The Designer's Mindset // Optimism


Recalling the most peaceful moment of my life, I return to an afternoon lying in the snow facing the sky. I can feel each flake rest upon my face and hear each flake land upon the powdery-soft landscape.

My experience that day positively influenced my opinion of snow, specifically, and the wintertime, in general. Nevermind the car accident I experienced later in life on icy roads. My initial imprint is positive, and my general outlook remains the same.


As we examine optimism as a vital component of a designer’s mindset, we do not default to a Pollyanna or “glass half full,” image. Designers are realists, too; however, we are more mindful of our internal and external attitudes and are continually seeking a greater understanding of the emotions driving our impulses.

Implicit and Explicit Attitudes

Implicit attitudes are our internal opinions of objects and experiences based on past favorable or unfavorable experiences. These attitudes are less controlled and more emotion-based; the quicker we react to an object, the stronger our belief.

As a manager, think of your feelings towards an employee’s new idea. Does your mind bend towards the risks instead of the rewards? Is your response dismissive or supportive? Our reaction is triggered by an object, either a condescending email or a boss’ positive comments in a staff meeting.

Source: Adobe Stock

Source: Adobe Stock


Separate from our internal feelings, we often exude a manicured, external attitude. Do we tell our innovator employee, “that’s a great idea, let’s get some time on the calendar and go deeper,” knowing our goal is to squash their enthusiasm through inaction?

The difference between our internal and external attitudes is the crux of the “Monday morning” challenge we find in “innovation theater” engagements. A series of one-day workshops may move their employees’ external attitudes, but will not change the implicit beliefs of an organization. For example, does HR follow through and elevate innovation to the performance review and compensation process?

Affect Heuristic

The affect heuristic explores our underlying emotions to a stimulus, beyond those emotions imprinted in our attitudes, mainly when the decision window is limited.

Imagine a typical workday for a manager in your organization. They field hundreds of queries each day from their team, with each requiring their immediate attention. The need for quick responses requires the manager to “go with their gut,” which guides subsequent perceptions and information processing.

These emotions play to our inherent irrationality. Whereas risk and reward should be directly correlated, in the affect heuristic, the more favorably we look upon the benefits, the lower the perceived risk. Conversely, if we have negative emotions about innovation, then it is natural for managers to think the risk is too high.

Credit: Abel Escobar

Credit: Abel Escobar


Why else would we play the lottery knowing the odds of winning are greater than getting struck by lightning!

Implications for Design Thinking

Applying the design thinking mindset, we must understand our biases to gather the richest dataset. Entering a user interview with presumptions about how a subject will react to our presence and our questions in ill-conceived. We must show empathy to our interviewee by showing care for their implicit attitudes.n

Similarly, we must not get distracted by their explicit attitudes. Just because an employee says they are “100% behind,” leadership’s newest cost-cutting initiative, don’t forget the image of a pink slip floating through the employee’s (sub)conscious mind.

Finally, view the user’s broader context as a set of attitudes. If we are designing an autonomous vehicle solution, how does a visually or auditory-impaired person interact with our product or service? Something as simple as a pothole could trigger negative emotions in a visually-impaired user who has fallen while crossing the street.

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Alexa Spence & Ellen Townsend (2008) Spontaneous evaluations: Similarities and differences between the affect heuristic and implicit attitudes, COGNITION AND EMOTION, 22:1, 83-93, DOI: 10.1080/02699930701298432

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