This is from 2022 | 7 minute read

Design is a Mess

Design is muddy and frustrating and wonderful—the artifacts created during this process are sloppy and incomplete and fleeting. For all our efforts to jam creativity into the confines of business, design floats on the brink of manageability, hanging in the balance between being a driver of valuable innovation and total chaos.

Often, in an effort to understand an idea, designers gather an excessive amount of data—and then find ourselves in the middle of all that data, completely overwhelmed. Even with two decades of experience and a pattern language for design problems, I still experience some anxiety at the beginning of new projects, anticipating the mess to come. I also know the only way to make sense of the data and clean up the mess is to dive in headfirst—and if we’re skilled at our craft, something truly great begins to form.

For some designers, the incoherence and anxiety of the mess drives them to action. The problem in front of them is begging for shape and structure. Because that anxiety is so vibrant—and appears regularly throughout the design process and in nearly all creative design problems—our profession has developed ways to deal with it. Frameworks, protocols, scripts, maps, blueprints, and canvases are all ways for us to add edges and boundaries to the mess. They are tools of sanity that provide a starting point for new designers to learn from.

A framework or model is an excellent way to explore a new idea because it’s purposefully reductive. It removes excess, emphasizing only a small part of the whole, creating clear focus on what remains. Consider a world map—it removes most details about the planet, leaving only relative masses, names of countries and cities, and overall proximity. It doesn’t show people and emotions, weather and its impact, soil and dirt, animals, and so-on. Because of its abstraction, it’s a great way to learn a little about what’s left behind: the masses and proximity of the physical world in isolation of the experiences of people. But the world is also history, politics, economics, war, and culture. In its abstraction, we lose fidelity—knowing where Pakistan and India are in proximity to one-another doesn’t tell us how that proximity impacts the history of people living in those countries. Knowing that continents fit together like puzzle pieces does little to help us understand tectonic shifts, how the world has changed shape over time, and how those changes have transformed cultures.

We all know that a map is just a simple tool—that a US grade school student memorizing the names of African countries doesn’t have any idea whatsoever what it’s like to live there—and that studying such an abstraction is only a rudimentary way to think about the world.

Yet we seem to forget the same when teaching design, both in universities and in corporate contexts. I’ve written about the challenges in design methods, and process frameworks have similar difficulties.

Our industry is embracing design frameworks that are so reductive as to be meaningless. Nonetheless, they are taught, and accepted, en mass—with expectations that they are useful frameworks for doing design. These frameworks are promising that designers can make transformative change armed with only a world map. It’s an unrealistic expectation, and has the potential for harm.

Perhaps the most generally accepted example of this dependency on reductive frameworks is IDEO’s process guide for Design Thinking. This five-step document has been the foundation for trainings within hundreds of large, influential companies and to thousands of people who have become energized and excited about design.

The guide begins with “empathize mode—the work you do to understand people, within the context of your design challenge.” Clearly, that’s a reduction, just as anyone who has argued with a spouse can tell you that the idea of “empathy” is much easier than the practice. It’s a good way to explain something at a rudimentary level—empathy mode is knowing that Utah and Nevada are near each other.

“Define mode” comes next, which is “your chance, and responsibility, as a design thinker to define the challenge you are taking on.” Meaning, I think, that it’s valuable to know what challenge you are taking. True, but that’s not enough to put into practice.

And so on, through the other three steps in design: ideate, prototype, and test. Each step leaves out context, explanation, and practice in order to make things simple enough that it reduces design to a six page .pdf document, a one-hour PowerPoint presentation, a one-day bootcamp, or a week long design thinking training session.

Design educators are teaching people a model, but too often they’re leading students to believe it’s the whole story. The five steps are not being presented as an abstraction—they are being presented as the entirety of design, and that is problematic.

A recent conference I attended hosted an activity to introduce people to design, and to one-another. They moved groups between “each step in the process” with a 15-minute overview of that step. As an attendee, you would learn about empathy for 15 minutes, then define, then ideate, and so-on.

During the “define” group, a participant asked, “How do I know when I’ve done it right?” The facilitator didn’t answer, because the question itself is unanswerable within the context of doing actual design work—amidst all the gorgeous mess. But it’s a great question in the context of our reductive world map. If definition is one of five steps, then I better get it right—I need to define it correctly to move on to ideate properly, and if I mess up one-fifth of the process, I’m not destined to great things. When you introduce a model, and lead people to believe the model is how things work, people use the model and believe in it.

So what to do?

Personally, I’m working to remove abstract representations of the design process from my work. I’m trying my best to represent design honestly: as a big fat mess. Yes, there’s a process. We do things, and we do them in an order, generally. But sometimes we do them out of order, or we skip some, or we do them twice. Understanding the process comes from working within it, over time.

The five-step document from IDEO has a paragraph at the end that says,

“For simplicity, the process is articulated here as a linear progression, but design challenges can be taken on by using the design modes in various orders; furthermore there are an unlimited number of design frameworks with which to work. The process presented here is one suggestion of a framework; ultimately you will make the process your own and adapt it to your style and your work. Hone your own process that works for you. Most importantly, as you continue to practice innovation you take on a designerly mindset that permeates the way you work, regardless of what process you use.”

It’s almost an aside, taking up just a tiny part of the last page. But it’s not an aside at all—it’s the whole point, and I wish it was, instead, at the top in big, bold, red text. We can simplify design to learn it. But we can’t simplify design to do it, and that seems the biggest gap between design education and design practice. The models we are teaching are not design. They are models. If someone walks away from our educational sessions believing there are five simple steps to design, we’ve failed.

The message to my clients and my students is this: When you go for a ride on the design train, you will likely find yourself overwhelmed, confused, anxious, or uncomfortable. That’s the process. But it’s not random, it’s purposeful. And because we’re experienced practitioners, we’ll guide you confidently through the mess. We know that when we go out in the field and talk to people, we’ll come back with mountains of data. We know that when we draw things, we’ll have to draw them again. We know that you’ll need to see things to understand our need to do more research, and more research will force us to draw new ideas. And with that new information, we’ll come to work excited to change the problem frame, which will change the entire way you think about your business, which will put the project on hold and delay deadlines, which will lead to retesting existing concepts, and more research, and on and on. And by trusting the process of iterating in design, and learning and discovering as we go, the work gets stronger and clearer and more impactful.

Design is a mess. And that’s the framework.

Want to read some more? Try Design Thinking Comes of Age. .