This article was part of a series on design thinking written in 2014 for the course Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking by Nur Ahmad Furlong.

Permission granted by Tiffany Chu –


“Few people think about it or are aware of it. But there is nothing made by human beings that does not involve a design decision somewhere.” —Bill Moggridge

So you’ve read a number of introductions to Design Thinking and have possibly watched a few videos, which superficially discuss the subject, but it’s still sounding quite vague. Don’t worry about it, at first glance picking apart the subject of Design Thinking can be a little, let’s say, fuzzy at times. In the next series of lessons we’ll do our best to give you a solid overview of What Design Thinking is, who should use it and why. We’ll get to the How after that.

Typical Questions people ask about Design

  • What makes the way designers traditionally approach problems better at achieving innovative solutions?
  • What do designers do that is so different from other fields?
  • Don’t designers just make things visually pleasing?

When looking to fully understand any field one has to have a good idea of how that field is defined, it’s terminology, processes and practice. The word Design can be difficult to understand due to the wide range of perceptions of it’s meaning and purpose.

What is Design?

Before we dive straight into thinking, we need to deal with the more important and tricky word Design.

As we can see with the sketch above, the word design can be used to apply to the field of design, the action or process, a plan, sketch or idea as well as the end result, product, service, system or piece of communication.

Design as a Noun

When used as a noun the word applies to the plan or blueprint, the designed object, system, artifact or any other final result of the design process. It may be a word used to apply to a set of decisions and actions we take to plan and execute the perfect holiday, or something as simple as the sandwich we put together for lunch.

Dictionary Definition:

Below is a summary of Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary Definition of Design as a Noun.

  • the way something has been made : the way  the parts of something are formed and arranged
  • a purpose held by an entity
  • sketch or outline showing something to be executed
  • underlying scheme/pattern which governs how a thing/system functions
  • a plan for carrying out some accomplishment
  • arrangement of elements

Anything artificial whether object, system or form of communication can be considered a design or Designed.

Design as Verb

When used as a verb, it refers to the act of design, designing an object, plan, system, artifact or solution. It refers to the creation of the plans which will be used for manufacturing objects or creating systems and the creation of the communications surrounding marketing or branding these objects & systems.

Dictionary Definition:

Below is a summary of Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary Definition of Design as a Verb.

  • to conceive and plan out in the mind
  • to make a drawing, pattern, or sketch
  • to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan
  • to indicate with a distinctive mark, sign, or name

As we can see the act of designing refers to a wide range of activities and depends on the specific focus of the design activity and the goal towards it is being applied.

The following Video provides some personal insight from IDEO Designers with different backgrounds on what design means to them:

Definitions to consider

One definition, put forward by designer Richard Seymour during the Design Council’s Design in Business Week 2002, is ‘making things better for people’

This type of definition has lead many to say things like, “but street sweepers, lawyers and traffic officers also aim to make things better for people!”, which is of course true though their activities are less about designing a solution and more about implementing an existing solution.

Herbert Simon’s famous expression of design as:

“a process which aims to improve artificial environments into preferred ones.” (Herbert Simon Stephanie Di Russo, 2012)

“Design is the craft of visualizing concrete solutions that serve human needs and goals within certain constraints.”—Kim Goodwin – Pabini Gabriel-Petit, July 19, 2010, Design Is a Process, Not a Methodology, UX Matters

To summarize Design is:

  • To conceive in the mind
  • To make a plan
  • To execute a plan
  • To Create and/or Express Meaning
  • Interpretation, Translation
  • Communication, Education
  • Beautification, Decoration
  • To Improve things
  • To Solve problems
  • Facilitation
  • Innovation, Invention

All of the above and more are considered aspects of Design.

Humans design every Artificial Thing

The vast majority of things we own and interact with can be considered pieces of design or results of the design process as they have been conceptualised, planned and built by humans. The processes used to manufacture, the systems used to manage and the materials used to build these objects and systems have been designed and redesigned over time.

Design is a core Human Capability

Some have gone as far as to say that Design is the “core” human skill which sets us apart from other animals in that we reshape our environments and systems to suite our needs, going all the way back to the wearing of clothing, making of weapons and tools and the discovery of and subsequent use of fire.

Purposefully intending to change things for the better

Design is the expression of a purposeful intention, to improve the human condition through the creation of objects and systems. It is a continuous process, which at times sees major breakthrough with inventions that have changed the world, as well as the subsequent incremental improvement of those breakthroughs to optimise them. We continue to increase the rate of extracting benefit, while reducing use of resources and any additional negative effects on the environment and society.

In this way we can see how all humans are designers on some level and that Design is very much a part of who we are as humans.

Professionals take this to the next level

This does not mean that professional designers who specialise in a particular field of design are doing what all humans do on a daily basis. There is a vast difference between the natural design we do daily, when we go about trying to improve our lives, and the more rigorous process of designing complex objects, systems and solutions.

This requires training, experience, knowledge of the particular field of specialisation and a way more advanced understanding of the processes and methods needed to achieve a viable and feasible end result. Professional Designers however, cannot complete these tasks to a high enough level without engaging with others. Designers must empathize with those for whom they are designing, to understand their needs, difficulties and experiences, which inform the decisions made during the design process.

It’s all about taking what comes naturally, learning to more closely observe, gain insight and develop the skills required to choose and decide on that which is most appropriate.

All fields of design share a few common characteristics, with their respective practitioners following similar processes or project structures to achieve the end result.

The Design Process

A quick image search on Google for the term “design process” will reveal a plethora of visual representations designers use to communicate their process. This indicates less about the variation in process and more about the differing modes of expression which designers use. 10 designers given the task of explaining the same set of concepts will arrive at 10 different means of explaining the same thing. The wording used, number of steps, detail, visual shapes and forms, colours and other mechanisms will inevitably differ.

Digging deeper reveals many patterns in the ways designers work, think and approach the challenges they face. After sifting through countless design process diagrams and explanations, it becomes clear that there really are only a few phases in the vast majority of design processes out there. The exact shape of this does depend on context, medium and personal expression though the purpose and general nature of most of the phases are the same.

Common Phases in the Design Process Include:

  • Questioning & Understanding
  • Planning & Strategizing
  • Exploring & Ideation
  • Feedback & Iteration
  • Testing & Refining
  • Finalize, Implement & Execute

Questioning & Understanding

You need to worry when you request the services of a designer and they disappear without asking any questions. Designers by their very nature are people who question everything. Why, What is the Purpose, What are the Goals, Who are your Audience. At times this may become overbearing for clients who may not understand the purpose of questioning. To someone with a simplified view of what needs to be done, and a background and knowledge in the context of the problem which needs to be addresses, it might not be obvious why interrogation needs to be part of the process. Many clients take offence when a designer asks why, not understanding that correctly framing the challenge is in many cases part of the solution.

Designers seek to immerse themselves in the subject, the purpose behind the action, all it’s associated features, environmental influences, internal and external attributes. Designers MUST question in order to do what they do best. Many times the types of questions designers ask, seeks to uncover hidden information, which may lead to new insights, helping to solve the problem in unexpected ways.

The purpose of the questioning process is to gain a deeper understanding of the subject, the problem and the context of the problem, as well as the people involved in or associated with the problem. At times designers may even question the problem presented to them. This is one of the most essential aspects of any innovation or creative process and has always formed part of how designers do what they do.

The questioning process will very often comprise of various types of research, including interviewing people associated with the problem area being investigated and observing them in the problem environment.

Often the questioning or Discovery Phase as some refer to it, ends in defining the goals and creating a brief.

Planning & Strategizing

After enough questions have been asked and information has been gathered, the information needs to be analysed and shaped into a plan of action. Designers may develop a few possible theoretical approaches, plans or strategies for tackling the problems and associated information presented to them. This may include multiple solutions tackling different parts of a problem and may even include additional action to interrogate the validity of the initial problem itself. Feedback is constantly sought from the problem owner or client and varying levels of collaboration may be undertaken to plan and strategize the approach needed to achieve the intended objectives.

Exploring & Ideation

A creative exploration phase is then undertaken to develop concepts and explore actual artifacts. This may include sketching, mood boards, storyboards, visual maps, rough models or prototypes and other kinds of idea exploration. The aim of this phase is to rapidly work through the initial stages of ideas, to generate possibilities and work out which ideas, models or concepts are appropriate or not. This phase is essential as it is not always clear in the beginning what will work until it has been sufficiently explored.

Many times problem owners will say, “we’ll know what we want when we see it”. This may be fine if the objectives have been very clearly and explicitly defined, as well as enough constraints applied, but with vague requirements the designer could end up in a continuous loop of negative feedback waiting for the problem owner to spot something which he “likes” out of an infinite sea of possibilities. Which goes back to the need for rigorous questioning and problem definition upfront. Designers are well aware of the dangers of this and will do their best to pin down enough requirements and constraints to be used as indicators of success.

Feedback & Iteration

Though not necessarily a distinct phase in a linear process, feedback is important throughout the project cycle so that the vision of the problem owner can be aligned with those attempting to produce a solution. People are extremely subjective in nature and see things through very different lenses. The vast array of tastes, experiences, knowledge and personality, means that we need to constantly continue to understand each other as we work together through shared problems.

Collaboration requires continuous feedback and revision, so that a shared vision can be accomplished. At times that which one person considers suitable at a given point in a project cycle may be so only due to that one person having considered limited factors. Sharing ideas and feedback on progress helps steer things in a direction, which all understand and appreciate as opposed to the designer disappearing and completing an entire cycle of work to later have all of it rejected outright.

Designers do need to be careful that they frame the feedback procedures correctly and that they explain their choices and decisions appropriately to avoid unnecessary conflict. The feedback aspect of any project is a particularly difficult area to master and requires the development of trust and understanding between project owner and solution provider.

Design is a highly iterative procedure and works best with incremental improvement, even in the case where a radically new invention is uncovered. As we have observed with Thomas Edison, the mere discovery of electrically induced light was not enough for the end product to make a viable entry into the mass market. It required continuous iteration and incremental improvement before it was ready to change the world.

Once all the major issues have been resolved through a number of feedback and refinement cycles the final solution can be shaped and built or designed

Testing & Refining

The design discipline thrives on stakeholder feedback, which differentiates it to a large extent from Art, which is a subjective expression by the artist, not requiring input from the outside, executing his vision as a form of personal expression or social comment. Design on the other hand is an expression, which needs to consider those it affects on many levels. Testing ideas, hypotheses and prototypes, allows the designer to create a solution, which merges his understanding of the vision with that of the stakeholders enlisting his services, as well as those being affected by the solution. This way a balance can be created between human needs on the one side and organisational goals on the other side of the equation.

Working in isolation may result in a solution which the designer may be perfectly impressed with not gaining any support and failing in it’s intended context. Customers do not understand the message, the brand image does not align with the company’s vision, the brand does not gel with the targeted audience or the device does not live up to user needs and expectations.

Sometimes testing may even reach the level of a finished final product with all the support and related services. Companies like Apple and Google understand the need to release products to this level of completeness before they can fully understand its impact and user reactions. This is how they have managed to remain on top. Not all of their initiatives have succeeded but they learn from each release in order to succeed later. An example from Google may be Google wave, the predecessor to Google Plus, which failed for a number of reasons later addressed in Google Plus. Jina Trapini, Founder of Lifehacker discusses the failures of Google Wave and successes of Google Plus on her blog

Finalize, Implement & Execute

The phase, which brings the process to an end, is implementation. This phase is where the final vision and model is brought to life and released into its real world context. This really is the crux of the entire process as all the theory, experimentation, insight and evolution, which takes place prior to this hinges on the success of this phase. The implementation should consider and include all factors, which may contribute to the success of the venture like delivery and distribution, support, pricing and other aspects.

This is as Tim Brow puts it in his 2008 Harvard Business Review article,

“Thomas Edison created the electric lightbulb and then wrapped an entire industry around it”.

This indicates Thomas Edison exceeded his predecessors in that it was not Edison who invented the light bulb singularly, but that he was the one who made the widespread use of the new discoveries viable through developing the most efficient and distributable object and related system. The Proof is in the pudding as the saying goes!

Experiments in Design Process

A study, conducted by Humantific on the articulation of design process by Design Students at various design schools reveals that this area is extremely subjective, and that even though similar cognitive processes and activities may exist, how they are perceived and expressed varies dramatically from person to person and from one organisation to another.

Students were asked to document their design process within a limited timeframe, some choosing pure visual expression, others only words; yet others mixed these up. There was a clear mixture between expressions of the process as linear and as chaotic with a spectrum of shades in between. For more insight into this study view Humantific’s document online, Page 30 – 116.

What makes design special?

The job of design, designers and the design process is to take a fresh look at things, to re-look, re-discover, renovate, re-invent. Designers are expected to produce unique ways of re-expressing in many cases the same types of objects, messages, processes, and systems. It’s this very expectation that positions designers and those who embrace design as a means to solving problems perfectly for a central role in taking society forward.

The Ability to Bring Ideas to Life

We all have ideas, thousands of ideas, some good, most of them likely not. Out of the good ideas we have we very rarely test or practically implement or create something based on these ideas. This may be based on lack of ability, access to resources like time or money, but in many cases it is based on lack of experience in executing or attempting to execute ideas. We may speak about these ideas or even become obsessed with specific world changing ideas but very few of us follow through and take the steps needed to see these ideas realised.

Designers however are forced by the very nature of what they do to bring ideas out into the open, examine them, experiment with them, test them and execute them. Designers are expected to fine-tune these ideas continuously and to repeat this process over and over each time creating something positively unique in some way or another. Designers are expected to immerse themselves in new worlds of knowledge and experience in order to uncover insights that lead to breakthroughs and innovations.

To Summarize

We explored the meaning of the word Design, noting that it takes on various forms depending on whether it is used as a verb or noun, to define a process, object, action, result or field of practice. We also saw how design is an activity and capability integral to the human experience.

We considered a few definitions including:

“It is the expression of a purposeful intention to improve the human condition, through the creation and improvement of objects and systems.”

We looked at a typical Design Process, which includes the following phases not necessarily in a linear fashion and more than likely phases, which needed to be repeated in some way or another throughout the project cycle.

  • Questioning & Understanding
  • Planning & Strategizing
  • Exploring & Ideation
  • Feedback & Iteration
  • Testing, Refining & Executing

Please answer the following question: