Last week, I was talking with a group of super-smart architects when the topic of design came up. As you might expect, this happens pretty frequently for me. But this time, I was struck by how different our ideas were about the nature of design.
Most dictionaries offer mundane, concrete definitions for design, emphasizing either the creation of a specification or the planning of something to be built. In some cases, they touch on aesthetics, but only with some unease. Wikipedia, on the other hand, offers a scholarly analysis of different types of design and the intended purpose of each. It's a pretty tough read if you ask me. John Maeda, author of "The Laws of Simplicity", shares his thoughts on the topic on his blog. This is a pretty good read for the initiated with lots of insight and implications, but it feels like most of the talk is about the subject of design, that is, how to recognize good design or the role of simplicity in design, for example, rather than an attempt to define it.
At Navicet, here's how we think about it.
Design is the process of understanding a need, generating possible solutions, selecting the most suitable and feasible from among them and iteratively elaborating until they are considered satisfactory for their intended purpose.
This definition feels straightforward, but it has some interesting implications.
First, design must have a purpose. It may be to create a space suitable for living, working or serving tea. It may be to produce a painting or sculpture that evokes a certain mood or sense of wonder. Or it may be to create a more engaging process for reserving a flight, manufacturing a product, or ordering coffee. A designer might create clothing to protect workers from radiation, a power suit that communicates social status, a car that operates on solar energy, or a small portable device that plays music, makes phone calls and connects you to the internet. Whether it is saving money, creating demand or communicating ideas, the idea of "design" must incorporate purpose.
Second, design is iterative. It is a progressive process, unfolding over time, that relies on exploration, discovery, inspiration and invention. Design is more than just its results, the specification, the plan, the painting, the strategy. It is the (so far) human process that leads to those results with intention, moving from ambiguity and uncertainty to that concrete result. Design is how we generate new ideas and bring them into reality. That's easy to miss, because once a new idea is born, it's hard to imagine a time when it didn't exist. Great ideas can seem effortless, obvious, inevitable. Once made, they can easily overshadow the process that made them.
Third, design is a lot tougher than it looks, especially in a business environment. Human nature is not inclined towards good design practices. For example, studies show that most of us are biased against ambiguity - we crave the certainty of a specification or plan. That's one reason we latch on to our first good idea and tend to defend it against other competing ideas. We are overconfident in our design sensibilities, assuming that the audience for our designs are like us when they are not, and so we tend to make decisions based on our intuition rather than empirical testing. None of this is conducive to a good design practice.
Design is a team sport. Generating ideas depends on a diversity of perspectives and experiences and the emotional skills to take advantage of them. Strongly advocating for an idea in a convincing way makes us look smart and in control, but a posture of inquiry and exploration, a willingness to delay judgment and conclusion beyond your habit will lead to more powerful, innovative and effective designs.
The good news is that, once aware of the natural human tendencies that get in our way, everyone can improve their design skills. Like riding a bike or throwing a ball, we become better designers with practice. Training helps, and a good coach can make a huge difference. But the most important ingredient is an inquisitive, open mind and a will to learn.
What do you think? What are your favorite design practices?