Have you ever had your design critiqued with words like this:“That’s not the right design” or “This is all wrong!”? Me too. In this article, we’re going to explore ways to view and present our design concepts to help others engage with our work in meaningful, positive ways. You never have to hear the words ‘the wrong design’…ever again.
To start this discussion, I need to give you an apology. The title is a bit of clickbait. I’m sorry. My intent wasn’t to deceive you, but to strike the chord that resonates with designers in every industry around the world. If you’re reading this, apparently you felt that resonance. I’m glad you are here. Let’s dive in…
Many times, the discipline of design is viewed as art with wishy-washy, subjective criteria. People tend to view design concepts as if personal opinion is of utmost importance. It devolves into a subjective mess of who can argue most eloquently for their view. Or worse off…everyone agrees to just disagree, essentially admitting defeat to the problem we’re all trying to solve.
Another inaccurate view of design is to think of it as science. In this case, design is viewed as if the discipline can uncover the hidden truth we’re all searching for. This suggests that the output of design are statements of truth that reflect our environment or the future of our environment.
Both of these views are faulty because they try to map the whole design discipline to an existing discipline they already know. There are elements of design that borrow from art and science, but in reality design is unique and distinct from both of disciplines. The output of design isn’t a statement of truth, nor is it a philosophical exercise in communication through aesthetics. Design is neither science nor art. Design is a pursuit of what could be. Design is inherently fused with a problem it’s aimed at solving. Christopher Alexander puts it this way:
Every design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem.
— Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form
An excellent study into how designs are formed and understanding how that form fits with the real-world problems being solved.
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This means the work of design analysis takes a lot of focus and critical thinking. It means there’s a lot to balance and consider as we evaluate the concepts we work with. This means we can’t just accept or reject a design, but rather we need to reason through what is and is not working to solve the problems we’re aiming for.
As humans, we often want to be very rigid and clear. Yes or No. Good or bad. Right or wrong. True or false. We love this kind of high contrast because it makes it easy for us to see the defining lines which creates a high degree of predictability for us. It lets us know what to expect. For designers, it’s far more complex. Not only are we evaluating against the problem, but also against the context of the solutions we’re creating…including all of the various constraints that influence the spaces we are creating in.
So, this takes us back to the analysis work that a designer does. Some aspects of a design concept might work well and others might not. If we outright reject anything that doesn’t fully and completely resolve every aspect of the problem and context, then we are essentially aiming for perfection…which isn’t feasible. We will never have a truly perfect solution even if it completely satisfies the problem and perfectly works within the constraints of the context. We’re humans that are prone to failure and flaws…which means we can’t create anything truly perfect. This means a hard-lined right/wrong approach doesn’t work at the concept level. We should certainly identify aspects of a design concept that don’t solve for the problem or meet the context constraints. But, at a larger more holistic level we need another approach.
When we use these binary (two-bucket approach) evaluations, they create false dichotomies (comparisons that aren’t true reflections of reality). Design evaluations aren’t as simple as that. When we drop them into buckets like this, we tend to lose the power and creativity in design. Each of those solutions likely have both good and bad aspects. So how do we draw out those elements and use them to our benefit? How do we synthesize paths forward?
It seems to be most beneficial to think in terms of a spectrum. We can evaluate the fitment of each solution and rank the best concepts available to us.
Each concept can be analyzed for its ability to relieve the pains of the problem while also working within the contextual constraints of the domain. This can be done quickly with a rough ‘gut check’ based upon the knowledge possessed by the designer, but really benefits from a stronger evaluation by a designer and their partners. This is where concept testing plays a pivotal role.
As designers plot these concepts, inevitably, there will be concepts that are simply impossible, too costly, or miss the target problem. These designs are inadequate. They can be evaluated for any goodness they have, but ultimately will not work in the real world.
Adequate is sort of the ‘middle ground’ where many of our solutions will land, and likely where those with an agile background will push to land. However, each context is unique and every brand has different values. Don’t settle for aiming all of your design concepts for this area…shoot for the stars! Set your sights on high-quality, optimal concepts that really solve for those pains and problems that are the core of work you’re doing.
Optimal is generally the ‘best’ path forward. It’s really defined by the problem definition and context constraints (or domain knowledge). This is where it’s most difficult for a single person to accurately evaluate concepts. A designer may have much of the necessary knowledge, but in our highly specialized world we need the insights of others to offer a solid critique of our work. Since domain knowledge is so deep and wide (material science, systems engineers, color theory, grids, hierarchies, ergonomics, etc), people can seemingly have wildly different opinions about the ‘goodness’ or ‘fitment’ of concepts. Everyone brings their own unique body of contextual knowledge and a different perspective of the problem. This is why designers rely on collaboration to arrive at truly optimal (and innovative) solutions.
Check out my previous article on the elements of design, to make sure you’re doing the unique work of the design discipline.
As designers evaluate and analyze their concepts, they will plot them on a spectrum. If you are working for a client, you should bring your plotting work to them to show why the concepts you recommend fall into their spot on the spectrum. As the discussion unfolds the criteria for ‘optimal’ will likely change and you will see items shift along the spectrum. That’s ok. This is where designers have a chance to shine since they have explored multiple options, they can speak with confidence based on their background work.
If it’s helpful, you may want to separate the ‘cost’ of a concept as a secondary evaluation criteria. Concepts can be first evaluated on the ‘goodness’ that they fit the problem and the context on the horizontal. Then you can raise or lower them on a ‘cost’ metric. This is a bit more complicated, but some may appreciate the extra clarity it brings to the analysis work.
So, how do we choose the ‘right’ design? Since we’re dealing with a spectrum and not an either-or situation, I’ll gently recommend a different choice of words: “How do we choose the optimal design?” Remember, we’re choosing the optimal fit to the problem and context based on the available information for decision making. The information you have available will shape whether the solution is a poor fit, good fit, amazing fit, or an innovate leap forward.
Some of us might be uncomfortable moving away from an authoritative judgement of the design concept being ‘right’…but abandoning that term is far closer to the reality of the situation. There’s no one right solution to any design problem and it’s entirely possible that we’ll find multiple optimal solutions. This kind of thinking breaks many of our right and wrong judgements and that’s a good thing.
When we lose the term ‘right’ as a label for our concepts it is a double-edged sword. It might reduce our confidence in them but it doesn’t have to. We can rely on validating and testing our concepts to prove out the viability of them. Though we lose the vanity of an “objective judgement”, it protects us from guaranteeing our design concept will succeed…because we can’t predict the future. Designers suggest ‘what could be’. We base our work on research and validation efforts. Designers are not fortune-tellers. Design is not a crystal ball that predicts the future. We can’t control every external factor that plays into the success of a design concepts. This is no excuse for a designer to be lazy but rather a realistic setting of expectations for everyone that is involved in and benefit from design.
Designers work to get everyone on the same page with what makes something an ‘optimal’ fit. We work to agree on the criteria we use to analyze the concepts. When opinions seem to differ and diverge, you can draw out the criteria and priorities that aren’t accounted for. The most helpful principle may be “find an agreeable path forward”. We may not all agree that this is our personal favorite, but we should all be wiling to agree and commit to a single solution. We’re not looking for everyone to say, “this is right”, but rather “this is what we will do”.
Design isn't about discovering what is right or wrong, or even true or false. Design is about finding optimal solutions to problems that exist in our world. Designers then create concepts that can be evaluated for how well they fit the problem and context, leading to a solution specification that prescribes a clear path forward. Design works to bring people together around shared goals and views of the context so we can generate and create great solutions.
Designers, our goal is to produce optimal solutions to gnarly problems that everyone can agree on. Let's get to it. Let's make something awesome! Thanks for reading!