The Case for Synergy


Phil Holcombe

Phil Holcombe is the Principal and Design Director at Form & Faculty. He has crafted communications for brands around the world, built curricula as a Program Director in higher education, and serves as a trustee of a Philadelphia high school.

If you look closely at design’s evolution over the past hundred years or so, you’ll notice that the designer’s focus has gradually shifted from the visible to the invisible. Dr. Meredith Davis characterizes this as a pivot away from artifact-driven strategies, first towards the systems those artifacts operate within, and now to an emergent space: the interactions between different systems, experiences, and individuals.

While all three types of practice (artifact design, systems design, and interaction design) continue to exist, it is becoming clear that many of the solutions to our most complex and ambiguous problems will be solved by working in this emergent space where systems, experiences, and individuals come together.

Dr. Davis is not alone in her characterization of the field. She cites former Apple executive, author, and design professor Donald Norman, who echoes this idea:

"The contemporary context for design involve[s] perpetually changing relationships among countless interdependent variables, making it impossible to address one variable at a time in isolation or through a single discipline."

if everything is interconnected, the areas that require the most attention are the seams between these connections. In his book User Friendly: How the Rules of Design are Changing the Way we Live, Work, and Play author Cliff Kuang states:

"The dilemma lies in somehow convincing thousands of people to work in concert on the tiniest details so that the seams never show, and getting those details to reflect a unified experience. And yet their seams show nonetheless... The seams these companies are striving to hide away still persist, because they reflect how these companies themselves are built: the groups inside fighting for control, and the people inside those groups who may or may not understand how a thousand tiny trade-offs, all of them reasonable enough, might chip away at an experience until it's dust."

Kuang's example is about a company, but if you're employed by a school you may find it resonates just as well. In this post-pandemic world, there will be no space for team members who don’t value what happens at the seams because seams are inherently the least resilient part of any creation.

Of course, it's possible for those seams to be so well hidden that, for all intents and purposes, they don't exist: people and departments have such synergistic relationships that these seams are invisible.

So what happens when schools pay special attention to "synergy": the edges, the seams, and the symbiotic relationships between people and departments? Schools that value synergy benefit in many ways:

More unified school experience for students and families

Synergy ensures your values manifest themselves consistently with each experience. This is particularly critical for prospective families, who are still forming their opinion and understanding of your school.

Ability to pivot faster in times of crisis

Synergistic schools pivot faster in times of crisis because interwoven departments always move nimbly and in unison.

Better storytelling increases enrollment

Synergy alleviates brand gaps: places where what the school says it does isn’t aligned with what's actually happening.

Improved collaboration allows for more efficient use of resources

Collaboration cuts down on duplication of efforts and consumes fewer human resources, financial resources, and less physical space.

Yes, F&F designs discrete solutions to discrete problems. But we are also the connective tissue capable of keeping these efforts synergistic. To that end, we now offer Synergy Audits: an expert examination of your school's instruction, space, story, and the interactions between them. They provide actionable feedback to help you transition from your current state to a fully synergistic state.

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