever feel bored by civilian life after being a test and fighter pilot and astronaut?
Commander Hadfield’s answer jumped out at me:
Actually, test pilots and astronauts try and NEVER have adrenaline in our veins while we’re working. If we do, it means we have made a mistake or weren’t ready for what was happening, and that will kill us.
That response really resonated with me. That same day, a coworker had made a remark about how “emotionless” I was, and I hadn’t had a good way to explain how it actually worked in my head. Commander Hadfield’s response seemed like the exact words I’d been looking for.
It reminded me of the well-known Apollo 13 incident. Compare the dramatic Hollywood version with the chillingly calm recordings of the actual event:
When I first heard those recordings years ago, the steadiness and calmness of their response made a big impact on me. These guys were hurtling through the bleakest possible environment in a flimsy metal can that’s falling apart on them, but they were speaking as though it were no big deal.
In Hadfield’s book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth,” he wrote:
Instead of reacting to danger with a fight-or-flight adrenaline rush, we’re trained to respond unemotionally by immediately prioritizing threats and methodically seeking to defuse them. We go from wanting to bolt for the exit to wanting to engage and understand what’s going wrong, then fix it.
He also told the story of waking up to a fire alarm on the International Space Station:
“Working the problem” is NASA-speak for descending one decision tree after another, methodically looking for a solution until you run out of oxygen. We practice the “warn, gather, work” protocol for responding to fire alarms so frequently that it doesn’t just become second nature; it actually supplants our natural instincts. So when we heard the alarm on the Station, instead of rushing to don masks and arm ourselves with extinguishers, one astronaut calmly got on the intercom to warn that a fire alarm was going off—maybe the Russians couldn’t hear it in their module—while another went to the computer to see which smoke detector was going off. No one was moving in a leisurely fashion, but the response was one of focused curiosity; as though we were dealing with an abstract puzzle rather than an imminent threat to our survival. To an observer it might have looked a little bizarre, actually: no agitation, no barked commands, no haste.
“Don’t you care that the space station is on fire?” someone watching remotely might have asked. “Don’t you realize you might die? Why are you so calm?” (Similar to how I felt listening to the Apollo 13 recordings years ago.)
It clicked with me that this was exactly the principle I’d been trying to adopt all these years I’d been serving as CEO of Forty and then subsequently as the Chief Creative Officer at Crowd Favorite. I’d learned that adrenaline and emotion can drain creativity, wreck projects, ruin relationships, and destroy a business. There’s just too much at stake for us to give in to our natural impulses to panic, to despair, or to fly into a rage when things go wrong.
This can be difficult for designers, especially young designers, because they’re so often shielded from the realities of the work, giving them few opportunities to really see the damage their emotional reflexes can create. Sadly, design schools typically fail to teach even the most basic business and communication principles to designers, and send them out into the world having no clue how to manage real projects, deal with upset clients, or get paid for their work. Even once they’re out in the workforce, many designers find themselves buried within large agencies, having minimal exposure to the outside world. (I know some designers who aren’t even allowed to communicate directly to their clients, a situation that surely stunts their professional and emotional growth.)
Coming from those kinds of backgrounds, many designers are ill-prepared for the complicated realities of life on the front lines in the design industry, and so their natural biological responses take over. It becomes a fight-or-flight issue, and they overlook the powerfully valuable third option: calmly working the problem.
“Would it help?”
In the recent movie Bridge of Spies (also, coincidentally, a Tom Hanks movie), lawyer James B. Donovan asks captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel if he worries about the possibility of being executed:
Worry is the accumulated negative feelings and thoughts associated with an undesirable potential outcome. It can have positive effects (such as prompting you to put on a seat belt before driving), but far too often also has negative side effects, such as preoccupying our thoughts, paralyzing our actions, making us irrational, or fueling our anger. While it may once have been a fundamental part of our survival instinct, it now often kicks in at the wrong times and makes us do the wrong things.
One of the most important things I ever learned about design projects is the powerful role that fear plays in steering what clients think and say about almost every aspect of the project:
- Budget: “I can’t tell you what our actual budget is, or we’re doomed.”
- Motivation: “We have to be better than the competition, or we’re doomed.”
- Deadline: “It has to be done by the trade show, or we’re doomed.”
- Features: It needs to do everything our competitor’s product does, or we’re doomed.
- Strategy: It needs to be totally fresh and cutting edge, or we’re doomed.
- Expectations: It needs to look the way I thought it would look, or we’re doomed.
- Revision: It needs to be more like it was before, or we’re doomed.
- Preference: I need to personally love it, or we’re doomed.
- Feedback: Everyone should say only good things about it, or we’re doomed.
- Communication: I need to hear back from the designer by tomorrow, or we’re doomed.
- Scope: I need all these things, or we’re doomed.
And so on...
Design clients are often teetering on a ledge of anxiety, waiting for a breeze to blow them down into the ravine of holy-crap-everything’s-going-wrong. Every project has hundreds if not thousands of potential triggers that will send the client into a panic and engage their fight-or-flight response. This is when they freak out, get emotional, start making irrational decisions, yell about scope, decide they hate the whole thing after all, etc.
Those client actions then often trigger equivalent responses from designers. Instead of staying calm, we passionately defend our work, push blame back on the client, refuse to accept responsibility, yell back at them, and so on. (Again, all fear-driven reactions.)
Ironically, the very thing we fear—the project going badly—is exactly what happens when we let that fear drive our actions.
It’s totally possible to manage these responses, though. By staying calm and in control, being rational when things get heated, not taking the bait, etc., you can serve as an anchor that bring the client back to where they need to be in order to have a productive project.
This frame of reference is fundamental to design work. Unless you can put yourself in others’ shoes, unless you can understand their fears and where their responses are coming from, unless you can have some respect for what they’re going through, you’re really not capable of being an effective designer. Design is all about understanding and appreciating people, and that goes for the client as much as it does the end user.
For that reason, I have a very low tolerance for hearing designers complain about their clients. Sure, there are a few cases where the client is a genuine A-hole and that shouldn’t be tolerated, but in the vast majority of cases what are seen as “client problems” are really just issues of misunderstood fear that could be managed with a little perspective.
Handle your scandal
Having been in an executive role for nearly 13 years now, I’ve learned the hard way (many times...) how dangerous it can be to “leak” your immediate emotions.
After all, your immediate emotion isn’t always the same as how you’ll feel after you have some time to think about it. However, it certainly has the potential to mess things up before you come around to that longer-term perspective.
If an employee comes to tell me something that’s bothering them, for example, and I roll my eyes in the middle of the conversation, I’ve lost them. They’re going to interpret that as me dismissing and disregarding their concerns. Even if those concerns might be small compared to something else I’m dealing with, or I’m frustrated because they’re rehashing an issue I thought they’d gotten past already, they still don’t deserve for me to make them feel that way. I need to actively listen and then provide a reasonable response that helps them work past the issue.
Similarly, if a client is yelling about how they don’t want to pay an invoice, and I respond with righteous indignation about how we did the work and they’d better dang well pay it or else, all I’m really doing is adding more distance between us and making it less likely that we’ll get paid. As soon as I start raising my voice, I’ve probably lost that invoice. No matter how justified I might be, the right answer is almost always to stay calm and gently bring them back with reason and empathy.
Managing your emotional responses isn’t the same as suppressing those emotions or denying that you have them. In fact, there’s a lot of research that shows that suppressing your emotions may only serve to amplify them. Instead, you have to come to understand how you automatically respond to things, and then gradually replace it with more of a conscious process.
There’s an excellent Harvard Business Review piece by Susan David and Christina Congleton entitled ”Emotional Agility" that explains more about how successful executives manage their emotions:
Effective leaders don’t buy into or try to suppress their inner experiences. Instead they approach them in a mindful, values-driven, and productive way—developing what we call emotional agility. In our complex, fast-changing knowledge economy, this ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings is essential to business success.
The four steps David and Congleton give for “getting unhooked” from your automatic emotional reactions are as follows:
- Recognize your patterns
- Label your thoughts and emotions
- Accept them
- Act on your values
There’s a famous saying that “Discipline is remembering what you want.” (Another version has it as “Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.“) Being disciplined with your emotions isn’t about not having them, but rather about choosing the long term perspective over the short term.
In the short term, I might want to roll my eyes at an employee or yell at a client. If I think through it a minute, though, I realize those actions would take me further from the actual outcomes that I want. I’m not denying myself by avoiding those responses, but rather acknowledging what I really want.
Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier
In the days before everything was shared over social media, business people used to email each other a list of leadership principles collected by former Secretary of State and four-star general Colin Powell. One of his key principles was that “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”
(In military terms, a “force multiplier” is any attribute or variable that makes a force more effective than it would be without it: morale, technology, geography, weather, training, reputation, deception, etc. A hundred soldiers with dry socks might be worth two hundred soldiers with wet socks.)
To increase our capacity to successfully navigate the complexities and subtleties of design projects, perpetual optimism is mandatory. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an ethical imperative.
If you’re cynical, pessimistic, whining, blaming, or generally forlorn about the project, the client, or the end user, your output is going to suffer significantly. There’s no way around it. Your brain will sabotage you, and you’ll sabotage others. Everyone down to the end user will feel the effects of your “screw them, this is good enough” attitude.
(This is why I won’t hire designers I know who habitually complain about their clients, regardless of their level of talent. Their attitude poisons the design process, and is ultimately destructive to the work we’re trying to produce.)
On the other hand, if you’re upbeat and optimistic, if you believe you can overcome the project’s challenges, if you think you can do better, if you remember why your work matters, if you can stay focused on creating a great experience for the end user, if you reframe project constraints into interesting challenges, you’re significantly more likely to overcome (or at least mitigate) the natural constraints that affect every project.
Sure, you may never land a project with infinite budget and time, but the next best thing is to maximize the time and budget you do have. That requires a relentlessly positive perspective.
Venting doesn’t work, but positive reframing does
Designers, like others, love to share their miserable experiences. If they lost a few hours of work because of a software crash, or if the client is asking for changes outside of the project scope, or if they haven’t yet got back something someone had promised them, they want to huff and puff and let everyone know how unhappy they are. They want to vent.
However, venting your frustrations to coworkers, etc., isn’t a healthy way to relieve stress. It actually makes things worse. There have been a number of studies that have shown “letting it all out” actually increases your anxiety and stress, in part because you’re physically reinforcing how bad things supposedly are. When you sigh, raise your voice, roll your eyes, grit your teeth,etc., you’re giving yourself feedback that something is still going wrong. You’re stoking the fire.
In addition, your venting creates a toxic environment for your teammates, who then absorb your negativity through “emotional contagion.” One person’s bad morning experience can quickly turn into a miserable week for their entire team.
The healthiest way to deal with natural project stresses is to reframe the problem in a more positive light:
- Your software crashed and you lost a bunch of work? It’ll be better the second time around anyway.
- The client wants you to make the logo bigger? It’s okay, you can revisit it with them later in the project once they’ve developed more trust for you.
- You have to stay late at the office? At least you’ll miss rush hour!
- Client is mad that their project is delayed? Well, at least nobody died.
It can sound ridiculous at first, but getting into the habit of reframing things in a positive light will not only significantly reduce your overall anxiety levels, but it’ll also make you a healthier member of your team and help you generate much stronger work overall.
We should design like astronauts
Human beings are good at turning whatever they’re dealing with at the moment into the Most Important Thing of All Time. When dealing with a relatively minor client problem, our bodies can experience the same symptoms of stress as, say, a refugee trying to escape from a war-torn country.
Knowledge workers (designers, developers, etc.) are particularly sensitive to that kind of thinking because our mental attitude directly affects our cognitive output. When we wallow in negative emotions, we do bad work.
I’m fortunate to know some nurses and doctors, and every time I talk with them I’m reminded about how trivial my own work problems seem in comparison. That perspective helps keep me grounded, and allows me to stay focused and positive while those around me may be panicking about an upset client, a delayed launch, or unwanted revisions.
Astronauts sometimes report a cognitive shift known as the “overview effect,” in which stepping outside the normal human context and looking down on the earth with a broader perspective causes them to forever rethink their attitudes and approaches.
From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, "Look at that, you son of a bitch."
— Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut
That’s the kind of perspective we should have as designers: a holistic, big-picture view of the world, grounded in optimism, and rejecting the petty, the political, and the insignificant.
Astronauts, generally speaking, have their crap together, and we’d all do well to learn what we can from them.