A systems breakdown for quality design practice in digital & hybrid services
My mind is swirling as I just came out of an amazing conference I helped produce, Joint Futures. This article isn’t about the conference though, but about something I’ve been trying to process for a long time now about the act of designing, its place within other activities that create experiences, and how to work within the emerging complexity of the space of design practice within the larger contexts of making the world better through my work and the work of all whom I help through coaching, teaching, and consulting.
Talking about design itself is hard—very hard. Its dictionary definition focuses on the word “plan”. Either the act of making a plan or the plan itself. Jared Spool calls it the “rendering of intent.” I personally find both of these to be too general, and pretty unhelpful when trying to achieve some semblance of clarity with people both inside and outside of the practice. It is definitely useless if you are trying to get people to understand the value proposition of design practice. For me …
Design is most valuable when thought of as a differentiated collection of activities for creating forms.
History of design and a some more background info
Designing in this age can’t be thought so simply as “the act of making a plan” or “rendering intent” by itself. If there is no discussion about how that plan or intent is rendered, then we are missing the opportunity and the necessary conversation to help people understand what makes the practice of designing really valuable.
I am not a design historian, so any reader can feel free to post public comments or responses to correct or add the necessary nuance to what I’m going to discuss.
Depending on what type of design your practice has evolved from (now that you are in the digital, experience, and service world), you might see a different beginning to the practice of design. Architecture as a design practice for example could be traced back a millennia or two or further, but maybe finally articulated in Roman times by Vitruvius who first mentioned the three qualities of design: useful, usable, and desirable. If you are a graphic designer, you might look at the posters of Henri Toulouse Lautrec from the end of the 19th century or further back to the work of illuminated manuscripts by monks, wall pictographs in ancient Egypt, amazing Arab calligraphy from centuries ago, and on and on and on.
Like architecture, industrial design (or physical product design) had a definite transition period from something done as either engineer or artisan—the master builder—to a design craft. For industrial design, this happened in the 20th century (mostly). It had direct connection though to the arts & craft movement from the previous century and even can be traced to the art guilds and other master/apprentice systems in other cultures around the world.
In the early to mid 20th century industrial design, architecture, and graphic design started to combine into schools of philosophies. The most famous of which was the Bauhaus. Art Deco and others also permeated through the 3 major design practices that most impacted the design world we inhabit today. While many acknowledged some sort of tension between form and function their understanding of human centeredness was still relatively shallow compared to the post-World War II world where disciplines of Human Factors/Ergonomics and Human-Computer Interaction began to emerge and mature.
Some of the most amazing designs of mid-century pre-digital came from this period from furniture (Herman Miller & Eames), cars (Chevy Vette, MB Gullwing, Fiat Spider), appliances (KitchenAid), etc. These were both functional and gorgeous.
All of this is to say …
Design has rich roots in form creation where functions were achieved with amazing aesthetics at the same time.
This brief, incomplete, and curated history of early design is meant to highlight how the design we do today (to keep it short) in the digital world has a definite history. It is one actually mostly connected to artistic creativity and is one with a clear separation from production and manufacturing (for good and bad).
Of course, in today’s design we have new learnings about people as individual and social beings that we use to help guide our designs, and observational methods of inquiry that we use to synthesize insights to be used to inform design decisions. The complex nature of our products & services and the changes to the society writ large with increasing complexities, have added every more criteria that impact design. Lastly, the speed of production whether physical or digital is now several orders of magnitude faster, and we can track, trace, observe passively so many datasources attached to what we deliver.
Lastly, the means of giving form at the layer of production is so fast and so cheap and so easy to learn. This means from graphic production to code creation the ability to produce consumable artifacts with minimal financial risk that the activities of traditional design practice can be skipped easily with minimally perceived risk, and that any human of proper curiosity and ability can take up these more shallow aspects of form creation. Further, we can also create fairly shallow educational resources on the process and requisite knowledge of a proper contemporary design, encouraging people to shortcut deeper, richer training that can really provide more fruitful value from a complete design practice.
In digital and hybrid service/product design contexts there is a very strong tendency to conflate design and user experience (UX). Further to conflate the output of design with the experience that is generated from the design. Now this is where I fall back a little on the above definitions. If it is a plan, or a rendering of intent, it is not the experience itself, or even the product itself. There are steps that follow. In less intangible design practices this is often called manufacturing or production. Things that impact the final experience happen there that are beyond the design output. These are not part of the design process, yet impact the final experience and even the final business outcomes.
The same is true before or even during the design process itself that impact outcomes, but are not part of the designing of the intent. We talk about how in design, we work with constraints. Constraints guide us and help us. In a way constraints are part of the material we work with, like an industrial designer understanding the limitations of material science of the plastics they have available to them given the budgets they have. These types of decisions that create constraints or constraints that come from outside the organization are as much part of the material of our design context as the sheet metal of a car designer’s. We could say that the decisions, cultures, priorities, etc. that lead to these constraints are design decisions. But for me these decisions are about material not form. The designer might be able to push back on the material as part of their design process because they have learned something new about it (or something related to it), or just generally want to influence the form they have in their mind, but in the end, these decisions are not design decisions. They are material decisions. Do they impact experience? YUP! But they are outside the general practice space of designing. Can design practice methods help make decisions that impact material decisions, sure thing. But to be honest, not really required and might even be a nuisance.
So what is this mysterious design practice? What is designing?
Simply put, the act of designing is the act of giving form to something that wasn’t there before, that is more about use, creation, consumption, and/or practical communications than it is about expression. Notice I said “more”. This is a continuum with art, and not a dichotomy. I also didn’t say it necessarily solves a problem or is problem solving.
Forms though can be experienced as 3D objects, 3D spaces, 2D images, or 2D/3D/noD virtual interfaces. They can also be experienced as stories that encompass any combination or all of these, and words/maps/models/storyboards can be forms that represent these stories among others.
When we talk about design decisions or design judgements, it is at the moment when materials are honed into these forms that these decisions need to be made and it is best that the person making these decisions has capabilities and experience (however achieved), to best make these decisions.
Culture, Mindset, Activities
Before we can get more specific about the actual activities of design practice, let’s first look at culture and mindset as they impact the choices of activities that designers ideally make and why they make them.
Design as a practice is most closely aligned to artistic creativity. Over thousands of years of artistic creative practice there are a few things artists have learned about how to be creative. One of the main things learned is that creativity is not about forming ideas out of thin air. Creativity happens through a mindset of associative thinking. We know this process b/c of the Rorschach Tests we seen or taken, or the game of “what’s the first word you think of when I say __________.” We see something and then are triggered to think of something else. However, artists have learned the more you put next to each other and the more often you do it, the more creativity you get.
As we need to make decisions, and we need to have reasons for those decisions, the concept of critique comes into play here. Critique is not the same as feedback, nor is it the same as review or quality assurance. Critique while informed by data insights, persona & journey map synthesis, etc., its core purpose is about design quality based on foundational elements of design and a team’s design principles. Its purpose is to make the designer better more than to make the designs better, or more accurately make the designs better by making the designer better.
The space that helps these two ways of thinking and being and doing work best is the studio. Studios mean different things to different people. Some people use the word to mean a workshop process. but the term historically means the place where creative work is done. It has specific properties that help association and criticism as well as other activities happen by focusing the space on creating a culture of openness:
- Visibility across longer distances, allow for a passive (no invitation or notification is required to engage) interactions to occur.
- Audible conversations allow people to jump in and out of conversations easily.
- Usable wall space allow people to externalize their work so that people can associate unintentionally for wider fuel for creativity.
The last cultural aspect of design practice is deconstruction. Deconstruction unlike construction, looks at something that has been completed and breaks it down into parts to …
- understand those parts and their relationships to each other in that original context.
- to rearrange the parts to see if other combination of wholes might yield more valuable results.
- from those more valuable combinations take the new version of parts from each to make even more new combinations (keep repeating).
This process is a form of exploration, that unlike traditional experimentation is less focused on validating constructs and more focused on creating new possibilities. Yes, eventually validation is done, but it is not the initial valuable goal.
A specific method for doing this type of work is through the act of sketching. Sketching is often defined as drawing, but as best expressed in the book, Sketching User Experiences, by Bill Buxton, the intent and qualities of the form of sketches are what make them most valuable. Multiplicity and roughness being the most commonly understood qualities, can apply to a drawing, or to any type of physical or virtual making that is done quickly, in multiplicity, and in either a disposable, or quickly dissassemblable way.
Forms have foundations
While it is important that designing is more than just making and utilizes some semblance of the above culture, mindset, and activities, it is also important that it is based in some kind of grounded understanding in the forms being created. Sometimes this is thought of as understanding the materiality of the different forms, but can also go a bit further.
Graphic Design, for example, has a commonly understood set of foundations in both the activities and the properties that make up 2 dimensional forms:
- Negative Space
For 3D you can add
These relate to a critical language for each form type and give a designer raw building blocks to draw upon.
While I recognize that not every designer consciously thinks in this way, the act of an intentional design education (regardless of how it is taught) implicitly creates a practice like this. When we say that design is just planning or rendering intent, we are ignoring all of the how around designing. When we ignore the how, we are devaluing that it is how we do designing that is where the value creation comes from more than the kinds of artifacts that we create.
Anyone and everyone can learn these systems of doing and thinking. They are harder than most people who aren’t designer think they are to do at a critical mass of effective value creation. So, regardless of type of education, the constant is time consumption. Also, because of the critical nature of design, it is difficult to really become grounded in design practice learning by one’s self.
I am definitely open to how other receive this interpretation of design practice, design’s value, and why design is more than the simple process of planning or rendering intent, and that design is also not all decisions that lead to the creation of an experience. It takes a solid, collaborative village of respectful peers with many different perspectives, and bodies of expertise to make any complex experience happen today. The more diverse a village of collaborators is, the more value that village can create. There are many other factors that impact that value, but this is one of the largest contributors to it.