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Credit: Jacobito Design

How to design

Andrew J. Ko

How do you design "good" design? Does it come from lone genius? Is it luck? Is it the result of hard work? Where does all of this stuff that humanity makes actually come from? Here's one humorous take on this from one of my colleagues from graduate school at Carnegie Mellon:

Dan Saffer: How to Lie With Design Thinking from Interaction Design Association on Vimeo.

Dan's jokes are obviously coming from a serious place: he's really talking about the rigor of the application of design methods. But Dan's notion of rigor actually has much deeper roots in history.

Starting in the 20th century, people started to think about these questions and come up with names and definitions for "ways" of designing we'll call design paradigms. Some of these paradigms are things you might recognize from your own practices and some are things you might have already encountered in classes or in industry. Each paradigm has its strengths and weaknesses. Let's talk about some of the more notable ones and how they differ.

Let's start with one of the most basic approaches to design: appropriation. This involves simply taking some object in the world and using it for some purpose it was not intended. This is actually something that every human does. Some might even consider it a defining human characteristic. For example, you appropriate when you take a broom and use it as a sword; you appropriate when you cut down a tree and carve it into a boat. The process here is a abductive leap from a simple observation about some object to a different vision for how that object might be used to achieve a goal.

A cousin of appropriation is bricolage, which is the act of creating new things from a diverse range of other things. Whereas appropriation is about reusing something in a new way, bricolage is about combining multiple things in to new designs. One of the most salient modern examples of bricolage is sample-based hip hop or electronic dance music. Much of the production in these songs is grounded in recordings from existing music, sometimes from disparate parts of recorded history. Bricolage uses appropriation, but goes beyond it, assembling novelty through recombination. Like appropriation, it is not an explicit process, but a kind of activity that humans engage in that can arrive at new designs.

In modern design education (found primarily in schools of design and art) we see another form of design process that some have called "designerly ways of knowing". Here, the idea is that trained designers arrive at knowledge through synthesis—forming coherent systems of ideas from disparate parts—whereas other kinds of thinking involve analysis—taking a coherent system and deconstructing it, as scientists do with nature. Synthesis is similar to divergent thinking in that they both focus on new possibilities; analysis and convergent thinking are similar in that they both reduce possibilities.

This takes us to more explicit design paradigms, which arguably combine all of the skills above. One of the most common in the world today is human-centered design (sometimes called user-centered design, but many people find the word "user" to be too limiting). In this paradigm, the idea is simple: before doing abduction, bricolage, synthesis, or any of these other lower level activities, first try to analyze the problem you are solving, then generate ideas, then test those ideas with the people who have the problem you are solving. Then, repeat this process of analyzing the problem, designing, and testing (which we call iteration) until you converge upon an understanding of the problem and an effective solution. The premise of this approach is that by modeling a problem, and verifying solutions to it, the design one arrives at will be a better solution than if a designer just uses the pre-existing knowledge in their head.

Some people are skeptical about human-centered design because they don't believe modeling and verifying people's needs through a few focused encounters is sufficient to actually address people's problems. This led some to develop a notion of participatory design, in which designers not only talk to people about their problems, but actually bring representative people onto a design team, engaging them fully in a design process. This way, the people you're designing for are always represented throughout the design process.

Another critique of human-centered design is that it narrowly focuses on people and their needs rather than a systems-level view of the activities that people engage in, and the multiple people and systems involved in those activities. For example, consider the activity of driving a bus: it's not just the driver that matters, but the dispatchers that communicate information to drivers, the other drivers on the road, and even the riders occasionally. One paradigm that addresses this more directly is activity-centered design, which focuses less on problems or people's needs and more on what they do, ensuring that what you design integrates well into the complex fabric of an activity. Contextual inquiry is a more systematic process for investigating activities.

Some more recent perspectives on design prefer to look much more deeply than problems, tasks, and activities, and instead look at the values that people try to express in their lives. For example, instead of viewing a pizza delivery app as a way to get pizza faster and more easily, why not view it as a way to support independence? This shift in framing can enable designers to better express those values through their designs, and identify people they may not have designed for otherwise (e.g., people who are house bound because of injury or disease who still want pizza).

Another flavor of design paradigm related to values is universal design. The basic idea behind universal design is that one should go about assuming that there will be a vast diversity in the types of people that want to use what you design, and so designing for diversity from the outset will maximize how many people can access your design. This paradigm emerges out of studies on accessibility and disability studies, which focus on how to empower people with diverse physical abilities to access technology, the built environment, and other designed things.

Yet another design paradigm is ability-based design. Ability-based design is an approach to accessibility in which a designer focuses on a user's abilities at any given moment, rather than their disabilities. By focusing on a user's abilities, the designer can ensure that the design levarages the user's full potential.

You can think of all of these different design paradigms as simply having a different unit of analysis. Whereas human-centered design focuses on an individual, activity-centered design focuses on a system and the activities in it, value-sensitive design focuses on human value tensions amongst diverse stakeholders, and universal design focuses on all of humanity. Each different unit of analysis exposes different aspects of a problem, and therefore leads to different types of solutions.

If you're engaging in design, how do you choose from these paradigms? You don't. In industry, there's often too little time or resources to engage in any of these paradigms purely. Instead, designers tend to appropriate all of the ideas above, taking perspectives, framings, methods, and approaches and devising a design process that is feasible within the resources they have to design. That means that being a great designer is not just a matter of being familiar with everything above, but also developing skills to design design processes too.

Next chapter: How to Understand Problems

Further reading

Bannon, L. (2011). Reimagining HCI: toward a more human-centered perspective. interactions, 18(4), 50-57.

Beyer, H., & Holtzblatt, K. (1999). Contextual design. interactions, 6(1), 32-42.

Burgstahler, S. (2009). Universal Design: Process, Principles, and Applications. DO-IT.

Cross, N. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design studies, 3(4), 221-227.

Dourish, P. (2003). The appropriation of interactive technologies: Some lessons from placeless documents. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 12(4), 465-490.

Friedman, B. (1996). Value-sensitive design. interactions, 3(6), 16-23.

Kolko, J. (2010). Abductive thinking and sensemaking: The drivers of design synthesis. Design Issues, 26(1), 15-28.

Louridas, P. (1999). Design as bricolage: anthropology meets design thinking. Design Studies, 20(6), 517-535.

Muller, M. J., & Kuhn, S. (1993). Participatory design. Communications of the ACM, 36(6), 24-28.

Norman, D. A. (2005). Human-centered design considered harmful. Interactions, 12(4), 14-19.

Norman, D. A. (2006). Logic versus usage: the case for activity-centered design. Interactions, 13(6), 45-ff.

Story, M. F. (1998). Maximizing usability: the principles of universal design. Assistive technology, 10(1), 4-12.

Thomsen, D. (n.d.). Why Human-Centered Design Matters. Wired.

Further viewing

Nesmith, M. (2016).Why We Need Universal Design. TEDx Talks.

TheDOITCenter. (2017). Including Universal Design in the Engineering Curriculum (Audio Described). Youtube.