Image: Mikael Kristenson, Unsplash

Trial and Error in Design

Maybe there is something else out there?

Often when I discuss a new project with a prospective client I get asked about my workflow. It’s an easy question to answer. Over the years I developed a relatively simple system that does the job well (more on that another time). What is a bit more difficult to explain, though, is an essential part of this workflow: trial and error.

You can think of trial and error as a close kin to ideation. You explore different approaches, trying out whatever ideas zip through your mind. You go on, and on, trying out anything you can think of. No matter how silly, impractical or crazy.

It’s trial and error because most of the ideas you come up with go straight to the rubbish bin. Every once in a while, though, you stumble upon a gem that changes everything. An idea that solves the problem in a more effective, more desirable, more elegant way than you ever thought possible.

Trial and error is by definition a function of time. There is no deadline, no fixed schedule, no right or wrong way either. You never know what you will discover and where it will lead you next. But the more time you spend exploring, hopping from one idea to another, the better the odds that you will discover something cool, unique and special.

I can wrestle with a design problem this way for weeks at a time. Until, out of the blue, the most simple and elegant solution reveals itself. As if it was sitting there the whole time, obscured but nothing else than my ignorance. Had I stared at the screen a little shorter, had I tinkered with the design a little less, had I given up a little earlier — I’d never see it.

What it means in practical terms is that time-boxing or putting a structure around a design process can often be counterproductive. What if you don’t settle for the first idea that’s good enough? What if you keep exploring? Despite the pressure to ship. Despite the urge to deliver and tick it off your to-do list. Who knows, maybe there is something else out there?