Dancing the Design Tango

By Susanna Carman for Enlivening Edge Magazine


I see the design process as a metaphor for life, rich with polarizing tensions. By participating fully in a design process, individuals and collectives learn how to master the rhythmic tension of Both/And thinking. I call this ‘Design Tango.’ Anyone who dances Tango knows it takes time to learn the steps, particularly if you choose to lead. First, sensing into the music, connecting with your whole body and attuning to the rhythm of your partner are fundamental. To do all that, you literally need to experience what it feels like to move through space as both leader and follower.

To dance the Design Tango, empathy is crucial. Feeling into or sensing the full spectrum of experience with an open and inquiring mind is a design hallmark. Ask yourself, your fellow ‘dancers’, and the environment you are designing in, a very simple question, ‘What is going on here’?

In the context of decision-making, the dance is about taking the time to seek and take perspectives so that the right thing is being designed and/or decided on. For many, this exploration period may feel cumbersome, slow and divergent, particularly when an organization’s resource capacity is limited and things just need to get done in congruence with a set timeline. It can also feel overwhelming trying to capture, coordinate, and synthesize multiplicity in this way. The hardest part about learning to Tango is sticking with it long enough to master the basic patterns of steps.

Fig 1: The Design Council, the Diverge-Converge Pattern, 2005.

Alternatively, when collectives lead from a convergent position, that is, moving straight into making or doing what they think should be done, it is certainly faster. However, it fails to incorporate the full tacit value, perspectives, and expertise sitting in and/or around the system. It might also limit innovative outcomes and stymie shared ownership. The Design Tango is in flow when the whole of both leader and follower are surrendered to themselves, one another and to the co-created dance between them.

It is the role of the Design Thinker to dynamically steer collective movement from exploration (Sensing) to concrete action (Making) in a way that values both and also facilitates easeful transition between the two. It is also her role to synthesize multiplicity and articulate it as a compelling story to her fellow dancers on and off the dance floor.

Figure 2: Don Norman, Design of Everyday Things, 2013 edition

In a conventional context, the Design Thinker is often accountable for strategic leadership in product development, brand strategy, marketing, organizational development, and driving social innovation.

In a post-conventional context, the Design Thinker is accountable for all that and more, including facilitating strategic decision-making, operational leadership, internal engagement, business strategy, organizational culture, learning and development, and the application of emergent social technologies to complex environments. In particular, through participatory service design, the Design Thinker takes a stand for catalyzing creative intelligence and embedding its core principles of humility, empathy, curiosity, and co-creation into the cultural fabric of an organization.

Much like the lead in Tango, the Design Thinker is attending to multiple streams of attention simultaneously: the music, her own body, the body of her partner, the space they are dancing in, the other partners sharing the dance floor, the sequence of steps, the anticipated shared movement, and the dance itself.

In essence, the Design Thinker is accountable for enacting these principles and inspiring others to do the same in every interaction, facilitation, and engagement across an organization. Her value is as much in how she is being as in what she is making.


knp_9124-about-page-webSusanna Carman is a trans-disciplinary designer, researcher, facilitator, and writer specialising in Design Leadership and Creative Intelligence. With backgrounds in adult development, design, brand, business strategy, and the arts, Susanna works with leaders of enterprises and organisations to embed Design Thinking into the cultural fabric of human systems. To work with or read more by Susanna Carman, please visit www.susannacarman.com or contact her directly at [email protected].

Featured Image/graphic link added by Enlivening Edge Magazine