Maybe yours is a circle. Or several adjacent hexagons. No? How about a Double Diamond? I welcome design processes of all shapes and sizes. But I think mine is a line. Just one thing after the other.
We, as designers, talk a lot about process. In design-thought spaces, there's a chorus of questions to the tune of: What's your process like? How would you describe your ideal design process? What role does process play in your work? But I think there is a flaw in this premise because it implies designers own the design process. Which we don't — it's always a negotiation. There are 2 parties involved in creating a process: the designer and the business.
I like to think about process in both these ways: process in relation to a business and process in relation to a designer. Using this framework helps me understand what the things are inside any given design process and why they are there.
Let's Get Down to Business
At a company the purpose of design process (and design, period) is to bring value to the organization. (In private sector America, this usually correlates to money.) So how does the design process create value?
In any organization, process helps create standardization and a repeatable set of activities that stack the deck in favor of success and mitigates errors. It also helps to set expectations around what will be produced, how long things will take, and create clear roles and responsibilities between teams. In short, process helps create manageable expectations.
Process can help create alignment! Alignment is a key component to building products, but it can also be expensive and time consuming. It's also not binary, there is a spectrum of alignment from strategic or high level values to nitty gritty details. Alignment on certain parts of that spectrum are more valuable than others, and alignment between certain parties is not always needed to move the needle forward. But design is a team sport so if you want something built you likely need teammates marching in the same direction.
Businesses spend money on the design process. So what that process looks like depends heavily on how right do they need to be. Any designer — any person, really — can come up with a solution to a problem. The design process is basically insurance. It helps to answer both: is this the right problem, and is this the right solution?
Designers Designing Design Processes
Given the above, I like to think of processes flexibly in relation to my role. What I recommend to go into any given process depends on what the business' needs are at that moment. To (arguably) over-simplify, most design process activities fall into two buckets:
Before you bring something into existence, it's advisable to understand why. One might talk to people, observe the intended users, perhaps do a literature lap. But defining a problem can be as much alignment as it is investigation. Part of shepherding is, yes, to make sure you're embarking on the right journey, but it's also to make sure the right people are aboard that train, with arms and legs in the car.
There are infinite ways to solve a problem. We call some good; we call some bad; but each one is just a constellation of choices vying to be named the resolution. We test and measure and plan all in an effort to see if our configuration of stars light up the problem space. Does it do so in a desirable way? And is it feasible? The activities one might choose to include in this portion are unique to the situation, the players, and the cost of assumptions.
Making, by Michael
Beyond theoretical framing, the process of making has led me to see some patterns in the ingredients that affect it. And the one that infinitely fascinates me is the character of ideas that I see circulating a problem.
Ideas present differently in our world, each one unique in how it chooses to speak with a designer. Some are confident and clear, evoking explicit visions of what could come to pass. From instinct and expertise, I get a good sense of what this thing might look like and how it might function. The idea acts like an art director from another dimension: their story is theirs tell, I'm just a scribe.
Some ideas are shier, less sure of themselves. They want to be the solution, and they're willing to change themselves to do it. So they look for a collaborator: a dressmaker to fit them into a new form. They come along for the ride. They weigh in as you pick materials. They consent to necessary surgeries. These ideas are passionate actors, transforming for their roles.
Perhaps this is a bit woo-woo for you. But the more things I make the more curious I am about the different forces that go into materializing solutions. For me, designing and making is as much about practicing as it is about analyzing – the process, the environment, and the actors.