Like all problem-solving ideolo-gies, design attempts to ultimately arrive at a single solution. But design is inherently
exploratory, baking in phases of
generative, dispersive activities
aimed at deriving a large set
of possible solution paths followed by phases of reflection,
critique, and testing to narrow
At each of the refinement
phases, the aim is not to select a
single “best bet,” but instead to
choose the several most promising avenues of inquiry for further exploration. When designers are attempting to solve
complex problems, the constant
multiplicity of the design process helps them to avoid dead
ends and anchoring—the psychological bias that can lead to
purely derivative, rather than
truly creative solutions.
Exploring a multiplicity of
ideas in parallel helps the team
to embrace ambiguity, work
with assumptions and what-if
scenarios, and make progress
while further information is
sought. Since complex problems are never completely well
known, the ability to work with
ambiguity and multiple, concurrent streams of ideas are a
crucial quality in attempting to
design a solution.
Hand in hand with the ability
to reserve judgment and retain
multiplicity is the need to
critically review and assess concepts in a group environment.
In the face of complex problems, individuals or small
teams will often break off during the generative phases to
come up with ideas separately.
The team will later reconvene to
review and critique each idea.
Critique is one of the foundation skills of the design studio.
It involves a number of different skills: setting aside ego,
thinking critically, and offering
The aim of critique is to
build up an idea, not shoot
it down. Each concept represents a form of going out on
a limb (or at least, it should)
and good critiques will encourage innovative and disruptive
thinking. Negativity, criticism,
and “yes, but...” thinking serve
only to reinforce safe ideas
and lead to incrementalism
in the concepts presented.
Design encourages disruptive thinking—wild leaps of
insight—through critique. As
a team, individuals are able
to safely explore ideas in the
absence of ego and criticism.
An equally essential skill in
critique is the ability to receive
feedback and remain open, to
avoid becoming defensive or
taking the feedback personally.
Learning and practicing critique
early and often is one of the
most valuable and unique qualities of design—and designers.
Without critique—without a
process of openly and honestly
giving and receiving feedback—
the problem-solving process
is more likely to degenerate in
politics, overinvestment in bad
ideas, and siloed thinking.
ing of the people who will
ultimately use the products
and services that a business or
organization chooses to offer.
This understanding is typically
a projection outward from the
organization, looking at motivations, behaviors, and needs as
an influence to purchasing.
Design, by comparison,
attempts to gain understanding of the customer from the
perspective of the customer.
Design aims to look back at
the organization, its products
and services, through the eyes
of the people for whom those
products and services are being
This understanding, or empathy, is important for several
reasons, but most notably: It
allows for the design of products and services that are truly
meaningful, and it affords the
organization an opportunity
to see itself as others see it,
allowing—should it choose—for
a critical reflection on its own
role and value in the lives of its
customers to take place.
Empathy enriches the solution with an understanding of
the context of a problem, the
setting in which it occurs—the
distractions, the disruptions,
technology, importance, and
place within the broader setting
of the person’s life. In so doing,
empathy enables the problem to
be more broadly defined, which
in turn provides opportunity
for the problem itself to be
There is a growing trend in
business to understand customers. And in many respects, good
marketing has, for the better
part of 50 years, been aimed at
gaining a better understand-
Let me touch on two common
characteristics of design that
do not appear in the above list:
observation, or research more
broadly; and iteration.