“Design” – Some thoughts

I recently read “Design of Design – Essays from a Computer Scientist” by Fred Brooks of the “Mythical Man Month” fame. The collection of essays attempts to make a larger point about the role of “design” in engineering activity as everyday systems get more complex for the average user. With the focus on “design” – primarily motivated by the success of Apple products – sweeping across the tech landscape and as I engage with my peers in the industry in various capacities (who each have a common-sense notion of “design”), I realize it is important to keep a few pointers in mind that can guide the “design” effort. The term “design” is both a verb (an action or process) and a noun (notionally the output of the process) leading to quite an overloaded term.

Having studied “design” in all its  nuances as an academic researcher in the days of  systems design research in the 90s and being an everyday “design” practitioner to-date,  following are some key conceptual pot-holes to understand:

  • Is One designing a product/system versus designing a process versus doing both: As a designer, one has to be clear what is the intended end result. For example, in the food processing industry, folks who make say “doughtnuts” or “potato chips” design large-scale processes with automation to make these items in large batches. Choosing the automation technology, figuring out the temperature of the vegetable oil to fry the doughnuts or potato wafers, designing techniques to sort and pack etc. are parts of the “process” design activity (while designing custom machinery is the product design activity). Similarly, the recent craze of 3-D printing (an innovation in process) – promises to lead to a new generation of products. Designing a physical widget – such as your everyday kitchen blender- is a product design activity. Choosing the motor, designing the blades, testing the effect of speed (frappe, blend, grind etc.) on different types of food, designing the blender jars (metal or glass), designing the housing, choosing the material for the same, even possibly designing/selecting  the manufacturing process all different aspects of the product design activity. A good example is the Dyson vacuum cleaners – new materials, new suction technology or the Roomba. In UX design (let us say in a mobile app), the designer defines both the process – how you want a consumer to engage/interact and the product – the widgets/”entities”/information units – the consumer interacts with. In most innovative/creative activities, new processes lead to new product designs, new product manufacturing requires new processes and so there is  a major interplay between these two aspects. However, as a designer, one tries to fix one aspect and focus on the other as the whole exercise is too complex. For example, in UX design, we assume the set of UI widgets is fixed (the UI library provides this) – the focus is on how you use these widgets to build the consumer/user’s journey.
  • Designing versus Planning:  Another source of  confusion (since design is a process) is the confounding of designing with planning. Both activities have “goals” and  constraints. However, design is an open-ended activity (the nature of the solution is not known).  Design is a many-sided problem with many degrees of freedom – one can change inputs, outputs or any other relevant aspect. You apriori do not know which one to start with. A final workable solution may or may not exist. Planning is a more well-specified activity and a solution can be found (however sub-optimal). Usually, planning deals with resource management (time, people, tools, space, material, money) and the aim is to achieve a goal (wherein the component tasks are pretty well-specified). The term “plan” and “design” are used inter-changeably in some contexts such as floor plans, layouts in architecture and landscaping.
  •  Viewing the design problem as search, constraint satisfaction, multi-objective optimization, problem-solving, model-building:  Numerous studies (including observations) have attempted to rationalize the design process (as transforming some inputs to outputs).  The problem has been modelled as search (based on Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial), constraint satisfaction problems (such as chess or the zebra puzzles), optimization (wherein a mathematical function is minimized/maximized), generic problem solving involving a generate-and-test approach and even model-building (where the result of the design process is a model of how things should be). No one paradigm captures all the ranges of a design problem apriori. As the design problem evolves, new requirements are discovered, the approach to solve the problem evolves.
  • Understanding the role of Analysis in Design: A key aspect of design activity is the sense of “assembling” piece-meal solution snippets (possibly components, ideas, concepts, repurposing previous solutions etc) in a functional whole that addresses the specified context. During this phase, one may have to delve deeper into the “analysis” of the component. This analysis is under-pinned by the scientific/technological knowledge amassed by the different sciences – applied and fundamental. Physics, chemistry, biology,mathematical/simulation models and more guide this analysis. Important to note that by definition, that each analysis will focus only one aspect of the final design. For example, in chip design – thermal analysis is separate from logic analysis etc. In UX design – the performance of an API call to the backend – its components etc.
  • Designing in relation to creativity, innovation, invention and discovery: During the process of design, the designer may have to “create” something new (from scratch, such as a new material or a new component or a new type of visual widget etc. that did not exist before). The result of the creative activity is an “invention” – something that exists now for the first time. Alternatively, the designer may creatively repurpose an already existing invention (such as velcro for shoe-straps or post-it) that meets the requirements of the existing context (with minor modifications to the existing invention). This “innovation” – helps solve the problem. In a different scenario, for example while creating the new material (as in the foregoing example), one may “discover” something new about the reality of quantum mechanical laws – new states, new behaviors. The key thing about “discovery” – the phenomena already exists (implicitly or explicitly in nature or in our man-made world), we uncover it and then exploit that principle to invent etc. There are many examples of serendipitous innovations and discoveries (such as penicillin).  However, the task of inventing is far more rigorous and time-consuming such as exhibited by Edison and his filament bulb (which are slowly fading away). Furthermore, “innovation” is usually in the eye of the beholder (what you did not know before, you consider it new!). In terms of increasing complexity – discovery, invention, innovation – all are aspects of “creativity” in design.

Wherever, man  has “engineered” the world around him, it requires a big element of design – though one may not recognize the same. For example,  the layout of a golf course – has a major element of landscape design along with “gamification” – creating flow (as defined by Cziksentmihalyi) – challenge and engage the players and enthrall the viewers. The course designer is constrained by the laws/rules of golf, the available terrain, the “ability” of current golfers (physical limits and the  technology behind golf equipment), the available budget and finally his own creativity to layout a course. The design variables include length of each hole, the ordering of the holes, the hazards on each hole and more.

Just as a though experiment, I thought I’d list  some of the different areas of design, which we run into on a daily basis  in our modern lives:

  • Industrial design/Furniture design/Fashion/Kitchenware/Interior Design
    Architecture/Urban design/Landscape design, Ergonomics Design
  • Design in computer systems – UX design, UI design, Mobile design, Game design, Schema/data design, Language/compiler design, DB design, SW design, OS design,visualization
  • Publishing Layouts, New Mag formats, Font design, Ad formats/layouts
  • Design in Engineering – Civil engineering (buildings, bridges, traffic infrastructure), Power engineering, electronics (HW design, analog design, chip design), Chemical engineering (materials, metals and more), mechanical engineering (your auto propulsion systems, HVAC and more)
  • Healthcare/Pharma – Drug design, hospital design, designing repeatable surgical processes, diagnostics, treatment plans, physiotherapy regimens, nutrition plans
  • Social Engineering/design – As new modes of man-machine interaction appear, how do we engineer those – interleaving human cognitive and psychological attributes.
  • Retail design – Showrooms, shopping systems
  • Financial Engineering – new mortgage and investment products, payment systems
  • Materials design – nanomaterials, materials that work at extremes of temperature, materials that are compatible biologically etc.
  • Food design – modern foods with GMOs, processing foods for preservation and long distance delivery, new flavors, new packaging, new “dining” experiences, new recipes.
  • Designing Organizations – the large-scale corporations with hierarchies to nimble teams (lean startups), hoteling in everyday work, Work from home movements, social organizations and more
  • Design in Humanities/Creative Writing/Content creation – Even the process of content creation has a basic template (tropes and styles) that generate engagement and way you go about delivering the experience

Every aspect of our life interacts with some designed/engineered artifact or process. As our modern lives get more complex, good design is essential to alleviate the travails of everyday living. One can imagine the amount of time wasted collectively because things are not designed the way they should have been (incomplete or rather erroneous on some dimension or other). We as consumers put up with it, hoping  to harvest any benefit we can get (Even Apple – I can imagine the number of adapters and connectors I have bought over the past few years!).

Designing for the modern consumer requires the “designer” to pay attention to so many aspects – it is quite daunting. Developing the sensibility of what the consumer would like, walk in their shoes, visualize the product/process and think holistically are hallmarks of a good designer. However, I believe it is doable and the benefits  are palpable for any one who engages with the end product of the design activity. In future posts, I will talk about what it takes to become a good designer.