Pairaphors: Explaining pair design (metaphorically)

At Cooper, we’re quite fond of pair design as a way to get to the highest quality design quickly. (Even if you have to cheat your way there.) Most of our client engagements involve a pair of interaction designers dedicated to projects full time. Over the years, two specific roles have evolved out of this paired practice.

We struggled to come up with descriptive titles for each of the roles. Though the debate was a tough one, we erred on the side of accuracy at some cost of accessibility, and call the roles generator and synthesizer. (We’re aware that that makes us sound like machines, but with the quality of design teams are able to produce in this way, maybe that’s apt?)



A generatorA synthesizer
The generator is the one whose job is to fearlessly generate design ideas; to walk up to the whiteboard or OneNote page, draw some designs, and say, “OK, here’s how I’m thinking it will work for the persona.” The gen, working with visual design, makes the design solution visual; first with hand drawings, then in illustration software.The synthesizer is the one whose job is to insightfully keep challenging, improving, and synthesizing the design into a whole. As the “gen” posits ideas, the “synth” will ask questions, help analyze, improve, and iterate it. The synth describes the behavior in words, incorporating the gen’s drawings to create a design specification.


Together they…

…identify and evolve designs, so that the persona using the system we’re designing accomplishes their goals in awesome ways.


Some asides about these distinctions:

  1. These roles aren’t cast in stone. Sometimes when the gen is out of ideas, she might hand the pen to the synth so he can draw what he’s thinking, and she’ll “synth” him.
  2. We’re experimenting and refining our methods all the time, as with our new integrated product development offering. Not all projects need two interaction designers.
  3. Our team structures include additional, invaluable members like visual designers, industrial designers, engagement leads, etc. This article is just about the relationship of paired interaction designers.

This is some heady stuff to explain, whether to our parents, at a cocktail party, or interaction designers applying to work with Cooper. For this reason, we often find ourselves employing metaphors to explain the relationship. Since this is usually when the lightbulb goes off, I thought I would share some of the more effective and engaging ones.



Han Solo and Chewbacca

Are like gens because…

Are like synths because…

The pilot drives where the ship is going.The navigator makes sure they avoid the dangers and stay on track.
The metaphor’s not quite right because
On a ship you generally know exactly where you’re going. With personas we know who we’re designing for, and via scenarios we know the big picture of what it must do. But the design that gets you there is an unknown.
So you might be more gen ifSo you might be more synth if
You like driving a design solution.You like keeping an eye out for pitfalls.


Not a fan of sci-fi? Maybe a musical metaphor will resonate more.



Recording artists


Recording artist Justin TimberlakeRecord producer Timbaland

Are like gens because…

Are like synths because…

Their main focus is on the present task at hand.Their main focus is on the big picture.
The metaphor’s not quite right because
A gen doesn’t document a whole design and then listen to the synth’s notes. Pair design is co-creation. Each thinks about detail and context in terms of the other, refining frequently.
So you might be more gen ifSo you might be more synth if
You’d rather be in the moment, making the design.You’d rather hang back, thinking about the end result.


Not big into the music scene? Though this next reference is getting kind of dated, it was the metaphor presented to me when I first joined Cooper, and it still fits.





The X-Files' Fox Mulder and Dana Scully

Is like a gen because…

Is like a synth because…

He’s got this crazy theory he wants help working through.She’s open-minded but skeptical, asking hard questions and taking no b.s.
The metaphor’s not quite right because
Mulder’s pretty good about keeping Scully in the dark until something life-threatening or dramatic needs to happen. In pair design, it’s important to keep thinking out loud as you create, so the reasoning underneath the design gets surfaced and considered right along with the design itself.
So you might be more gen ifSo you might be more synth if
You have big ideas that are so crazy they just might work.You like asking the hard questions that keep people thinking.



There are other pair-creative metaphors that are just as informative. We borrowed the term from Agile’s pair programming. We hear that most of the Saturday Night Live writers work in pairs. Michael D. Eisner and Aaron R. Cohen wrote all about it from a CEO/COO perspective in their book Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed. In fact, these creative relationships are so common and productive we’re wondering if we’ve tapped into something deeper here.* Know of any others that support or refute the notion?

*Until we uncover that hidden secret to the creative universe, if you’re curious about working in this way formally, contact us!

Related Reading:

Chris Noessel

Learn more

Subscribe to our mailing list and stay up to date on our latest thought leadership and learning opportunities.

Connect with us

Want to know how we can help your company drive real business progress?

Let’s talk

Stay up to date on our latest thought leadership and learning opportunities