Design trends come and go, but the importance of craft is a constant. In pursuit of the new, though, we can be guilty of trying to shed the past—even the most reliable principles and practices.
Here, I revisit these four essential design process concepts that have lost some of their spirit somewhere along the way, and offer qualifications to reinvigorate them for at least the next decade:
The contemporary design process often works in what’s known as a bowling pin formation that can be summarized as follows:
- You start with identifying a problem by engaging with a certain user persona or an underserved demographic.
- You brainstorm ideas
- Through a process of trial and error (and, ideally, lots of user testing) deliver an acceptable solution.
This user-centric design process works so well that it has basically become the de facto method for designers. It has been absorbed into corporate environments seamlessly and administered, basically clinically, to highly profitable results.
However, what this design process mostly yields are cookie cutter, clean, and serviceable solutions (aka predictable, uninteresting, and uninspiring results!).
One solution: Take a cue from art and aim for emotional design.
Glaser reveals Duchamp as the artistic inspiration behind his iconic design for Dylan.
Last year, Design Week published a piece celebrating Milton Glaser, the iconic American designer best known for his “I Love New York” logo and the colorful silhouette identity for Bob Dylan (Columbia Records). The profile, covering his new book that includes roughly 400 posters Glaser designed during his incredible career, includes the following insight from the designer on the difference between art and design:
“Very often, [art and design] have no relationship to each other,” he says. “Every once in a while, a work that is intended to be functional and has been made in response to a client’s problem turns out to also be artistic—the feeling you derive from it is emotional rather than logical.
“This happens rarely,” he adds. “But when it does, those pieces are very sustainable.”
In the same article, Glaser is quoted as saying, “I have a secret wish to go outside the realm of commerce and into the realm of art. How often I have succeeded is the judgment of history.”
Milton’s desire for design to gain the emotional impact of art is neither without precedent nor divorced from current developments. It is a pertinent concern for design today. In a piece titles “The 9 Big Design Trends of 2019” at Fast Company, ADAY co-founders Nina Faulhaber and Meg He are quoted predicting that, in the new year, “companies will focus on simplicity and removing excess details, while increasing the poetry.”
In the same piece, Gadi Amit, the founder of NewDealDesign, is quoted as saying:
“The often-simplistic love affair of the tech world with clean, simple, and emotionally subdued design is coming to a slow, yet clear, end. Such formulaic serene Sameness is no longer a valid risk-averse strategy as more and more companies understand that brand building requires a distinguished aesthetic with an emotional point of view. The shift to more emotional, expressive design is even felt at the leadership of the tech world: be it Google hardware designers coalescing around a decidedly warmer, more human approach to personal electronics or the growth of Lyft, while adopting a playful visual language.”
What does design need to become more emotional and poetic? A touch of the artistic.
Tip: Most of us scroll through Pinterest and Artsy for our art inspiration but go a step further and explore, in-depth, the works of visual artists like Edward Hopper or filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai, Marco Berger or Joanna Hogg who manage to create distinct and unforgettable emotional landscapes with every frame.
Your work should truly put you in someone else’s shoes
It would be fair to say that as contemporary designers, we know about the importance of empathy in design and know what we mean by it, more or less. And yet, our designed environment is full of examples of failures in empathy.
In an article published by The Guardian, Caroline Criado-Perez breaks down “the deadly truth about a world built for men.” She summarizes one of the consequences of what could be considered unempathetic design:
“The impact can be relatively minor–struggling to reach a top shelf set at a male height norm, for example. Irritating, certainly. But not life-threatening. Not like crashing in a car whose safety tests don’t account for women’s measurements. Not like dying from a stab wound because your police body armor doesn’t fit you properly. For these women, the consequences of living in a world built around male data can be deadly.”
Many of the alarming examples Criado-Perez discusses in her work could have been prevented had a woman designer been involved in the process of designing some of the objects and systems cited.
Designing police body armor that fits women does not absolutely require a woman designer—just a designer with the foresight and understanding to accommodate women.
While it would be great to live in a world where women were hired to design products for women, I also believe that we can all also develop our empathetic capacity so that cases such as the one discussed above are less frequent.
Tip: Take time out of your design job to live somewhere different, engage with a radically different set of people through community groups, or do something you wouldn’t do. Bungee jumping may push you out of your own comfort zone, but it doesn’t give you access to someone else’s zone. Travel to a non-glamorous location. Take a course in a discipline you’ve always been curious about but never pursued.
Be playful like a child
Big companies creating in-house innovation and experimentation labs has become the norm.
But that doesn’t mean big companies own innovation. A McKinsey interview with three major players in corporate innovation opened with a nugget of sage advice:
“It’s almost conventional wisdom that innovation springs from developers and entrepreneurs based in start-up hubs such as Silicon Valley.”
Greg Satell at Inc. said it a bit more clearly: “Big companies have deep expertise and resources, but can’t match the entrepreneurial energy of someone striving to build their own business”.
What is this “energy,” however? If it was purely muscle or consistency, a lot of big organizations should be able to do it just as well.
It seems to be something unique to small-scale ventures: the ability to have an idea, try it out quickly, fail and learn, have another idea, and try again. It is the ability to keep this experimentation going until something sticks. This something is usually the big game-changing idea that could not have been discovered without the freedom to experiment.
In an article titled The Discipline of Business Experimentation, published by the Harvard Business Review, writers Stefan Thomke and Jim Manzi assert that ‘…ideas that are truly innovative—that is, those that can reshape industries—typically go against the grain of executive experience and conventional wisdom’.
The reason many of our biggest tech disruptions have come from scrappy startups is precisely that—because there is no “executive” experience and “conventional” wisdom: No idea is too “out there” for a startup-founder-to-be to play with, there can be an almost endless tinkering with possibilities and there is a complete absence of a corporate mandate (as light as it may be, it is still present in organization-led innovation spaces).
This “entrepreneurial energy” is not unlike that of the irrepressible artist that has something to say and will keep trying things out that interest them. Artists like Van Gogh, Edward Hopper, and J.M.W. Turner all went against what was accepted at their time and created work that resonates to this day. Designers don’t have to see themselves as similar to entrepreneurs and artists, but they must nurture the same appetite for experimentation and risk-taking.
Groundbreaking experimentation is distinctly free-spirited and joyously irreverent towards the status quo. Put another way, free experimentation is like having the unfettered curiosity of a child, at a time before one learns methods and processes. What we need is, essentially, to re-learn how to respond to the world with an untrained openness and a willingness to try most things.
Tip: Develop hobbies outside of design. Write a short story. Play a sport (even if you only do it once!) Go on adventures and getaways (and dates!) Socialize. Take your time. Then bring the same openness to your design work and learn from other peoples’ experiments, seek out inspiration, deviate from the usual colour palette and try out new ideas!
You already have what you need
Are you a bad designer if you can’t use the latest prototyping tool? Or you haven’t run extensive user surveys?
I don’t think so.
As designers, we can get a little attached to our favorite software or device, to surveys and to processes, to allocating budgets and defining deliverables. Yet, the most important tool we need is the one we have: our creativity.
Give a writer pen and paper and that’s all the material resources they need for writing a masterpiece. All a painter should need is a canvas and paint, and a good filmmaker is able to tell a story with even a handheld camera.
As a designer you should be similarly able to do a lot with very little. In a world where resources are becoming increasingly limited, we don’t need to demand more of them. Lewis Perkins, in an interview on the World Economic Forum, explains this issue as follows:
“I don’t think the world has a consumption problem, I think we have a design problem: we are still designing products to be made with rapidly diminishing resources, in ways that are toxic to our water systems, not mindful of the labor force that creates them, and so on.”
A good example of design that is mindful of usage of resources is the Fairphone smartphone, that allows for—and encourages—repairs and upgrades that prevent it from becoming obsolete as quickly as other smartphones. Such ‘circularity’ is also at the core of a revised business strategy for the future at companies like Ikea.
As we try to design solutions that use fewer resources (for more on this, check out this article on designing for sustainability, or the vision behind ‘material passport’), we can apply the same thinking and consideration to the resources we, as individuals, require to come up with design solutions.
Don’t have a subscription for expensive prototyping software? See what you can do with sketching and paper models. Worried about excessive paper usage instead? Use a single digital device for all your notes. Not able to run extensive focus/testing groups? Just have a conversation with the right person (one good chat with a policewoman would have sufficed for our use case above!) A client only gives you one photo to work with? Here are a few practical tips for making the most of it.
The bottom line is that whatever the design problem may be, there is always a way to creatively do a lot with using the minimal resources. Our strategy should be creativity first, not resources first!
Tip: Try to solve a problem—it could be personal, social or professional—without any additional materials (so just with your brain and what’s already there!) See what you can achieve with your understanding of a system, identifying its cracks and addressing it with your soft skills. Or try starting a low-investment business and see what you learn on the way from making a lot happen with very little.
If we manage to get these four essentials right, we will be able to build a design culture that is, above all, meaningful, inclusive, exciting and sustainable.
Babar Suleman is a UX designer, artist, and writer. Currently reading for a Doctor of Philosophy in Fine Art at the University of Oxford, he has an MFA in Design and Technology from Parsons School of Design in New York.