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Design Warp

My Design Philosophy

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvSYeYqr5v8

In the Spring of 2020, I had the pleasure of taking a course by Professor Erik Stolterman and he guided me to reflect on myself as a designer and figure out the things I value in good design. I would also like to state that this is something I know and believe in at this point but with time, I’m sure I’ll have more to add.

When I first started thinking about my design philosophy, I was daunted by it. As a junior designer who just started out, I was just trying to figure out the whats and hows of design. Reflecting on who am I as a designer seemed terrifying. I was overwhelmed and felt the pressure to meet certain expectations. What if I don’t know how to design? What if I’m not good enough? What if I mess up? And the most important question, What if I am not able to figure out who I am as a designer? Over time, I made peace with all the questions that kept popping up in my head. I decided not to fret over it and trust the journey. I took it one step at a time and I’m going to break it down for you.

What is Design?

As you may have heard and read in several places, design is not just about making things look pretty, and I agree. Design is much more than all of that. Design is as ubiquitous as anything ever can be. It is an integral part of our existence and a means to add purposeful additions to the world we live in.

“we are motivated to design because it is an accessible means to enlightenment, bringing order and giving meaning to our lives.” — Neilson & Stolterman. [2]

Design helps in the creation of non-existent realities, it pushes people to strive for more favorable worlds through reflective and critical thinking. It breaks the boundaries and brings about innovation and change. At the same time, it is grounded in reality, it is pragmatic and functional. It is about understanding the real problems, needs, and desires and working towards solving and achieving them.

To me, good design is like the invisible hand — a concept in economics that was first introduced by Adam Smith. [3] Good design disappears in the background and acts as an invisible hand that empowers people and brings equilibrium.

And lastly, circling back to making things look pretty, humans are inherently attracted to aesthetic things. Good design is all about striking that perfect balance of form and function, beauty, and utility. [4]

The invisible hand of design

Some core principles of my designs

I thought long and hard on this, defining principles is something that most designers do before they start converging on a design direction. Why are principles important? Well, if you think about it literally, principles are a set of rules based on our morals, ethics, and beliefs. They form the foundation of our knowledge and guide our actions. [8] Design principles, in much the same way act as guidelines that are based on your values, beliefs, perspectives, and preferences. For me, they help me analyze and reflect on my designs. They remind me of the core values I look for and help me design responsibly.

One way I learned about my design principles was through an assignment I did for Erik’s class. I listed down 2–3 artifacts each that we liked and disliked and why. It was important to be true to myself for this activity. Choosing artifacts that I truly liked or disliked without any outside influences or pressure. When I finally had the list, I could clearly see the similarities and differences in the objects I liked and disliked. They signified the core values and principles that I was drawn to. Here are a few of them:

Good design is communicative

Much like the invisible hand of design I mentioned earlier, communication is an implicit quality that I see in a good design. The goal is to convey a message to the intended audience without information overload. Good design communicates and the invisible hand of design guides people through the process by being intuitive and not obtrusive.

Good design is functional

Functionality and communication go hand in hand. In a way, good design communicates functionality. [5] Does the design affords function? Or do you need to use an instruction manual to figure it out? Good design emphasizes usefulness and seamlessness. It gets the job done without putting too much effort.

Photo by June Liu on Unsplash

Good design is responsible

Designers have what Rittel states epistemic freedom. The freedom to create non-existent realities, free of constraints, rules, and standards. They are not bound by any algorithms to guide the process and it is all left to the designer’s judgment and decisions. [6] That sounds wonderful and liberating, doesn’t it? However, with power comes responsibility. Designers’ creations are used by other people and have implications and consequences. For this reason, good design has to be responsible. But how do you tell if your design is responsible? Based on my experience, reflecting on my design choices is the first step towards responsible design. Think about all the stakeholders that will interact with your design, both directly and indirectly. These stakeholders are not just humans but also the environment and other species [11]. Think about the implications of your design on users, would people be prone to develop addictive habits? At the end of the day, your own beliefs and judgment play a huge role in making design decisions.

Good design is good looking

I was always attracted to pretty things but when I intentionally started noticing things I was drawn to, I realized how much I valued aesthetics. Good design for me is pleasing to the eye. The form and the material, the interface, and the interaction, all play a significant role in a design’s adaptation.

Good design has harmony

The last and most important principle of good design is the harmony it brings to the way of life. Ever since I read Nozick’s paper on value and meaning, I have been able to recognize the harmony and organic unity of well-designed products. To describe the concept of organic unity, think of a cake recipe. All the diverse ingredients that go into the cake may not taste good individually but once they are baked together, they come together as an organic whole. The cake tastes good and becomes much more valuable. Similarly, good design has wholeness and consistency, the diverse elements of the design come together to provide high value and unity. Design systems are a great example of organic unity.

“The greater the diversity that gets unified, the greater the organic unity; and also the tighter the unity to which the diversity is brought, the greater the organic unity.” — Nozick [7]

Photo by Alexandar Todov on Unsplash

My design process and activities

Due to the nature of design problems, a design process is often disorderly. There is no clear distinction between the activities or steps. Rather, it all happens parallelly. [6] Even before I figure out what really the problem is, there are already so many ideas and solutions popping up in my head. Some would argue that “it’s not the right way” to design but really, is there even a right or wrong way? It’s on us to figure out our own design ways. It’s okay to be clueless and not know how the end result is going to turn out. All it matters is that you have a direction and you take one step at a time based on your work and judgment.

Exemplar collection

When I first started learning UI design, all I did was copy other designs until I developed a sense of visual design. I wouldn’t call it stealing, I wasn’t claiming those designs to be mine but through that exercise, I learned to appreciate the fundamentals of good visual design. Other designers inspired me to create something on my own. Soon, I was able to critique those designs, started thinking of ways I could do it differently. Exemplar collection plays a huge role in appreciating good design, learning from other designers, and creating a repertoire of inspiration. As Schon wonderfully puts it, “Designing is seen as a conversation with the materials of a situation within which new trials are often based on learning from earlier ones. The idea of a designer’s repertoire of types, images, and metaphors plays a central role on this perspective.” [9]

Photo by June Liu on Unsplash

Understanding Desiderata

As put by Nelson and Stolterman, “Desiderata can be expressed through distinct domains: the body’s desire, the mind’s desire, the heart’s desire, and the soul’s desire. A desideratum is something that is roused out of a desire, a hope, a wish, a passion, an aspiration, an ambition, a quest, a call to, a hunger for, or a will toward.”

I understand Desiderata as looking for real needs and desires and doing that from a holistic perspective. It’s key to think about all the stakeholders, whether it’s your diverse set of users, your clients, or your team. Doing this will lead to solutions that are desirable, viable as well as feasible.

Using judgment

The vast amount of information that you gain through your design process can be overwhelming. At least for me, it is easy to get lost in the infinite number of alternatives and directions that design may take. Schon describes this as figural complexity. [9] Think of it as an endless tree of research. Each node has several different nodes and this goes on forever. How do you make sense of so much information? How do you decide when to stop? This is where judgment comes into play. All the experiences that you gain over the course of your work help you build your judgment and make decisions based on the best of your abilities. It helps you decide when to take a step back and cut back on the tree of research. It helps you decide which direction to take.

“Design judgment making is the ability to gain subconscious insights that have been abstracted from experiences and reflections, informed by situations that are complex, indeterminate, indefinable, and paradoxical. Judgment is, in effect, a process of taking in the whole, in order to formulate a new whole.” [10] — Neilson & Stolterman

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Conclusion

To conclude, my design philosophy is inspired by a lot of great designers but I take all of it and make it customized to my own values and beliefs. As an outcome of my design process, I try to move from the general and universal to the ultimate particular [10], something very specific to my designs, each one created for a specific purpose. This leads to the designs having high value and meaning.

As a junior designer in the field, I am still learning and will always be learning. Change is the only constant and I want to keep playing catch up with the dynamic nature of design. Reflection on myself as a designer and my design philosophy is the best thing I’ve done so far and I’m glad to be sharing what I learned with everyone.

References

[1] Friedman, Ken. (2003). Theory Construction in Design Research Criteria. Design Studies. 24. 507–522. 10.1016/S0142–694X(03)00039–5

[2] Nelson, Harold G. Stolterman, Erik. The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World (The MIT Press) (p. 21). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Majaski, C. (2020, January 29). Dispelling Mysteries About the Invisible Hand. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/i/invisiblehand.asp

[4] Engle, S. (2016, January 02). Intro To Product Design. Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://medium.com/hh-design/intro-to-product-design-c2dbbc7809d3

[5] Weaver, J. (2015, December 31). What is Your Design Philosophy? Retrieved May 08, 2020, from https://medium.com/@hairyelefante/what-is-your-design-philosophy-a32d43985899

[6] Rittel H. W. (1987). The reasoning of designers. IGP

[7] Nuttall, J. (2002). Value & Meaning. In An introduction to philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

[8] The Importance of Principles. (2017, April 09). Retrieved May 08, 2020, from http://factmyth.com/the-importance-of-principles/

[9] Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner, and The … (n.d.). Retrieved May 8, 2020, from https://scholarlycommons.law.hofstra.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1609&context=faculty_scholarship

[10] Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman. 2012. The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World. The MIT Press.

[11] Forlano, Laura. 2016. Decentering the Human in the Design of Collaborative Cities. Design Issues. 32. 42–54.

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There are a lot of young people who are incredibly creative and wanted to pursue design as a career. Design Warp is dedicated to them so that they can learn, implement and grow. We believe in sharing knowledge and making design education accessible.

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Parumita Sachdeva

Parumita Sachdeva

Product Designer | Women & Tech leader

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