Some concepts in design

By | April 27, 2009

Following on from last week’s post on wicked problems, I got to thinking about the general sorts of challenges that occur in design, whether it be design of software, bridges, posters, web sites, or even social policy.

It seems there’s three main types of challenge:

  • Problem definition – exploring a problem space, identifying a particular problem within that space, then defining it with constraints, goal states, and resource availability
  • Creativity – coming up with ideas and strategies for solving a problem
  • Negotiation – making decisions as a group; examples include deciding which strategies to employ, which graphics to use, and how resources should be expended.

In addition, there are many tasks that are auxiliary in that they support the design activity and provide feedback to it, but aren’t really part of it. For example, in software engineering, implementation isn’t really part of the design activity it supports, though it may provide feedback, perhaps in the form of technical constraints. Similarly, administration and project management provide feedback concerning resource availability, team morale, and so on, but they’re not really design.

You might have noticed that I’m conflating the activities of design and problem solving. While they’re not equivalent, they’re very closely related. Depending on your background, you might think of problem solving as being the stage in the design process that follows problem definition and precedes implementation – in this case, you might think of problem solving as the process of creatively deriving a solution to a design problem. On the other hand, you might see design as a stage within problem solving in which one designs potential solutions before trying them. I don’t think it’s necessary to get any deeper into this – it’s just interesting to note that you can frame design as problem solving and problem solving as design.

Another interesting thing to note is that the auxiliary tasks, while not design themselves, incorporate lots of problems to which one designs solutions, and that these can be considered whole design problems not necessarily related or subordinate to the larger design activity in which they take place. In this sense, you can think of design as a hierarchical composites of smaller designs. If you take the broader understanding of design as problem solving, you can apply this observation to a vast range of activities.

I’m simplifying things here – I don’t want to imply that design consists of three clearly defined tasks based around the challenges above and supported by various auxiliary tasks. Nor do I want to suggest that any of these tasks can or should be performed in isolation (particularly in the case of wicked problems). Rather, the tasks that compose the design activity are tightly interwoven. By drawing out the challenges above, I only want to bring attention to them as things that are hard and that require particular skills to address.

I’m tempted to argue that, taken together, the skills required for each of these three tasks form a set of skills that are common to designers across all the various fields of design, from software to graphics, from architecture to social policy. But I’m not sure how I’d substantiate that, so I’ll it as a speculation.

What challenges am I missing? What other skills are common to all designers, do you think?