What drives man to create? What is this instinct we have to live in a built world? What informs our need to design the things we use? These are the big questions that drive the passion for my craft. Design isn’t simply a vocation or a question of composition and aesthetic, but is instead a lens through which we can view life and human interaction.
At its root, design is a form of inquiry. It can be viewed as a rejection of the status quo, as it is inherently dependent on the belief that things can and should be improved. In the end, design is a way of asking active questions, and of exploring our world. We can’t understand our place in it until we understand how we can make our place in it.
“Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.”
Robert L. Peters
A few principles consistently guide my design practice:
Start With Why
Design is by nature a constructive discipline, in that it works towards something beyond itself. You do not “design to design”, you design within the context of a question. Sometimes the question is one you identify yourself, initiated by a curiosity about why a situation exists and if it should be improved, or even can be improved. Other times, someone else brings a question to the table, looking for your expertise as a “professional question asker.” Why is that directional signage so small? Why does this street have so many lanes? Why does it take me so long to get through this ticket line? Why is this HR training module so boring? Why is this instructional manual so confusing? “Why” is a two-sided word, in that it is both the question we start with, and the declarative ending. We ask why, and then we learn why. That’s where design begins.
Design is Research, Research is Design
Design is often framed as a proper noun, as in “I made a design.” While the grammatical fallacy here might be obvious, less obvious is the embedded assumption of design as an artifact-centric discipline. Historically, design disciplines have been demarcated by their output, such as buildings, visual systems, or products. While research was always important, it was guided by the presupposition of a final form (or at least a final format). However, I believe that design is a process which is often unencumbered by formal constraints, and the act of research, which is an act of design, can lead to a variety of outcomes. The act of pursuing an understanding of a question, context, or task is the process of design.
Learning is Doing
However, while research is design, design research is active. In order to design for people, your process must be entwined with the human experience, which requires being out in the world, asking questions, and trying to understand your tasks in a proactive and iterative manner—ideas into action. I believe that the best method of learning by doing is through prototyping, which involves using rapid, low-fidelity methods of testing ideas before committing to a more comprehensive design proposal. These active learning methods should be intimately informed by secondary research, the gathering of which we’ve already established as a form of design in itself (and since our work as designers should always build on known principles), but secondary research is only as valuable in this instance as its ability to inform an active engagement with your design question. As designers we do things to learn, and through that process we learn to do things.
Design is Iterative
Our prototyping and learning-by-doing leads us to two truths: first, the design process is always responsive and evolving. Prototyping only works if you apply your evolving knowledge to subsequent prototypes. Keen analysis and responsive application of learnings is a key design skill, and one that over time builds a broad expertise within the field. The second truth is that collaboration is required for the design process to be effective. Designers cannot work effectively alone, and collaboration between both a design team and the group who is being designed for (which are often not the designers themselves) are key aspects of an effective design process. Collaboration provokes conversation, conversation informs ideas, ideas inform actions, actions inform iteration.
Design is Non-Hierarchical
In order for true collaboration to occur, team members cannot live in diffidence to those they perceive to be in a superior position of power. Design, sadly, is not dissimilar to other creative fields (film, architecture, fine arts, etc.) in which the idea of the auteur has taken hold. A canonic ideal of “visionaries”, names that we all know and have studied, permeates the field of design. However, in order for our process to be truly effective, it needs to be built on a foundation of psychological safety, freedom to challenge, and open sharing of ideas without fear of dismissal or appropriation. While projects often need a leader, it is the leader’s responsibility to make sure that everyone on the team feels the freedom and encouragement to contribute at every phase of the project. If we are human-centered in our approach to our clients, we must be human-centered in our approach to our collaborators.
Design Seeks the Good
Design, at its core, should be an exercise in optimism. To bring it back to my opening statements, effective designers believe that the world can and should be improved. However, it is easy to design things that make the world better for some people, while either ignoring others or even making it worse for them. Bad design is based on convenience, short-term thinking, and profit as a singular force. Good design is focused on empathy, equity, and long-term thinking. As human-centered designers, it is built into our self-conception that we view humans as individuals with unique needs, and by listening to these needs, we see the humans behind the needs. This is a self-sustaining system. There should be no abstraction and assumption, and when you remove these barriers, you can have much more clarity around the potential impact of your work—and its potential for doing good. There is no such thing as neutral design, and ethical design practices require that we always push towards the best outcomes for the most people.
Design is a complex, ever evolving space that never quite settles, and in many instances I think that it’s this very thing that attracts potential designers to our world. We are curious, engaged, and enthusiastic people who want to get our hands dirty in service to big ideas and intimate needs.
At least, that’s the kind of designer that I try to be.