What Explanation and Design Have in Common

We hear a lot about design these days.  Apple products are probably the most popular examples.  The idea is that Apple became one of the most valuable companies in the world, in part, because they focus on the design of their products.
But what does that mean, really? What do organizations who focus on design do differently?
Recently the TV show 60 Minutes featured the design company IDEO, which was founded by David Kelley. At multiple points in the interview, Kelley mentions an idea that is at the core of design and design thinking.  The word is empathy
The central tenet of design thinking, according to Kelley, isn't one of aesthetic or utility, but of empathy and human observation. "Be empathetic," Kelley explained to CBS' Charlie Rose. "Try to understand what people really value." Doing that, he says, will lay the foundation for more intuitive designs.
This got me thinking. When I talk about the most fundamental ideas that make explanations work, I use very similar language.  To make something easy to understand, you must empathize.  Put yourself in the audience’s shoes and try to understand how your communication sounds to them.  Only by empathizing can you create an explanation that works. 
Could it be that explanation and design have a lot more in common? I think so, and here’s one way to look at it.  
We are all designers. If you’ve ever made a paper airplane, taken a photo or built a fire, you’ve designed something. You had a goal and you made decisions about how to accomplish that goal using a specific medium. We are all designers.
Likewise, we are all explainers. Every day we communicate ideas with the goal to help people understand.  We explain why traffic was bad, why the CEO made a decision, why people sneeze more at springtime.  We are all explainers.
Now, being a designer or explainer does not necessarily mean we are good at it. The rubber hits the road, in both cases, when we learn about quality and what goes into a good design or explanation. The goal is not simply to have done it, but to have done it well. And that’s where we find the big difference between the two.
Design thinking has developed over many years. It is a profession and a focus of attention and care. People study it, practice it and refine it over a lifetime.  Some individuals have a talent for it and apply it to products we use every day. As a culture, we’re learning to appreciate good design and the designers who make it happen.
Unfortunately, this is not currently the case with explanation. While technical writers, teachers and journalists are often amazing explainers, we don't often think about these professions through the lens of explanation. We know they are great teachers, for example, but we don't necessarily point out explanation as a skill that makes them especially great. To me, this is like saying that an iPod is a useful gadget without recognizing that design is the element that makes it so useful.
My point is this: Communicators have an opportunity to think about the role of explanation like we think about the role of design. It's a skill that can be defined, developed, practiced and put to work in solving problems. Over time, we may see that a focus on explanation develops into something akin to design, where explainers emerge and inspire others to think differently about making ideas easy to understand.
It's possible that one key to explanation is applying design thinking to communication. By learning to empathize with our audience and understanding their needs, we can design communications that solve specific problems. The more this is the focus, the more we'll see that great explanations can become a new goal for professionals - something we can use to create change. 
The next time you’re communicating something complex - remember - you’re a designer, too. 
Here's the 60 Minutes segment about David Kelley and IDEO:


NOTE: If you're interested in learning in-depth about the skill of explanation and how to make Common Craft Style videos, check out our online courses at the Explainer Academy.