Introducing The Kite Model Of Design

Dennis Hambeukers
Mar 30 · 9 min read

One of the hobbies of designers is designing models to explain what design is all about. This is a fun exercise but it also helps. If your clients understand more about design, about what to expect, about how things work, you can design better. If your clients understand that in order to produce impactful design, you need to do some research and experiment a little, this makes the collaboration more productive, the solutions better. With a good representation of the design process, you can create the right mental model, the right mindset in projects. Treating the design process as a black box creates confusion.

“If we wish to improve our products, we must improve our processes; we must continually redesign not just our products but also the way we design.” — Hugh Dubberly

Every designer and every design agency is different. So if you google “design process”, you get an elaborate collection of models. Every model has different names for the phases and slightly different sections.

Search results for “design process” on Google

The Double Diamond Model

One of the most famous models is the Double Diamond Model as it was developed by the Design Council. It is based on the idea that you first create a lot of ideas (divergent thinking) and then narrow it down to the best one (convergent thinking). The model proposes two iterations: one to diverge and converge to get to a problem definition (what problem are we solving with the design?) and one to diverge and converge to brainstorm ideas and narrow it down to the best solution (what is the best solution to the problem?).

The Double Diamond Model of The Design Council

But … brainstorming doesn’t work

I recognize the diverging and converging thinking in the first phase but I don’t like the idea of brainstorming to get a lot of ideas and then pick the best one. A lot has been written on why brainstorming is a waste of time. In the first phase of a project, it’s a good idea to dive into the complexity and gather as much information as possible. The next step is to synthesize the information, to find the big picture, the common thread. But if you try to come up with as many solutions as possible, you are not working very deliberate, focussed. Personally, I use a more Lean Startup approach of deliberately designing solutions to test hypotheses and assumptions. This basically means you start with a design and iterate and pivot your way through the problem-solution space.

The Design Is A Mess Model

Another interesting model is the Design Is A Mess Model. Where the Double Diamond Model tries to create structure, the Design Is A Mess model talks of embracing chaos. This is more in line with the navigation-with-designs-through-the-problem-solution-space philosophy of the Lean Startup. In design, inspiration can come from anywhere at any time. You try things, experiment, things work, others don’t, you stumble forward until you find the solution. If you talk to designers, most of them will have this mental model in their head. They don’t want to be bothered with structure and phases.

The Design Is A Mess Model

But … there is a structured approach

There is some truth in stating that design is a mess and any effort to fit it into a model is futile. But I believe that there is some system underneath the chaos. Chaos is only a failure to see the underlying systems. Especially at the beginning of a design process, there are some structured approaches that can be used to collect data and make sense of the complexity. But the chaotic last part of the process can also benefit from a more deliberate way of working.

The Kite Model Of Design

That is why I propose the Kite Model. It’s a hybrid model that consists of both diverging and converging and of experimenting and synchronicity. It combines the first half of the Double Diamond with the Lean Startup and Agile approach. This is what it looks like:

The Kite Model of design

Starting with the Beginner’s Mind

The first point of the model is the start where you kick off your project with Shoshin, a beginner’s mind. You are open and curious and willing to question everything. You make as few assumptions as possible and question your own assumptions and those of others. Even when you are an expert in the field, you still behave and think like a beginner.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind, there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki

Immersion in the Ocean Of Complexity

With the beginner’s mind, you start to immerse yourself in the complexity of the problem space. This a deep dive into the ocean of complexity. You gather as much information as you can from all stakeholders. Here it’s important not to fear complexity but to embrace it. The skill you need to develop to deal with complexity is intuition. The rational mind can only process so much information. The processing power of the subconscious mind is exponentially larger. Once you discover that, you can confidently navigate complexity and deal with her companion uncertainty. In this phase, you do desk research, interviews and workshops like customer journey mapping or any of the other 101 design thinking workshop techniques. The goal of the whole process is to learn. The idea is to spark a conversation, rather than hold an interview. In this phase, you collect data, insights, inspiration, conditions, sensitivities.

In this phase, you also start to build engagement. This is equally important as collecting data. If you include stakeholders in your workshops and conversations and really do something with their input, you are on your way to creating support for the project and its solutions. Co-creation is key. If you take people seriously and are genuinely curious and don’t fear complexity, you can get the hearts and minds of people on board. Engagement is quintessential.

Next to actually using their input, another way to do this is to give something back to the stakeholders. A powerful gift is the Big Picture. Most people operate in silos and don’t have an overview of the larger problem. If you can connect people’s own problems to the bigger problem, this is a powerful way to align people and make their own work more satisfying. That is why I recommend doing customer journey mapping workshops. Because they form a great platform for conversations and also give people an overview.

The better your skills in the next phase, the better you can dive into complexity.

Climbing the Mountain Of Systems Analysis

One of the most difficult parts of the process for people practicing design thinking is to climb the mountain of systems analysis. In this phase, you make sense of all the data, insights, input you collected. Next to intuition to process all this information, you can use systems thinking to find the common thread, the connections, the relations, the systems. A lot of design thinking workshops get stuck after the energetic and funny exercises. When all the Lego bricks are back in their colored boxed and all the post-it notes are typed into Excel sheets, then what? Design thinking workshops are no silver bullets. Their effectiveness depends on your ability to take the next step: to turn information into actionable insights. Theoretic models, industry knowledge, design experience, general knowledge, creativity, boldness all come together here. The dive into the ocean of complexity can produce a lot of information, but whether that information is valuable depends on your analytic skills. Determining the problem that is worth solving is a creative act. The most impactful innovations come from asking the right questions. The goal of this phase is to find the million dollar question.

“Once you figure out the question, then the answer is relatively easy.” — Elon Musk

The better your skills in the next phase, the more luck you’ll have finding the million dollar question because a good question comes with a view to a creative solution. Solutions and problems talk to each other.

Journey through the Valley Of Prototyping

On the other side of the mountain of systems analysis lies the valley of prototyping. In the previous phases, you learned from stakeholders and data and from theoretic models and systems analysis. This phase is about learning from reality. Prototyping means trying out things to see if they work. The goal of a prototype is to learn, to be a platform for conversations and drive problem-solving capacity. Because a prototype is visual, concrete, it focuses conversations, engages the right side of the brain. It is also a great way to test your assumptions and hypothesis. You can put a prototype in front of people and measure their reactions. You can present a prototype and ask: “What if we would do something like this?” Prototypes can be used to collect new insights and to validate solutions.

With prototypes, you can pivot once you find that it doesn’t work. This way you can navigate the problem-solution space until you arrive at the best possible solution. The pivoting movements will typically be larger in the beginning than in the end. So you typically move from more sketchy conceptual prototypes to full hi-fi prototypes of the UI. The prototype is your companion on the journey to find the answer to the question of the project. It can help you through conceptual discussions as well as discussions during the development. When new realities come into play during implementation, you can still prototype solutions.

Different types of learning

When you journey through the Kite Model, you learn. But you learn differently in each phase. In the first two phases, you learn from ideas. In the last phase, you learn from reality.

Different ways of driving engagement

In the first phase, you engage people by involving them, by extracting insights from them. In the second phase, by providing an overview. And in the last phase, you engage people by using their insights and validating the chosen path.

Complete model

So there you have it. The Kite Model of design (thinking). It consists of doing workshops, systems thinking and prototyping. All to learn and engage.

Over-reliance on the process

The risk of any model is over-reliance. If people think the model is going to produce quality results, they are missing the point. In the end, design is a skills game. A good process can raise the level, but a good process cannot save you if you don’t get it, if you are not skilled enough.

“The bad news is you do actually need to have the insight to make creative leaps to a new place.” — David Kelley


Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :)

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Design Thinker Thinking About Design — Strategic Design Consultant @zuiderlicht. https://www.zuiderlicht.nl/

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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