Design is Chaos

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15th January 2024
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6 min read

You're probably familiar with the Design Double Diamond.

The Double Diamond framework was popularised by the British Design Council in 2003 as a way of illustrating the design process. While they didn't invent the process, they created a pair of very nice diamonds for designers to get excited about. To the point that it has been copied, expanded, recoloured, and given the minimalist treatment, ad nauseum.

For those who aren't familiar, here are the four stages, straight from the Council:

Discover

The first diamond helps people understand, rather than simply assume, what the problem is. It involves speaking to and spending time with people who are affected by the issues.

Define

The insight gathered from the discovery phase can help you to define the challenge in a different way.

Develop

The second diamond encourages people to give different answers to the clearly defined problem, seeking inspiration from elsewhere and co-designing with a range of different people.

Deliver

Delivery involves testing out different solutions at small-scale, rejecting those that will not work and improving the ones that will.

Over the years the Council has developed a couple of other variations of the process; the Framework for Innovation, and most recently the Systemic Framework. The Systemic Framework in particular serves as a far more holistic version of the Double Diamond.

Not Linear or Orderly

While I'm behind the Double Diamond as a process, I believe the way it is simplified and compartmentalised entirely misrepresents the nature of discovery and innovation in practice.

For innovators and founders unfamiliar with how design unfolds in the real world, it can be utterly disheartening when the development process stops fitting within the confines of those well-illustrated tetragons.

Even the Design Council states that "This is not a linear process as the arrows on the diagram show.". Yet 20 years later, aside from the name changes, they're still the same diamonds with the same arrows.

The creative process isn't a linear, orderly process. Design keeps you up at night. Design drives you to distraction. Design frustrates and confuses you.

Design is chaos.

Here's how to get through it.

Explore

(For the sake of currency, I'll use the updated terminology.)

I still do this myself. During any exploration phase, where new discoveries emerge and understanding of users gets deeper, I constantly keep trying to draw a boxes around what I think are the answers. I want to make order of it.

Yet constantly trying to make order of the things without having the full picture is stressful and counterproductive. It's like thinking you know everything that is in a room just by looking through the keyhole. By forcing order on your discoveries as you discover them, rather than just letting them exist, will ultimately hamstring the extent of your exploration.

Let go of your need for order.

I don't think I've ever seen it well described why the Double Diamond is diamond shaped. It's not the shape that matters, it's the expanse between the boundaries that contain all that you discover. As time continues (weirdly there's no time line), and you keep exploring, the expanse gets wider.

This is one of the points where I think the Double Diamond does a disservice. There will be no clear demarcation at the edges of your scope. It's nebulous and confusing, and you stop being sure about what's important and what isn't. The edges can even curl back on themselves.

It's tough when what you thought you knew feels more vaporous, not less.

Don't try and order your exploration, just get it on paper.

Embrace the chaos.

Reframe

The discoveries you've made, as with nebula, will coalesce.

Let gravity do the work.

From your research, each discovery you've made will have have inherent gravity. As cliché as they are, Post-It notes are great for this. They're succinct, and you can pick them up and move them. You can clump them with other notes as the definition of your problem evolves. Assuming you've done a thorough exploration, patterns and defining themes will naturally emerge.

But also some of the low-gravity discoveries will fly off into the void.

Don't get stressed when every problem can't be solved at once, and not every need can be met. Accepting you can't please everyone may even unlock new opportunities.

Create

A common misconception of any concept development phase is that we're looking for one solution. While that is the ultimate goal, looking for a single answer from the outset will stunt your opportunities for innovation.

This is ideation. This is an exploration to the outer edges of what's possible.

Let ideas flow from one to the next without judgement. Document your "what if?"s. They will probably suck, but ideas that suck can lead to ideas that don't. You'll never know if you nip them in the bud.

Chaos. Embrace it. And be sure to kill your darlings.

Of course, that's all well and good while the ideas flow. But what can be most frustrating, and I know this one well, is when there feels like there's no solution. If you care about your solution, you will be kept up at night. You will be frustrated.

You should probably throw it in the too-hard basket.

Throwing your problem into the too-hard basket is the best way to unload the problem from your frontal lobe and let your subconscious do some heavy lifting. As you sleep, run, or walk the dog, your brain will form connections for you from the information you've collected. Keep an open mind to new inspirations and new insights. There's a reason why r/showerthoughts is a thing, and hypnagogia (the state between awake and asleep) is prime time for epiphanies.

Pro tip: Don't count on yourself to remember things in the morning, you won't. Keep a notepad and pen next to your bed. Write it down there and then. Using a thick, black marker will make it marginally easier to see in the dark.

Don't force a solution, it will drive you crazy. Go for a walk instead.

Then if there truly is no solution, maybe you need to go back to how you define your problem.

Catalyse

The Design Council probably made a good choice renaming Deliver to Catalyse. Delivery isn't what happens during this portion of the process, rather delivery happens once this process is finished.

Organise your ideas. Group them by theme or need they address. Again, as they coalesce, good solutions will start taking on their own gravity. Aspects of each may even combine to form new elements ideas.

Through this process you will almost certainly need to make compromises. Design is always a compromise. Conflicting requirements can almost certainly be taken for granted, and this again will see ideas with the least gravity fly off into the void.

Accepting that you will need to make compromises can help you find the best solution for the most stakeholders, without the stress of trying to find the perfect answer. It doesn't exist. The best designs, and best designers, are the ones that skilfully balance needs at odds with one another.

Test your ideas early and often.

Yes, it's entirely possible you may need to go back and again and redefine your problem.

Repeat

This is something that the Double Diamond doesn't show at all; the end often is attached to the start.

Not only is the process chaotic, it doubles back on itself. As you make discoveries through exploration and ideation you may find you need abandon to whatever it is you're currently doing and go back a step. Or back to the beginning. Or abandon the project completely.

Don't get disheartened when nothing fits in its diamond-shaped box.

The design process is fundamentally sound if you use it as a North Star, rather than a path to follow (design controls notwithstanding).

Design is chaotic, but you will get to where you want to go.

Update 2024-01-19:

I didn't know this existed, but I think I've found the most accurate graphical representation of the design process to date. From Intersection.


I post every week on the topics of design, medtech, and my journey in it. If you'd like to follow along, feel free to subscribe to the newsletter, follow on LinkedIn, or subscribe to the RSS feed with this link.

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

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