The story of the story of the Four Planets of Design

Working at a fully distributed company where everyone at the company is working remotely from each other means you’re simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. You’re in Slack or a P2 or video call synchronously and asynchronously but you’re also completely removed from each other. Last year Automattic Design took a stab at fixing that by reframing how we think of where design actually lives. We brought that experience someplace new.

We went into space.

I’ll let our Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion, John Maeda, set the scene.

We call our design process “deep design” per a talk I gave at WordCamp Europe in 2018. It emerged from the realization that by being so technology-focused, we spent a disproportionate time on Planet Deliver. So we needed to consider the breadth of the process of design as bringing a new kind of “depth” to the work to be done.

“Deep Design” traverses four states. Ideally, fluidly. And never staying for too long in one particular state of being.

The Story of the Four Planets

I worked on the narrative that would accompany this design process and wanted to share some of how that came about. I hope that sharing it will also help share how I feel about the work we do.

First, that story of the four planets. Here’s how we frame our design process, with that narrative, featuring the amazing illustrations of Marly Gallardo.

Planet Discovery

Where we go to understand product landscapes and find the real problems that need answers. Its pull seems safe, but that’s a mistake. Orbits decay quickly, and it’s easy to use up your fuel crafting solutions. Remember — you’re not actually building anything here. Gather information, then move on before you burn up, leaving nothing behind.

Planet Hypothesis

Visit to test at a rapid pace, using the information mined from Discovery as fuel. The more tests the better; speed now makes you more effective on the further-out planets. Prototype, test, and go. Don’t get too attached to any one test or look for any perfect solutions — you’ll miss the launch window for Planet Deliver.

Planet Deliver

It’s time to build. This enormous planet offers massive rewards, tempered with massive dangers. As soon as you enter its orbit, the lights start flashing. The smell of ozone hits the air, the walls shake, and the ship feels like it could blow at any time. Here’s where things really start to happen — but beware the seduction of endless discussions and insignificant changes that lead to entropy. Go in with a plan, and get out fast. You can make it.

Planet Listen

A secretive, resource-rich planet on the outskirts of this system, only accessible by shippers that made it to Deliver and got out. Circling Planet Listen can feel like inactivity, but the precious fuel mined here will power multiple expeditions — usage is like oxygen for ideas. You may need to warp back to Deliver again and again for the energy to extract it all. It’s worth it.

The story of the story

The idea of a design process metaphor that involved orbiting planets was immediately attractive. Remember above how I said we’re simultaneously everywhere and nowhere? If you’re orbiting a planet or touching down on it — even metaphorically — you and everyone you’re working with is somewhere. Together.

Doing things together can be really powerful when you’re working remotely in a fully-distributed company. I can think of a recent example where I ate lunch together with co-workers on a video call and I felt just a little more connected with my colleagues. A small thing, sure, but these things matter and every connection point counts.

When John asked me to work with him on telling the story of these planets, of capturing the emotion involved, in working together, somewhere, and describing where that somewhere was in short, hopefully dramatic form, I was excited.

So what were we up to here? A quick tour through some of the key words and phrases in these planet descriptions might be useful to pull out what we were going for and also help shed some light on the work we need to do.

  • Real problems, that need answers
  • Move on, before you burn up
  • Test at a rapid pace
  • Speed makes you more effective
  • Go in with a plan, and get out fast
  • Usage is like oxygen for ideas
  • Deliver again and again

Connect those ideas with the suggestions that it’s possible to get stuck on a planet (orbits decay, fuel gets used up, missed launch windows, etc.) and I think there’s a clear theme there of maintaining momentum. This is the key idea. You can’t lose momentum.

It’s important to remember that it’s not reckless momentum though.

I think John and I watched clips from Apollo 13 dozens of times while we were talking about how to shape the language around our design process. You’ve got a cross-functional team, stuck in the same place together, with a single choice: give up when everything is exploding or work together to figure something out. It may not be life or death but the pattern is there. Which is just what we’re doing everyday. The need for momentum is put upon us by our situation. That situation is the responsibility we have to deliver answers to real problems faced by real people, in creative partnership with developers and product people.

Working together. Discovering together. Delivering together. And listening together. With relentless momentum.

As a team.

We weren’t just thinking about Apollo 13 when we worked on this narrative. The moments of connection in Arrival and the isolating terror of Gravity inspired us. Along with the purple prose of a thousand comic books and pulpy novels. A sci-fi vocabulary just works as a great setting for the adventure we’re on together.

It’s all these moments of connection, upsets, dangers, and finding success that make up our design process and the work we do.

So, that’s how we got there with the story.

But what’s really interesting to me is that as we continually loop back in, orbiting each planet, bringing improvements to our customers day by day, and week by week, well, I guess it’s also where we’re going too.

By Ian Stewart