This is from 2012 | 4 minute read

Without Design Methods, I Feel Like I Am Cheating.

I was speaking with a friend yesterday about the work he's doing, and he mentioned that he felt like design was failing him; specifically, that the problems he was encountering were so new, and so large, that he had no methods to use, no clear action to take. He found himself inventing new approaches, lumping on different techniques based on what "felt right." I think he felt like, because he wasn't following a specific method—creating a customer journey map or building a set of use cases—he was somehow doing it wrong.

Methods, in design, have a strange history. In the sixties, they were linked to a systems approach that attempted to frame design as a science, as a rationale and intellectual endeavor. I suppose you could track a line of thought from practitioners like John Chris Jones and Chris Alexander, through hybrid practitioner/academics like Buckminster Fuller and Jay Dublin, and to scientists like Herb Simon. All of these great thinkers, at one time, viewed design in a logical manner, as a path that could ultimately be predicted and eventually, perhaps, automated. This was through method: through repeatable, discrete activities that could be taught and learned, and applied as appropriate in different situations. Fuller called for a "design science revolution", offering that "you change something by making it obsolete through superior methods." Herb Simon's focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning—attempts to duplicate problem solving efforts in humans, by computers—began, in his late years, to touch on the nature of problem solving during creation, and The Sciences of the Artificial can be (and usually is) read as a guide for a systematic view of design as an applied science.

Design methods are a tremendous way to teach and learn design. They have a structure and form, and you can offer a student both a set of steps to follow and a place to start. There's a sense to design method that, if you follow the steps, you'll arrive at an ending, and so there's implicit trust placed in the method: it will lead me to finality, to a solution. And that's factually accurate, because it will lead you to a solution. An experience of action is critical in design for building a foundation of skill, for self-reflection, and most importantly, for critique. You have to design something, and then reflect on the process of design, in order to learn how to design. A method forces this to occur. I've written a few books that have methods in them, and I continually teach workshops that emphasize a modular, method-driven approach to design.

But a design method won't lead you to a good solution, because a design method has no natural relationship to the content of the problem. There's no presumption of quality in the method, as each method is simply a series of artificial constraints that are introduced into a particular design context in order to help frame it. Personas, flow diagrams, ecosystem diagrams, 2x2s: these are ways of structuring problems and solutions. They don't speak of the particulars. There is nothing implicit in, say, a customer journey map that has anything to do with homelessness, or garden tools, or ecommerce websites, or any other content of a design problem. That's the benefit of the method, and the drawback.

What seems to get lost, when people learn of and begin to implement design methods, is a historic precedence of rejection of methods. Both Jones and Alexander gave up on the methods movement after helping to create it. Alexander describes that:

"I have been hailed as one of the leading exponents of these so-called design methods. I am very sorry that this has happened, and want to state, publicly, that I reject the whole idea of design methods as a subject of study, since I think it is absurd to separate the study of designing from the practice of design. In fact, people who study design methods without also practicing design are almost always frustrated designers who have no sap in them, who have lost, or never had, the urge to shape things."

I interpret that as a statement of passion for content and form: a designer needs to have a desire to see the world in a new way, based on details of the subject matter, based on specifics. The method—which is clearly not mindless—may be, by definition, soulless. But the designer isn't, and can't be.

I think this is what people mean when they call design an "art and science"; I prefer "discipline." Design is a discipline that is neither objective nor subjective, but is both at once, and it relies on rigid methods and, simultaneously, abstract influences of beauty and poetry and texture and emotion.


Additional readings:

Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline vs. Design Science, by Nigel Cross [pdf]

Craftsmanship, by me

Notes on the Synthesis of Form, by Chris Alexander

Originally posted on Fri, 18 May 2012

Want to read some more? Try Going Public, and The Pursuit of Quarterly Profits.