2011-03-11

Design is Decision Making

Design is a decision making process. It is a search for possible solutions then deciding which of the solutions to execute. The design process gives a broad range of possible solutions that can then be agreed upon and then refined into the best solution.

A broad range of possible solutions is good in design projects for many reasons. The designer might not fully understand what the client wants or the target audience needs. There is difficultly in communicating design goal nuances and so the best way to deal with this is by proposing potential prototype solutions (“concepts”). The aesthetic needs of a project might also need exploration to avoid unoriginal clich├ęs. A situation (the total of the boundaries) might be so unique and outside the experience of the designer that extra care must be taken in finding the best solution. Also, the creative thinking of a designer is usually done through the action of pen to paper, mouse to screen.

The design process is meant to come to the “best” (most appropriate) solution. This is great when a designer has the luxury of time. Systematic decision making, such as the design process, become less and less useful as time becomes pressured.

Fire Commanders work in a very time pressured situation where the criteria for decision making is “safely and quickly”. They know that a decision that gets the job done safely (which implies quickly before the fire spreads) is better than waiting around for the “best” solution. Fire Commanders make decisions by initially assessing a situation, coming up with a plan, checking the plan for likely failures then executing the plan. During execution they will constantly reassess the situation and tweak the plan. Fire Commanders do not have the luxury of time to consider many alternative plans. So how do they make the right decision? Experience.

Interestingly, a proposal for Fire Commander training looks very similar to the educational models used in atelier design schools. Design schools (e.g. mine) train both systematic process and experience - and so equip students well for a variety of decision making in their future design careers.

Many graphic design industry professionals I’ve spoken to work in time pressured situations so their decision making abbreviates the systematic design process until it resembles the decision making model of the Fire Commander. This does risk “best” for “expedient” – but often expedient is good enough. Again, expedient decision making is most successful when the decision maker is experienced.

The best way to learn to make good decisions is through experience. It is even better if that experience is guided by a mentor. The best way to gain experience is through doing then reflecting upon what was done. Understanding the work of other great designers can also teach a new designer how things can be done. Just looking at a design work is not enough. Understanding a design means connecting the design to its proper context by decoding the message, the medium the target audience, the client and how these all affected the work.

So, the default rule is to always follow the full systematic design process. Realistically this rule will be broken often. Rule breaking is most successfully done by those with experience. When a designer is not confident in their experience for a situation (or just simply uninspired) they should expect to spend more time and follow the full systematic design process.