Is the Design Process Like a Wave or a Particle?

Is the Design Process Like a Wave or a Particle?

By Dorothy Shamonsky, Ph.D.

Although design is a subject of much interest in this age of highly usable technology products, misconceptions about the user experience (UX) design process abound. A fundamental fallacy is that the design process is one-dimensional, involving essentially one kind of thought process.

The ‘Misconception-ers’ often fall into two camps:

--those that believe designing is primarily a burst-of-inspiration, gestalt experience

--those that believe designing is primarily an extensive to-do list

The tendency is to hold the activity of designing as being all one style, or the other. Gestalters believe design occurs by taking a collection of requirements or a swirl of ideas and gelling them, in a burst of inspiration, into a clever solution. Boom, voila, done. To-doers believe that design occurs by checking off items on a list: collect requirements, choose design elements, etc. All checked, done!

Gestalters believe designing is 90% inspiration and that it takes a relatively short period for a talented designer to go from zero to complete. (If it takes longer, you must not be very talented!) To-doers feel safe following discrete tasks and are confident they will end up with something resembling a design after all tasks are completed. (The steps need to be simple and concrete so they are easy to cross off; hard-to-call-done tasks, like what is the overall concept, aren’t important here.)

Both camps are correct in that gestalt thinking and to-dos are a part of any design process. However, both camps are missing much of the dimension and skill involved in a design process to think that only one method is a viable approach. A design process utilizes both gestalt and linear thinking, requiring a designer to imagine whole concepts and at the same time manage to get all the steps done and bring a design to fruition.

If you have trouble with the wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics, maybe this is befuddling. One could perceive gestalt and linear thinking as unable to occupy the same design process and assume that only one approach can work at any one time. Instead, I would argue that employing both approaches simultaneously is the secret sauce, the tension, the thinking/non-thinking that leads to truly good, even great, design outcomes. Here’s how and why.

A design is the sum of various requirements and constraints that are contained in an over-riding concept and expressed in an aesthetic language. To bring together and prioritize requirements and constraints on a project, and then develop a concept with a particular aesthetic expression, requires the designer to synthesize all the various and at times conflicting parts into a whole, compelling vision. This is gestalt thinking and this is the creative, inspired part of the design process.

Now for the linear part. The initial design concept for a project is full of intention and flavor but lacks detail. It contains the spark that will bring life to a design. In order to progress from initial concept to brilliant product, a designer must articulate the design concept down into the smallest details. This includes considering all the actual content, creating a spec and/or mockups, and ensuring that stakeholders are informed and sign off on each step of progression.

As I alluded to earlier, for a designer to successfully bring a concept or vision to fruition, they must simultaneously maintain holistic and logical thinking. It’s not a matter of doing one kind of thinking at one point and another kind at anther point. A designer must hold on to the spark in their original vision, and at the same time articulate and evolve that vision by progressive steps. The designer must fight to maintain their vision, because the process of articulating the design down into the small details can easily water down or even kill that vision.

It’s necessary for a designer to be both a dreamer and a process fanatic in order to imagine great ideas and carry them thorough to completion.  Designers tend to be good at juggling complexity (of often-conflicting requirements) and creating clarity (of usability). The complexity of the design process is a beautiful thing, just as the simplicity of the resulting product is as well.