The Dirty Little Secret about Design

Long ago I used to have a blog called Design Thinking Digest that has long been lost to the ages. I’m posting some of my older writings that I still think have value on Medium.

Originally published on October 17, 2006.

At the About, With, and For conference at The Institute of Design I had the pleasure of hosting a small round table where we discussed design process. The inspiration for the topic was a story on Design Observer by Michael Bierut. In the article Michael highlights what he TELLS customers his process is versus what it really is. While Michael is focused more in traditional print design I strongly suspect that much of what he discusses also occurs in interaction design.

The issue really boils down to a discussion about what type of design we actually engage in and we can use some concepts from Dan Saffer’s Designing for Interaction to Frame the Discussion. In Michael’s case he actually pitched activity-based design and then most often wound up practicing genius-based design. I suspect most interaction designers pitch activity-based or user centered design as their process but then eventually get to the point where they practice genius-based design as well.

In our round table we all acknowledged that projects rarely get executed with the aplomb that is promised at project inception and that we often rely on our experience and intuition to make things happen — often to the exclusion of some of the procedural or conceptual steps that we would normally engage in.

In fact, many companies (Apple comes to mind) have established extraordinary success by focusing on genius-based design. This is troubling. Genius-based design doesn’t scale, it also doesn’t allow for continuity or consistency. Apple makes beautiful products with that ‘gotta-have’ factor but there are also some things that are missing. For those of you that built or developed Apple applications long ago the Apple Human Interface Guidelines were canonical, applications all behaved as you expected them too, this is much less true of Apple products today. This manner of designing also doesn’t lend itself well to integration. Try pasting something from Pages or iDVD into Keynote for example.

Another company that focuses more on what I’d consider genius-based design is 37 Signals. They too make beautiful software and often focus on what “feels” right versus research.

And herein is the dilemma. Intuition and genius-based design works, we need to acknowledge it and explain it to our customers and patrons rather than hide behind a lie. But we also need to acknowledge where it falls short. Complex problems often require and can benefit from from a rigorous approach to process and contextual inquiry and it’s our job as professionals to ensure that we apply all flavors of our discipline in appropriate measures.

The key concepts to come out of our round table is that method-based design does not do a good job of acknowledging the intuitive parts of the process and it must. The other concept is that we must work on giving our profession some established patterns and process that inform a more agile and iterative approach to contextual inquiry and systemic design because nothing will hurt or discredit our profession more than if we say we are practicing systemic design when we are in fact, just making things up as we go.

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