Reading comprehension : Design

There have been some extremely deep and thoughtful conversations lately in the comments section of my recent posts – Design thinker’s dilemma, Strategy and Operational effectiveness and Poking a hole in the matrix. They’ve brought home to me that one key area where there seems to be a fog – this is not a value judgement but an observation – both within and without the design industry with respect to the applications of various kinds of design services within the context of a particular business. I’m still floundering for the right words here but am making this attempt to articulate the whole in the hope that it leads to further conversations and clarity.

We have designers, stylists, design researchers, strategists, inventors, engineers in the mix. Can we in fact articulate clearly what each does, in the course of the design process, at any reasonably large design consultancy? Are they separate specialist job functions or are they phases in the design process? Or are they the equivalent of ‘tags’ in helping create a project team for a particular project? In small firms, where everyone wears multiple hats, these differentiations do not arise, but at the same time, depending on the balance of skillsets the firm may lean towards some particular area of excellence over others.

I’d love to start with mapping these out AS they are ‘commonly’ understood today FIRST before we get any deeper in our conversations discussing them in the context of what they should be ideally. Why? Because I realized that while it looks as though niblettes, Dirk and myself are talking about the same ‘tags’ viz., design, styling, research, invention, and strategy – I quickly saw that our perception of what those ‘tags’ mean to each of us differs. Now niblettes and I have at least been fighting a war of words for some time now so we could be said to have reached some level of comprehension of where the other comes from (steeler kingdom 🙂 but when Dirk entered the conversation I found myself floundering to comprehend some of the things he was saying – this is not a negative judgement in any way, I’ve talked to him and collaborated with him on stuff before – but it pointed out to me just how confusing all of this can be without clear articulations of the various terms and their corresponding definitions in the context of this discussion. Imagine what it must be like for those who are not working in the industry i.e. clients and their various representatives when they try to make sense of design firm websites, design firm processes and portfolios.

This brings me to my main contention, that while the news media and Davos et al have done wonders to bring design’s value to business to the forefront of the public’s imagination, it is still incumbent upon the providers of the service to communicate their value to their customers. Why design? is a question that has been answered in the broad strokes, but the details are still fuzzy. And without this clarity of communication we cannot hope to provide basic services to those who are yet new to the entire concept – the first time user of design services, say, one whose imagination has been sparked by the myriad stories about how design increased sales for company X or opened a new market for company Y.

Next, I’ll throw out standard explanations derived from a quick look through the major design firm websites to see where we all agree and differ for further conversation.

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9 Responses to Reading comprehension : Design

  1. dk says:

    I think the best way to bottle an answer that will be as widely palatable and, ideally, accepted, is to keep the distinctions as non-specific as possible. That is to say, not to frame it in terms of a person or title “-er or -ist” but in terms of areas of behaviour. So it is less about labelling with specificity and more about articulating an environment that people or actions fit differently into.
    For example, we could say that “design” is a human activity that spans a continuum of form and function, the activity for creating which at the extremes could be labeled “styling” and “engineering”. I think that is a relatively clean distinction that most people would stipulate (regardless of if they think the style side is less valuable than the engineering side).
    It gets a little more tricky with the “research -> analysis -> strategy” continuum, as these do (generally) operate on a continuum of linearity and process together with one another, from establishing boundaries and gathering data, to considering that data and turning it into an actionable plan. On the “design” continuum, it is more a case of different flavours of the activity that typically are completely different. Of course (to immediately refute myself) the same could be said for design, too, if we consider the typical process of engineering preceding design, then the most aesthetic style points coming at the very end.
    I think your idea of establishing a shared understanding of terms is really admirable, but in my experience it turns into an exercise of trying to hit a constantly moving target. Just as you and niblettes had a shared understanding of certain things that got confused when I entered the conversation, each time someone new enters the conversation after the current participants have established definitions, there is going to be some incongruity. And maybe that is alright. But I wonder if it is possible to use broad and general enough terms where they don’t need to be defined (take out the issue of precision and the opportunity for semantic differences to upset the apple cart) and instead enable people to just see it and say, “yeah, this make sense.” If we stipulate for a moment that this is *possible*, I would suggest that working on the relationships between these different things might be where the real heavy lifting needs to occur – and where making elegantly powerful connections will ultimately take place.
    A few years ago I tried to map out everything from an extreme meta-level (what is the relationship between art and design? science and philosophy? religion and government?) and then attempting to plot ALL of them in a cogent way in juxtaposition to each other. I eventually lost interest because so many of the things about the models I was developing were idiosyncratic to my subjective viewpoint, and were running into myriad semantical disagreements with people I shared them with. What I learned from that (in terms of informing my own activities) is to keep the scope somewhat constrained. My gut tells me we are dealing with a context here that is appropriately constrained and – if our focus is on simplicity – can result in producing something that really has traction.
    Thoughts?

  2. Niti Bhan says:

    Dirk,
    Your reasons for hesitating to differentiate or define make sense – in the context of the conversation, if the conversation is between those who are immersed in the design field and talk to designers everyday, read about design and write about it – but, and it’s an important but, if there is to be clarity with respect to both the design process and the roles that the various team members play in a project for someone seeking to source design services then some amount of clear explanation should be articulated for understanding.
    So rather than looking at it as a shared understanding between say, any three or four other designers/design industry enthusiasts, look at it as a shared understanding between the design industry and those outside of it. That is, the point you make here,
    “But I wonder if it is possible to use broad and general enough terms where they don’t need to be defined (take out the issue of precision and the opportunity for semantic differences to upset the apple cart) and instead enable people to just see it and say, “yeah, this make sense.””
    For those of us who are inside, it is indeed a semantic discussion, which, if fueled by beer etc, can and usually does go on forever. But what of those who are reading the news media and are drawn, anew, to design as a possible tool in their corporte strategy? This is where you are right – it is best to bottle an answer that is widely understood – for this purpose, there will be those who do not accept it, but they will be usually within the industry. It is not about labelling so much as finding means to explain the design process to a new customer.

  3. dk says:

    Niti said:
    For those of us who are inside, it is indeed a semantic discussion, which, if fueled by beer etc, can and usually does go on forever. But what of those who are reading the news media and are drawn, anew, to design as a possible tool in their corporte strategy? This is where you are right – it is best to bottle an answer that is widely understood – for this purpose, there will be those who do not accept it, but they will be usually within the industry. It is not about labelling so much as finding means to explain the design process to a new customer.
    Dirk says:
    That is very eloquently put, and precisely what our goal should be.
    In that spirt, I propose a continuum (design? ways of doing?) spanning from function (engineering) to form (styling). Another trait that could be attached to that continuum is from analytical to emotional.
    I would also like to propose another continuum (strategy? ways of thinking?) spanning from inductive (research) to deductive (planning).
    Returning to niblettes’ original work, lets consider a third continuum (not sure how to label this one; it is more qualitative and makes a judgment. Perhaps “degree of innovation”?) spanning from complex (innovation) to simple (copy).
    It strikes me that the latter two are quite universal for application, whereas the “design” continuum could be changed out and customized to apply to every other structured
    Don’t know how any of this is holding up, but am compelled to throw a Delta out that is either iterated on or entirely cast aside.

  4. niblettes says:

    As I’ve been reading, considering, rereading, etc., it occurred to me that yes, perhaps the high-low connotation in both the original diagram and my rif on it, could be counter productive. It may even obscure its own meanings.
    Then it occurred to me that the whole thing is sort of like a myers-briggs (M-B) model for the psychology of a profession (discipline? practice?).
    Like your suggestions Dirk, M-B avoids judgment by simply contrasting two opposing but equally valuable psychological qualities (sensing vs intuiting, feeling vs thinking, perceiving vs judging and extraversion vs introversion).
    However this is still not quite the same as what you have been suggesting, since your suggestion seem to be more behavioral rather than physchological.

  5. niblettes says:

    As to your question about how things are now…
    I have noticed at a recent meeting where various companies presented their design organization structure that some most have clearly distinguished in their org chart functional areas like design research, from visual design, from usability testing.
    The reality for many is that they simply do not have the budget to fill all the boxes under these functional areas. So the design folks already in the organization have to compensate by playing multiple roles simultaneously; sometimes playing roles they really shouldn’t (for instance, leading the user testing of their own designs).
    My guess is that this is probably fairly common among most companies that have functional areas of design on their org charts.

  6. Niti Bhan says:

    Then I would hazard a guess that there is a niche for specialists like Steve Portigal and others to fill, for projects that require the expertise and for companies that may not have the headcount.

  7. niblettes says:

    It seems that way. Especially when you consider how most medium to large companies finance projects. Headcount is often a corporate or project capital budget issue, while hiring specialists can often be handled through much more flexible expense budgets.
    On the other hand, I did also hear complaints about working with design firms as a way to fill the gaps. A number of the presenters agreed that using outsourced design talent really slowed down iteration cycles, while their inhouse design talent could very quickly try and test many possible designs. It seems the communication overhead is substantial.
    These complaints were in the context of contracts with large design firms (like Frog, Fitch, etc) rather than niche specialists. Perhaps speed and tighter feedback loops could become a competitve advantage small niche players could have over big design firms–an advantage even giant corporate customers would value?

  8. Niti Bhan says:

    Ah niblettes, the essence of what you’ve just said was the original rationale behind this http://sizematter.blogspot.com which also eventually led to this http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/feb2006/id20060208_552631.htm
    A quick look at the topic titles are here http://www.nitibhan.com/perspective/2005/09/collected_thoug.html
    And yes, speed and turnaround time and attention are certainly the traits that differentiate the ‘smaller’ firm from the behemoth – but this is true in any industry?

  9. dk says:

    niblettes said:
    Then it occurred to me that the whole thing is sort of like a myers-briggs (M-B) model for the psychology of a profession (discipline? practice?).
    Like your suggestions Dirk, M-B avoids judgment by simply contrasting two opposing but equally valuable psychological qualities (sensing vs intuiting, feeling vs thinking, perceiving vs judging and extraversion vs introversion).
    However this is still not quite the same as what you have been suggesting, since your suggestion seem to be more behavioral rather than physchological.
    Dirk says:
    Yes, it is behavioral instead of psychological, but I think this is starting to get to the heart of it. In fact, the idea of four continuums that create a 16 section matrix sure seems nice. However, what we should probably do is try and settle on a data set that seems valid, then figure out the interrelationships and structure from there. This is a good path, methinks.
    So, to beat the old, dead drum…
    Design = Function (engineering) -> Form (styling)
    Strategy = Research -> Planning
    (this one is completely wrong; treat it as a strawman) = Profit -> Humanity
    In fact, lets try and map this a little to the MBTI:
    Design = NT (engineering) -> SP (styling)
    Strategy = NP (research) -> NJ (planning)
    (strawman) = SJ (past/present-focused) -> NF (future-focused)
    Note that this mapping to MBTI could just serve as a distraction/derailment, so feel free to jettison it if so.
    Niblettes said:
    These complaints were in the context of contracts with large design firms (like Frog, Fitch, etc) rather than niche specialists. Perhaps speed and tighter feedback loops could become a competitve advantage small niche players could have over big design firms–an advantage even giant corporate customers would value?
    Dirk says:
    We are based in Silicon Valley and deal with both corporations and start-ups. And I can tell you that most of our clients came to us b/c we’re so fast and nimble – and continue to advocate us b/c we keep that promise in the actual results. Getting back to the question of “Does size matter?” we are five full-time people and a handful of contractors on an as-needed basis. We *could* be larger than we are today but have elected to remain small in order to deliver on the brand promise.

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