A designer’s brain

Creative designers are expected to come up with stuff. But how does that actually work?

As most designers, I like things to be simple. But making things simple is hard work. Sometimes you succeed, often you don’t. But where the ingredients and the outcome is different each time, the process is the constant factor.

Understanding the question

To enable your brain to solve a puzzle, the puzzle must be clear. Understanding the question at hand means studying the problem and looking at it from all sides and angles. This phase involves asking annoying questions and read everything you can find on the subject.
In this phase I focus on everything that has impact on what is to be designed. Technical limitations, surroundings, restrictions and requirements, but also the goals that stakeholders pursue, the questions and assumptions behind the requirements and of the motivations that drive these questions and assumptions. The better you understand what you are going to be solving, the better your solution will be.

Good work takes time

Gathering information might not look like the most sexy design work, but it is the crucial phase. Information that is not loaded into the designers brain cannot be taken into account in any solution it produces. Information can always be added during iterations of the design, but nothing beats a complete picture of the problem before the first concepts is formed.
A better understanding of the problem will lead to a better design. Because all information you absorb is organised in parameters in the designer’s brain. And all these parameters are processed and checked once you allow your brain to start creating solutions.

Parametric processing

With all the insights loaded, the brain can start arranging the parameters. This is the part where you put your feet up, but you don’t permit your hand to grab a pencil.
Arranging parameters means determining what insights lead to what sort of solutions. And what parameters contradict that solution. This is the game of creating ‘parts’ of solutions, but also formulating requirements that any solution has to meet.

A recipe for success

Especially for more complex problems, the first step in processing the parameters is creating models that capture the relations between parameters. When working on a complex building layout, this means mapping relations between areas and using mathematical or graphical models to find the ideal size for floors and sections. When designing a web based application it means creating groups and flows of related actions and functionalities and clustering them into larger chunks.

The reason for playing around with the parameters and requirements like that before actually starting to design something that could be a solution, is to define the recipe for succes. What relations are to be created to serve consistency? What sections are determining the size of a floor and what clusters or rooms are dictating the structural grid?

Especially in the design process of complex products, creating some options is not a very sound strategy. You simply cannot design some buildings for a plot and have the client pick the one he likes best. Creating options in building design is far too expensive. You have to agree on the recipe for succes and the choices that are made in bringing the ingredients together during the design phase.

Iterate and reject and personal taste

Once you have some means of determining whether a solution actually solves your problem, you can finally unleash your brain and let it do it’s creative magic. The first one will be complicated and blurry, but by judging each solution on how well it solves the problem and how well it suits your personal quality criteria as a designer, they will get better and better.

These quality criteria are different for each designer. They have to do with the style of design. If - like me - you like well-balanced, minimalist designs that elude an obvious simplicity, you will probably be delighted by the minimalist architecture in Japanese modern housing. But obviously, many people have a different taste when it comes to architecture and would prefer an English traditional cottage. So even if you can admire the cleverness that shows from an intelligence solution, you might still not really like it. Because it doesn’t appeal to your personal taste.

When iterating design solutions the concepts will come closer and closer to something that actually resembles a design that answers the question. The iteration can go fast or slow, take days or minutes. Sometimes it happens on paper, sometimes in a mathematical model and sometimes you just shift through large amounts of solutions in your brain. The difficulty of design is that you never know how long it will take to hit the mark.

Start sketching

But at some point you will find yourself grabbing a pen and starting a sketch. And once the drawing starts, things will evolve in a different pace and level of detail. Now designing becomes communicating, first with yourself and then with others. For your brain might have figured out how the parameters should be organised and laid-out, you now have to decide what that will look like.