Defining a Design Process
Over the last few years, I’ve tried a few times t write down and define my design process - the steps and flow I go through to go from nothing to a designed outcome. Each time, I’ve not truly had the words to describe it. So, after having done some research, I’ve decided to do what all great artists/designers (Thanks, Picasso (maybe)) do, and steal someone else’s words to explain the process I go through.
Holistic Design Thinking
My process borrows from two existent branches of design. The first is Design Thinking, popularised by IDEO, where Design is seen as a process that can be applied to problem solving, rather than just a process of making pretty things. This definition and process has led IDEO to become one of the world’s leading design companies, and it has become the way many companies and designers now look at and think of design.
Through this application of Design, we are able to solve problems from “How do you create a voting system for a new country?” to “How do you design glasses for people with only one ear?”.
The second inspiration for my process is Holistic Design. This is the idea that everything we do is connected. For many years, Designers acted as though what they did existed within a vacuum. But, Holistic Design understands that the things we create are informed by and inform the world around us.
Through this lens, we understand that not only was the iPhone (for example) informed by the culture and aims of the original design team in 2007, but that it has in itself informed a whole culture. This same understanding can be applied when looking at resources, mental and physical health, and more.
So, what does this process look like?
Holistic Design Thinking is a cyclical process, kickstarted by the identification of a problem to be solved. This is best illustrated by this graphic from NNG:
The first step in any good Design process is understanding. Through research, both primary and secondary, the goal is to understand what problem you’re solving, the people who the problem affects, and how, when, where and why this problem exists. Without this understanding, anything you do beyond this step would not, in my opinion, be considered design, because design is the intentional application of creativity to solve a problem.
In my previous projects, research and understanding has come from shadowing people whilst they go through the actions, researching the history and context of an area in which I’m looking to add to through design, or hand scanning 100 years of history about a building before telling its story.
Once you’ve collated your research and you better understand the problem you’re tackling, it’s time to explore potential solutions. This should be done through ideation, the action of creating as many ideas as possible no matter how crazy or creative they are. Once you have a good collection of ideas, it’s time to assess them and take a few to prototype stage, where you make real, tangible representations of the idea.
For the web, this could involve creating a lo-fi mockup or even putting together a prototype in Sketch. For physical objects, this could mean creating a 1:10 scale model of a building or printing out a process and stepping through it on paper.
Once you’ve done some exploring, it’s time to work on materialising your ideas. This is achieved by first testing your ideas and prototypes with real people (some people call them “users”) to see how they interact with them and for direct and indirect feedback. This involves asking the person questions about what they’ve just gone through, but also observing them to see anything they may not have mentioned but may affect the experience.
For example, did you find they had to stoop to see the screen on your ATM, but that they didn’t mention it in feedback? Note that down. It could be that other ATMs require this action so much that the testers no longer consider it abnormal, and could be something you could improve on.
Once you’ be tested your idea, it’s time to bring it to life by implementing and executing on it. This could mean writing up the code, or sending the final product to production, or implementing a process or service. This is the product you set out to create at the beginning, and at this point you can give yourself a quick pat on the back.
But then it’s time to return to the beginning, because this is a cycle, and there are always other problems for us to solve.
Adding a Holistic Element
Holistic Design, as I mentioned earlier, concerns itself with all of the aspects that affect and are affected by a design. For example, whilst a UX Designer may be concerned with the experience a person has whilst using an application, a Holistic Designer would also look at things such as the energy and performance impact of an application on the device the person is using. They would also look at the behavioural changes that a solution may bring about, and consider whether they’re beneficial or not.
For a physical product, a Holistic Designer would consider the source of the materials for the end result, as well as what happens during the life cycle of the product. How long will the device last? Where will it end up after it’s useful life comes to an end? How do we extend the use or reduce the environmental impact of the product?
There are designers who already take this approach to design. But, I believe it is an approach we should all be taking, as we strive to create a better world for ourselves and the other humans around us.