The hidden ingredient in great design

Design requires the interaction of two opposing forces: one sexy and one not.

Design (verb) is a process that moves a project from uncertainty towards certainty

This is the clearest definition of “design” that I have been able to come up with, and it seems to cover the many different contexts in which design operates. Design always begins with some level of uncertainty and, if successful, ends with at least some aspects of that uncertainty resolved.

This definition ties together design and decision-making. To “design”, it is not enough to create options. Without decisions, there is no movement from uncertainty towards certainty.

We can see design as the interaction of two opposing forces: option-making and decision-making. Options expand the solution space; decisions contract the solution space.

Moving a design forward requires making hard decisions

The design process is iterative. We constantly:

  • explore ideas by making options
  • make decisions that eliminate all but one option

With iteration, the outcome of previous option/decision pairings informs the next set of ideas, which are then explored through options and resolved with decisions. Decisions may remain fluid due to the complex web of interdependency, but without some progress on decisions, the iterative process will bog down and eventually stop making headway.

In the end, the design outcome must be only one thing (a finished building, a poster, a wedding), so each idea that is explored with options will need a corresponding set of decisions.

While option-making is sexy, exciting and grand, it’s lesser studied twin — decision-making — is of equal importance in the designer’s skill set.

Lead image: “The Garden of Lost Footsteps” at Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy by Eisenman 2004 / Photo: Reg Prentice © 2004