Lost and found in the design process

Which is better: Having courage to explore the unknown, or a map to help you find the way?

When heading on a design journey, I’m beginning to think courage and a good compass is better than a map.

A year or two back I tentatively drew a map of the design process for a specific client and their design challenge…

It became a 2m long poster to help a team of healthcare professionals new to design see what lay ahead, and refer to as they progressed towards their goal. A ‘you are here’, ‘look how far we’ve come’, (and sometimes ‘oops, we missed that bit!’) kinda thing.

Yet another design process map. Obsolete the moment it was printed.

I enjoyed pulling this together, thinking about the likely journey ahead for this team, reflecting on my own experience of design and building on top of classic frameworks promoted as ‘best practice’ by the likes of IDEO, Design Council, and what I’d learned during my time with Stanford d.school as part of the Better By Design program.

The cynic in me believes these design process diagrams likely derived from sales tools for design agencies, each claiming to have a point of difference and perhaps to have some ‘secret sauce’ that the other’s hadn’t discovered. …but their 3, 4 or 5 step bubble diagrams have become ubiquitous to the point they are almost redundant.

Semantics aside, they all promise gold at the end of a rainbow if you’re prepared to challenge your thinking upfront.

Other metaphors are funnels, diamonds, snakes, vortexes, washing machines, the list goes on, but essentially they describe a few phases of lost and found with a bit of loopback before finding that gold.

They make nice visuals and the theory seems sound enough, but when you start to actually apply one of these to a live project you realise how futile it is to try to map the design process.

A sequence of steps is convenient and tidy but the reality of design is more like this:

… and there’s no ‘one squiggle fits all’ here either…

Maps and guidelines give us comfort. They can provide a sense of shared understanding of where we are going and what to expect…

… but the reality of most meaty design projects is that we don’t know where we are going, and we need to find a new kind of device to help clients feel comfortable with the unknown.

What makes the journey-maker comfortable with the unknown?

Is it time to throw away these maps and find a design compass?

Yes, it’s another metaphor, but perhaps it’s the designer’s job to be that compass. Something the client trusts to navigate through the messy reality.

Designers are comfortable with the ‘lost’ feeling, because we’ve ‘been there done that’ and believe in great outcomes based on our own experiences.

So how do YOU convince a nervous client you know where ‘north’ is?

Do you roll out a map, or are you the compass?

I’d love to hear…

5 thoughts on “Lost and found in the design process

  1. Nick Post author

    Thanks Peter. Looks like you’ve also been collecting these ‘same, but different’ design process diagrams.
    I love how you call it a finished product from day one. Deadline = minus zero.
    Good luck with the project.. I’ve been following it as you progress.

  2. Jhumkee Iyengar

    I loved your tangled diagram. After I have shown some of the neat design process diagrams of well known sources when I teach, I draw something akin to your diagram, a bit less tangled, that looks like a repeating loop moving forward and I say that ‘design is a very messy process. Go with the mess and fog and after awhile you will surely see the patterns emerging….’

  3. Chris Wilson

    Bang on I think but there is a balance to be found between too much process and not enough. Having been through similar processes with lots of organizations, I think keeping things high level and general is the key. Focus on the principles, not the practice. I’m a big proponent of Lean UX principles for example but not in the strict format that they’re outlined in the book. It’s up to teams to figure out how they can best implement these principles, there’s no one size fits all.

    Great article, thanks.

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