designDrew W.Comment

The Endless Ride

designDrew W.Comment
The Endless Ride

I'm a designer, but not by training, well, not a great deal of training anyway. Not formal training. Well, I've had a little formal training actually...

OK, I'm a librarian, but I'm also a design thinker.

I design everyday in a traditional sense. I administrate the corporate intranet at my job but do so in such a way that I make design decisions on a daily basis. You see, in my role I find design to be one of the most powerful communication tools in my arsenal. I'm not by nature a shy person so I use the big hammer all the time.

When I began my job I was coming from over a decade as a skilled tradesman (that's a whole other blog post). The design I used to do was just for me. Terrible Dreamweaver / Flash websites with infinite side scrolling animated butterflies, Photoshop alternate planet systems, intricate custom forum profile banners, you know, the important stuff. When I had the opportunity, or rather, the need to use web design for my job, I found I had a vast store of tacit knowledge that I had built up over the years creating personal work. More importantly, I had taught myself design thinking.

Design thinking has a lot of definitions and methodologies now that it has gained some notoriety (and rightly so). I like the simplest or a simpler version, the one put forth by Tim Brown and co. of IDEO. That version has three steps, Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation.

In the inspiration phase, or the 'problem space', you identify the problems that you want to work on. The problem space can get quite full because the more you know about the problem, the better off you are when moving on to the next phase. Ideation, or the 'Learning Space', is a dimension with no rules, the Learning Space is where you create prototypes. First, you throw all of the impossible ideas you can think of to address the problem, and then you try to build them. When they fail, you loop that failure back into the Problem Space, because you know more about the problem when your prototypes fail. When your prototypes succeed, then you can move on to Implementation, or the 'Solution Space'. Here you take your successful prototype and apply it to the problem. Often, even a solution will cause more problems, in which case you loop back to the beginning and the cycle begins again.

As I mentioned, I design web pages, but I do so largely for a homogenous community. Homogenous in that they all work towards one goal and either work in architecture or interior design or in a supporting role. Let me tell you, nothing is more challenging than designing for designers.

Web Design is an endless ride across a vast and deep landscape. Every solution creates another challenge. This is the definition of a 'Wicked Problem', another classic tenet of Design Thinking. A Wicked Problem is a problem where you can never have all the information required for a solution, as well as one that changes as you try to solve it.

In my work I support a design discipline that has a final product. Architecture and Interior Design are totally Wicked Problems, but eventually you come to a solution and usually one with gravitas that impacts a ton of peoples lives. The design I do will never have that final solution, and if I ever begin to think I've found one, I'll tell you right now, future me is being a fool.

In the podcast High Resolution's interview with John Maeda of Automattic, Mr. Maeda mentions the difference between designing physical products and designing digital ones. In essence digital design is iterative and physical design is final. That bit of insight woke something up for me and the next day I approached some of the stakeholders that I had been working with on resource pages for their practice areas with that idea. It was the perspective that we both needed to see. We were both designers but our products have vastly different life cycles. The road to web design and architectural design is paved with the same Design Thinking aggregate, the same stages are worked through, so there was common ground for us to work on. Understanding the difference between the endless ride of digital design and the destination of architecture though, was what I was missing. Having that piece of information allowed both me and my stakeholders to move out of our Learning Space, and into the Solution Space, albiet, one that we know will soon change. 

Why is this important?

Being clear in our definitions between the design process that ends in a website and the process that ends in something physical, like a book for instance, will help us to understand further discussions and the place of analog in the twenty-first century.