by Ian Dapot
Discussions about design work are often centered on the important functions of getting and doing more work, but a complete picture of the design process has more than just two steps. As clients and employers feel pressure to shorten timeframes to protect budgets and profits the creative process feels the squeeze.
Many organizations articulate some version of a creative process, often based loosely on problem definition, exploration, design, and production to help potential clients understand and measure how to engage with design. While this accurately summarizes productive parts of the creative practice one important aspect is missing from most outward facing explanations of design, reflection.
If you consider a specific project in isolation it often makes sense to describe your process as a linear and efficient series of steps, especially as there is often a direct correlation between time and cost. In this way the design process comes to resemble a funnel, with broad tasks at the beginning and increasingly well defined and narrower sets of tasks at the end.
Projects don’t really happen in isolation, and if you are describing multiple projects, or the collected work of a studio, the question of how to learn and grow from project experience over time becomes important. Instead of picturing the design process as a linear series of steps it helps to consider design as a cyclical or iterative process with various repetitive stages; ideation, exploration, design, and reflection. There is still a risk of focusing exclusively on ideation, exploration, and design because they are evidently active parts of the process and therefore trackable as where the “work” gets done. Reflection by comparison might seem passive and risks receiving little to no attention because it isn’t obviously productive.
Despite its passive stance, reflection is a critical opportunity to learn from project experience and can dramatically improve the quality and productivity of an individual or studio. Leaping from one project directly to another is often a practical necessity that leads to short term gains but may ultimately rob us of an opportunity to gain better insight into our work and creativity. Without reflection we may continue to repeat parts of the creative process in ways that aren’t working well, or wrongly assume we know what made something work in the first place.
An iterative design process including refection may seem like a luxurious proposition, but the nature of reflection actually implies a thoughtful preparation for the next task or project, rather than simply approaching it as a rote series of steps that apply equally to all projects.
Including Reflection into an iterative process, as opposed to a linear traditional model, allows designers to learn from their successes and failures and gain better insights into the work they are generating.
Institute separate deadlines for each part of the project process, provide opportunities for reflection, regrouping, or course correction at the end of each phase.
Perform a “project debrief” at the end of every project. Reiterate the objective of the project, discuss where it fell short or exceeded expectations, identify particular pain points in the process. If possible or necessary connect those issues to the project budget.
1. Laura Sargent Richardson on becoming the designer you want to be.
2. A version of the design process from Open
3. Stefan Sagameister takes a sabbatical
4. Learn how to adopt design practices to the research process.
5. Improve your project management skills.