Framing Design for Well-Being

In this third article in a series on designing for well-being, we look at the practical means for creating environments and organizations that foster it.

This was originally to be a three-part series on designing for well-being, but as I started writing I realized we need to talk a little about design, design thinking, and frameworks for both before we get to designing for well-being in practical terms.

Let’s first start with the important part: design.

Design is both a noun and a verb. There is the field of Design, which includes a variety of sub-fields and disciplines ranging from architecture, interior design, landscape design, service design and many more. Then there is the small-d design: the means of making things that matter – this is design practice.

This article focuses on the latter and what matters to us here is well-being.

The Design Helix model (below) is a visual guide to the processes and steps involved in creating things. The model links together two vital aspects of design and how they intersect: imagination and production. Its corkscrew-like shape also implies a sense of direction. Unlike art, design always has an explicit purpose and a goal of utility, even if these purposes are multi-faceted, layered, and partially unknown and the goals emergent.

Designers seek to have a specific impact by inspiring people through their creations, often through processes of co-design. Inspiration and utility need to be factored into whatever it is that we do to cultivate well-being in our organizations.

Design Thinking vs Design

You’ve probably heard of design thinking. Much like systems thinking, there is both a set of formal models to design thinking — Design Thinking with caps — and the application of design framing, scoping, processes, methods and tools to creating things. This latter form of design thinking is really thinking through design and about how we can create useful. The first has a set of formal steps, and terminology (e.g., use of formalisms and terms like ‘ideation’, ‘prototyping’) and has many advocates or thought leaders (as well as much debate over what is and is not considered ‘Design Thinking’). The latter form of design thinking is more just how people do things; it’s design practice.

What my interest is here is in helping people become better designers, not advocating for any particular Design Thinking perspective. A framework can provide that guide without serving as a prescription.

Cycles of Creation

The Design Helix model provides an outline of many stages that comprise the creation process used in design. There are others that you might find useful, but for the purposes here we’ll use this model to outline some key activities for designing for well-being.

It’s worth noting that design is directional with non-linear aspects to it. It’s also important to clarify that what I’m writing about is design for humans. That means it will always involve some complexity because of how varied human interests, circumstances, situations, and capacities are. This isn’t systems engineering where closed, predicable or controlled relationships can allow us to design with precision.

The systems and contexts we are dealing with have a blend of linear (intentional, planned, structured) aspects and non-linear (e.g. emotional, emergent, and non-rational) aspects. This is what designing for humans is all about. When it comes to well-being, we have to account for these different qualities if we’re to be successful in producing attractive results.

There’s much debate (to be covered another time) about the tendency to create either/or distinctions around design models, design thinking, and creativity. Some see models like the Design Helix, Double Diamond, and others as oversimplifying the process and putting it into a box that it doesn’t belong.

I don’t see these debates as useful for practical design work. Design is about creating things with intention and purpose — and in this case, our intention is for generating health promotion and sustained care in our workplaces and our purpose is to create a culture — policies, practices, programs, activities, mindsets or otherwise — that encourage well-being systemically. Healthy people are the goal and how we get there is less important.

If a certain framework, process or model helps you to do that, then use that. The best are the ones we use and produce positive outcomes that address a situational need. A great framework allows you to plan and structure a process and allows for flexibility, adaptation, and utility. If it’s too rigid to apply, it’s not helpful. If a model is too nondescript, it’s equally not helpful as it doesn’t offer guidance. A good framework or model should fit in the middle — be instructive, guiding, and not rigid.

Models for Well-Being

While we might have some models for design as a process, the creation of well-being (as discussed in an earlier post) is as much about creating an index of activities. Well-being rests on having many different things come together at the same time in some semblance of balance. Design is the means to bring those conditions to life.

Design allows us to create things that are tailored to people and shared, which is exactly what well-being is. We know the core aspects of what creates well-being in people, but the way they are manifest is quite distinct for each person and group.

How we do that and how we apply a framework like the Design Helix will be what we focus on next.

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

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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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