Designing Design Methods
Understanding the field by comparing three distinct approaches to process
This is a paper for my Master’s in Experience Design at Hyper Island. I thought I’d share with the Medium community and see how academic writing is received. Yay? Nay? I would welcome any thoughts or comments below.
There are multiple correct ways to carry out the design process. No one version of the process is considered archetypical. The fastest way to reveal design’s rambunctious flock of methods is through a quick Google image search. At the time of this writing, a query for the phrase “design process” yields spirals, squares, chains of dots, double diamonds and triple triangles. This flurry of iconographies represents a diversity of valid approaches to the design process and its stages. A similar search for the scientific method, in contrast, uncovers a portrait of disciplinary consensus. Most of the image results are a simple line. (There are also a few circles. These are identical in content to the lines, only folded back on themselves to imply repeatability).
Design is unlike other disciplines with fixed, immutable processes. It’s a field that allows and even encourages practitioners to constantly morph and adapt their methods.
Design bravely offers its very heart as a sort of open-source tinkertoy available for play and even tampering.
The design process could be called antifragile — a system that gains from disorder — like a forest fortified by fire or a muscle strengthened by stress (Taleb, 2012).
This paper compares three different visual representations of the design process: the double diamond, the pinball machine and the helix. The purpose of juxtaposing these images is to better understand the ever-widening field of design. Which aspects of the process persist across versions? Does the process have an essence? What does this methodological multiplicity mean for future generations of designers?
The Double Diamond
This visual representation of the design process was developed by the United Kingdom Design Council in 2005 through in-house research (Design Council, 2007). The Design Council was created in 1944 ( it was then called the Council of Industrial Design). The purpose of the Council was to build Britain’s ability to produce high-quality consumer goods, which in turn would boost the nation’s economy in a competitive postwar market. In the time since, the Council has played a significant role in shaping design discourse and praxis in Britain and beyond. The Council’s influence extends from its roots in industrial design to newer and less tangible disciplines such as service and interaction design (Design Council, 2014).
The diamonds depict four stages of the design process: discover, define, develop and deliver. The diagonal contours of the diamonds, a somewhat subtle visual cue, intend to show which stages are convergent and which are divergent. Lines opening outward, as in the discover and develop stages, signify divergent thinking — collecting options, aggregating ideas, and expanding the realm of possibilities. Lines closing inward, as in define and deliver, represent convergent thinking — narrowing possibilities and setting priorities. A brief discussion of each stage below will illuminate the practice of switching between these mindsets like a swinging pendulum.
With its divergent spirit, this stage uses the initial client request as a launchpad into a wide galaxy of research. Collecting stories, discussing with stakeholders and other information-gathering pursuits are involved.
With its sharp chisel of convergent thinking, this stage organizes the information gathered during the discover phase, analyzes its relevance to the brief, and crafts a strategy to move ahead. Approvals are sought and structures are created. The brief is likely to be re-framed after this moment of focus. The dot between the two diamonds represents the opportunity for new understanding of the brief to emerge in this moment.
This stage acts on the strategies put forth in the define stage. Prototypes are built and mockups are made. Both are subject to testing and re-iteration based on new learnings. The pendulum returns to divergent thinking as prototypes and mockups lead to new discoveries. The gates are opened once again to mutation and possibility.
The pendulum swings back to convergent thinking. Plans are finalized, ideas are refined and prototypes are prepared for production. Final testing is carried out and requisite approvals are signed. A scheme for ongoing feedback may be established in order to continue improving the product well after its market debut.
The Pinball Machine
This visualization of the design process was created by Bill Moggridge, industrial designer and co-founder of IDEO, the renowned design consultancy. Since its founding in 1991, IDEO has been at the forefront of the development of design thinking and methods. By this period, design’s curiosity about itself started to coalesce into a canon of knowledge. This was thanks to the Design Council and other professional development bodies like the International Conference on Design Methods, established in 1964. By the year 2000, with formidable stewardship from IDEO, design had emerged as a powerful voice in the now-trendy field of interdisciplinary innovation (Lupton, 2014, loc 1120).
After four decades of self-study, how did leading designers describe their process? According to Moggridge:
The [design] process is iterative rather than linear and does not necessarily follow a sequence. The most productive approach is often apparently unstructured…The process does not look like a linear system diagram, nor even a revolving wheel of iterations, but is more like playing with a pinball machine, where one bounces rapidly in unexpected directions (Moggridge, 650).
The pinball analogy depicts a team of practiced designers working intuitively, organically, and without a firm plan. The pinball method is about more than just unpredictability. It also includes ten distinct stages:
This stage comes first in the pinball process, making it the only stage whose timing is prescribed. Constraints are about understanding the greater context of the brief and absorbing (both consciously and subconsciously) all that surrounds the topic. It’s not unlike the discover stage in the double diamond.
Once a design team has steeped itself in constraints, it’s possible to start synthesizing the information absorbed. To borrow language from the double diamond, synthesis requires a convergent mindset. Synthesis applies not only to content (designing solutions) but also to process (designing the method itself). Synthesis often occurs in the informal and interstitial spaces of a project — ideas that come unexpectedly at midnight, while brushing one’s teeth or walking the dog. Moggridge (2007, p. 650) attributes this phenomenon to subconscious mental work, which he attests is a hugely important yet undervalued part of the design method.
A form of synthesis, framing gives a tangible, relatable form to those subconscious mental processes of clarification and crystallization. Examples of framing could be a clarifying diagram (like a systems map) or a philosophical tact (like cognitive-behavioral psychology).
Ideation happens throughout the process, not just during brainstorms. Formal brainstorm meetings can be used to propel ideation, but in reality ideation is happening continually. Ideas can range from mediocre to great. It is up to the team to evaluate the value of each idea. Mediocre ideas can open the door to great ones, thus they are not necessarily of low value. Great ideas can send the team zooming in an unexpected direction, like a flying pinball.
Similar to framing, envisioning is a convergent and grounding stage. It’s about distilling ideas into some kind of concrete representation, be it visual or behavioral. Moggridge describes this phase as a reality check. The lofty dreams of ideation are dragged down to Earth by harsh constraints and decisions.
This stage is likely to occur when analyzing a potential solution. Uncertainty is to be embraced and not feared, as it paves the way to a diversity of worthy potentials.
Another convergent stage, selection is about choosing which ideas to act on and which to leave behind. Debate and disagreement are normal during this difficult process.
What distinguishes this stage from envisioning and prototyping is that it’s about communicating the solution as convincingly and realistically as possible. This is still subtly different from prototyping, which tests only some aspects of functionality. The word “visual” is used loosely here; visualizations needn’t be optical.
Moggridge brings more specificity to the word “prototype” than many other archivists of the design method. A prototype is not a full dummy of a proposed design, rather, it tests an aspect of the design-in-progress. He puts emphasis on the ability to test only one feature at a time. The quicker and simpler a prototype is to create and test, the better it is. As the mileage increases on the pinball and the design process carries on, prototypes will swell to include more than one testable feature.
In a healthy design process, this stage is a frequent stop for the pinball. Evaluation entails observing and assessing the success of a given prototype, frame, or visualization. As the process advances and prototypes become more complete, evaluations also advance in refinement. The pinball decelerates over time, as frenetic streaking transitions to gentle nudges.
This freewheeling technique raises the question of how new designers will be trained.
If master designers are but jaunty pinballs guided by instinct and intuition, how can a design student ever expect to learn?
An apprenticeship model where new designers learn by working alongside experienced designers could work. Or a student might begin her career with a more structured model like the double diamond. As she gains experience and develops her instincts, she can transition toward the pinball model. Moggridge (2007, p. 729) states that despite its seeming disorder, pinball is actually the most effective and efficient design method. This assumes, of course, that those involved have the skills to do it properly.
Scientist Mihajlo Mesarovic created this visualization of the design process in 1964, making it the earliest model in this paper. Using his knowledge of systems theory and engineering, Mesarovic modeled a detailed, layered view of the process (Dubberly, 2004). It is a grown-up version of the spiral, another familiar process image. The helix simply adds a vertical axis to the spiral, representing the passage of time.
This method involves six stages from abstract to concrete: definition of need, feasibility study, preliminary design, detailed design, production planning and production. Each stage includes four sub-stages: analysis, synthesis, evaluation and communication.
These stages are indeed a re-assembly of themes already discussed at length above. For example, definition of need and feasibility study align with the double diamond’s discover. Detailed design is a more precise spin on Moggridge’s visualization. The sub-stages analysis, synthesis and evaluation are a more detailed way to describe convergent thinking. Interestingly, Mesarovic’s model doesn’t name anything resembling divergent thinking, uncertainty or ideation — those fuzzy areas of the diamond and pinball techniques requiring the most soft skills.
In the helix model, designers (or more likely, designer-engineers) progress through many precise stages in chronological order. Sentient and intuitive pinballs they are not. It makes sense that as a scientist, Mesarovic would conceptualize the process in a way that is more prescribed and indeed, reminiscent of the scientific method.
The three models discussed in this paper were chosen for their dissimilarity, as difference stimulates discussion. Further exploration could cover models not mentioned: the spiral, the squiggle, the funnel, lumps and more. Interestingly, many of the omitted models bear resemblance to one of the three models above. For example, the lumpy line shares many qualities with the double diamond. The squiggle is but a simplification of the pinball machine. The funnel is a cousin of the helix.
Perhaps all design method diagrams can be separated into one of three camps: diamond-esque, pinball-esque, and helix-esque.
An important similarity across the models is their inclusion of both problem-solving and problem-framing. The Design Council calls it defining, Moggridge calls it synthesizing, and Mesarovic calls it definition of need. This feature of the design process is called co-evolution: the process of solving a problem in tandem with defining the problem itself (Brown, 2008). When the design brief itself is subject to revision, designers have the challenging task of aiming at a moving target.
Iteration is another constant across all the models. The helix and the pinball both clearly illustrate the design method’s affinity for repetition. The double diamond notes this in the fine print, however the image alone does not convey cyclicality.
The purpose of this paper is not to find the best model, but rather to understand the relationships between models. Such understanding can help a designer choose the best method for a given context. The double diamond is well-suited for beginners, like students and citizen-designers, because it offers a linear trajectory of only four steps. Moggridge’s ten-stage pinball machine seems most fitting for those who thrive on ambiguity and intuition, perhaps trained in arts or humanities. Mesarovic’s helix may best suit those from analytical backgrounds, like programmers or engineers, who will not be intimidated by a twenty-four-step process of six stages with four sub-stages each.
Design is a discipline whose primary concern is understanding people and their needs.
How fitting that this discipline should provide a menu of methodological options to suit a wide range of practitioners with diverse intellects and tastes.
Design’s comfort with multiplicity is an indicator of its youthful rapport with our postmodern zeitgeist, which is characterized by its embrace of nonlinear narratives, plurality and relative truth. One can only expect design methodology to continue to morph and improve through the ongoing collaboration of its diverse and talented practitioners.
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