The hand and the brain

November 18, 2020 · 6 min read

Prescriptive feedback limits creative collaboration. I’ve seen it time and time again, but I’ve struggled to articulate the exact reasons and their remedies. Recently, though, I got some insight from an unusual source: a game of chess.

Even though it wasn’t the last move, pawn takes rook ended our game. It was textbook chess; even though our pawn was going to be snatched up by our opponent’s queen, trading the lowest-value piece for one of the highest seemed like a no-brainer. But when the queen flew in to take the sacrificial pawn, our king was in its path. Check.

Over our next three moves, black’s queen and our king danced back and forth in a forced sequence of short hops. Once, twice, and then a third time. A sneaky rule in chess is that if you repeat any position on the board three times, the game ends in a draw. And that’s exactly what just happened to Sasha and me.

The post-game review showed that for the first 20 moves of the game, we were all but guaranteed a victory. But when we took that rook, the analysis predicted a stalemate. Even though our opponent was the lowest-level computer algorithm available in the Chess app, it managed to teach us a lesson.

I say ‘us’ because Sasha and I were playing a version of chess called “hand and brain” chess. Chess is usually a lonely game. For hours on end, opponents sit in silence, puzzling through tactics and strategies, straining to read the mind of the person across the board. But hand and brain chess is different: it’s a way for two people to play collaboratively in a game that is almost perfectly designed for solitude.

In hand and brain chess, each team has two players: a “brain” and a “hand.” At the beginning of each turn, the “brain” tells the “hand” which piece to move, and the “hand” then has to move that piece, but can move it wherever they think it should go. No other communication is allowed.

A deep and interesting game evolves from this simple set of rules. Consider the first decision a team has to make: who’s the brain and who’s the hand? Maybe you want the stronger player to be the brain, to narrow down the possibilities for the weaker player to work within. Or maybe the stronger player should be the hand, making the most out of whatever piece the weaker player calls.

Hand and brain chess is rewarding for experienced players, who are forced to evaluate and work through positions they don’t normally find themselves in. It’s also great for inexperienced players, who get to work within constraints and see how more experienced players would play a position.

After the game, back at work, I was thinking about how lonely design can be — like chess. It’s all talk about collaboration, partnership, and cross-functional teamwork, but in the end, design happens between a designer and their computer (or notebook, or slip mat and X-Acto knife).

This tension has been keeping me up at night lately. I’m working on building my own team’s processes and culture to be inclusive and collaborative; why does design still feel so lonely? What can we do to make it more of a team sport?

If the goal of design is only “get the stakeholder’s approval,” the stakeholder should just hand the designer a list of revisions to check off. If the goal is only speed, efficiency, or technical rigor, the most skilled designer should work alone, with no stakeholder to slow them down. But if my experience is any indication, the goal of design is almost always something in between. We work within a combination of hard and soft constraints, looking for a solution that combines our team’s technical aptitude with our stakeholder’s vision.

You can see this intention in the many opportunities we get to collaborate. For example, critiques and design reviews are a fixture of the design process, a time for a broad group of people to come together and exercise their creativity.

But these opportunities are often spoiled. And the culprit is predictable: prescriptive feedback.

Prescriptive (or directive) feedback comes in the form of a highly specific demand. “Make the logo bigger.” “I like blue better.” “Let’s go with a different font.” Prescriptive feedback feels like collaboration; why should all the decisions be made by one designer? Prescriptive feedback is also incredibly efficient at producing approvals or buy-in: it’s a checklist of everything a designer should do to finish their work. For that reason, sometimes I’m thankful to get prescriptive feedback.

But when the majority of the conversation between designers and their partners takes the form of such direct demands, it turns the creative process into a treadmill. Sure, we’re working hard, but are we really going anywhere? As Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry put it in Discussing Design, getting approval and creating an effective design are not necessarily the same thing.

Consider a version of brain and hand chess in which the brain called out the full move, not just the piece: “Queen’s pawn to D4.” What kind of strategy should each team employ? Easy: the most skilled player should be the brain. And then what’s the hand’s part, exactly? It’s a foregone conclusion: the hand only needs the bare minimum of language and motor skills to participate.

That’s what happens when a creative conversation involves prescriptive feedback. No more collaboration. In these cases, prescriptive feedback is the enemy. The hand and the brain have to work together.

So what does hand and brain design look like?

In every feedback conversation, one person is the hand. That’s the person doing the design — they’ll leave the meeting and go back to their computer and fire up a dozen Adobe apps. The other people in the room (virtual or otherwise) are the brain. Regardless of their skill in design, it’s their job to give the hand some constraints to work within.

But not to tell them exactly what move to make.

There’s certainly an element of trust involved in hand and brain design. But it’s not a one-way trust in the skill of the designer, or trust in the guidance and leadership of the stakeholder. It’s mutual trust in the process.

Sasha and I lost our chess match to the low-grade computer opponent. If either one of us played alone, we might have won. There’s a paradox in deliberately handicapping yourself for the sake of collaboration, a sort of self-sacrifice that usually doesn’t fly in high-growth business environments.

Collaboration is a compounding investment: taken alone, each individual episode might not be optimal. Over time, the team learns and improves, gets more attuned to each other, uncovers surprising opportunities and novel strategies. That old saw: if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.