Yes! Yes! Yes!

No, this post is not about sex. It’s about Bryan Lawson’s How Designer Think, which is an orgasm of design process and thinking. On nearly every page I found an idea I could relate to as a designer and often thought the book should be required reading for those entering design. If you’re not screaming “Yes!” inside your head, or out loud, while reading this book, you might want to consider another field.

Bryan Lawson is both an architect and a psychologist. But I think everything he says applies to interaction design, and big D design in general.

He begins by defining design and acknowledges that design is “an everyday activity that we all do.” However, “professional designers also design for other people rather than just themselves,” and “are highly educated and trained.” This juxtaposition may serve me as I consider the implication of the design process for non-designers, a possible direction for my thesis.

One of the central themes of the book is that models of design are too logical and not actually useful for practitioners. Lawson says, “Designing is far too complex to be describable by a simple diagram.” This idea is in part my motivation for my paper, having encountered quite a few models that illustrate the design process only to feel like they weren’t quite right, and certainly, never actually using them when it comes to the actual process. “We probably work best when we think least about our technique.”

That said, I did draw several models of the design process as I read the book.

For me, the book was validation of my experience as a designer. (Hence, the “Yes! Yes! Yes!”) Some of the reassuring notions include:

“There is no natural end to the design process.”

On of the essential characteristics of design problems then is that they are often not apparent and must be found.”

The methods of science are perhaps surprisingly unhelpful to the designer.”

“It is often not possible to say which bit of the problem is solved by which bit of the solution. They simply do not map on to each other that way.”

The latter quote perhaps best mirrors my inquiry into the design process. Reflecting on decisions and directions, it is often very difficult for me to say how design solutions came about. I realize due diligence has been done, but there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between research and concept, which is why for my thesis I chose to focus on the leap of faith designers must take create good solutions.

The latter half of the book deals with design thinking, design strategies, design tactics, creativity, traps, and design as conversation. The latter chapter references Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner, which I am in the midst of reading.

“Good designers tend to be at ease with the lack of resolution of their ideas for most of the design process,” says Lawson. True, true, true. And for those who are not at ease, the design process is painful, as I have witnessed on some design teams.

This is not a sensible way of earning a living, it’s completely insane, there has to be this big thing that you’re confident you’re going to find, you don’t know what it is you’re looking for and you hang on. —architect Richard MacCormac

At first upon reading this I thought, how is this different than searching for the cure for cancer. In that case, you don’t know what you’re looking for. But then I corrected myself. No. You’re searching for the cure for cancer. In design, you only know that you are looking for a solution. It’s not a question of getting there. It’s how to get there.

In terms of my thesis and exploring the leap of faith, I worry that the design process—the leap—may be too complex: a psychological mystery. Lawson says, “Unfortunately, the really interesting things that happen in the design process may be hidden in designers’ heads rather than being audible or visible.”

What is it about what’s going on in designers’ heads that makes them good designers? Is it merely experience, developed over the course of doing it (Schön argues that we design all our lives.) Lawson says, “It seems impossible to learn design without actually doing it.”

For non-designers, is that all that it takes? Do engineers and business managers merely need exposure to the design process? Is this the philosophy of the business/design schools? Is design thinking a skill?

Lawson quotes Edward de Bono, Practical Thinking:

“To regard thinking as a skill rather than a gift is the first step toward doing something to improve that skill.”

I agree. But there’s still something more. Not everyone can be a good designer no matter how much experience and exposure to the design process.

Last year, while explaining the five reasons designers are valued, and thus the five characteristics of designers, Richard Buchanan told the class that if we didn’t possess all five, we shouldn’t be in design. I would argue that the five characteristics—whole/part , creativity, comfortable with ambiguity, polysensorial aesthetics, and emotion/empathy—don’t just have to do with how you think, but also who you are.