Why designing is all about you and not the method or tool

Working with students and professionals over the years have helped me understand what aspects of the design process that makes designers stressed and insecure. One factor is the role of methods and tools in designing. Common questions I get are "what are the best methods and tools to use in designing?" and "can you do human centered design while being 'agile'?" or "can 'personas' be used when working with highly specialized products?", etc.

The basic assumption underlying all these and similar questions is that a method and tool to some extent can function as a 'guarantor', that is, that the use of the method or tool can promise successful outcomes. It is possible to see this assumption as a hope for increased 'predictability' in the design process. Predictability in this case means a hope that if we use 'method A' then we can with higher certainty predict that the outcome of the process will score higher on some measure of success scale.

This type of reasoning is not strange. Who would not like to see our design attempts to have a higher level of predictability, so we could be more sure of the outcome? The problem with this reasoning is however that it places too much importance on the role of methods and tools and reduces the importance of the designer's judgment. And such reasoning has some drastic consequences. For instance, it means that if we are able to produce better methods with higher level of 'guarantee' the role of the designer goes down, ultimately even disappears.

In a simple schema that we present in our book "The Design way", we show this in simple way. The circles represent the designer(s).

The left side of the figure shows the logic that I described above, that is, that methods and tools (input) is in some logical relationship with the outcome, will influence the outcome. This means that it is possible to control the outcome of the design process by choosing the right 'input' (methods, tools, etc). This implies that using a certain method will with some certainty improve the outcome. This is a way of thinking that I find utterly problematic and quite wrong.

To me, the design process is at its core a process that is governed by the designers judgment, as is shown on the right side of the figure. Whatever the 'input' is (methods, tools, knowledge, etc), it is the designer(s) judgment that form and shape a certain outcome.

So, the answer to the questions I started this post with is that 'of course, methods and tools matter' in designing, they can help designers or be in the way in their preferred way of working, but they can not in any way predict of guarantee any form of quality of the outcome. This means that designing is all about you as a designer and not about methods and tools.

I realize that this is too rich question to discuss in a blog post...maybe I will return to it later.....

--------------------------------------
Addition:
After publishing this post I got this wonderful question from Deepak (thanks!).

"Are there methods, tools and processes to improve the "you", i.e the designer and designer judgement ? Or is the process just called life :) - that is every designer lives in a unique combination of circumstances and such circumstances ultimately shape their judgement(due to various conscious and unconscious biases)."

My answer is 'yes'. There are ways (even methods and tools) that can be used to develop, grow, and deepen a designers ability to make judgments. For instance, Donald Schon provides a whole range of ways of thinking suitable for this purpose, and there are others too. So, yes it is definitely possible to develop a designers judgment ability.

Comments

Thanks Erik for the insightful post.

Are there methods, tools and processes to improve the "you", i.e the designer and designer judgement ? Or is the process just called life :) - that is every designer lives in a unique combination of circumstances and such circumstances ultimately shape their judgement(due to various conscious and unconscious biases).

Thanks !
Erik Stolterman said…
Hi Deepak, great question, I have answered it in the post itself!
Erik
Thanks Erik for your answer.

I'l "reflect" on that now.
Ricardo Sosa said…
This is a very relevant message with the recent proliferation of design toolkits. I see research papers studying this or that tool, and something inside me dies with their emphasis on tools. The "metamorphosis" process that you described a while ago is more relevant today than ever and more work is needed in that area!

Popular posts from this blog

Today's simplistic glorification of design and "The Burnout Society"

Revisiting some thoughts from 2008 "Design Thinking in 10 to 20 years"

Why Design Thinking is Not Enough