What is the design process?

Published on
2019-10-05
Disclaimer: embrace ambiguity

The subject of this blog goes by several different names, most often design thinking. Also, by design with a small d, and sometimes human-centered design or simply as design process.

I choose to call it design method because I'd like to emphasize the parallels with scientific method.

Design method is inherently ambiguous. If you expect to finish this reading with a fully concrete understanding of its process or products, you will be either disappointed or mistaken. My objective with this page is not to give you a developped comprehension: it is more important to me that this blog incites interest and sparks conversation.

Don't try and tell people what you do. Ask what they do and explain it in their context.
Ben King (2018)

Primary source: A Study of the Design Process by Design Council UK

1 Design as problem solving

You have likely heard of design explained as problem solving. Think of web design firms branding themselves as online solutions or IKEA products dubbed solutions for a space. It's a marketing term there, and, here, a functioning description for the starting point from which we should build an understanding of design.

For design method, take this problem solving process and break it into two phases: discovering problems and discovering solutions.

2 Discovering problems

The design method understands a crucial first phase before fixing problems: discovering them. This allows design method to be responsive and adaptive rather than being stuck in a cycle of incrementalism [Tim Brown]. In a nutshell, incrementalism means making small improvements, often based solely on technology. These designs are superficial and don't revamp the product or industry unless the technology is desirable, feasible, and viable, which would require important luck. So, the initial phase is about asking the right questions to curtail the need for luck.

In order to ask the right questions, a designer starts by asking a lot of questions, often literally. Through interviews, one can empathize with the target audience and understand their needs, wants, aspirations and fears holistically. Talking to the people in need of design is a universally powerful tool and is the major component of the first phase of design method.

You must understand your peers the way they want to be understood.
Justin Johnson (2017)

Somewhat ironically, preparation for these interviews has to begin with assumptions: exactly what designers are trying to avoid with the first phase. As with the scientific method, assumptions are not necessarily bad, as long as they are treated as hypotheses. An interview guide is founded on guesses, sometimes educated by personal anecdotes or secondary research and sometimes not at all. The first step's objective is to diverge with questions. This is entirely creative (brainstorming).

After this, a designer will have a plethora of unanswered questions, or, as they might call them: potential opportunities. This is the end of the first step.

Since the first step was divergent and creative, the next is convergent and analytical. To differentiate between the strictly potential and real problems, interviews will reveal that some lines of questioning are non-issues while others are pressure points. Relatively few questions will lead to actual design opportunities for the simple reason they are not real issues, just missed guesses. Pressure points can point in the right direction, and empathy can push the topics further in depth. Then, with some analytical tools like clustering, or grouping ideas by what they have in common, the very human realities to design for are brought to light.

Lastly in this convergent step, the research must be contextualised. Time and money are obvious limiting factors, and unfortunately, so is scope. Not all issues are appropriatefor design intervention.

3 Defining objectives

At the halfway point, or intersection between the two phases, the problems are on the table. However, they are not useful until they are organized. The following is a concise argument for the need to frame objectives in the design method:

A problem well stated is a problem half solved.
Charles Kettering

The design brief cumulates all the research, making a key point of reference. It states problems, objectives, needs and wants. This strategy of outcome-focused explanation gives designers confidence and direction into the second phase of design method: s.

4 Discovering solutions

Traditional views on design focus exclusively on this phase where the solutions that most improve the lives of the audience are explored. The Industrial Designer's Association of America has a list of activities that can be a part of problem solving. This list is focused on industrial designer's solutions, or 3D product and furniture design, however it is extensive. Never would a designer go through each of the mentioned activities one after another like a checklist. Instead, each project might see itself in a handful of those activities. These are perhaps the more glamourous parts of a design studio: mood boards, sketching and prototyping. Again, this phase and those activities are split into two steps.

Firstly, designers use creativity to diverge in solutions. Hundreds of potential solutions can be ideated with the help of sketching, and that's just the first 3 activities. The S.C.A.M.P.E.R technique (substitute, combine, adapt, modify, purpose, eliminate, rearrange) can be used to increase productivity in this step. For visual communications design or service design, thumbnailing and journey mapping are more relevant tools to expand ideas.

Secondly, designers shift to the "right brain" and use analytical skills to converge on a single solution. Secondary research helps cross out some ideas that are not realistic or not relevant.
From the remaining ideas, designers will borrow favourite elements from several concepts to combine into a superior solution. O, the last activities (model-making and protoyping) are used to refine details with user and production testing.

5 Recap and conclusion

The phases of asking questions and finding solutions each have 2 equivalent steps. They both begin with creative thinking in order to diverge on ideas. Then, they both continue with analytical thinking to narrow down on the ultimate ideas.

The most important step lives in between these two phases: to frame the design in a project brief. An objective-focused lens is the most practical in the long run because the design method is not linear; it is both iterative and organic.

It is inherently organic because each project has a unique fingerprint defined by the audience. Projects adapt to people. That is the nature, even the reason for, design method. Next, it is iterative because designers will often find themselves cycling back to asking questions, framing and reframing opportunities with increasing depth and specificity. To make things more complex, challenges will always have multiple valid questions and solutions. This is all the more reason the world needs design method.

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