Design is a Mess.

Design Is A Mess.

Design is muddy and frustrating and wonderful. The artifacts we create during the process are sloppy and incomplete and fleeting. And for all of our efforts to jam creativity into the confines of business, design floats on the brink of manageability, hanging in the balance between being a driver of innovation and total chaos.

That mess is most noticeable when people try to make sense of complexity and ambiguity. Often, in an effort to understand an idea, we gather lots and lots of data. And then, we find ourselves in the middle of all of that data, completely overwhelmed. Even with two decades of experience and a pattern language for design problems, I still feel anxiety very clearly when I start a project. I know that the only way to clean up the mess is to dive head first into it. And like falling into a freezing pool, you feel shocked before you feel better. The anxiety gets worse, because the problem – now all around you and in living color – is larger than life.

But we work through the mess, and if we’re any good at our jobs, something great starts to form. Creativity is about making new things, and so we make those new things, and hopefully those things are beautiful, or useful, or innovative, or transformative.

Design is a mess

For some people, it’s the incoherence and anxiety of the mess that drives them to action. The problem in front of them is begging for shape and structure. Because that anxiety is so vibrant, and appears regularly throughout the design process and on nearly all creative design problems, our profession has developed ways to deal with it. Frameworks, protocols, scripts, maps, blueprints and canvases are all ways for us to add edges and boundaries to the mess. They seem like tools of sanity.

They also provide a way for people new to creative design fields to start to learn. A framework or model is an excellent way to learn the most basic parts of a new idea because it’s purposefully reductive. It takes things away, emphasizing only a small part of a large whole, so that we can focus only on what remains. A world map is a model of earth that removes nearly everything about the planet, leaving only relative masses, names of countries and cities, and overall proximity. It doesn’t show people and our emotions, or weather and its impact, or soil and dirt, or animals, and so-on. It’s an abstraction, and it’s a great way to learn a little about the little it leaves behind: those masses and proximity. Just like the world map can be an effective way to learn about the basics of the world, design frameworks can help us learn about the basics of design.

But reduction has a side effect hiding in plain view: when you reduce something, there’s less of it. A world map is a good way to learn only about the world in isolation of the experiences of people in the world itself. The world is not land masses and shapes. It’s history, and politics, and economics, and war, and culture, and so-on. In its abstraction, we lose fidelity. It’s so abstracted that what is left is not actually useful in any meaningful real-world application. Knowing that Pakistan and India are in proximity to one-another does nothing for us to understand the impact of that proximity on the history of the people living in those countries. Knowing that the shapes of the continents sort of fit together in a puzzle does little to help us understand tectonic shifts and how the world has changed over time, and how those changes have shaped different cultures. And knowing the relative sizes of the states in the US doesn’t give us any meaningful information at all, given the haphazard way their boundaries were constructed.

Design is a mess

We all know that a map is just a simple tool. No one would expect that a grade school student in the US memorizing the ever-changing names of the countries in Africa would have any idea at all about what it’s like to exist in one of those countries. It would be silly to think that studying such an abstraction would be of any more use than a very rudimentary way to think about the world.

Yet somehow, we forget this when we teach design, both in universities and in a corporate context. I’ve already voiced my concern about design methods. I have a similar sense of worry about process frameworks.

Our industry has embraced frameworks of design that are so reductive as to be meaningless. But these are taught in mass, with mass acceptance, and with an expectation that they are actually useful frameworks for doing design. We are promising that designers can change the world armed with a world map. It’s a ridiculous expectation. And it’s harmful.

Perhaps the most generally accepted example of this is IDEO’s process guide for Design Thinking. This five step document outlines the framework that has been taught in hundreds of large, influential companies and to thousands of people who have become energized and excited about design.

The process guide explains that design begins with “empathize mode – the work you do to understand people, within the context of your design challenge.” Clearly, that’s a reduction. There’s no “empathy mode” – next time you are in an argument with your spouse, explain that you are in “empathy mode” and see how far it gets you. As a reduction, it’s just like the world map. It’s a very good way to explain something at a very rudimentary level. Empathy mode is knowing that Utah and Nevada are near each other.

“Define mode” comes next, which is “your chance, and responsibility, as a design thinker to define the challenge you are taking on.” I’m not sure what a responsibility to define something means, but I get the reduction: it’s valuable to know what challenge you are taking on. It’s always valuable. There’s no mode for that. It just is.

And so on, through the other three steps in design: ideate, prototype, and test. In all, it’s a five step process. Each step takes things away in order to make things simple, and the model itself reduces design down to a six page .pdf document, a one hour powerpoint presentation, a one-day bootcamp, or a week long (and very expensive) design thinking training session.

Design is a mess

This way of thinking is problematic. As design educators are teaching people the model, they’re leading students to believe that it’s not actually a model at all – that it’s the whole story, and that it’s valuable in practicality. The five steps are not being presented as an abstraction. They are being presented as the entirety of design.

I was recently at a conference that had a unique way to expose people to design and to one-another. They moved groups of people between “each step in the process” for a 15 minute overview of that step. As an attendee, you would learn about empathy for 15 minutes, then define, then ideate, and so-on.

During the “define” group, a participant had a question, and asked “How do I know when I’ve done it right?” The facilitator didn’t answer the question, and I wouldn’t either: it’s unanswerable, and a ridiculous question in the context of doing actual design work. But it’s a great question in the context of our reductive world map. If definition is one of five steps, then I better not screw it up – I need to define it correctly to move on to ideate properly, and if I mess up one-fifth of the process, I’m not destined to great things. When you introduce a model, people use the model. And when you lead them to believe that the model is really how things work, that’s their expectation.

The conference’s 15-minute activity, for all of its well intention, reinforced that “design is five steps.” The frameworks our industry has embraced do the same thing. Attendees and readers who don’t know any better believe what we teach them, and that’s what they bring back to their teams and companies.

This is what we’re hearing over and over from our clients at Modernist: they went to a conference, attended a workshop, were included in some training, or read a book – and learned the five stages of design, or some other model that has three phases or four sections. During our sales cycles with prospective clients, we hear statements like “Do you do the empathy part?” or “When you do the ideate part…” These are signs that we have a lot of work to do in helping our client partners better understand how design really works, and to help them learn that the process is a mess. The five stages they heard about aren’t real. They are an abstraction.

This is, in many ways, part of the backlash against design thinking that the field is experiencing. While I’ve described before that there’s not a lot of designing going on in design thinking, it’s starting to look like there’s not a lot of thinking, either.

So what to do?

I’m working to remove abstract representations of the design process from my work. I’m trying my best now to represent design honestly: that it’s a big fat mess. Yeah, there’s a process. We do things, and we do them in an order. But then we do them out of order. We don’t do some of them. Or we do them twice. We talk to people and try to build empathy, but sometimes we don’t. Other times we sketch things, and then sometimes, we don’t.

The five step document from IDEO has a little paragraph at the end that says,

“For simplicity, the process is articulated here as a linear progression, but design challenges can be taken on by using the design modes in various orders; furthermore there are an unlimited number of design frameworks with which to work. The process presented here is one suggestion of a framework; ultimately you will make the process your own and adapt it to your style and your work. Hone your own process that works for you. Most importantly, as you continue to practice innovation you take on a designerly mindset that permeates the way you work, regardless of what process you use.”

It’s almost an aside, taking up just a tiny part of the last page. But it’s not an aside at all. It’s the whole point, and I wish it was a giant warning at the top in big, bold, red text. We can simplify design to learn it. But we can’t simplify it to do it, and that’s the biggest gap between design education and design practice. The models we are teaching are not design. They are models. But they are being used literally. And if someone walks away from our educational sessions thinking there are five steps to design, we’ve failed.

This is the message I am trying to tell my clients and my students. When you go for a ride on the design train, you will be overwhelmed, or confused, or anxious, or annoyed, or uncomfortable. That’s the process. But it’s not random. It’s purposeful. And since we’re experienced practitioners, we’ll guide you through the mess. I know that when we go out in the field and talk to people, we’ll come back with crazy data. I know that when we draw things, we’ll have to draw them again. I know that you need to see things to realize that we need to do more research, and more research will force us to draw ideas, and then we’ll come to work excited to change the problem frame, which will change the entire way you think about your business, which will put the project on hold and delay deadlines, which will lead to retesting existing concepts, and anxiety, and more research, and on and on.

Design is a mess. And that’s the framework.

Jon Kolko

Modernist can help you manage the mess.

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