Challenging the Design Process. What is the Traditional Design Process?

Depending on who you ask, there is a right way and a wrong way of approaching a design challenge. The concept of learning and practicing a universal design process has been pushed onto new designers and goes unquestioned. Why is such a creatively based profession and practice taught a “one size fits all” approach and why are we not teaching new and developing artists how to find a process that best fits them.

At this point in my and my peers design education it’s a fair assumption that most, if not all of us know what works best for us and what isn’t as effective when it comes to approaching a design project. For some people the traditional process is the most efficient way for them to work, but that’s not the case for everyone which is totally OK.

   The traditional design process can be a good place to start when you’re figuring out your style or it can be exactly what you need to get the job done right. For example when we interviewed Nick Candela and asked him what was unique about his own design process he said “I’m not convinced that my approach to projects is unique. I think in the 21st century, it’s pretty much all been done before so, overall it’s pretty standard however there are little things I do that might be different within my process.”

   Even though Nick uses a more traditional approach with his process, he still is creating unique and original art works. Like I mentioned earlier, this isn’t the case for all artists and designers. Wendy has a more organic approach to projects. She says “I just jump in to new projects. They hire me for a very specific skill set so I’m ready to go on day one”.

   So what is the traditional “Design Process”? Most commonly it is a 6 or 7 step process with set goals at each step and questions that one is supposed to ask themselves to make sure they are “on track”. What are these steps that I have been referencing, what do they mean and how do you even use or follow these steps?

Design Process

The first step is “Define the Problem”. You can’t find a solution until you have a clear idea of what the problem is. Ask yourself: What is the problem or what is being asked of you? What problems are you supposed to be solving? What constraints need to be considered?

The second step is “Collect Information”. Do things like collect imagery, take photographs and gather data to start. You can also do things like go on a walk, read, exercise or whatever else could give you inspiration. During this step, ask yourself, “Who is the design intended to reach?” and “How have other designs addressed the same or similar problems?” “How were these designs successful and how did they fail?”

The third step is “Brainstorm and Analyze Ideas”. This step is sometimes split into two steps however, some feel that there is too much for one to focus on at once since they require two very different parts of the brain. However during this step/these steps begin to sketch, make, and study so you can start to understand how all the data and information you’ve collected may impact your design. Try holding a focus group for example. At this stage no idea is a bad idea. Get all of your ideas out of your head and begin to look at them and how they could be developed.

The fourth step is “Develop Solutions”. Start creating. Take your preliminary ideas and form multiple small-scale design solutions. Towards the end of this stage, it can be beneficial to create physical mock ups of what you are making. Ask yourself “What materials are needed to effectively convey your intended message?” and “How could I push the use of these materials farther?”.

The fifth step is “Gather Feedback”. Present your ideas to as many people as possible: this can be anyone you trust to give insightful comments. Ask yourself: Did your final design solve the original problem? Did your design create other problems as a result? Does your design consider the constraints and criteria? Also at this stage it is important to consider that just because you the designer feel like what you created was effective, if others don’t understand, then maybe it isn’t as effective as you thought.

Step six is “Improve”. Reflect on all of your feedback and decide if or to what extent it should be incorporated. Sometimes feedback can be helpful but sometimes it can be excessive and unhelpful. It is up to you as the designer to decide what to listen to and what to ignore. It is often helpful to take solutions back through the Design Process to refine and clarify them. Often times, there is always more you can do to further your design and make it better.

Trying out different ways to approach things can only help you develop into a better designer and using the traditional method is a good place to start. Just like when building a house, it is super important that the foundation is strong so it can stay up and not fall apart as time progresses. As Nick put it  “ …learning is exponential, so the more things you try, the more you learn. The more you understand, the more choices you have for your own decision making, and artists are nothing if not acute decision makers so why not so give yourself a proverbial buffet from which to choose your media, subjects, processes, and so on”.

It’s likely that your process will evolve along with you as you evolve as a designer so having a basic understanding of the design method is extremely important and beneficial. This basic understanding can be especially helpful when collaborating with other designers and coworkers even. This can be helpful because it creates a shared vocabulary and set of expectations throughout the group. It is important to create a baseline understanding for everyone because if no one is on the same page, it will be impossible to get anything done and meet deadlines. Over the last few decades, many major companies like IDEO, and IBM have created a standard for their design process and methods and found that it made a significant difference with productivity.

Another reason why it is important to have a sturdy design process behind your work is because it will strengthen your design. Often times your first idea isn’t your best idea. By creating variations and working through a predefined process it can not only help you stay on track but it can also help you make sure you are producing the best outcomes possible.

Grace Fuller

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