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What is a Design Decision?

The late cognitive scientist and Nobel Laureate Herb Simon famously said that “To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” While this definition firmly places designing as a core human activity, the definition in praxis is far too broad. It doesn’t take into account anything resembling design methodology or the aesthetic or humanistic concerns that designers consider. Using this definition, some have claimed that any and every decision, from what to eat for lunch to what business model to use to the decision to go to war, is a design decision. This is patently untrue.

This is also not to say that design thinking cannot be applied to non-traditional areas, such as healthcare, policy, finance, education, and government. They can (and should) be—indeed have been, for many years now. Nor is this to say that many kinds of decisions could not be made using design methods. They can be, but in practice seldom are. There are reasons for that.

There are many, many kinds of decisions that do not require the level of rigor that design often requires. Design decisions are often time consuming, as multiple options are prototyped and considered via the design process. Design starts with a divergent period, which many other methods of decision making (analysis/convergence) skip as being either unnecessary (perhaps seemingly unnecessary) or too costly (in terms of time/resources).

In addition to the method used to devise a solution, in order for a decision to be considered a design decision, certain criteria in the solution should be met, namely:

  • Design decisions take into account human considerations, from ergonomics to cognitive capabilities. A good solution has to be useable and useful.
  • Design decisions have some sort of aesthetic component—that is: the beauty and elegance of the execution. This is true even if the solution has no physical component. A good solution has to be pleasurable.

If a solution is ugly, difficult, ungainly, confusing, or difficult to accomplish, it might not be a design decision that generated it. (Of course, bad design decisions can happen as well, resulting in garbage.) A seemingly-awful solution might, however, satisfy other criteria that are a priority for other professions, such as being the cheapest, most reliable, or most powerful solution. Designers have to negotiate with these kinds of solutions all the time, with legal, engineering, finance, etc. A decision made that affects a design is not necessarily a design decision. If it doesn’t follow a design methodology to derive a solution that takes into account human and aesthetic factors, it’s not a design decision. It’s a constraint that designers must contend with. Every project has these, from technical to business to physical. Even though they can affect the design, they are not design decisions.

To call everything a design decision is as diminishing and misleading as calling everything User Experience. It discounts the other types of decision making practiced by other professionals and colleagues with different methodologies than designers, and different criteria for what constitutes a good solution. Not everything is a design decision, nor should everything be. Our job is to navigate, mitigate, and temper all those solutions to create a humane future.

Written by

Designer. Product Leader. Author.

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