14 May 2008

How can business benefit from design? (1 of many)

While many designers have a process, most have a philosophy or structure. Good designers often refine a process and use it over and over to produce reliable and competent results. Great designers think in terms of structure and a vast set of tools from which to draw. One of the most important concepts for the designer is that of divergence and convergence. Early in the design stage we must broaden our thoughts and think beyond the obvious. This is often poorly characterized as ‘outside of the box’ thinking. So often we face problems seemingly without the time or resources to appropriately analyze before we synthesize. We take a straight-line approach to a quick, known, and comfortable solution, but that is short sited. The more important the problem, the more we should consider stepping back and challenging assumptions. Working divergently will have us exploring things that at the time seem less than relevant, but very often open the door for exceptional solutions.

Bill Buxton (author, designer, business guy at microsoft) talks at length about the importance of sketching. It is absolutely crucial in the divergent stages of design that ideas are not yet formalized. One way to accomplish this is to stay away from the computer. Here, white boards, pencil and paper, and even sticky notes are your best weapons. These tools allow designers to convey important visual and functional concepts without being bothered by details - details that not only get in the way, but will narrow focus and restrict thinking. This is extraordinarily important for non-designers to understand.

When Pixar released ‘The Incredibles’ they packaged with it a second DVD disc. On that disk is a wonderful 30 minute video with great insight into the behind-the-scenes goings on. One of the most important take aways from this short story is learning what to look at. If you are working with designers it pays to understand the process and to be able ferret out the significant portion of the rough sketch or mocks. A good design presenter will often explain this upfront, but don’t count on it. If you have any question regarding what you are suppose to be looking at or paying attention to, just ask. Most designers will be delighted that you did.

Many project managers are quick to reduce design's chaotic wondering, but time should always be taken when the stakes are high. Delivering the solution on time is surely an important part of the job, but delivering a great solution is also. Great designers and design managers are cognizant of delivery schedules and exactly when enough explorations are, in fact, enough. Many designers will attempt to reopen (work divergently) an issue late in the game. This can be problematic for delivery. It's often a tough call, but it is where experience and discipline pay off.

In the convergent stages the entire atmosphere of the working environment changes. Schedules rule, pressure builds and the stress of delivery should be evident. But for most designers and especially the non-designers it can be a welcome change to the free flowing, and sometimes random wondering of early explorations. You will often hear, “now we are making some progress” or similar statements from management. That’s when you know that all this fuzzy design thinking is starting to turn into relevant results that they appreciate. This can seem like one of those few times when the business folks and the design folks are working stride for stride.