People envision design as the ability to create; invent something from a clean slate/blank canvas. But in reality, that’s never the case.
Designs come to life in a pre-existing context. What keeps all of us on our toes, is that this context is ever-changing. Therefore, design is not just the creation of something through intentional choices, but the use of organisational and synthesising skills, critical and creative thinking to solve and resolve issues that stem from this ever-changing context.
It is a process whose essence is the inbuilt implication that things will change.
Design thinking and processes have seeped out of the design field and into different industries, as it provides the tools and processes to step into a problem-space. By studying the context/situation to recognise a pattern, one can pre-structure a situation; creating an initial strategy to approach the problem situation.
In other words, start from what you know and what you want to achieve (this is usually the desired end state) and then propose a new ‘how’. The act of presenting a new ‘how’ is called framing. In design reasoning, we experimentally frame and reframe until we find a way into the problem area.
How will a design-like approach help me?
Conventional problem-solving approaches deal with complex challenges by splitting them up into subproblems. The issue is then trying to integrate these partial solutions into a unified whole. “A more integrated, holistic, design-like approach throughout the project could be more efficient and lead to better outcomes” (Dorst, Kees).
An integrated, holistic approach considers all elements and stakeholders, their interconnection and purpose (Dorst, Kees). Your workflow and solution must be examined from all these levels if you aim to approach the optimal desired state. Of course, most systems are complex, and you will never get it perfectly right the first time (see above: “design is solving and resolving issues that stem from this ever-changing context”), which is okay, as long as they can be adapted over time.
The process of designing holds the inbuilt implication that things will change, which means designers and their designs, need to be adaptable. In this day and age, adaptability and resilience are key, across industries and at a personal level. Here are some ways to help you (and your team) borrow from the design field, to build adaptability and resilience into your workflow:
1. Shorter feedback loops
Systems with slower feedback cycles have higher extinction rates in changing environments. On the other hand, short feedback loops allow for quick turnarounds and give your team the ability to adapt (even to unforeseen circumstances) and incorporate new findings.
As an industrial designer, each pitch or prototype is one feedback loop. We play with the fidelity of a prototype to influence the speed and type of feedback required to take the design further.
Another (global) example of this is the education industry during the COVID-19 lockdown. As a teacher, I have personally seen a complete switch - teachers and students adapted teaching methods at an institutional level and took to online platforms, in the span of two days.
2. Solve and resolve (plenty of interventions)
Focus on the desired end-state, with the clear mindset of circling back. Be clear with your team that you are looking to solve, by constantly resolving. This is important, as you are communicating to your team that this is a process and not a snap solution that solves all. It is essential to seek resolutions that depend on the conditions and change over time, rather than solutions.
“There IS no solution—the way to achieve progress is to create high-quality interventions to bring the whole system forward into a more desired state” (Stacey et al.).
Interventions can look different depending on the industry you’re in; in the design field, we iterate constantly based on feedback and outcomes of our concepts, prototypes, user testing, etc. As a teacher, interventions are made based on formative assessments, class responses, reflections, behaviour, etc.
3. Scale in and out
Use systems thinking to consider your solution from macro and micro points of views. Keep in mind the needs and purpose of all your stakeholders and your unintentional users/customers.
When you consider your whole system, note which elements are interconnected - How can you streamline these connections?
4. “But what if?” (Preparing to fail, to avoid failure)
Embrace the anxiety of failure. Play out all your “what if?” scenarios from the safety of your current situation, and use these insights to inform your process and development of your product or service.
It might sound counterintuitive, but embracing failure might actually help avoid failure. Let’s say you’ve created your product/service/workflow….now imagine that it has failed completely. Ask yourself (and your team) what were the reasons for failure.
This “pre-mortem” technique by Gary Klein, “sensitises the team to pick up early signs of trouble. A pre-mortem may be the best way to circumvent any need for a painful post-mortem”.
Pre-mortems help you frame (or reframe) your stance in the problem-situation, and address any biases, assumptions, fears, or foresight you come into the situation with.
Going beyond the design basis
You’ve imagined complete failure, now imagine the opposite: you succeed, and everything is running smoothly. Until _____________ happens. Fill in the blank with whatever outrageous or emergency situation you can imagine taking place.
What questions or issues does this situation create? How would you adapt your solution /design to account for this? Does this decrease the optimisation of your solution/design? What if your product was forced to function at half its optimal level? Can you design for this?
You have now gone “beyond design basis”.
Design Basis refers to the specific function you are trying to perform/create, and Design Basis Events are considered the normal operating occurrences (including accidents and safety functions). Beyond Design Basis “refers to any event that either exceeds the bounds of the original design basis” (Srinivasan, Ram). If you need an example, here is one we can all relate to:
Your product/service/workflow is successful, and everything is running smoothly. Until a pandemic happened.
Planning beyond the design basis is not essential, but considering it and discussing it as a team could help a quick pivot and adaptation when/if the need arises.
Citations and references:
Connor, Tom. “Pre-Mortem - How to Avoid Disaster.” Medium, 10x Curiosity, 6 June 2018, medium.com/10x-curiosity/pre-mortem-how-to-avoid-disaster-f8b989ccf118.
Dorst, Kees. “Design beyond Design.” Science Direct , She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics and Innovation, Volume 5, Issue 2, Summer 2019, Pages 117-127, doi.org/10.1016/j.sheji.2019.05.001.
Huotarinen, Juhana, and Sami Kutvonen. “What Is Systems Thinking and How Should I Use It?” Gofore, 21 Feb. 2020, gofore.com/en/what-is-systems-thinking-and-how-should-i-use-it/.
Philip Ball, Why Society Is a Complex Matter: Meeting Twenty-First Century Challenges with a New Kind of Science (Heidelberg: Springer Science & Business Media, 2012).
Sam Bucolo, Are We There Yet?: Insights on How to Lead by Design (Amsterdam: BIS Publishers, 2015).
Srinivasan, Ram, and Penny B. Selman. “BASIS VS. BEYOND DESIGN BASIS CONSIDERATIONS FOR OPERATING PLANTS.” Transactions, SMiRT-23, Paper ID 199, no. August 10-14, 2015, Aug. 2015. Transactions, SMiRT-23.
Stacey, Ralph & Griffin, Douglas & Shaw, Patricia. (2000). Complexity and Management: Fad or Radical Challenge to Systems Thinking.
Vozza, Stephanie. “Three Ways To Reframe A Problem To Find An Innovative Solution.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 8 Sept. 2015, www.fastcompany.com/3050265/three-ways-to-reframe-a-problem-to-find-innovative-solution.