Scrappy. That’s how one of my first bosses described me after seeing my college thesis project (I later found out it was also why she hired me). That’s not the word I would have used. I was broke. With a budget of $200, I was overly ambitious in wanting to create an installation piece that involved responsive LED lights and a 7-foot-tall hexagonal totem. I used what I could afford — pieces of warped plywood, chunky LED lights, paper, and cheap house paint. It was janky at best, and by the end of the thesis show, it was falling apart.

Looking back, I see what my previous boss saw. I was willing to gather my resources and try with no fear. I was “scrappy.” It turns out, that’s my secret weapon as a designer. These days, as an associate creative director at Bluecadet, it’s how I deliver the very best for our clients. It is also something that I had to learn to control and direct when it comes to leading other designers.

Scrappiness is part of the design process

Scrappiness is about understanding, using, and maximizing what you have. What resources are available? Are there novel ways to push those resources further? What is the best end product that you can provide with those constraints in mind? So much great design comes from working with constraints. A few examples:

At Bluecadet, we pride ourselves for bringing a level of polish to all of our work. But that polish comes much later. The beginnings of any design process require a level of scrappiness — you identify problems faster, test things faster, and get yourself to a solution faster.

Blackbox Stills for The Henry Ford Connections Table

When we were creating the Connections AI Table with The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, we had a particularly difficult UX problem to solve — a multi-user touch table that needed to express how every item in their vast collection was connected to one another. We wanted it to be surprising yet intuitive, informative but not didactic, and most of all FUN. We started prototyping with hand sketches, bodystorming, and code.

THF Table prototypes

Sketching is great when you need to capture and communicate your ideas quickly. It only requires a pen and paper and some words — no need to be a good visual sketcher or an eloquent annotator. At Bluecadet, we always start our process with chicken scratches that are hard to decipher without a 10- minute explanation. The THF table UX problem wasn’t an exception. From making sure visitors can interact with the table from every angle to developing the UX logic behind building object connections, everything started with sketches. We actively involved our clients in this process as well. Some of their sketches only used words, but the effect was the same and helped propel our conversations forward.

Examples of the bodystorming we did for the Connections Table.

After bodystorming, you’ll start to see that there are specific areas that need real-time responsiveness. This is when we make code prototypes. For the THF table, we needed to know what simple touch gesture would be gratifying. Just with some shapes and physics parameters, we were able to test and validate our bodystormed ideas.

Code prototype for The Henry Ford Connections Table..

These code sketches break — very easily. Nothing is perfect about them. But they’re a great way to get a gut check for how things feel and move, or whether the UX logic makes sense.

Making something that’s not perfect can be nerve wrecking. Some of your best design concepts will develop when you are willing to be vulnerable, when you experiment and make something that is less than what you envision in your head.

Scrappiness is an attitude

As designers, we are faced with constraints every day. Scrappiness is about how you respond to them. It requires fostering a can-do outlook, a willingness to roll up your sleeves and get dirty, and the courage to dive in.

When I landed my first job as an experience designer, there was just one problem — I had trained as a more traditional graphic designer. With every project or task I took on, I was in unfamiliar territory and the answer was unknown. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was always willing to try things and use what was available to me — design principles I learned in school, observing and shadowing my colleagues, and having countless discussions of what might merit a successful experience. I adapted and absorbed as much as possible. I dove in head first. When you are being scrappy, you are always growing.

When Chimney Rock Visitor Center in Nebraska came to Bluecadet asking for an update of their exhibit about westward migration, we saw its full potential. There were so many fun digital activations and interactives we could create that would enhance the experience. But they had a limited design budget, limited staff for maintenance, and a tight timeline. We needed to be scrappy in our strategic approach. Alongside the client, we prioritized what needed that extra digital enhancement and which experiences could be just as exciting without a digital component. The solution was to push our interactives to be physically engaging for visitors who often were stopping at the Visitor Center to stretch their legs during a long road trip. Digital activations would play a light supporting role.

With our focus shifted to more graphics and physical exhibit elements, I was returning to work I hadn’t done since the beginning of my career. But I recognized that I was surrounded by a great team of designers who were more well-versed in this work. So, rather than hunkering down solo, I adapted and used this as an opportunity to learn from the team. A different kind of resourcefulness than I might have practiced early in my career.

Similar to the THF table experience, we needed to test our ideas and assumptions, even if the solutions weren’t digital ones. We projected rough designs to experiment with scale and typography locations. We taped out and measured to make sure our furni ture would be ADA compliant and built cardboard models to test our analogue interactions. And yes, we even bodystormed a loading wagon interactive that was to emulate packing for a trip west.

The Chimney Rock Visitor Center in Nebraska opened in Summer 2020. (Left: Exhibit entrance; Right: The “load the wagon” experience gives visitors the opportunity to prepare for their own westward journey).
The Chimney Rock Visitor Center in Nebraska opened in Summer 2020. (Left: Exhibit entrance; Right: The “load the wagon” experience gives visitors the opportunity to prepare for their own westward journey)..

The risks of scrappiness

This is not a celebration of constantly working under time pressures or with impossible client expectations. Scrappiness can be a double-edged sword. It can be dangerous when scrappiness stems from scarcity. True and healthy scrappiness is about maximizing what you have, not trying to hide what you don’t.

My parents instilled a tough “put your head down and make it work” mentality in me early on in life. Tough assignment at school? Unexpected hiccups on a project at the office? I worked through it, and it always served me well in my career. However, too often, I found myself in survival mode. On the surface I was succeeding in executing the project, but I was often overworked and struggling. Exhausted after countless 15-hour days, I constantly wondered what I was doing wrong. Stay in that headspace for too long and burnout is inevitable.

A get-it-done-at-all-costs attitude often gets conflated with being scrappy. They are certainly related, but it is important to separate them. Now I catch myself when scrappiness becomes unhealthy, or when it is coming from a place of fear.

Leading scrappy teams

Over the last few years, I have seen how scrappiness can thrive even without “survival mode.” You can make people feel supported, foster creative energies, and still design from a scrappy place.

As someone who now leads teams of designers, I am learning to shed some of my bad habits. Unhealthy scrappiness is demanding designers to do endless iterations, or not asking for help when I or my team truly need it. Today, I consider healthy scrappiness as creating a mindful working environment, and finding process efficiencies and clever solutions to excite the client. Creating an inclusive workspace for every team member to bring their best authentic self. And this extends to every work environment, whether we’re bodystorming in our Philadelphia production space or sketching over Zoom.

Embrace scrappiness as an opportunity

Being scrappy is baked into my personality. It’s what gave me the tools to transition from graphic design to experience design. It’s how I deliver the very best for my clients. It’s also something that I have had to learn how to control and direct when it comes to managing other designers.

Anyone can benefit from a bit of scrappiness. It can help you grow as a designer and find unexpected solutions for clients. So, the next time you are faced with a design challenge where the constraints are frustrating or you lack the experience to immediately know the right answer, don’t despair; consider it as an opportunity to come up with an unexpected solution. Stay scrappy, stay learning, but remember to breathe.