Design Process Essentials

| August 10, 2010

What do you value in a design process?

At EdLab, our teams often have great latitude in structuring our design processes – indeed, we can change almost every aspect of project management, from inception to final outcomes (and ongoing documentation and reporting). As a consequence, the teams I am a part of – creating diverse software, video, and exhibitions – all work a bit differently. What are the good and bad effects of this freedom? What amount is worth having? To paraphrase Stan Lee:

With great freedom comes great responsibility.

In my everyday work at the lab, I often feel and see the emotional and intellectual effects of shepherding a project through a design process – and negative examples easily come to mind. In considering project work in this way, it is not always clear that it’s a design process per se that leads to each and every outcome (e.g., the emotional response of a team member who feels his or her idea wasn’t adopted), but it seems helpful to consider many (and diverse) aspects of a work environment as part of a design process. In doing so, I hope to assess what structures or freedoms can be articulated as being worth having with a wide range of desirable outcomes in mind.

Consider a common situation: when is a team responsible for documenting its progress on a product? – Every day? Every week? To what extent? And how? What is the cost of this? What is the purpose? What decisions will or could be made as a result of such documentation? A team that has more latitude when it comes to responding to the need for documentation can tailor it to fit the nature of the project. A ready-made rubric, on the other hand, might not allow for the nuances that the team can account for, but I suspect organizations often favor consistency over specificity. In doing so, I wonder what, on balance, they lose. But also: what is the strain on the team that is left to weigh many variables? Such a rubric is a good example of what kind of components constitute a more structured design process.

To better understand the cost of such structures (i.e., monetary cost, but also their effect on goals like creativity and innovation), I have found it helpful to reflect on characteristics of design processes that I value. A few of those characteristics:

  • Sustained Dialogue: Sometimes it’s hard to keep the conversation going. It’s natural to welcome closure – get back to one’s desk, grab a fresh coffee, check a few items off one’s to-do list. If these external pressures cause a dialogue to end too soon, a lot of momentum can be lost. Worse, the more difficult a conversation is – the more diverse the viewpoints, for example – the more a team might want to close it down. Keeping a dialogue open through (and past) the point where a maximum amount of progress can be made is a challenging task.
  • Emergent Perspectives: If the goal is to make a new thing (or even revise an old one), it’s often hard to understand what’s possible at the beginning of the project. It is important to have flexibility to learn as you go, though changing directions usually comes at the cost of revising past goals – goals that at least someone on the team is attached to. Perhaps the hardest part of holding up emergence as a component of a design process is knowing when to decide to “stay the course” and deliver a product as-is. There are many examples of how making too much room for change can go wrong.
  • Discipline: There are a lot of ways to be distracted on a project, but two extremes stand out: 1) being too focused on a small task, or 2) being too focused on the “big picture.” A disciplined designer knows how to weave between these extremes in an iterative, cyclical way. In my mind, he or she carries the weight of at least two traditions at once: a tradition that allows him or her to excel on a small task, as well as a historical perspective that connects the task to a larger purpose.

Short of following a structured design process, cultivating one, or attempting to cultivate one, I expect an organization would articulate habits, dispositions, and behaviors that are valued. But, I wonder, could these characteristic be understood as part of “a process”? And is it beneficial to frame them as such?