Simplifying Design

The gap between design theory and practice can be bridged by getting back to the principle of making it accessible.

What is design? There are a lot of definitions of what design is and is not from the utterly perplexing to the complicated and technical. It doesn’t have to be that way. Design is something that we all do when we want to change something or actively seek to keep something as it is in the face of change.

Whether we are creating a room, a service, a healthcare system, or a plan for how we want to live our life or organize our week, we are designing. Sometimes these designs delight and deliver what we want and more. They can also fail, harm, or bore us.

A great deal of our world is designed. There is little of our natural world we’ve not tried to shape and craft in ways that benefit us. For that reason, design and its consequences are not trivial matters.

Rather than focus on jargon let’s make design language more accessible and fit for purpose, just like design itself.

Fit for Purpose

A good design is one that is fit for purpose. This means that the process, product, and outcomes of the design provide benefit for what we’ve intended. The fit means it benefits those we designed for.

This is a dynamic concept because just like our clothing ceases to fit if we change our physical shape or grow the fit of a design can change with it. Some designs are meant to fit for the moment while others are meant to fit for generations. That all depends on its purpose.

A design may seek to meet multiple purposes and therefore it might fit differently depending on whom we are seeking to design for. We’ll explore this concept in a future post.

Three Phases of Design

There are many ways of breaking down the fundamental qualities and features of design. This has contributed to an enormous debate in the field of design and business and has served as one of the major contributors to the criticism of the concept of design thinking.

To simplify, I’d like to suggest we consider design in three phases that overlap as the image above suggests. These three phases loosely map on to the Latin-inspired meaning of the concept of Quid Tum and the questions it encourages: What? Now What? And So What?

These phases are not rigid, rather they flow from our experience of the world into trying to sense, make sense of, and create things for the world that are shape our present and future. Hopefully, if we’ve done this well, we’ve improved the quality of our life and the planet in the process.

Sensing

The first of these is tied to sensing. This is what designers (i.e., humans) do: we use information from our senses to understand what’s going on in our world. We use our physical attributes (sight, hearing, touch), our words (oral and written), images, and feelings to inform what is going on around the world.

This process of sensing involves attending — being aware, focused, and mindful of what is going on. We harness the power of curiosity to inquire about what we sense and experience. This allows us to discover and uncover patterns about our world. This is a human-oriented means of doing research.

Our senses will help attune us to what needs design: an opportunity, a threat, an issue, or a situation that could benefit from action to produce change.

Sensemaking

The middle part of this journey is sensemaking. This allows us to take the richness and diversity of our experience and what we’ve gained from our senses about problems, issues, opportunities, or threats and transform that into meaning.

We make meaning through reflection and considering what we’ve experienced in light of our past, present, and desired or anticipated future. We organize what we’ve gathered from our research and inquiry to help us and those we work with to examine and explore what we’ve seen. In most human endeavours in need of design, the answers to our questions are not obvious. Sometimes they can be determined quickly, but more often we live and work in the realm of the complex, which is to say that things are changing, dynamic, interconnected, and non-linear (or obvious).

Synthesizing what we’ve gathered, testing our assumptions, and socially engaging with the material through conversation and dialogue is how we make sense. It is almost always a social act.

Production

Sensemaking informs us of our direction and production is where we convert meaning into tangible products, services, or policies. This is where we make things. We bring together craft — and the skill, experience, and tools or strategies it requires — and apply it to the materials (our ideas, raw materials, or situations) to create a design.

This is where our knowledge of how to make things comes into play. It’s where design thinking must include design making.

This is about making, tinkering, shaping and sharing what we create with the world. This is where an understanding of the relationships between materials — physical, social, emotional — comes to play. For example, it’s one thing to shape a strategy, it’s another to transform that into practice and real change.

Evaluation

There is a fourth aspect to all of this that underpins design and is actually something that comes through the entire process: evaluation Bringing evaluation into the conversation comes by asking a fourth question not articulated in the Quid Tum: What Happened?

In spite of our efforts to be mindful, sense-make, and apply craft and skill we can still fail to make the positive impacts we want or produce significant harm with our designs. Evaluation is the means for us to assess how well the fit and the purpose of our designs are in practice, not just in theory.

Taken together, design is really about engaging with the world, asking questions, having conversations, and making something from it. It’s simple, natural, yet also can be a challenge and difficult to accomplish. But as world shapes us so too can our designs shape the world. Making that a little simpler is a step toward engaging more of us in thoughtful, strategic designing.

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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