Enough Design Methods

By Jon Kolko

It’s standardized: it’s repeatable, structured, and systematic. And methods run counter to the ethos of creativity, the magic of making something from nothing.

IDEO, a design firm, has published method cards which are intended to “encourage you to try new approaches for making design useful, usable, and delightful to people.” There are 51 methods.

The d.school, a part of Stanford, has published methods in their  “bootcamp bootleg”, which outlines “each mode of a human-centered design process, and then describe dozens of specific methods to do design work.” There are 37 methods.

frog design, a design firm that I used to work at, has a “collective action toolkit” which “enables groups of people anywhere to organize, collaborate, and create solutions for problems affecting their community.” There are 30 methods.

IBM has their IBMDT method cards. 18F, a government agency focused on design, has human-centered design method cards. Cooper has cards. SAP has cards. And on and on.

Designers are enamored with methods that define “ways of doing design.” There’s a historical backstory to this. In the sixties and seventies, the United States and England were riding on the back of the scientific progress of the fifties, particularly in the space of consumerism, urban planning, and architecture. There was a strong effort to make fields like industrial design and planning more scientific, more methodical, rational, predictable, and repeatable. Much of this was captured in a movement called the “design methods movement”, spearheaded by Christopher Alexander. Alexander has become known for his work in pattern languages, adopted by computer scientists. But in the late 60s and early 70s, his work focused less on broad patterns and more on discrete and formal ways of doing things – mathematical ways to solve human design problems.

This is that idea that there’s a “right way” to do design work, that there’s a most optimal process to arrive at the most optimal results. As an example, consider the housing projects of that time period: top down, autocratic approaches to creatively solving hard problems like affordable housing. It makes historic sense that this was the goal. Of course architects want to improve the world around them, and providing housing in mass for people in need seems like a good idea.

This idea of an optimal form of problem solving was echoed in fields of computational problem solving at the same time in history. Herb Simon, an early pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, dedicated his career to understanding how people solve problems, in part so he could then identify how computers could solve problems, too. He described the way designers use a hierarchical form of subdivision to make sense of and solve a problem. Systems, he described, can be continually broken down into smaller and smaller components, making problems more and more tractable. In the same way that science has a method for understanding natural phenomena, he argued that design too had a method for understanding (and producing) human-made phenomena – topics like economics or culture.

This methodical, rigorous approach to problem solving is valuable. It adds a grown-up feeling to design activities, helping separate them from art – a discipline that has a reputation as being “less serious” or “less important.” This elevates the perception of design in the eyes of business and government, making it seem like a mature and valuable activity. For problem solvers looking to believe in our human ability to manage the world around us, methods reinforce that we are in control and that we can tame complexity.

But time has shown that a top-down approach to design activities frequently results in failure. The housing projects mentioned above are one of the most obvious examples of this failure. Instead of creating a perfect living arrangement, the mandated mini-city became a segregated urban ghetto and created a very clear delineation between haves and have nots, mostly split down the line of race. We designers were unable to “science” our way to a clear and concise problem solution because our systems include people, and people do non-rational things. They don’t behave according to top-down rules, and when people are introduced into a system, the system operates in strange, unintended ways.

Methods are a game

In fact, Alexander recognized this, and years after engaging with methods, he rejected the entire movement. He described that “… I have been hailed as one of the leading exponents of these so-called design methods. I am very sorry that this has happened, and want to state, publicly, that I reject the whole idea of design methods as a subject of study, since I think it is absurd to separate the study of designing from the practice of design. In fact, people who study design methods without also practicing design are almost always frustrated designers who have no sap in them, who have lost, or never had, the urge to shape things. Such a person will never be able to say anything sensible about ‘how’ to shape things either.”

It is this lack of “urge to shape things” that I find most troubling about the return to methods in the form of modern-day method cards.

We seem to be more focused on pseudo-scientific, quick paths to shallow solutions, rather than a immersive depth of creative craft.

I see this in the cards themselves.

The d.school describes that a good way for designers to become mentally active is to play “Category, category, die!” The specific instructions, in their widely accepted and respected deck of method cards, explains that you should “Line people up. Name a category (breakfast cereals, vegetables, animals, car manufacturers). Point to each person in rapid succession, skipping around the group. The player has to name something in that category. If she does not, everyone yells ‘die!!’ and that player is out for the round.”


Image copyright d.school, as part of Bootcamp Bootleg

They also describe that there’s a design method called “video editing”; this method can “make or break a video.” The card explains that “music is very powerful: use it wisely.”

The cards also explain that a Composite Character Profile “can be a great way to create a ‘guinea pig’ to keep the team moving forward” and that a “Critical Reading Checklist” asks “four basic questions.”

These are coming from IDEO, too; their “Collage” method describes that “Making things is a fantastic way to think things through, one that we use at IDEO.org to unlock creativity and push ourselves to new and innovative places.” The method is as simple as one, two, three:

  1. When you meet the people you’re designing for, make sure you have collage supplies with you.
  2. Give the people you’re designing for a prompt for their collage. Perhaps you ask them to make a collage that represents taking control of their lives, their dream jobs, or how they think about their families.
  3. When they’re finished, ask them to describe the collage, what the various elements represent, and how it speaks to the prompt. Not only will you have a visual record of your research, but you can use the collage as a springboard to further conversation or to explore new areas in your research.


Image copyright IDEO, as part of their Field Guide to Human-Centered Design

I’m not cherry picking these; most of the methods have the same thin, overly naive approach to creativity. They’re so troubling because they’ve positioned the methods as legitimate instructions for “how to do design”; follow the instructions, and you are suddenly a designer. It’s that easy.

And lest I sit in my glass house and throw stones, I’m guilty of this too. My second and third books offered methods, the earlier focusing on methods for synthesizing data, and the later on methods for tackling complex or “wicked” problems. I reduced the value of “things designers do” to a name, a blurb, and a set of steps, because I wanted the material to be easily accessible. In the first case, my goal was that designers would be able to learn new approaches to insert into existing processes. In the second case, I was aiming at a broader, more novice audience. Methods seemed like the best way to communicate the power of design in a concise, easily understood way. But it is in this concision that the value of design is reduced to nothing, and I’m just as much to blame as anyone else.

I think some of the people that are making these methods recognize that they are on a thin foundation. The deck of IDEO methods cards warns that “these cards aren’t meant to be prescriptive nor exhaustive ‘how to’ for a human centered design.” But the cards exist nonetheless, and their rich aesthetic and simple language makes them feel like a ‘how to.’ The d.school’s methods guide comes with no warning, and instead explains that the “methods provide a tangible toolkit” and that the methods, along with the other materials in the guide, are “vital attitudes for a design thinker to hold.” I just don’t know how it’s possible to justify that collaging is a vital method, or attitude, for design. It’s fun, and a useful participatory design technique. But vital? Are we poor designers if we don’t collage?

These are the problems with design methods:

  1. Methods are watered down instruction, offering only the thinnest description of how design works. It’s not as easy as 1-2-3. It’s a profession, and it’s hard.
  2. Methods imply that experience doesn’t matter, and that anyone with a card can be a designer. Everyone should be able to benefit from the value of design. It should be a liberal art, one respected and taught with the same broad popularity as literature or philosophy. But as it’s an arduous process to become a competent writer, so too is it arduous to become “good” at design. Experience trumps method every single time.
  3. Methods are overly prescriptive. While some come with warning labels, most indicate that “design should be done like this” and students of the methods are taught that there is a right and wrong way to go about solving problems. I see this when I teach both graduate students and professionals. They are constantly looking for the right ways to do things, often asking questions as rudimentary as “what size post it note should we use?” – as if there’s an optimal way to design, and I have that answer and need to give it to them.
  4. And most importantly, methods make design seem scientific, when it is experimental. Design is not just a directed, purposeful activity. It is also reflexive, as is much creativity. We lose ourselves in the work, and the work talks back, and out of the creative process emerges magic. This is not a science of the artificial. It is an exploration of the artificial.

Methods are a game

I’m concerned that the methods we’re publishing in all of our well designed card decks are making our profession appear stupid, and doing a disservice to the people using the cards. Collaging is fun, and participatory design is an important part of research. It’s valuable to give participants rudimentary tools like collaging material that help them express their creative ideas even when they don’t know how to create artifacts with more fidelity. But participatory design is not collaging: it’s tacit knowledge, built on years of experience. Video editing is not a “method.” It’s a profession. Each of the activities that has been boiled down to a method card are really the hard, roll up your sleeves work of practicing designers. No method can be the solution for solving the world’s hardest problems. Only hard work, perseverance, and a lifetime of experience can drive the real problem solving, form giving, and changemaking we strive for as designers.

Images from d.school, IDEO, and Sergey Galyonkin.

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