Design Loneliness


On a recent project a client confessed some small degree of envy of Cooper’s team structure. He was the sole designer at a medium sized software company doing good work, but unsatisfied doing it alone. In our short project he was able to see the value of paired design and wasn’t looking forward to heading back to business as usual. I’ve got four ideas on what someone can do in this circumstance, but first let me extol the virtues of Paired Design.

The Virtues of Paired Design

What is paired design? If you haven’t heard, Cooper interaction designers work in pairs throughout the duration of a project. Generally, there’s one interaction designer responsible for generating ideas, or “gens”, and another interaction designer for synthesizing ideas, or “synths”. (See chapter 2: Assembling the Team of Kim Goodwin’s Designing for the Digital Age for a much more thorough discussion of Cooper’s team structures.) Though we occasionally swap roles over the course of a design meeting, when it comes down to crunch time we’re clear about responsibilities: Gens are responsible for communicative pictures, and Synths are responsible for explanatory narratives. Even when the team grows larger to include designers with material specialties, like visual or industrial designers, we tend to make sure that we respect the roles of Gen and Synth in design meetings.

We’re huge believers in this structure, because we’ve all been lone designers in past careers, and we see the benefits of it with every project. Here are the main ones.


  • Having two on the team means that one has an eye on the strategy while the other has an eye on tactics. Ideas that might be cool but have unworkable consequences down the line can be acid-tested early.
  • One can pick up the slack when the other is out of steam or ill.
  • When it comes time for documentation, having paired designers means that you can work in parallel and get things done in half the time.
  • Being in a room together working on design problems keeps you focused on the task at hand and free of email and just-a-little-more-research distractions.


  • Having two brains tackling a problem means you are doubling the number of unique experiences, perspectives, and ideas that can be brought to bear.
  • Having to verbalize ideas to another often helps crystallize the problem, which is invaluable for generating ideas towards the solution.
  • Cooper occasionally shuffles design teams to increase sharing of best practices across the company and evolution of its methods.


  • Last but not least, it’s better for morale to work with a partner than with a computer. It’s fun to build a productive design rapport with another person and solve hairy problems. Morale is the thing that makes designers eager to come into work and solve client problems, and paired design goes a long way toward that.

But what about the lone designer?

So paired design is the greatest thing since the three-wolf t-shirt, what then of those lone interaction designers dog paddling alone in a sea of developers? This is design loneliness. I have sympathy and four ideas.

1. Be your own synth

This certainly isn’t the easiest of my suggestions, but it’s the cheapest. By this I mean that you recognize the value in taking both generative and synthetic approaches to your work, and be deliberate about engaging in both activities. Maybe reserve short stretches of time where you only engage in one or the other types of activities. You won’t get much of the morale or efficiency gains of a real live synth, but you might find yourself enjoying some increased effectiveness from spending deliberate time in strategic and tactical modes.

2. Make the case for a new hire

I can’t find any studies to bolster such an argument from an economics perspective, but if you can get a requisition for one new designer, make sure that designer can act as a good pair for your design. Get involved in defining the role and be an active participant in the hiring process. Try and find one with synth-like capabilities. Cooper has a description of the synth role on its Careers page, so you could use that as a basis.

3. Roll your own

If a new employee is out of the question, how about an old one? If there’s a designer in some other department of your company, strike up a conversation and schedule meetings that are specifically about helping each other with your projects, and keep an instant messaging client handy with those quick idea check-ins.

If there are no other designers around, find a developer who is willing to act in this role. Every one that I know has a strong interest in the designs that they build, and they’re generally really smart, so the trouble becomes finding one who can squelch developy concerns of edge cases and near-term implementability while you’re just working on the core designs. (Remind your boss that sending them to CooperU would be less expensive than hiring a new person, too.)

4. Go Virtual

Ed Niehaus, our CEO, is fond of noting that the number of people who can do great interaction design is probably in the hundreds, which given the habitable surface area, means that, depending on where you live, you might be quite a ways from the nearest potential team mate. But the good news is that it’s pretty much a guarantee that these people spend time on the internet, and many of them belong to industry groups like IxDA (

). You’ll have to scrub any designs you post for feedback without sharing intellectual property, but the folks on the message boards and mailing lists can usually see past the privacy bars and pixelations to help you with the interaction ideas and problems you’re having.

These are the first ideas that came to my mind. What else have you found to be effective ways of overcoming design lonliness?


Dorian Taylor
In the pair configuration, which one is considered the architect? Gen, Synth or someone else? Also, how does it relate to Brooks' producer/director division in MM-M?
Dorian, do you mean who is responsible for technical decisions, or information architecture? (P.S. I'm not familiar with MM-M, but I'm looking into it now...)
Dorian Taylor
Neither, I mean which ultimately circumscribes the problem and retains veto power with respect to the overall UX design? Two great essays in Mythical Man-Month: Aristocracy, Democracy and System Design (describes architect, conceptual integrity) and Why did the Tower of Babel Fail? (discusses producer/director roles). There is another one, tangentially related but concerning implementation, The Surgical Team. Remember to wear your 1970s goggles if you choose to read them. :)
Chris Noessel
We work cooperatively in the teams, so neither really has "veto" power over the other. If we get deadlocked, we bring in a third brain from elsewhere in the office to help resolve it. Thanks for the references, they might warrant another article.
Great post, Chris! I can't agree with you more about paired design. I currently work inhouse at a large Fortune 100 company that has a team of IXDs, all working individually on different projects. Since switching between generator and synthesizer roles can be challenging under tight deadlines, we try to work together when possible. I've turned to other designers, business analysts and even front-end developers for help. Working in teams really speeds things up, making it more efficient, productive and fun when exploring solutions. I've also found experienced business analysts can comfortably play the synth role, especially when they've had a hand in writing the requirements or use cases. They tend to be methodical and see the big picture. But in these situations it helps to define the roles and purpose of the session up front because non-designers are often unfamiliar with designing in teams, let alone designing as a process. That's been my experience. We all need to lose the loneliness and pair up sometimes.
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