Michael Bierut | Essays

This is My Process

"As you walk past cobbler shop, hook (A) strikes suspended boot (B), causing it to kick football (C) through goal posts (D). Football drops into basket (E) and string (F) tilts sprinkling can, (G) causing water to soak coat tails (H). As coat shrinks, cord (I) opens door (J) of cage, allowing bird (K) to walk out on perch (L) and grab worm (M) which is attached to string (N). This pulls down window shade (O) on which is written, 'YOU SAP, MAIL THAT LETTER.'"

Rube Goldberg, Device to Keep You From Forgetting To Mail Your Wife's Letter, date unknown

For over twenty years, I've been writing proposals for projects. And almost every one of them has a passage somewhere that begins something like this: "This project will be divided in four phases: Orientation and Analysis, Conceptual Design, Design Development, and Implementation." All clients want this. Sometimes there are five phases, sometimes six. Sometimes they have different names. But it's always an attempt to answer a potential client's unavoidable question: can you describe the process you use to create a design solution that's right for us?

The other day I was looking at a proposal for a project I finished a few months ago. The result, by my measure and by the client's, was successful. But guess what? The process I so reassuringly put forward at the outset had almost nothing to do with the way the project actually went. What would happen, I wonder, if I actually told the truth about what happens in a design process?

It might go something like this:

When I do a design project, I begin by listening carefully to you as you talk about your problem and read whatever background material I can find that relates to the issues you face. If you're lucky, I have also accidentally acquired some firsthand experience with your situation. Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can't really explain that part; it's like magic. Sometimes it even happens before you have a chance to tell me that much about your problem! Now, if it's a good idea, I try to figure out some strategic justification for the solution so I can explain it to you without relying on good taste you may or may not have. Along the way, I may add some other ideas, either because you made me agree to do so at the outset, or because I'm not sure of the first idea. At any rate, in the earlier phases hopefully I will have gained your trust so that by this point you're inclined to take my advice. I don't have any clue how you'd go about proving that my advice is any good except that other people — at least the ones I've told you about — have taken my advice in the past and prospered. In other words, could you just sort of, you know...trust me?

Now, an intelligent client might ask a number of reasonable questions: How can a bunch of random conversations yield the information you need to do your work? Shouldn't the strategic justification be in place before the design work begins? If you show me one solution, how will I know it's the only one that will work? On the other hand, if you show me a bunch of solutions, how will I know which one is best? What will happen if I don't like any of them? Finally, can you explain that magic part to me again?

Not only that, but my "honest" description of the process is an idealized one. Sometimes I have one great idea but can't convince the client it's great and I have to do more ones. Sometimes this leads to a better idea. Sometimes it leads to a worse idea. Sometimes after I go back and explore other ideas we all come back to the original idea. Sometimes the client accepts an idea, and then produces other people who haven't been involved up to that point who end up having opinions of their own. One way or another it always seems to get done, but never as originally promised.

Although I've managed to enjoy a relatively successful career as a designer, I've always had the vague sense that I was doing something wrong. A better designer would be able to able to manage the process properly, moving everyone along cheerfully from Phase One to Phase Two, right on schedule and right on budget. What was wrong with me?

You may have had the same feeling: it seems to be pretty common among the designers I know. Then, this past summer, I was lucky enough to participate in the AIGA's Business Perspectives for Creative Leaders program at Harvard Business School. (Which I highly recommend, by the way.) Part of the assigned reading was a book that one of the instructors, Rob Austin, wrote with Lee Devin called Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know about How Artists Work. Artful Making has an interesting message: we may have been right all along.

What makes the book particularly interesting is the collaboration of the two co-authors. Austin is a Harvard Business School professor who has focused on information technology management; Devin is not a business school teacher but a professor of theater at Swarthmore College. At the outset, the writers acknowledge that the nature of work is changing in the 21st century, characterizing it as "a shift from an industrial economy to an information economy, from physical work to knowledge work." In trying to understand how this new kind of work can be managed, they propose a model based not on industrial production, but on the collaborative arts, specifically theater. Interestingly, the process of mounting a play, as we've noted here before, is not that different from doing a design project. The iterative process, the role of improvisation, the adjustments that are made in response to audience feedback, all of these elements are a part of any design process. And, in a way, they've always been the ones that have vaguely unnerving to me.

Evidently, this unease is common. The authors take pains to point out that they're not advocating a "loose" process or one that lacks rigor. "A theater company," Austin and Devin point out, "consistently delivers a valuable, innovative product under the pressure of a very firm deadline (opening night, eight o'clock curtain). The product, a play executes again and again with great precision, incorporating significant innovations every time, but finishing within 30 seconds of the same length every time." They are careful to identify the defining characteristics of this kind of work: allowing solutions to emerge in a process of iteration, rather than trying to get everything right the first time; accepting the lack of control in the process, and letting the improvisation engendered by uncertainty help drive the process; and creating a work environment that sets clear enough limits that people can play securely within them. They call this artful making: in short, "any activity that involves creating something entirely new." This includes not just the obvious "arty" things, but, for instance, "a successful response to an unexpected move by a competitor" or "handling a sudden problem caused by a supplier."

Over nearly 200 pages, Austin and Devin make a persuasive case — a vigorous argument, really — for a process that most designers would find familiar. I read the book, in fact, with a certain degree of smugness: we already know all this stuff, I kept thinking. More interesting to me was the tone that the authors take with their presumed reader, a kind of imaginary Old School Boss. Addicted to flow charts and timelines. Suspicious of ambiguity, unexpected outcomes, and, especially, artists. You know the type. That's who they're addressing when they say, almost consolingly, "We know our industrial age thought patterns intimately. We're comfortable with them. We love them because they are so successful for us..." Hey, who do you mean, "we?"

I was still feeling a little superior a few weeks later, attending one of Rob Austin's sessions at the AIGA HBS program. He was talking about his book and showing a slide that compared two processes. On the left was a diagram of the iterative, cyclical process used to develop software at a company that Austin admires, Trilogy. On the right was a sequential process, with arrows leading in turn from "Concept Generation" to "Product Planning" to "Product Engineering" to "Process Engineering" to "Production Process." This diagram was labeled "Clark and Fujimoto's Description of the Automaking Process."

I'll be damned if I've ever heard of Clark or Fujimoto, but the thing on the right looked eerily familiar. For good reason: I've used a version of it in hundreds of proposals over the years. I never really believed it was an accurate way to describe the process. I simply never had the confidence to describe the process in any other way. Like a lot of designers, I've considered my real process my little secret. With their work, Rob Austin and Lee Devin provide a new way not to think about what we do, but to help others understand it.

Posted in: Business

Comments [42]

You hit the nail on the head. Process is a really tricky thing in the creative industry, yet you still need to consistently deliver results. The book sounds very interesting and the example of a play makes a good point.
Ryan Nichols

Beautiful! Your description in italics is exactly how I have always practised design - and I think from now on I might take that and paste it in my proposals.

This whole question of 'process', it seems to me, is a hang-up. We're uncomfortable telling the truth about how we work, because we are embarrassed that it doesn't sound rigorous, professional, scientific... So we make up a load of baloney about 'process', which makes it look more like a management consultant's boxes and arrows. And, once we've been talking this up for a while, we even start to believe it. Or, at least, to believe that everyone else must work in this way - and that therefore there must be something wrong with us (yeah, I identified with that too!).

All of this has prevented us from developing a more considered way of talking about what we really do do. Ironically, there is now a body of quite respectable science that gives a convincing account of this kind of 'intuitive' way of working (Guy Claxton's book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind is an excellent summary). And, to be honest, it's much more fun to talk about this stuff - it's far more interesting than tedious flow and process diagrams, with their tasks and stages, outcomes and deliverables.

Personally I've now given up trying to make my practise look like something out of a Business School model. After two clients independantly described what I did for them as 'corporate therapy', that's the way I now talk about it. And everybody knows how therapists work - lots of listening, strange insights out of nowhere, surprisingly high fees and, hopefully, a nice sense of release afterwards. Therapists and management consultants are really just different kinds of charlatans - neither seem to produce much in the way of lasting change (as, indeed, we designers don't either). So it really comes down to what kind of charlatans we want to be - the kind that are dishonest about how we work, or the kind that are up-front about it.
james souttar

In my own process, I see both the linear and cyclical/iterative models as being valid ways of describing the evolution of a design solution.

To me, the design process relies on harmony between designer and client. From my site:

"One way of portraying the design process is to represent each phase of the design process as consisting of two opposite activities, performed repeatedly and in concert with other phases to create harmony. In each phase, thought and action are the basic elements. Designers think before they act, then act on that knowledge, evaluate the results, react to that and so forth in order to create an appropriate, rational and well-executed result."

In this manner, trust is earned through feedback - by making the client an active participant in the design process, so that the result is a synthesis of client and designer input.

Check out the full post on my site: http://rodgraves.com/process/
Rod Graves

Tom Mulhern and I gave a presentation at the Institute of Design's "About, With, and For" conference a number of years ago, entitled "Buttoned-Down Creativity" where we looked at the culture of these different groups (let's call them "clients" and "creatives" while acknowledging those are highly loaded terms) - the artifacts and symbols and communication styles.

We never did turn that into a paper (although we still could) and I won't try to recreate it all in the comments section of this blog, but we did consider ways that creatives can bring clients along, ways that creatives can present aspects of their work in forms that are comfortable and effetive for clients, and ways that creatives can interact that provide reassurance and clarity.

We didn't consider the actual process for performing the work, or any other aspects of the content, but really the packaging and acting that seem to be an under-recognized part of the "creative" process.
Steve Portigal

For some of us the process of mounting a play is a design process. It is a tricky thing to negotiate in meetings for a play between the other cretives(director, fellow designers, etc.) and management(producers). It necessitates everyone speaking two languages simultaneously. Further, the lines always inevitably blur to some extent.
Lucas Krech

Thanks heavens I'm not the only one who pulls ideas out of thin air. Maybe I can stop feeling so guilty. Wouldn't it be nice if we could just say "it's magic?" This article reminded me a bit of your post on bullshit, a few months ago. I wonder if clients are even half-expecting us to use big words they don't understand in order to gain their trust...
Kevin Sweeney

Although I design for the web, I consider myself to have a graphic-based background and mindset. However, I found reading software developers 37 Signal's 'Getting Real, The Book' very relevant to how good design process can work in the real world - simply by getting a few ingredients right. Although the book is a bit repetitive and idealist, it is easy to pick up and a light-hearted read. If I were to pull 3 main concepts from it's pragmatic look at agile development, they would probably be

1. Be iterative (rinse and repeat)
2. Keep it simple (build less)
3. Work with honest clients who believe in you (hire the right customer)

From time to time it is good to be told the things you already think you know.
Jamie Neely

I hve been teaching a little about the cretive process, and i totally understand this idea that a the process of creating something is not a scientific linear, step one, two, three thing! We all have different ways of understanding this and different ways of aproaching a new creation, allthough, i defenitely think that we all follow an instictive pattern, that repeats itself every time.

There are also some companies like IDEO that have a well defined process that thay follow when they create or innovate a product or service. I think this proves that a creative process can also be articulated in an objective way.

There is alot to be explored regarding this topic and i find it fascinating.
Michael Garcia Novak

The only design firm that is mentioned in Artful Making is IDEO, and the reference is an interesting one:

When professors at Harvard Business School use IDEO as an example, it's customary to note the difference between a "failure" and a "mistake." In the HBS view, IDEO cherishes failure because it generates new information. But a failure that doesn't generate new information is called a mistake. Touch a stove and burn your hand — that's failure; touch it again and burn your hand again — that's a mistake — same injury, no new information.

I also agree with Jamie Neely that Getting Real by 37signals is worth reading in this context. I should have mentioned it in the article.
Michael Bierut

The phases in our proposals don't represent the way we work. They represent that way we get paid.
Gunnar Swanson

the ultimate power is persuasion. if you can bring that, along with a 12 step process, some lofty objectives, established clients and a photo of you with a stack of awards well, then youre cookin with grease.

I've been doing some consulting with ad agencies lately. When I ask for the "stack" they bust out laughing. "he wants the stack! did you hear that? the stack!". that happened twice this month. the onus is on us (research) . from what i understand this guy david baker does alot of the process naming for big firms who can afford BrandEquity® (Landor), BEES® (Sterling) EmotionalBranding® (Gobe) and the names go on. Almost everyone has a process they adhere to.

I like Marshall Arisman's best. He calls it magic.
felix sockwell

I remember back when my professors wanted to see everyone's process in their sketchbooks. It made me wonder if everyone else's "ideas" sprout from the sketch itself. My own process started with hardcore thinking, the epiphany, and then a bunch of sketches of different executions. After that, I usually felt guilty enough to make some retroactive thumbnails showing what could've led to my idea's spontaneous manifestation. Process in creativity is never like a proof in geometry. But since the business mindsets we work for finds it easier to understand a steps-based process, the breakdown of project phases is nothing more than a design for the target audience of clients. Nothing wrong with that.
Kosal Sen



My grandpa used to say that to my brother and I. We figured it out one day (long after his death). We laughed for a long time.

"Abra Cadabra!"

Joe Moran

So i'm taking a break from actually writing a proposal and come across Michael's introspective thrashing of the proposal process.

Just when i thought i had the info in, he pulls it out! Haha.

Obviously, the pros have their processes already, but know perfectly well that "magic" is involved in the process.

Being a person that hasn't written a few hundred proposals already, it vexes me still. Yet, its nice to know the luminaries still have some insecurities about the whole process.

I was most intrigued by the theatre metaphor Michael uses here... in my experience the process really is a collaborative one, and yet there is often the fantasy that a designer will miraculously pull the solution 'out of a hat' indeed, like magic.

The truth is that it takes skill at both drawing out a client's vision (they all have one, even if they don't have it articulated very well) and listening deeply to what they are saying (even to what they are not saying, but only trying to convey). THEN I have a chance of coming up with something they will love, but otherwise I'm just going to be wasting a lot of time - both mine and theirs.

This was a great post, and I love the richness of the comments. Thank you! I just discovered the blog through a link someone made on Zaadz, and will subscribe to the feed!
Amy Lenzo

To me the process is a set of concrete, measurable steps that we follow so that our "Magic" is accurate.

Thanks for the tip on the book, Michael.

It seems every project we do as designers has both non-linear and linear activities tied to it. I've noticed that the bigger the project is, the more those linear processes need to be defined to successfully move the project along.

When you have the pleasure of working with a trusted, sole decision-maker on a small project, a non-linear discourse can lead the way...much like the fluid manner of an improv session in theatre. But the bigger the project, the more the designer, like the director of a large theatre production, has to anchor and focus the creative energy in a manner that offers freedom of exploration for the creative, but also a disciplined respect for the timelines, budgets, and deadlines. Even then, though, it can be a messy, scary, frustrating, and exhilirating process.
Daniel Green

I feel like taking a theatre class for some reason :)

Great post. By the way, I really enjoyed your presentation at the Kansas City Art Institute. I admire the path you've taken and continue to take.
Nathan Borror

Interesting to read Kosal Sen's comment about the sketchbook as part of the 'process':

I remember back when my professors wanted to see everyone's process in their sketchbooks... My own process started with hardcore thinking, the epiphany, and then a bunch of sketches of different executions. After that, I usually felt guilty enough to make some retroactive thumbnails showing what could've led to my idea's spontaneous manifestation.

This is pretty much what I've ended up doing many times: it does seem as if, for many clients, the volume of work apparently produced - especially 'designerly' sketches - during the 'process' symbolises good value, even if it doesn't actually reflect the real design process.
Dan Lockton

As a newbie here, I love the explanation our manufacturing process. But, did we leave out the part where the job's already been quoted and we want to finish it in the least amount of time, so we can make more money on it? Or is that what's considered the "magic" part?

The Harvard/AIGA Business Perspectives for Design Leadership was excellent. As one of Michael's classmates I also found the the session on innovation very interesting.
Here is the one idea I thought summed up the thought process.
Doing the right thing or Doing the thing right.
Doing the right thing is hopefully the final outcome of both of these methods but its more difficult to get there from a linear forced timeline driven process. Finding the right thing through iteration is less formal but in the end you have the best solution.
Artful Making is really worth reading and I now have a historical perspective on the assembly line mentality we run into so often. Eli Whitney is my new hero. I see this great meeting where he pours all the interchangable parts onto the table and the attendees assemble their rifles from random parts. Maybe we should try that at our next pitch. Just throw parts onto the table and let the client put together their own weapons...
Max Nelson

A friend and I have a running joke--my best ideas come after a shower, irregardless of a process carefully outlined in a proposal. Psychology for years has documented the value of leaving the problem at hand to allow the brain to work on it unconsciously. For me it is the solitude of hot water--for others it is something else. The truth is, the road to creativity is a leap of faith and often not quantifiable. In a world often driven by fear, we have to make the intangible real to a market that can't accept that intangibles of talent and intelligence are differentiators.
Lynda Decker

Many good points have been shared so I don't want to re-hash anything so I'll bring another aspect of process up that I didn't see anyone post about and that is 'Procrastination'.

For years I have had false guilt because I would put off doing sketches on a project until the deadline started approaching or was just around the corner. Well I've now come to realize that it's just the way I work best. Procrastination is part of my process but I don't call it that, I like to refer to it as 'Slow-Boiling.'

I inform my clients upfront when we go over project expectations and I glean necessary information from them for a given project that the first thing I do is sit on all of it and let it slowly begin to boil. Once I get to a point where ideas are starting to form and I run the risk of forgetting them, that is when I'll start sketching and doing thumbnails in order to capture these concepts on paper.

My best ideas tend to derive from non-literal inspiration. Once I figured this out about myself it completely changed the way I worked and that was a good thing.
Von Glitschka

My experiences echo yours - the proposal writing stage is still very important because it sets into motion the process of critical thinking and the refining of the vision. But after that analytical component is done - flexibility is the key that unlocks the rest.
The tolerance for inspired visions and new and interesting ideas must go hand in hand with prioritizing and drafting a schedule.

And so it goes - our best ideas come to us when we have first made sure we listened hard and made the right preparations and then somehow we can allow our brains to get out of the way a little bit. Whatever distraction works for you is the one that works. For me it is usually something that requires me to synchronise my hands and mind in a physical and satisfying pursuit. Usually simple things like gardening, carpentry, golfing, or playing guitar. Allowing myself the time to 'take my brain out of the equation' gives me the prespective and insight I need to solve the problems and sort the variables at hand.

I suspect many people like me who design new products (print publications, Web sites and film projects) or other highly visual media have a similar process. At first blush these non-tasked activities may seem world's apart and wasteful but with experience we learn they are critical to the process. Indeed they form the two sides of the same coin in my little world. Anyone else feel the same?

robb Montgomery - CEO

I've often thought that a lot of arty people (and businesspeople too) would benefit from taking a year of two of acting classes. Good ones, of course -- there's little more misery-making than bad acting classes. But a good scene-study or improv class can really not only stir the creative juices but deliver tons in the way of useful techniques and attitudes that carry over very quickly into many other realms of not just art-making but life. Think on your feet! Roll with it! Say "yes" and build on that! Besides, acting class is often sexy fun, and what's wrong with that?

The wisdom of the actor! They often appear to be pretty silly, but they have their insights and their ways ...
MIchael Blowhard

Awesome. Thanks for putting so succinctly what I never had really verbalized.

Now that I've wiped the tears from my eyes after laughing so hard, I can see the screen to tell you thank you. Thank you for finally ripping the curtain in half and revealing the truth for all of us, Michael. I was laughing my ass off because you described it exactly as it really goes down. And I'm going to buy that book.

Greg Duell

I think some of the disconnect with process in theory and process in practice is due to the fact that one process will not work in all scenarios. For instance, there is a difference in the way I would respond to an unframed problem versus a framed problem.

We've found at zigflitz, that one way to approach a new client with an unframed problem is to meet with the client and help them write or refine their design brief. That way, at the end of the initial consultation, if you as the designer or the client is not comfortable with the other party or with the project, there is an easy out, the time has been billable and the client has a (hopefully) more well thought out brief for the next designer that may come along. Once the brief is set, we like to use an iterative idea-generating process like Synectics or to use some of deBono's processes for developing many ideas. Then we take the strongest to take to the client to present. If that idea is not received well, we either reconsider the project or we move on to another idea we developed earlier.

By the way, it's refreshing and fascinating to hear other designers talk about the way they work. Thank you!

Also, I second the recommendation of the 37 Signals book. It's well worth reading.
Daniel Genser

I started reading this and was like 'oh man, that's me exactly!' I kept reading, amused that another designer who, undoubtedly like me, had learned from doing rather than getting formal design training was as apprehensive as I am with this stuff. I kept reading, and kept relating to this untaught, probably relatively new designer that was exactly like me.

I was grinning broadly by the end of it, and had to scroll back up to see the contributing writer's name and hopefully get a web link to check out.

Imagine my horror. Micheal fucking Bierut.

I'm amazed that this is a universal thing. I thought it was just me and blamed it on a lack of formal design education, a lack of experience, or sometimes, just a lack of ability.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Andy Malhan

Interesting in a discussion about the validity of the creative process the main theme here is constructing an orthodoxy of design process. Lets all find strength in the fact that we are all the same, and none of us has the confidence to sell what we find most valuable.

The changing ways that designers are using process is a rather complicated subject and one not ideally suited for the constraints of a blog forum. There seems to be great interest in "graphic design" focused dialogue here so making connections to a broader picture will likely be disruptive to some. To be brief I can share with you that we hear from many mid-career designers who are being presented at work with complex project opportunities that their traditional graduate design education has not prepared them for. Remarkably it is still possible to complete a graduate degree in design today without ever seeing a visual process. It is no secret that in the community we have multiple generations of folks out there teaching and or practicing various forms of design who were trained to rely entirely on intuitive methods. Not surprisingly they continue to be strong advocates of such methods regardless of the type or scale of challenges now being faced.

The good news is that there is a lot more diversity and knowledge around methods then there was ten years ago. In the big picture sense Design is reorganizing itself based less on discipline divisions and more on abilities to tackle different types of challenges. Today it is more widely recognized that participating in taking on the challenge of world peace is different than individually taking on the challenge of designing a poster for world peace. Lets be honest about that difference. While both would add value, the set of tools (and skills) required would likely differ significantly.

Many mid career designers find themselves being asked to take on, not only defined poster-sized challenges, but the vastly more complicated fuzzy problems and opportunities that their organizations and or clients now face. Whether they like it or not, as they move up the complexity scale, the operating context of design often changes. Increasingly they find themselves in the room with other smart folks from other tribes who have little patience with the "Wave the Wand / I can't tell you where I am in process but trust me I'm talented" approach. In this work context many are experiencing the Step Up or Step Out effect. The opportunity to participate is there but a different kind of participation is expected. Meeting expectations in this now widespread work context as a participant and as a leader is creating a lot of stress out there for designers.

Depending on what type and size of challenges one is working on, depending on your operating context, visual externalization of process may or may not be particularly useful. Clearly not everyone among us will want to grapple with the implications of working in this way.

Ultimately this is less about what words go into a contract, less about methodology style and more about changing needs and useful tools that can help address those needs. If you do not work in this context it is understandable that you would have little interest in the changing role of process in such settings.

Regardless I vote for not penalizing those among us who need those tools and those skills by holding on to old notions of what creativity and what design once was. Many young people read this forum looking for some sense-making and direction. An important forum like this one must surely be capable of modeling more then the championing of intuitive methods.

Perhaps another day we can talk about which parts of the market (simple challenges or complex challenges) seem to be growing, which are shrinking (ie, becoming commoditized by technology and or moving off-shore) and why. It is when you start to connect the economic dots between what's growing and what's shrinking, challenge size/type and tools that the impact of process mastery starts to hit home.
GK VanPatter

Wonderful post and comments.

"...a new way not to think about what we do, but to help others understand it."

From my experience, a collaborative process, especially one that involves more than 2 parties/disciplines, benefits far more from a common understanding of the goal than from plans or flow charts.

If you start with a snapshot of what each of the client, designer, investor, developer, et al initially envision, it might bring to mind the parable of the blind men with the elephant in far too many circumstances. We often make plans to try and explain to one another where we think we are going via describing the route rather than the destination.

Every participant on a team is there because he/she has specific skills/talents to contribute, not to teach one another how to do what they do.

The single most unifying factor, in my own experience, in achieving a harmonious result is a focus on the end goal in human terms, so the product or services you create is so perfectly suited to the end user/space as to be utterly irresistable. My own conceptualization of the circular approach is starting from the full vision of that end goal and then stripping it down to its most esential core as the correct starting place.

Vera Bass

Excellent comment GK VanPatter!

The framed/unframed divide seems to be the main difference in the work we're finding, lately as well. In the past, a client would come to the designer with a specific piece in mind - be it a poster, a web site, a brochure, a logo, whatever.

Now, though, we see clients coming to us earlier in the decision making process before the problem is framed. Of course, as we all know, this is the scenario that a lot of designers have been pushing for. We've all said about a project at some point, "This would be so much better if they'd come to us before they made this decision." We now have that opportunity. The question is what do we do with it?

I see designers tending to separate to one or the other camp -- moving towards a production focus, or embracing the consultantcy focus. I think both have a place. It will be interesting to see how things continue to change, and how designers drive that change or adapt to it.
Daniel Genser

Michael says "I have also accidentally acquired some firsthand experience with your situation. Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can't really explain that part; it's like magic." Most designers feel this "leap of imagination" is magical, and it does feel that way. However, it has more to do with the integration of professional experience and metaphorical thinking. Michael was right, one's actual process is different an sometime's non-linear. Michael is mistaken however, that this is a problem in the first place. Process is a guide, not a means to an end.

His last paragraph when he states "I never really believed it was an accurate way to describe the process. I simply never had the confidence to describe the process in any other way. Like a lot of designers, I've considered my real process my little secret." This is key as our need to describe an idealized process that is applied to many different problems never perfectly fits. However, the problem with design, that the business professions have figured out is that they developed a shared language based on case method. Now, case methods has been recognized as not working in today's business realities. However, using precedent to describe the future is an important aspect of understanding.

Most posted responses are based upon the feeling that " . . . we are embarrassed that it doesn't sound rigorous, professional, scientific... So we make up a load of baloney about 'process', which makes it look more like a management consultant's boxes and arrows." GK VanPatter's response stating that "Whether they like it or not, as they move up the complexity scale, the operating context of design often changes. Increasingly they find themselves in the room with other smart folks from other tribes who have little patience with the "Wave the Wand / I can't tell you where I am in process but trust me I'm talented" approach." The difference between both responses is it depends what each designer is being asked to solve.

Design Methods was articulated in 1970 based on the very same issues. The reason that it was created was the recognition that contemporary problems that could benefit from design's involvement. It acknowledged that pure rationalism (the Cartesian process folks) or pure intuition (those creative folks) was not enough, but the integration of both and have a dialogue between the two in order to have real innovation. Unfortunately, design methods was not managed well, and 36 years later the design community finds itself trying to respond to a very different contemporary world than what they were trained to do.
Adam Kallish

[Full disclosure: I am a colleague of GK's and active in NextD. If our views sound related, there's a good reason for it.]

If you read GK's last conversation in the NextD Journal with John Chris Jones (http://www.nextd.org/02/index.html), you'll see that John Chris is still trying to sort out how to blend the Dionysian with the Apollian.

And while I sympathize with (and take part in) that struggle, I feel we need to acknowledge that a purely intuitive mode is only fine if you're working alone.

If you're tackling large, wicked problems, you are going to have to collaborate. And that, for me, is where a purely intuitive approach hits a wall. During effective collaboration you have to articulate and share a process and process skills to be most effective.

I also want to note that we can articulate a process for iteration just as easily as you can articulate a linear process. And even if we stray from the process at any particular point, we can and should articulate that, too. That way the design team can stay in synch.
Tony Fross

I couldn't agree more with Michael's post and wish to encourage readers to go beyond your current understanding and comfort with the concepot of a designer and the design process to embrace an even more creative process. I gave a presentation at the McCoy's High Ground Conversation a couple years ago on a "creative way of working" and Andrew Blauveldt called it "Creative Production" I gave a further developed presentation on the subject at the The Overlap and Victor Lombardi turned me on to Artful Making!

While I think the artful making process will seem familiar to designers, I don't think we have even begun to embrace the collaborative model of creative production that is the norm in theater and film making. For an immersive trip into creative production watch the behind the scenes on The Making of the Incredibles on disk two of the incredibles DVD. Designers and the businesses they work for need to start working more like Pixar and less like McKinsey...
Chris Conley

Regarding the comment made about design not embracing the "collaborative model" it is likely as important to distinguish between design education and design practice as it is to distinguish between McKinsey and Pixar. While most graduate design education institutions have been extremely slow to teach anything but rudimentary cross-disciplinary collaborative skills we should not assume that the same lack of knowledge applies to practice. As designers we have been teaching cross-disciplinary innovation skills in the business community since 2000. Since we created NextD in 2002 we have in the spirit of knowledge sharing, made a cross-disciplinary innovation skills workshop available to the design community every summer. In that NextD workshop we teach many of the same innovation dynamics skills that we teach in the business community through our Humantific practice.

We have noticed a big push in the past five years by several leading American graduate design schools to sell product centric ethnography as the innovation Holy Grail but that's an outbound skill. As useful as that skill certainly is, teaching everyone ethnography will have zero impact on the collaborative dynamics of a cross-disciplinary team. Of course its much more palitable to teach how to study user behaviors then it is to teach how to change our own behaviors. It is that latter behavior that will have long term effects on the organization. Anyone who works in an organization where there is little inbound innovation knowledge knows how stressful, unfun and counterproductive that kind of culture can be. Today a new generation of designers in practice are engaged at the organizational level not just at the individual project level.

Long resistant to teaching inbound skills, graduate design education institutions have been extremely slow to acknowledge that addressing complex challenges and opportunities in cross-disciplinary settings involves a different set of inbound and outbound innovation skills. That resistance has left them playing catch-up. While several graduate schools are just now awakening to such realities the kind of knowledge that already exists in the design practice community around cross-disciplinary collaborative innovation is world-class, second to none and in high demand in the business community and other communities around the world where cross-disciplinary work is already the norm. In my travels I have noticed that the business community is more aware of the existence of such organizational needs and such expertise then our own design education community. The good news is that designers are already out in the marketplace providing such expertise and have been for some time.
GK VanPatter

Sorry in advance if one of the preceding 37 posts makes a similar allusion, but I wanted to get this thought out while it was fresh.

Artful Making sounds like Agile Development - specifically a variation of it called SCRUM. It's a software development methodology that my partner and I are regularly trying to wrestle into a graphic design process. It posits that developing an application (much like contract work on a house) invariably involves too many unforeseeable variables to ever accurately estimate time and budget.

Instead, it suggests that a brief understanding of the intended general outcome, short 'sprint' phases in which you deliver working components, and reprioritizing the next deliverable based on what you know at the end of each sprint will get you a better product sooner and for less money than the pre-planning route. Instead of getting to the end of the project (if you make it at all - some 50% of corporate software dev projects don't) before you realize the solution is less than ideal, you're taking regular stock of your best options, and correcting as you go.

It seems so smart it should be common sense, for developers (and contractors, who really do need to tear a hole in the wall before they can tell you what a project will involve).

There are two problems we always seem to run into in our schemes to apply this method to design. The first is that design largely means 'plan', and requires knowing as much about a given problem as possible. We often comment on how much of a project is really about the idea- the rest spent justifying the concept (and our hours).

The second is that it relies too heavily on trust. Something hard to come by when we're effectively selling the 'magic' side of what we do.
The former is still beyond me, but I believe the latter boils down to your brand. Bear with me. We all know photographers whose mystique allows them to charge princely sums, maybe our profession just needs to get there. I can certainly think of a few designers who can command the necessary respect to dictate the terms they work under. Of course only clients with the right mind-set will be willing to play, but that just helps them narrow the audience they're pitching.

In the end, we offer a service that might perhaps, like other consultants, be judged based on value. This would obviously influence our fees, but might it not also help us feel more confident about whatever process we use?

It would be nice to let our imaginations out of the closet. I mean, isn't that how we all got started in these areas?

Barry Martin

if designers were ranked like tennis players, mr. bierut would obviously be top seed. i, however, well... let's see there's 6.5 billion people in the world so...nevermind. my point is its a little bit of a relief to hear of mr. bierut's doubt and uncertainty when it comes to formulating a process. i've heard over and over about how one should draw and draw and draw until there are so many thumbnails tacked to the wall... but i'm a daydreamer. and i feel like a slacker because of it—but if its methodical process that i truly need shouldn't i be working on water street in excel everyday? this is the stuff that torments me. thanks for the post.

Great article. Copywriters get asked the same question by clients. I tell clients the "process" is the briefing, fact-finding, questioning and independent research, but the actual ideas come from brainstorming - on my own or with others - after that process. I use mindmaps to brainstorm ideas, which I can actually show clients if they ask.

Some people feel an idea coming on and rush to pen and paper.
Others see it in a flash
Others think it through
There are many ways to click the creativity switch on.
There are more than 100 ways to learn
Myriad ways to solve a problem.
The interesting part is knowing that when we present our ideas to someone else.They may have a different way of making a critical judgement.

another shining example of how design thinking makes the world a better place. truth is, my process is that i have no process. each problem, project and client is different. why should they be fed through the same assembly?

Jobs | July 23