If design is a creative problem solving process, as I asserted in my last post, then there must be a methodology to the process. It is a mystery to most people how design really comes about. I have had people ask me if my design ideas turned out the way I had imagined, as if there were there should be an element of surprise in the outcome.
The design process has been described in countless ways by designers. Some would even argue that using the word “process” is too limiting…too sterile. Based on my study and experience, I would describe the design process with a five step approach: problem definition, exploration, ideation, prototyping, and implementation.
Problem definition is the process of exploring, defining and often redefining the problem. This stage involves understanding the issues that have lead to the problem, who the various stakeholders are, the impact of outside forces on the problem, questioning and redefining the questions, and stating the problem along with critical success factors.
Exploration is the process of looking at the problem from every angle, using various techniques such as brainstorming, focus groups, customer surveys, and interviewing key stakeholders in an effort to see the problem from as many points of view as possible. This step lays the foundation for the ideation.
Ideation is the process of exploring various solutions to the problem. Ideation should include looking at solutions that may seem “out of bounds” when viewed in light of the problem statement…but it is often these “out of bounds” concepts that lead to an innovative approach to solving the problem. At this stage in the process, the designers’ intuition and ability to think abstractly, making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, fuels the process. Ideation should involve the various stakeholders in a co-creative, collaborative process that leverages the power of various interests and perspectives. The best, most innovation ideas emerge from just such a co-creative environment, since various stakeholders hold different pieces of the solution to the puzzle. Together they can fashion a holistic solution.
Prototyping begins once a solution emerges. The purpose of a prototype is to try out the idea to see if it really “fits” and works as intended. The methods for prototyping are limitless. In architecture, initial prototypes usually consist of three dimensional models and sometimes full scale mock-ups of a room or wall construction. In service design, prototyping often begins with the creation of a story board leading to acting out the various aspects of service delivery, testing the contingencies that can affect service delivery. In industrial or product design, the first prototypes may be as simple as a Styrofoam mock-up used to evaluate the size of the object and how it feels in the hand, moving to more sophisticated prototypes as the idea is refined. The prototyping stage also includes defining and developing the various systems that will be required to bring the product or service to market, including the cost of these systems. In the case of architecture, this step includes estimating construction cost and testing the cost within the context of the project pro forma.
Implementation completes the design process. The idea has been prototyped and vetted with the various stakeholders, tested in the context of the project pro forma, and is ready to be brought to market. Implementation includes the technical drawings that are required for final production or construction. In the case of service design, a detailed plan of the service process, including all customer touchpoints must be developed before the service can be rolled out to the public.
The fallacy of this description of the design process is that it creates the illusion of a process that is linear when, in reality, it is often a convoluted and always iterative process. Typically, the results that are generated by any step of the process will require the design team to go back one or two steps and rework that step in the process, redefining the problem after ideation, or discarding a failed prototype and rethinking the concept created in the ideation process.
The linear thinkers will find this iterative approach frustrating and, in the midst of the process, question its efficacy. I guess that is to be expected…designers seek to create order out of chaos, imagining a future reality that doesn’t yet exist. The risk faced by the designer is that the more innovative the concept, the greater the risk of failure at some level. I guess some people find it mysterious that when the smoke clears from the hocus pocus, the design actually works!