What is design?

A primer on the design process

Design is a tough concept to nail down because it is applied so broadly to so many industries. In its most abstract form, Design is a framework for reducing risk and improving outcomes when creating something new, or when changing something existing. It can be synonymous with planning, and also with innovation. It is a service, rather than a product, though the end result of a design process is often something tangible. In this article, I'll shed some light on the area of communication design where I have the most experience, in order to give you a better understanding of the goals communication design attempts to achieve.

Design across industries.

The term design is used across many industries. In art, design refers to the composition of elements to guide a viewer through a painting or sculpture. In engineering, design is the formulation of the individual components to make a whole system. In architecture, design is the organization and analysis of how people use space and move through it. In manufacturing, design is the definition of the physical characteristics and ergonomics of a product, and in Communication Design, design considers and implements conscious decisions about what a customer or user will want -- instructing them on the unique factors of a product or service, and making it easy for them to satisfy their needs. Communication Design is most related to sales, in that the analysis and rational organization of elements supports a narrative that is intended to persuade and encourage your customer to act in a particular way.

What are you buying when you buy ‘Design’?

When you are buying design, you are buying one of two things. A pre-existing product created to satisfy a general need, or a concept development and refinement service used to develop something new.

A pre-existing design product is typically one which suits a mass-market and has been simplified to best match the needs of the greatest number of buyers. By its nature, a mass-market product tends to be less expensive, as the trial and error inherent in the design process is borne by multiple buyers. Like the assembly line, a design product can have economies of scale, as the upfront costs are quickly paid off, and the unit costs to produce the product decrease with each successive purchase. Examples of this type of product include: stock photography and illustration, website templates and hosted services, clip-art based logos, and the many widgets and plugins that can be added to an existing website.

The design service in contrast offers no such economies of scale. You are buying time, experience, and expertise, and you can’t easily scale the supply of know-how in an organization without increasing overhead by a degree greater than your labour costs. Lacking the economies of scale of a product, the design service tends to be more expensive.

When compared as indistinguishable commodities, the design product and the outcomes of the design service can appear similar - both result in "a website" or "a logo". However, the true value of the thing lies in its fitness to the task, and the content that makes it up. Very seldom is a mass-market product the optimum solution to a business's needs. The design service, conversely, seeks that optimum solution at each step of the process, and it yields superior results because of it.

The Design Process

The design process is a close relative of the scientific method. Research is conducted, a theory is proposed, and that theory is tested and refined. Ultimately, the theory is unveiled to the public for its truest test, and may be refined further as new data becomes available.

In any process of trial and error there is significant room for waste, and the design process is no different. Inexperienced designers tend toward a shotgun approach, producing many naive ideas to see what works. Experienced designers are experts in reducing risk during a design project, and will follow a rigorous process of successive approximations, leading to a highly tailored final product. The goal of an experienced designer is to reduce waste and focus more project hours on usable outcomes.

Most design projects follow this structure: Research, Planning(Hypothesis), Testing and Validation, Refinement of Hypothesis, and Delivery

1. Research

Most, if not all, design projects begin with a research and discovery phase. This can be as simple as asking a client for their requirements, or as complex as undertaking specific studies to uncover unknown insights and opportunities within a business or market. The goal is the same: a better understanding of the project domain, and a basis from which to derive goals and metrics in order to measure the fitness of a proposed solution.

2. Hypothesis

Next comes the initial planning and strategy work. This stage defines, based on the initial research and domain expertise of the design firm, the recommendation of the design firm for the project. Depending on the specifics of the project, there may be documents shared and approvals sought before moving on from this stage.

3. Testing and Validation

Tests are anything from a statement of an assumption, to a finished product that will be considered for approval by the project stakeholders. Results of the tests will be used to inform the further work and refinement of the project toward its goal. Examples of a test during a website design project might be: a design brief, a sitemap, a moodboard, a wireframe, a mockup, a prototype, a finished product undergoing a quality assurance phase, or ongoing monitoring of a project released to the public.

4. Refine Hypothesis (return to stage 2)

In writing, most initial work will benefit from a rewrite --the same holds true for design. The first approximation often includes areas that can be further optimized at little expense, and each successive refinement may bring an additional improvement. The appropriate level of refinement will be dictated by the goals of the project, and the metrics used to test its fitness for the task. For long-lived assets like a website, ongoing refinement and testing helps to keep abreast of the rapidly changing technological and social landscape of the internet.

5. Delivery

Delivery may be the final step in the process, or it may be the start of a new phase of design where the performance and fitness to the original goals of the project are assessed in the real-world and at greater scale.

Final words

Design is a process that reduces risk and adds value to communication projects. It is one which requires a broad knowledge of human behaviour and a technical aptitude to do well.

For businesses that sell a commodity product, and who mainly differentiate based on price, a pre-made product will suit them well. But for businesses who are more unique and nuanced, and who need to differentiate themselves in order to compete on more than just price, the Design process has tremendous potential to add value.

About us.

At Hi. Creative Agency, we want your customers to fall in love with your business. We know that through the design of your customer’s experience, we can weight the averages in your favour and lead to improved customer loyalty, and profitability. In short, design can help your customers to fall in love.

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