Debunking The Myth of Design (Thinking) Process

“The correct regulative principle for anything depends on the nature of that thing.”

—John Rawls

Design Process is Not a Process

The biggest misconception about design process is perhaps that we interpret it too literally.

Design process is not a “process” per se.

The act of designing doesn’t have a universal “process”. It’s highly coupled with the cultural and organizational environments of the practitioners, and with the peculiarities of the actual project.

Designing is a very dynamic act of creative exploration and problem solving. Describing it as a process sacrifices, understandably for communicative clarity, the core practice that makes design different from a mechanical process.

We borrowed the word “process” because it’s the easiest to understand, not because it’s accurate.

The act of designing doesn’t have a universal “process”. It’s highly coupled with the cultural and organizational environments of the practitioners, and with the peculiarities of the actual project.

Every team adapts a unique process of their own to play to the strengths of their design capabilities, especially in creativity, insight, and data.

Design Phases

We can, however, identify what I call “design phases” in an overarching temporal logic. Design phases don’t specify what we do. They signify what we aim to understand and/or achieve.

We wouldn’t aim to verify the feasibility or viability of a specific product or feature before we even have any understanding of what the stakeholders are trying to address.

However, during the pre-project planning and early discussions, nothing prevents us from coding interactive presentations or creating visionary mockups, with agility, as handy techniques to communicate ideas, explore themes in problem space, or appetize up everyone’s taste. Likewise, nothing invalidates our using empathizing methods during later phases of development and deployment, to further refine or catch mistakes we can’t afford to miss out, or to probe visions for future iterations.

A design practitioner may do anything in any step of a prescribed process, but often with very different goals in different steps.

A design practitioner may do anything in any step of a prescribed process, but often with very different goals in different steps.

In other words, we do everything we can to address the non-mechanical dynamics and emergent uncertainties during a creative effort (which is usually meant to solve problems), and creatively use existing techniques and methods in new contexts, depending on the particularities of the respective effort (often in the form of a project).

Now imagine we literally stick to the canonical design thinking process that prescribes “empathize” as the first step of that process— does that mean we don’t empathize in later steps? After all, by conventional understanding, isn’t a “step” something we don’t get back to after we arrive at the next step? No wonder design thinking sounds like bullshit.

Repeatable Processes in Design Phases

The implication is that, there are many repeatable design processes that are useful in the overarching, overlapping, while temporally sequential design phases.

Those phases can’t be defined by what we do in each, but by what we hope to achieve, especially in terms of understanding.

But, some may argue, whatever we call it, process or phase, isn’t it meant to prescribe actions? Otherwise how do we know what we should do to get things done and have problems solved? Some may ask, if design phases don’t specify what to do, then how do we practically follow through without inducing outrage in project planning and risk management? After all, modern management and operation rely on people being able to follow well-defined processes with actionable best practices.

The notion of design phases is nothing new. We all know how it works. Some of us know better. Think about it: the agile and lean practices already embody the notion of repeatable design (and development) processes.

The grave mistake we make about adopting design process is that we assume creative effort can, in the triumphant analytical tradition, be divided into smaller steps.

The grave mistake we make about adopting design process is that we assume creative effort can, in the triumphant analytical tradition, be divided into smaller steps, where we tend not to revisit a previous step when we’re at the current step. By framing a design process this way, it makes it much easier to accommodate the design effort to the existing risk management framework, which was established in a period when industrialization focuses more on mechanical automation than scaling creativity and innovation.

But that’s just not how a designer works.

The Designerly Way of Doing

In his book Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work, Nigel Cross describes how the renowned product designer Philippe Starck came about the idea of his famous lemon squeezer design:

Juicy Salif lemon juicer by Philippe Starck. Designed for Alessi (1990).
Juicy Salif lemon juicer by Philippe Starck. Designed for Alessi (1990).

Photo by Niklas Morberg [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“Alessi invited Starck to offer a new product in the ‘designer’ series, a lemon squeezer. Starck went to Italy to visit Alessi and discuss the project. He then took a short break on the small island of Capraia, just off the Tuscan coast, and went to dine in a pizzeria restaurant, Il Corsaro. He was obviously already thinking about the lemon squeezer project, because, as he waited for his food, he began to sketch on the paper place mat. At first, the sketches were just very rough images of a fairly conventional form of lemon squeezer (see the centre-right area of the place mat, Figure 1.3), but then something happened to inspire a leap to making sketches of something quite different –his anti-pasto plate of baby squid had arrived, and Starck began to get his ‘vision of a squid-like lemon squeezer’! His sketches on the place mat now became images of strange forms with big bodies and long legs, and eventually (bottom left in Figure 1.3) something emerged that is now recognizable as the Juicy Salif concept.”

Screenshot of Nigel Cross's book, Design Thinking: Understanding How Dedigners Think and Work
Screenshot of Nigel Cross’s book, Design Thinking: Understanding How Dedigners Think and Work

A well-defined design process that prescribes actions would probably never lead Starck to such a design, because how could we possibly take the creative influence of seafood into consideration when drafting a supposedly universal process?

However, we can still identify a phase in Starck’s creative effort. In that early phase of creative exploration, he tried to synthesize many things, including the client’s prescribed vision, his own perception of the client’s existing products, and also his inspiration. As a designer, he strived to understand both the client’s problem space and himself for that synthesis. And, nothing prevented him from sketching on a paper place mat.

Design Synthesis is Not a Step-by-Step Process

Process precribes techniques and methods based on best practices. But the process alone is too far away from codifying the creative power of designing.

Design synthesis happens whenever and wherever a designer needs it to. No “steps” in “processes” can frame its internal dynamics. And if we don’t understand that, we’d simply become more likely to fail no matter what “process” we choose to adopt in our own design practice.

Perhaps, the real teaching of design, or design thinking upon popular demand, is not that we can “follow steps”, but that we should understand the nature of the practice and organically absorb it into our own way of doing things.

Process precribes techniques and methods based on best practices. But the process alone is too far away from codifying the creative power of designing.

Not that phases can. Nothing can codify creative power.

However, we can learn. And then facilitate it.

Understanding the Creative Practice

The first step (the wonderful, mythical “step”!) is to acquire a basic but foundational understanding of the design practice.

Without that understanding, we can’t make informed decisions about how we can adopt a prescribed design “process” in the first place. And through that basic understanding, we aim to identify the design phases necessary and applicable in our own context, be it work culture or project specifics.

 

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