Defining the “Design mindset”

charlotte depin
Oct 2, 2018 · 7 min read

This article has been written for Springboard, as part of their UX curriculum.

Design has become a priority to successful businesses. In 2016, design mindset has even been listed as a key skill in the Future Work Skills 2020 report by the Institute For The Future (IFTF). And indeed, many of the companies showing the highest performance over the last decade had a very strong design-led strategy (Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola…).

Directly related to this “design-centric” trend, many advertising agencies, consulting firms, UX studios and even freelance consultants have suddenly found new revenue streams through “design thinking” and “design process” workshops.

More and more,“[design thinking] is described as a process in 4–5 steps, mostly with an emphasis on brainstorming, ideation, and tons of multi-color post-it notes. And this is where the problem starts. (…) the design thinking framework is (…) certainly not some magic formula you can just learn, apply, and then get results from. Any process followed blindly starts to be a problem.” (Amol R. Kadam, “Design thinking is not a process, it is a mindset”)

Beyond the buzzwords and the “one-fits-all” recipes, let’s see how to develop an accurate design attitude to problem solving:

A decision making process

For the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a product is “the result of an action or process”: in other words, a product can be understood as the result of a series of decisions, from the initial intention to the final outcome.

Very often in product design, the initial intention or idea will meet problems such as technical feasibility, production costs, deadlines, legislation, and so on. For every difficulty, compromises or decisions need to be made. At the meeting point between technical constraints, business perspective and desirability, the designer is the one that shall try to offer the best compromises to build a consistent product.

Comparing engineers and designers, Don Norman explains: “Engineers are trained to think logically. As a result, they come to believe that people must think this way, and they design their machine accordingly. When people have trouble, the engineers are upset, but (…) the problem with the design of most engineers is that they are too logical. We have to accept human behaviour the way it is.”

With this example, Don Norman introduces how logical thinking shall be balanced with empathy for the user. This is one of the many examples where the design mindset is all about being able to consider various perspectives and balance them in the decision process.

In that sense, designers are experts of transversality: it is their responsibility to change perspective regularly in the process to create consistency and relevancy in the final product. Even if specialities have emerged within the field of design (UI, UX, interaction, product, researcher,….) that very transversality remains fundamental to the design mindset, and every designer shall remain aware of his decisions within the big picture of the project.

The whole picture

Further than changing point of view all along the design process, design is also about changing scale when considering the product.

All design decisions, at every level from the very product definition to the tiniest detail, should be made considering the whole picture:

  • The initial intention of the product (what problem are we trying to solve?)
  • The overall context of the project (what are our technical, financial, legal… constraints?)
  • The quality and desirability of the decision (Is this the best way and the most appealing way for the end user to solve the problem?)

This back and forth movement between macro and micro level is the only way to ensure balance and consistency between the different components of a project. This might sound a bit overwhelming, and this is where the process and methodology come in to help the designer.

In order to start solving problems, the whole product team (including all stakeholders) needs to frame and agree on the scope and objectives of the project: What problem are we trying to solve? What are our constraints? Who will be our users?

Getting back to the introduction, this is where the design thinking methodology has offered good answers to industries and good guidelines to problem framing, by dividing the process in 5 steps (note to springboard team: here it would be nice to make a reference to design processes if any other material available in the curriculum).

Design thinking enables multi-disciplinary teams to gather and organise themselves by framing questions before trying to answer them. It is an iterative process: at each step, the team is invited to refer back to the initial problem framing in order to evaluate the relevance of the solutions imagined. For the designer, it is a very important tool to keep methodic and to share his mindset.

The creative synthesis

Saying that every decision in a design process is tight to every other decisions that have been or will be made sounds scary, yes. But this is also good news for designers: “blank page anxiety” shall not exist if the design process is well applied. No decision making is the fruit of pure creativity, every idea is the answer to a well framed question or problem.

On this matter, Charles Eames, one of the greatest contributor to design and architecture of the 50’s presented the constraints as drivers to creativity rather than blockers:

“Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem: the ability of the designer to recognise as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints.”

The creative synthesis is really about considering all aspects of the problem and applying creativity in this context. If you feel stuck at answering a question and feel like there is no solution to your problem, broaden the question, it is probably that you are being too specific in the way you consider the problem. To the contrary, if you are overwhelmed with the amount of possibilities and can’t choose a path to make decisions, narrow your objectives, and try to remember more precisely what problem you are trying to solve.

The power of empathy

We see more and more how problem framing is the key component to the design mindset, and maybe the most important skill for a designer. Design is about listening and empathizing with users, but not only! It is almost as important to empathize with your clients, and all stakeholders in the project to really achieve the transversal vision that will enable good decision making. It is about translating divergent opinions or needs into problematic bits that can be solved.

And this ability to empathize combined with the ability to formulate questions is probably the very core of a design mindset. To provide good answers, the designer need to frame good problems. To frame good problems, the designer shall gather relevant information. To gather relevant information, the designer shall listen and ask good questions.

There is no scientific guide to what a good question is in design (yet there are few guidelines and also there), and this is really where design is a soft science. However, most of the time, it all comes down to ONE simple question: Why? (more about this here). There is a super famous quote from Henry Ford, the inventor of the Ford T automobile (the most influential car in the 20th century) on this topic: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Indeed, it is not enough to ask people what they need, because they will project themselves in solutions they already know:

“What do you need? — A faster horse”

Designers shall repeatingly ask Why, and What for, after discovering the initial assessment. Let’s imagine the kind of conversation that Henry Ford could have had if he had done user research before creating the Ford T.

“What do you need a faster horse for? — To go quicker from a place to another”

“So the problem is not the horse, it is the speed? — Yes”

“What goes faster than a horse? — A car”

“Why don’t you use a car? — Because it is expensive

Then let’s build a cheaper car.”

This example is a bit caricatural, yet it reflects how important it is for a designer to go beyond the first answers of the user and dig deeper into understanding his needs and motivation. Asking Why may sound so simple and genuine at first, that it is paradoxically a difficult question to ask. Try it, you will discover that it is the key to connect with the human beings in front of you, build empathy, and design solutions that people will love.

The strive for love

So we have stated how a design mindset leads to listening and questioning in-depth at different perspectives on a matter, to address and solve problems in a coherent and consistent way regarding the context.

And this is where many descriptions of a design mindset usually stop, and this is where design thinking workshops also stop. Yet, this definition could also apply to a good project management, or to good quality advising.

Then what is the very DNA of design? Quoting Don Norman again on this: “It is not enough that we build products that function, that are understandable and usable, we also need to build products that bring joy and excitement, pleasure and fun, and, yes, beauty to people’s lives.

And with beauty comes the final pillar of a design mindset: Design is a craft.

Design is about empathy, strategy, logic, rationalisation and creativity but in the end, design is an activity that aims at producing sensible forms. Forms that will delight users by their simplicity and relevancy. Talking of design, people sometimes mention the “wow” effect of a product (check also the Aha moment).

This notion is the very last key to understand the design mindset: an important part of becoming a designer is about gathering an artistic and sensible culture, looking around you, being aware of everyday tools, shapes and environments to understand better how forms (physical, tangible) really talk to people. Inspiration, observation, awareness and practice are fundamental to reach this last target. Designers, no matter their speciality, shall strive for beauty, balance and good execution, as this is the very answer to empathy.

Charlotte Depin, UX/product designer at Brickchain, mentor and writer at Springboard. Has been designing interfaces for the last 10 years. Loves complexity, big problems and tiny details.

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