Lucas Verweij on the myths of design processes

An archetypal design process is usually presented as consisting of five parts: an analytic, synthesis, creative, executive and testing phase.

After formulation of the assignment, there is an analytic phase where the problem is being explored. All questions are put to the client and desk research is done. Then there is a stage of synthesis. The information is sorted and a general approach develops. The rest of the process is planned at this stage. At the core is a creative process, the design concept is achieved here.

After the creative phase is passed to effect, there is an executive phase — sketches are developed into drawings and physical models and prototypes are built. Sometimes materials and structural tests are done. The final stage is to test, improve and present. Conclusions are drawn and, where necessary, one can jump back into a previous phase.

There are of course many variations of scripted design processes, ranging from a minimum of three phases (think, create, act) to seven (define, research, ideation, prototype, select, implement, learn). Remarkably, the process of product design hardly differs from that of graphic, architectonic or social design. Through the enormous span of the design field we see the same descriptions; hardly varying between sub-disciplines.

Although these descriptions can be found in almost any instruction book, these prescribed design processes are for bad designers. Good designers don’t use them.

Design processes are substantially more chaotic than is taught and represented in all literature

These steps might be helpful if you’re depressed, or have no ideas or inspiration at the time. Then this model provides support to show at least something to the client before the deadline strikes.

Does it matter that this model is being presented to the world as how designers work? What is wrong with this delusion?

Firstly, creativity is locked up and limited to a small part of the process — usually rested to a small span of time. For good designers, creativity plays a role throughout the whole process from mission statement to presentation.

Secondly, design processes for good designers are never the same twice. They can only be described afterwards and they may differ radically per job. They can’t be recorded or set in stone in advance.

Presenting design as a proscribed process suggests to clients that creativity is quantifiable and predictable

All of the prevalent process descriptions suggest that design is a predictable, fixed and sequential activity. It is suggested that designers work in a way that can be foreseen. But that isn’t true. Designers jump back and forth in their process. Steps are leapfrogged, stretched and very often repeated. Sometimes they work in reverse, sometimes there was a model before there was a concept, sometimes there was never a plan at all. Sometimes it took a year longer than the designer intended but the next time the task is finished in one day (although many designers will pretend it took much longer).

Design processes are substantially more chaotic than is taught and represented in all literature. Most good design is conceived in a much more complex, unpredictable, and obfuscate way.

Lucas Verweij on the myths of design processes

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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