Process isn’t a dirty word 2/3
This is the second part in a series of three articles exploring my experiences with design process and how I continue to develop my practice by consciously making process visible.
In part 1 is said the first process I came across was the Double Diamond. If you had a formal design education in the UK in the last 8 years, specialising in product or service, or worked with people from the “design thinking” world in the UK then you probably came across this. It was developed by the Design Council through observing eleven organisations recognised world-wide for their design and innovation (think Lego, Virgin and Alessi).
These companies weren’t following the same defined process, but the Design Council watched for similarities between the way the companies worked, and captured the behaviour that was being expressed. To cut a very rigorous research project down to virtually nothing (you can read the full thing here); the outcome was a process split down in to four opportunistically alliterated stages starting with the identification of a problem, and finishing with a solution. The shape of the process describes alternating phases of Divergent (Discover and Develop) and Convergent (Define and Deliver) thinking and behaviour.
The Double Diamond has some great strengths, principally the simplicity of the visual which is useful for explaining to clients quite why we haven’t reached a concept after a day on the job. It provides security for clients in the belief that you’re not just “a creative” (now there is a dirty word) but you’re a professional. As much as presenting a process as gospel might be a lie (you’re never going to follow a process to the letter, it’s an understanding of how you work) it’s important that as a designer you project your image as a reliable person. And we are reliable. We will reliably provide exciting, unusual and new results to our clients. If you don’t, please improve.
A process also provides the designer with a fallback plan. When you’re stuck (we all know that depressed phase of the project where it’s just not working, and the world is about to end) it gives you a crutch to lean on, a direction to move in, or a challenge to reflect on.
I’ve always felt that design is a fractal discipline; a design project is actually a multitude of smaller design projects all held in to one package. When you get down to it design is just a lot of inspired decisions, so any process needs to be applicable within itself at a multitude of scales, and the Double Diamond can be used for that:
Problem = I want caffeine, Discover = How can I get caffeine, Define = These are the names of coffee shops, Develop = How can I visit a coffee shop, Deliver = This is how I will travel, Solution = Overpriced beverage.
That might be a facetious and simplistic example… but you get the point.
Having said that I had a few major concerns about this process. The first is that it’s just too simple. It took a few years and a great deal of thinking, doodling and conversation before I understood and could express my main concern in this area; the reliance of tacit knowledge in interpretation. My second concern, on the other hand, much more obvious and shared with many others. It’s something that has proved to be a mixture of illusion, misconception and truth: It starts with a short sentence: Design isn’t linear. How can you express something which is a wild, twisting journey in a direct line from A to B. In most projects you also visit C to Z before you arrive, sweaty but happy, at B. This is now, in my mind, a solved problem . Solved for me by a wise man who shared the answer with me, as I shall with you. Later.
The linear nature of process, and the nonlinear nature of design grated on my for a while, and I started to talk to designers outside of my field about how, and if, they visualised the way they work. One of the awesome guys at O Street introduced me to another way of visualising design; Think — Dream — Do.
This is a super clean and simple way of explaining your movement through a rapidly iterating design process, something which is probably more applicable to a sketching, visualising or in a slight contrast, facilitation, rather than a longer term piece of work. In short I think whilst been excellent for the micro I don’t think it sits well at a larger level, or in a planning space. It’s much more a concept and a way of explaining iteration in prototyping than a practical pattern for behaviour. It lacks the meat necessary for use as a process.
In this vein is a second cyclical way of modelling design. This is a method which, like the double diamond, has a strong backing but unfortunately I don’t have the references to work from (bad form, and I’ll endeavour to post these up if I find them) and I don’t know the official name. I call it the butterfly visual.
It argues that there are two key ways of working in design and in research; active and reflective (or doing and thinking). The theory behind this visual is that the two behaviours should roughly balance at any point during a project; and by mapping your actions in such a way it can become very obvious if you’re not balancing a project.
I found this really useful as a way of checking my projects, as I had a tendency (and still do to some extent) to find myself over thinking, or under thinking. Both ways of working leading to a kind of paralysis where a project stagnates.
The butterfly visual falls down as a “process” because whilst it lets you track the types of activity you’ve been doing, and shows you when you should perhaps alter course, it doesn’t let you plan or show you a way forwards when you’re stuck in a tough part of a project. Nor does it adapt to act as guidance as your project develops and changes.
We’re often told that design isn’t linear, it’s an amorphous blob of activity which explores multiple things in parallel in multiple directions. This was one of my key arguments against the Double Diamond. It just doesn’t feel right to have Design going from A to B. We don’t work like that. But here’s that piece of wisdom I promised to share earlier:
Design is linear
Everything progresses from one point to another through time, and time is (for all intents and purposes) a linear experience. Therefore everything is linear. Sure, we get from A to B via C to Z, but that just means we’ve twisted the alphabet a bit, not that we’re denying the very nature of our, hopefully, linear existence.
So that settled in my mind, why am I still uncomfortable with the Double Diamond as a design process?
I spent a few years working on a research project which was asking the question “Can design be used as a vehicle for embedding a culture of creativity and innovation into Scottish SMEs?”. To explore this we ran year long interventions with Scottish businesses, in the Tourism, Manufacturing and Food & Drink sectors, where a designer, paired with a business strategist or consultant, spent a day a month with a dedicated team selected from a cross section of the company. We guided, cajoled and aided them through their own creative business project leaving them to progress it over the month before returning to tutor and set targets for the next month.
In several of these projects I worked with Jeni Lennox, previously mentioned in part 1, and in one intervention we used the Double Diamond to frame the company project, by drawing tools and decisions directly on to a giant printout. We were using the process as a tool to give the team confidence in what we were doing, in a similar situation to how you might talk a client through a design process. For this purpose it worked well, but we felt it wasn’t conveying enough meaning to be useful to someone who isn’t an experienced designer.
Without a rich and elaborate explanation, not just of terms and context but of apparently missing elements the double diamond can be constraining and doesn’t speak the language of creativity. This led us to articulating how much of what makes you a designer is a tacit understanding gained through experience. Many of the moments essential to the creation of ideas just aren’t expressed on the Double Diamond. As a student starting out, or a client trying to work out how a designer is working, or even as a designer looking for some guidance, how can that come from something with essential sections missing and constraining language employed?
In the third part of this series I’ll explain and explore my current model of process developed with Jeni off the back of this realisation.