Designing the unfamiliar
Officiating a wedding was not on my list of things to do in this life. That was something my dad did; or, basically, anyone other than me.
But, as it turns out, when a good friend asks me to officiate his wedding, I’m going to oblige, and then I’m going to panic, because last I checked, I’ve performed zero weddings. And weddings are big deals. Panic in tow, I set out to plan my first ceremony.
I had one main goal for the ceremony:
Make it as meaningful as possible for both the bride and groom.
Now, I’ve known my boy, Josh, for 20+ years, but I could only claim 2 years for his girlfriend-at-the-time and that was a problem.
Mix in 1,800 miles between us, and getting to know Jessica better was going to be a challenge; worst part being, it wasn’t going to go down in person through many shared experiences like it had with Josh.
For me, the next best thing would be talking to those who know her best, gathering varied perspectives about her to form a fuller picture of who this person is, and gain little insights like why she’s “hopelessly devoted and head over heels, in ridiculous love with Josh.”
I turned to design.
Researching a bride
In the months leading up to the wedding, I recorded conversation after conversation with some of Jessica’s closest friends, family, Josh, and Jessica herself. I could feel the nervousness on the other end of the line in most of the calls, but you know what?, people love talking about those they love and if you just get out of the way, all that’s required is a little active listening.
I approached each phone call as a conversation, using only a small list of questions as a guide, allowing for natural conversation and heart-felt moments to surface organically.
It’s a cool thing to listen to someone talk freely about another they deeply love, admire, and respect. It was easy, meaningful, research–it was rewarding–and I began to glean the depth I was hoping to find.
For those months leading up to the wedding, the walls of my room were covered with sticky-note insights from the many conversations I had, each color representing a person.
There’s no hard-fast rule in synthesizing qualitative insights. It’s a matter of exploration and finding ways the information compiles together to tell a story. I looked at Jessicas insights through the perspectives of:
- Major life events
- Periods of life (childhood, adolescence, college years, adulting)
- Common topics
I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but I was saturating myself in everything Jessica on a daily basis. And for the rest of my life, I imagine I will have my own childhood vision of Jessica’s sister, smacking her upside the head with a whiffle-ball bat for being an ornery ass to her and her friends.
It was the many little insights like those that were beginning to shape what I would talk about during the ceremony. I was drawing out similar past experiences between Josh and Jess; ways in which they balance one another; what they both truly value in this life as well as one another; what they desire for their future as individuals and together. I can even tell you what they don’t like about each other.
Josh would not like Jessica’s ability to kick ass at planning every last detail (Portland) down to the hour, in the same way, Jessica does not prefer Josh’s minimalistic approach (New Orleans) of planning 1-3 details. It was hilarious to uncover this balancing act they pull off, but they do it well. It works well because they hear and respect each other and strive to strike a balance of comfort for the other. They watch out for each other kind of like you do in team sports.
Josh and Jess both come from athletic backgrounds and played team sports at highly competitive levels; Josh, volleyball, and Jess, softball. They know what it means to work hard towards something greater than themselves and it exists in their relationship. They experienced a synergy of success playing on those teams that few athletes ever experience, let alone understand, and it was one of their first connecting-points that established a base of respect and admiration at the onset of their relationship.
" ... my ceremony became rooted in it; the secret to health and happiness."
Team-sports might play a part in why the two of them have such a ridiculously large circle of friends, too. And, I’m not talking in the way a person can have a ton of Facebook friends spanning decades. No, I’m talking actual relationships with an endless supply of friends. It’s so ridiculous, it was mentioned by every single interviewee as a point of bewilderment or open amazement; bewildered and amazed by how they maintain the depth of so many relationships.
You see, these two value relationships to such a deep level, my ceremony became rooted in it; the secret to health and happiness.
Their wedding was awesome, but not just because of me 😉
I loved the format; a cocktail style event where wedding and reception happen in the same place. Guests paused around their cocktail or dinner table and focused their attention on the wedding ceremony for 20–30 minutes before returning to the celebration. The space and the event felt fluid and natural.
For 15 of those minutes, I stood with my friends and weaved a ceremony for them that not only came from my heart but indirectly from the hearts of their friends and families, and, after nearly a year in the making, I believe, achieved my primary goal.
It felt like three minutes.
My final words spoken, I stood there, feeling a little like Will Ferrel in Old School, wondering if I had hit all my marks; did I do and say everything I planned? Did it make sense? Did it sound like a recognizable language?
I trust the endless kudos I received afterward were heartfelt and true versus obligatory and contrived. They certainly felt genuine, and I was grateful and humbled to have received them.
Having returned home, my walls are bare again, and, weird as it may seem, I’ve grieved the wedding’s passing.
In some form or fashion, Josh and Jess were a part of my everyday life for the better part of a year and, returning to life-as-usual, I didn’t expect to be moved by little things like tossing away the last sticky-note task-list that would include them or their wedding.
I have to nod and be grateful for my experience with researching users, architecting information, and presenting my findings because those skills were heavily relied upon in learning about Jessica, and creating and officiating a wedding ceremony I hope will leave a lasting, positive impact on my friends.
The ways in which design processes and practices can be applied to seemingly unrelated things continues to impress and enthuse me. I enjoy the problem-solving of design, and it’s satisfying to know that I can turn to it for even the most unfamiliar and seemingly unrelated of things.
Thank you for the honor, Joshy. You’ve, once again, been the catalyst for positive growth in my life.