Sushi: Hello and welcome to another episode of Design Lota, the podcast where we talk about life as Indian Designers
Angie: I’m Angie
Sushi: And I’m Sushi
Angie: In our last episode, we learned a little about starting a design business in India from Saloni. That was fun – you should check it out if you haven’t already. This week we are going to talk about the thing designers do that helps them create great design.
Sushi: You mean waving the magic wand tool?
Angie: No, I’m talking about the other thing! Design process!
Sushi: Ah… it’s a big deal and hugely significant, and is probably what defines a designer even more than the tools or style they use.
Angie: So, let’s talk about this article I read that kickstarted this whole conversation for us recently…
Sushi: So the article is called – ‘Let’s stop talking about THE design process’ by Carissa Carter. She is the director of teaching at the Stanford D School and in this write-up she compares design process to cooking- how it’s not a process that is set in stone, but something we learn and improvise based on experience, context and availability of ingredients.
Angie: I think her example kind of does justice to the art and science that is the design process. In my initial days out of design school, I struggled a lot of trying to fit the process very rigidly into every project and felt let down whenever it wasn’t possible – which as you know is not always possible in real world projects.
Sushi: Me too! When I first learned about process in Design School I had a rather legalistic view of it…like I would try to force every project into the 5-hexagon process and I felt it was really limiting in terms of being able to come up with innovative solutions. It made me feel really stuck. But then I realised that the process was only a framework, you could (and should) work around.
Angie: So for those who have no idea what we are talking about, should we maybe give a brief overview?
Sushi: Yeah, so in any design process, the designer breaks the project into different phases, and while the process may vary depending on the designer and the context, there is a widely accepted format of process which includes immersive research, definition of the scope, ideation, prototyping and testing.
Angie: I’m sure there are many good reasons why designers would want follow a process. For one, it helps you be organised and gives you a vague sort of direction at the beginning when everything is fuzzy, right?
Sushi: Yes! So you don’t stress about where to start, but enter the process with whatever vague brief you have and just start off with trying to break down the problem into manageable parts. The process could also prevent you from wandering too far from the scope of the project and getting lost.
Angie: I think it also helps to communicate design in a structured way to clients and other team members – it even helps to justify estimates that we make because many times design is defined just by deliverables and we need to find ways to make the invisible parts of the design process more visible if possible. For example, we did a client project where we laid out the entire enterprise system on the wall in the form of post-its and suddenly the client could see their product in a new light.
Sushi: It’s so true that the user sees only the end product, and if that end product is impressive, its quite likely that there was a rigorous process behind it, from research to ideation and prototyping, to actually producing. But do you think there are factors that limit the process. For example, not all clients may have the time and budget to conduct formal research?
Angie: I do think that there are factors that influence process, but not necessarily limit it. I did a project in my internship, where I was exploring an idea for a video game. I did not have the resources for primary research but scanned a bunch of product reviews, app reviews, discussion boards online, comparative product analysis. So that served as my secondary research. Also, ask, ask, ask – many times non-design folks who have been in the team longer have invaluable information – sometimes we do a lot of research without asking questions to the guy sitting next to us – I struggle with this because it can be out of my comfort zone but it’s really important to get different team members perspective on what is going on.
Sushi: What about a situation where you have the idea first, and then realise it could solve a problem or fill a gap?
Angie: Then I would say that’s really cool. But in order to make it happen, you’ll have to take a couple of steps back and identify the problem.
Sushi: But what if the idea IS the starting point? Like if there really isn’t a problem, but the idea could lead to opportunities?
Angie: I think it still makes sense to go through with the process in order to validate the idea.
Sushi: How about in a situation where art overlaps with design. If you’re designing a set of mugs, for instance. How would you fit that into a process?
Angie: Then I think you need to ask yourself what is so special about those mugs. Who is going to be using them, and how it can be designed to solve some pain points, like preventing spills, or breakage. Unless you’re planning to pull a Philippe Starck!
Sushi: That’s a fair point. I recently had an idea, which I was all ready to prototype. But then when I decided to do some research, I identified a couple of pain points that the product was unintentionally solving. This really added value to the concept. So I guess empathy is never a bad idea!
Angie: Told you so!
Sushi: Okay. But when you talk about Design Process and Design Thinking, what comes to my mind, and I’m sure this comes to a lot of minds- is a big white-board full of sticky notes and photos, something like what a crime scene investigation looks like in movies.
Angie: Design process is all about investigation, after all! This brings us to the analogy in the article where Carter compares the process of design to cooking, where there is definitely a procedure but also room to explore and enjoy the process without letting the process get rigid or limiting.
Sushi: Yes, it’s better to have chefs who can each make a unique version of a dish, rather than have them all make the same version perfectly. Unless they all work for the same restaurant of course!
Angie: There are as many ways of making Sambar as people that make it, but when you taste it you know it’s sambar (most of the time!) You know, initially when I started cooking I went rigidly according the the recipe, but slowly I learnt the reasons why some instructions were given, or why one ingredient was to be added before the other, and soon I was able to cook without looking at a recipe.
Sushi: Yeah, this makes sense. It’s similar to how mastery of a skill can allow you to innovate more freely. So design process is also a skill in some sense.
Angie: Yes, You know, another point that’s interesting is, when we cook – we change and adapt the process based on what’s happening, like something doesn’t smell or taste right…do you think we can do that when we design…like when something doesn’t ‘feel’ right?
Sushi: Yeah! There have been times when we have started off with a brief, but then the ideation phase becomes so exciting that we can see ourselves going totally off-track from the initial scope that we defined. And we realise that we are off-track, and we tell ourselves to get back in line, but then there’s this ‘feeling’ that makes us want to ignore that scope, because this is a more exciting solution.
Angie: Do you think that’s a bad thing?
Sushi: No, I think it’s sometimes a good thing…no harm wandering a little. You might just be grateful for that distraction if you’re feeling stuck and the hopelessness of the project is getting on your nerves. But we’ll have to weigh out the risks of shifting the scope.
Angie: I guess prototyping and testing should give you a hint.
Sushi: It most certainly should! And that is not where the process ends. Ideally, there has to be multiple cycles of ideation-prototyping-testing, and the idea is that the solution gets more refined with each cycle.
Angie: One common mistake designers make is mixing up methods with process. Like when you mentioned mind-mapping with sticky notes. Mind mapping is a great method that you may use as part of your ideation process but it is not the process itself. There are several other methods including sketching or even word building that might be more suitable for ideation in a different context.
Sushi: I think choosing the right methods and tools contextually is a skill too. I’m a big advocate for cross-breeding methods or modifying them to suit your context. In one college project that required a lot of research, my teammates and I conducted user interviews by using picture cards to map a day in the life of our users.
Another example I can think of is mood-boards. This is something I have typically seen textile and space designers use, but I find it useful to communicate the look and feel of products to clients. A mood-board or as I like to call it, an aspiration catalog, provides a context for the product, so the manufacturer also understands quality and recommends the ideal materials or processes.
Angie: That’s fascinating! I also try to be innovative with the methods we use for research and ideation with my team-mates at work. Speaking of which, do you find it more challenging to follow a process when you’re an individual designer, as opposed to a team?
Sushi: There’s definitely the temptation to skip the user research, or skip the testing, because there are no teammates to challenge your claims and assumptions. But that is precisely why, I feel it’s all the more crucial, like we talked about in the episode about feedback. Another common trap is when you have one good idea, and then you are reluctant to brainstorm for more ideas, and even subconsciously everything can lead back to the same initial idea.
Angie: Maybe you should organise some group brainstorm sessions to get those juices flowing!
Sushi: That’s actually a great idea. You’re invited to my brainstorm about the idea I had about solar powered isthri (iron box) later today.
Angie: I like that! Let’s discuss it later then. So the Carter article goes on to talk about eight ‘abilities’ that a designer must possess rather than the rigid design process steps…I found that so interesting.
Sushi: She mentions that at the Stanford D.school they try to focus on these abilities, from being able to synthesize information, to building intentionally.
Angie: Sounds like an amazing design school curriculum – doesn’t seem rigid at all. You know how in our traditional school systems, we are always taught that there is one correct textbook way to do things and to stick with that? I’m so glad that design gives us a way out of that. I think exploring each ability would give us room to refine our work.
Sushi: Yes, Plus there are many episode ideas in there!
Angie: Yeah that too!
Sushi: Hey listeners! Do you have a great design process that sets you apart?
Angie: And have you tailored some innovative methods to suit a project? Tweet to us @designlota and share it with us!
Sushi: You can find the transcript for this episode at designlota.com. Don’t forget to check out the references to help you up your process game!
Angie: Catch us in the next episode where we talk about how spaces impact design.
Sushi: Until then, bye!