Tension: Reflections from Leading Design conference 2022

On Wednesday and Thursday this week, I went to Leading Design conference at The Barbican in London.

Rather than give a rundown of all of the talks, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a prevailing theme that emerged for me over the 2 days: the idea of tension between opposing forces.

Ray Ho and Jane Austin’s talks focused on the tension between design and other disciplines.

Nicola Ryan talked about the tension between introversion and extroversion for introverted leaders.

Alberta Soranza explored the tension that arises in global organisations from different cultural attitudes to time.

And many of the speakers talked about tension and change: the contrast from where we are, and where we want to get to.

Tension can be positive or negative

A reflection I had after watching the talks is that tension itself is inherently neutral. Tension is just what occurs in the space between opposing forces.

Tension can create balance, or it can create stuckness. It can cultivate creativity and innovation, or it can lead us into dead ends. It can energise and invigorate, or it can cause exhaustion.

It’s the conditions in which tension occurs that determines whether it’s positive or negative for those experiencing it, and what it results in.

We can ease tension, challenge it, or use it

Several speakers talked about ways to ease tension between user-centric design work and profit-focused organisations. Some advocated designers learning to frame their work in the context of business goals.

Holly Habstritt Gaal challenged whether these things are in opposition at all. At DuckDuckGo, she explained, employees and leaders in the organisation are aligned on the idea that profit does not have to come at the cost of user exploitation.

Jill Lin challenged our concept of tension between work and play, with a fascinating insight into how the Lego group integrates play into its ways of working.

Other speakers, like Ray and Alberta, talked about using tension to our advantage, to create necessary opposition, avoid stagnation, and power creative friction.

How can we create the conditions for positive tension?

A question I’m left with is how we create the conditions for positive tension. What makes the difference between the productive tension, and that which drains and obstructs us?

Acknowledging tension seems important. Lisa Welchman, who delivered my favourite talk of the conference, urged us to recognise that we are in a chaotic moment in the establishment and governance of our digital infrastructure. Given this, we must simultaneously recognise the limitations of our power against the conditions in which we’re operating, whilst holding ourselves accountable for safeguarding the experiences we create.

Others, like James Stevens, emphasised the need for leaders to engage in self-reflection and self-care when working in periods of tension. He also spoke about the importance of sharing vulnerability - advice echoed by Aleks Melkinova.

I think what draws these things together is trust. Honesty and vulnerability help to build trust, and when I picked up this question with a couple of the speakers after the event, we were in agreement that trust is one of the main foundations for healthy tension.

And trust grows not from agreement, but from respect. If we can cultivate respect and trust in our teams, we can create an environment in which positive tension can thrive.