Design Choices and Their Outcomes

Evaluation is not a word that fits easily into design practice, but when it does, it lays bare what it achieves.

Every designer needs to understand evaluation.

Not every designer needs to know how to do it, but they need to know evaluative thinking. Without it, designers are set to fulfill what Charles Eames once was believed to have said about innovation (design’s focus):

Innovate as a last resort. More horrors have been done in the name of innovation than any other

Charles Eames

Designers are rarely trained in evaluation and, aside from the claims of ‘having impact’, might not even know that there is a field called evaluation in the first place. Whether a designer is interested in professional evaluation or not, the consequences of not knowing evaluative thinking – what evaluation does and why it matters to design – is no longer acceptable.

As we start envisioning what is next for the world post-pandemic the risks of ignorance are too great and the benefits too substantial to ignore evaluation with design.

Evaluative Thinking

Evaluative Thinking is best framed as asking three important questions as discussed in this post over at Cense:

  1. What is going on? This question is all about paying attention to your design, what it does, how its made, and what kind of relationships are affected by it.
  2. What’s new? How is a design — program, service, product or something else — affecting things since it was introduced?
  3. What does it mean? What is the significance and meaning that is created because this design is in the world?

These questions engage the designer in questions that go beyond aesthetic or functional choices toward responsibility and opportunity. They engage the designer in the question of greater purpose and how designs fit into, support, or challenge existing systems. Many design principles can be funneled through this lens such as accessibility, aesthetics, functionality, and sustainability.

Evaluative thinking helps to frame what each of these contributes to effects in the world, what are the consequences of the design choices made in their service, and who benefits (and is excluded or harmed) from the design. Without these considerations, we are much more likely to commit Eames-like horrors.

Impact & Time

Evaluative thinking borrows from the Latin phrase quid tum, which has a variety of meanings ranging from ‘so what?’ to ‘now what?’ and ‘what next?” and reflects what it is meant to achieve. Our designs — whether it is a service, a policy, or product — have lingering effects for which we need to inquire: quid tum.

Our design choices have effects beyond the moment. We’ve seen the consequences of design choices such as building expressways as part of urban planning, racial segregation policies in the United States and residential schools in Canada, or the addition of the ‘Like’ button on Facebook as examples where the effects and impact go far beyond the initial intent.

While the impact of a design is influenced by many things, it is the designers’ responsibility to ensure that it does the diligence to understand what our creations do are capable of doing. As Mike Monteiro has argued, design ethics is not something that can be left to others: we (designers) must take some responsibility for our creations.

This is what evaluation does. It allows us to account for our choices and see their effects in the world. It helps us, our clients, our partners and the world see what we do and what our work does and it allows us to make it better. It reveals brilliance, effort, and folly. It lays bare our work and, in doing so, celebrates it and demystifies it.

It also tracks its legacy over time and this is where our great intentions and efforts are most revealed in their effect on the world, much like the Chinese parable of the farmer and the horse.

The circumstances arising from the global pandemic of 2020 will unleash an enormous wave of new initiatives as we design for what is next. Whether that is building or re-building our communities, economies, and social systems the choices we make will have lasting and far-reaching consequences for generations. Just as we have seen the consequences of our designs from years past realized now — for good and for naught – the choice is ours for how we will create the future.

Evaluative thinking will hold us to account and, if used earnestly and wisely, will help design things better for positive impact for years to come. Just as Johannes Gutenberg didn’t know all that would follow from his printing press design, he had enough of an idea because he evaluated what he did and the world became literate as a result.

Designers: it’s time to raise your literacy with evaluation.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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