Meetings in Progress, Lots of Them

One topic that I covered in my speaking appearance at An Event Apart NYC last month — and also in the interview I did for Signal v. Noise in which I compared workplace notes with Google᾿s Jeffrey Veen — was my meetings calendar. I attend a lot of meetings at The New York Times: standing meetings, impromptu meetings, managers’ meetings, work meetings, development meetings… lots of them. For better or worse, the company culture is one that breeds a surfeit of meetings.

A lot of people would think this is bad. The prevailing wisdom in business talk today is that meetings are uniformly counter-productive, maybe even destructive. I’m not sure that I would argue with that; I can’t deny that, with a schedule like mine, I occasionally sit in on some meetings that just aren᾿t all that necessary. But neither can I say that I agree that meetings are a wholly bad thing.

Creating the Conditions

To be sure, I have no great passion for meetings, and whenever I can remove one from my calendar, I’ll do so. But I also happen to think they’re important, valuable tools of business, and especially for design. Meetings are an under-utilized tool for making good design happen, and it would be irresponsible for anybody leading a design team to devote a tremendous amount of energy to shunning them. In my opinion.

For my part, I really look at meetings as opportunities for me to help create the conditions under which great design can get done. (In fact, I feel like that responsibility, rather than the actual act of designing, is my real role as design director. But more on that another time.) It’s not just the act of showing up for a meeting that I’m talking about, it’s my performance in meetings that really counts.

Talking My Language

It᾿s in meetings where I help articulate the ideas behind the work that we do in the design group. So much of what drives design is minutiae or highly contextual in nature that it may come across murky and obstinately obscure. A good designer or art director will use the forum of a meeting, where the team or stake-holders are gathered and primed to listen, to translate that intangible visual vocabulary into lucid, digestible business terms.

Design is engaged in a perpetual struggle to participate in business decision-making. So many times, I’ve met designers who have the clear eye and fluid talent necessary to do truly outstanding work, but they complain that the climate for good design where they work is poor. This is not a situation that’s going to be remedied by skipping out on meetings; in fact, a more conscientious, pro-active approach to participating in meetings — wherein the attending designers are open, friendly, collaborative and prepared to speak in a common language — is often the best remedy. Meetings can be useful, and great design can arise from them. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  1. I agree completely, and I’ve actually always quite enjoyed most meetings. I have worked in situations before where I felt like I had so many meetings to go to that I never had time to sit down and work — but the meetings themselves were usually inspiring and enjoyable.

    Nice post.

  2. That’s a great point, Jeff. You’ll get no shortage of funny looks when you say it, but yes, a lot of meetings are actually enjoyable. If you like the people you work with — and I do — meetings are a great opportunity to get to know them better, to build the team, and to relax and not be slaving away at your desk all the time.

  3. It depends what kind of mood I’m end. Sometimes I don’t mind the a meeting to break the monotony of making something work in IE.

    If the meeting doesn’t pertain directly to me, I will usually sketch in my moleskine, so at least I end up with a collection of drawings and notes that actually look cool after an abundance of meetings.

  4. I’m with Jeff on this. I actually enjoying the collaborative nature of meetings and find that meetings actually boost my moral and therefore productivity. I guess it depends on how they are conducted.

    In this 37 Signals “Keep it real” age, I’m really glad to see I’m not alone!

  5. “Sometimes I don’t mind the a meeting to break the monotony of making something in IE.”

    What I meant to say was –

    “Sometimes I don’t mind a meeting to break the monotony of making something WORK in IE.”

    Khoi is there way we can edit comments? I’m prone to excessive typos.

  6. Surfeit of meetings, I think that’ll go on my board at work. Heh; great post. (:

    I don’t mind most of my meetings, tedious and nauseating though they can sometimes be. Mostly because: I’d rather be there and contribute or guide a discussion or process rather than be forced only to react to it.

    And, much as my lead designer may detest some of her meetings, she excels at bringing good design out of a climate of Feature Creep and Too Many Cooks (we are lucky to have her).

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.