Designers aren't superhumans, even if sometimes we feel like we are. We have strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, fears and biases. Designers claim to see the full picture, to deeply empathise, and have the ability to play multiple roles. To the uninitiated, this may seem arrogant. It did to me, even as a designer. So I thought about it. What are the secret ingredients of Design? What are the things designers consistently do that help them be successful in tackling complex problems?
In this post, we will cover:
The core challenges of Design
The Designer’s toolkit that helps us succeed
What are the core challenges of Design?
Seeing the full picture
One of the core assumptions of Design is the designer's ability to see the full picture. Designers often use the elephant analogy to demonstrate the role of a designer. They seek to understand how people observe the world and experience complex systems. The truth is this is a difficult task. It's hard to be empathetic toward people and their experience of a complex system, without unconsciously prioritising their needs and expectations. Designers, like others, have biases and worldview, and it's difficult to see people and systems objectively.
The second core assumption is that Design can empathise and that this empathy can lead to a deep understanding of the reality of a system and therefore, what needs to change. This is pretty complicated. Researchers have demonstrated that we struggle to empathise, even if we have had a very similar experience in the past. Empathy is defined as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another", and in some ways, we can't be completely empathetic. Sure, we can understand the feelings of another, and even share them to some degree. Even then, it doesn't place us in a position where they can stop engaging with people.
Playing multiple roles
Another assumption is that the designer can play multiple roles effectively. A designer typically plays numerous roles, equivalent to an athlete that trains for ten sports. Designers often start to narrow their focus by industry, problem or expertise, but this is not always the case. A designer plays the role of a design researcher, facilitator, coach, storyteller, writer, speaker and presenter, and leader and manager. These are individual disciplines that people often dedicate their working life to grow in.
What does the designer have in their toolkit?
Now that we know some of the assumptions, let's check out the designer's toolkit that helps designers overcome these assumptions.
Good designers collaborate. Sure, Design is a decathlon. But it's one where Designers are playing relay. They pass the baton from one to another, depending on their strengths. Designers are all usually involved in all stages of the project, but different people take the lead on specific activities. In a typical project, you might have four designers. One is doing the research, one is facilitating discussions, one is leading the project, and one is writing the final deliverables. If a project needs a specific type of expertise, like health, or engineering or nutrition, we bring people on board. Good designers don't work in silos; they work across organisations to build a shared understanding.
Good designers experiment. They understand empathy has its limits, so they apply other ways of ensuring they understand the problem deeply. Good designers understand their weaknesses. Good designers know they're not the people experiencing the problem. They spend time to explore the issue and people's experiences, test their assumptions, and prototype their ideas to learn. Designers don't statically apply Design; they shift and change to suit the problem.
Good designers reflect. Good designers spend time to understand their values and biases and reflect on how this impacts their worldview. They communicate the difference between facts and their interpretations of it. Good designers seek help from others to navigate their biases and worldviews.
Good designers build in public. Designers create a shared understanding of the problem and visualise it to make sure they have it right. When they choose an idea, they prototype it to learn. When they're ready to roll it out, they do it as an experiment. Every part of Design uses iteration and has a failsafe - failure isn't the end. It's just the beginning.
Of course, none of these tools is foolproof. We do make mistakes, we fail, and we get back up to try again. The brilliant thing about designing in complex systems, though is that you're not expecting the system to act a certain way, you're consistently using experiments to understand how the system will respond. We tinker with the experiment until it works, then we scale it. These acts of building in public help rally people to create the change, and build testing into the Design approach.
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