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The Secret Ingredients of Design

Have you ever gotten overwhelmed by your design work? Have you ever felt lost and wished there was an easy to follow roadmap? Me too. Over the past few years, I’ve been developing a simple four-part recipe for successful design. These are things every designer must do to be successful in their design work. And…I may even say, if you’re not doing all four of these things…you’re not doing design.

Before we dive in, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what we mean by “design”. In my previous article, we explored a solid definition of what design is, and the six things that make design a unique discipline. I’d recommend that you go back and read that article, but we can summarize that article with this definition of design:

Design is a distinct method of reasoning that brings form to solutions that solve specific, but ambiguous problems.

As designers, we’re constantly working to solve problems by trying solutions and evaluating how well they work. We do a variety of activities to accomplish this. In my observation, I want to suggest there are two types of activities broken into four elements.

Design is the fusion of creation and analysis.
Design is the fusion of creation and analysis.

Design Activity Types

Let’s start with the two types of activities: Creationary and Analytical.

First, we have to bring form to solutions. We do this through creationary activities like sketching, prototyping, modeling, building, etc. These solutions must be created, so they can be evaluated. There’s no evaluation or analysis without first having a somewhat clear idea of what the solution is. Designers really have a chicken and the egg problem. We need a solution to evaluate, but we don’t know how good the solution is until it’s been created at some level of detail. So, a designer must create solutions.

This brings us to the second type of activities: analysis. Designers must be able to objectively analyze and scrutinize their solutions. They are constantly critiquing every solution they create to see how well it ‘fits’ with the problem they are solving. But, it’s extremely difficult to evaluate abstract solutions. Why? Since there’s no perfect solution, every potential solution brings sub-problems with it. So, it’s necessary to target our solutions to the key problems, then work to analyze the success of those solutions. This is where testing often comes into play.

So, we have two types of activities. Activities that create and activities that analyze. They are inherently linked together and can’t live independently of each other. This is why we often see designers who feel tortured by constantly creating then balling up paper and throwing it away.

This is a great basis any person to be able to start with. Are we creating or are we analyzing? It provides a dead-simple way for anyone to engage with design. But, for people who make a career of design, we need to go a bit deeper. The next layer of detail breaks these two types of activities into four main elements.

Before I go any further, we need to understand this is not a ‘path’. We don’t move from element 1, to 2, then 3, and arrive at 4 to finally complete the process of design work. There are no consecutive steps here. It’s not a process. In fact, it’s more like a juggler trying to keep all four props in the air at the same time all working in harmony. Successful designers must learn to balance all four of these elements with skill and intention.

So what are these four elements that are critical to successful design? Let’s start on the analysis side…again…I’m not implying a hierarchy or a place that all designers must start their work. We just need a starting point…

Design is made up of creativity, synthesis, problems and domain knowledge.
Design is made up of creativity, synthesis, problems and domain knowledge.

Analysis

Often this is more abstract than concrete. If you’re a person who like free form exploration…this side may feel overwhelming, but it’s a necessary part of design. Let’s take a look at the two elements of analysis.

Problems & Goals

First, design is always trying to solve some problem. This can present itself in a new opportunity, some issue, or pain that that is experienced by someone. It can also show itself by setting some goal that needs to be accomplished. In my industry, these tend to all be related, so we rely on an initial, prototype statement that acts as a guide that we aim our design work at.

We may be tempted to think this problem is pretty clear, until we start unpacking it and testing solutions against it. Often, we encounter more depth to this problem as we explore ways of solving it…and that’s to be expected. You can’t really understand it until you solve it. If you remember our definition, design makes solutions in order to solve ambiguous and hard to understand problems. So, we can never truly understand the depth of the problem until we’ve begun to bring some resolution to the issues in front of us.

Domain Knowledge

The second element of design is the environment of the solution. Design brings form, and that form exists (or will exist) within the context of the real world. It may be a physical solution that we touch and hold in our hands, or perhaps it lives in the digital space, or maybe it’s simply something that we only experience by interacting with it (like a process). In any of these cases, these solutions live in a context (an environment) and are often specific to an industry.

But why is this important? Well, because this knowledge of the environment and the industry that produces the solution, makes up a “domain”. This domain brings with it a set of limitations, expectations, principles and heuristics that influence the end result of our solution. So, as we create solutions, part of the analytical work we do is understanding the possibilities and how they are influenced by the environment we’re creating for. We see evidence of this in the numerous sub-disciplines within industries, and they show up as highly-specialized jobs that focus on particular aspects of the work.

Designers must be analytical in their work. We must think through the ‘rules of the game’ we’re playing. We’ll fail if we don’t adhere to the constraints that our work is performed in.

Creation

But…designers cannot be only analytical, they must also be creators. Designers bring form. They make stuff. The other half of the elements that make up design are creationary. They provide the space for things to be created. This is a critical step for designers. If we aren’t creating, we aren’t doing the important work of reasoning externally. Designers reason through creation, exploring multiple possible concepts. We sketch, draw, prototype, model, and create with the intention to be able to interact with our analytical side. We create, so we can critique. And, we can only critique accurately once we’ve created.

Creativity

The third element of design is creativity. Now, before I go any further, let me define it for you. When I say “creativity”, I’m talking about the ability to see the world as elements and pieces. You can look at a solution as a combination of many different parts. Then, you are able to disassemble those parts, re-arrange in different and unexpected ways, remove some parts, infuse new parts and explore what’s possible. A designer must absolutely be creative in this way. Otherwise, the concepts will be dull, lifeless, predictable, and formulaic.

This skill is critical for external reasoning…because design must explore multiple, different options to truly begin to understand what fits and doesn’t fit with the problem. In the words of my mentor, “It’s not design, if you haven’t explored more than one option.”

This is where design becomes powerful. This is where design is exciting! Designers can explore a world of possibilities and bring new insights and discoveries to the table for consideration. But this can also be a liability if it’s not properly handled. Wild exploration that is undisciplined and unrestrained becomes chaotic and confusing. This leads us to the final element of design…synthesis.

Synthesis

I use the term synthesis but you could also say, “confident decisions”. No solution will be perfect. No concept will be able to include all the things. Why? The domain governs that. It’s simply not practical to try and completely resolve everything. We can’t. This is where designers must learn the practical and important skill of prioritizing and making decisions that are targeted at the problem and domain. At some level, synthesis is really about simplification. Just like a chef will boil off excess liquid in a sauce, a designer must boil off the excess fluff that isn’t necessary to accomplish the goal at hand. Even the great Leonardo Da Vinci said, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” He understood the importance of synthesis and simplification. Humans beings naturally want to understand what’s in front of us, and a level of simplicity in our creations helps our concepts succeed.

Conclusion

So that’s it. There are four key elements of the design discipline. The Problem, The Domain, Creativity, and Synthesis. All four of these come together to make design unique and special. In fact, I’ll even go as far as this…if you don’t have all four of these things…you’re not doing design…and that will lead to failure.

Successful design happens when all four elements are coming together.
Successful design happens when all four elements are coming together.

You can see why it’s important for designers to balance and consider what design is. Designers have a lot to balance and interact with in their job. Beyond all of the basic jobs of a designer, these four elements require focus and determination for designers to be truly successful.

I hope this explanation has been helpful. If you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment! If you want to grow your design and creative abilities, be sure to subscribe to the my newsletter to get exclusive access to upcoming ebooks and products.

Thanks for reading. Go make something awesome!


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