"Prescribed design processes are for bad designers"

Opinion: we must dispel the myth that design is a predictable and sequential process, says Lucas Verweij, because creativity can't be duplicated in laboratory conditions.


The design industry is currently embroiled in an identity crisis. There is a lot of confusion about what design actually is. Some say it is the process of applied creativity, a creative mentality. Others say it is intrinsically material or craft-based, and has to have a firm relation to industrial production. Yet others plea that design at its core is an entrepreneurial approach.

But despite suffering from a multiple personality disorder, the design world has managed to come to an apparently unanimous agreement on what constitutes a "design process". In almost all publications on design methods the same descriptions occur. We may not agree about what constitutes the profession of design, but we do seem to agree on what processes are underlying it.

But are these schemes and descriptions actually adequate? I don't think so. The reality of a design process is much more complex, chaotic and unpredictable than the literature and design teachers would have us believe.

An archetypal design process is usually presented as consisting of five parts: an analytic, synthesis, creative, executive and testing phase.

After formulation of the assignment, there is an analytic phase where the problem is being explored. All questions are put to the client and desk research is done. Then there is a stage of synthesis. The information is sorted and a general approach develops. The rest of the process is planned at this stage. At the core is a creative process, the design concept is achieved here.

After the creative phase is passed to effect, there is an executive phase – sketches are developed into drawings and physical models and prototypes are built. Sometimes materials and structural tests are done. The final stage is to test, improve and present. Conclusions are drawn and, where necessary, one can jump back into a previous phase.

There are of course many variations of scripted design processes, ranging from a minimum of three phases (think, create, act) to seven (define, research, ideation, prototype, select, implement, learn). Remarkably, the process of product design hardly differs from that of graphic, architectonic or social design. Through the enormous span of the design field we see the same descriptions; hardly varying between sub-disciplines.

Although these descriptions can be found in almost any instruction book, these prescribed design processes are for bad designers. Good designers don't use them.

These steps might be helpful if you're depressed, or have no ideas or inspiration at the time. Then this model provides support to show at least something to the client before the deadline strikes.

Does it matter that this model is being presented to the world as how designers work? What is wrong with this delusion?

Firstly, creativity is locked up and limited to a small part of the process – usually rested to a small span of time. For good designers, creativity plays a role throughout the whole process from mission statement to presentation.

Secondly, design processes for good designers are never the same twice. They can only be described afterwards and they may differ radically per job. They can't be recorded or set in stone in advance.

All of the prevalent process descriptions suggest that design is a predictable, fixed and sequential activity. It is suggested that designers work in a way that can be foreseen. But that isn't true. Designers jump back and forth in their process. Steps are leapfrogged, stretched and very often repeated. Sometimes they work in reverse, sometimes there was a model before there was a concept, sometimes there was never a plan at all. Sometimes it took a year longer than the designer intended but the next time the task is finished in one day (although many designers will pretend it took much longer).

Design processes are substantially more chaotic than is taught and represented in all literature. Most good design is conceived in a much more complex, unpredictable, and obfuscate way.

There are numerous design processes – as many processes as there are designers. It would be a nightmare to see Stefan Sagmeister, Frank Gehry, Philippe Starck or Patricia Urquiola work through a design process as is described in the books. In this "standardised" prison, they would be deprived of their individuality, their freedom and their unlimited deployable creativity.

Presenting design as a prescribed process is problematic as it suggests to clients that creativity is quantifiable and predictable. Real design processes are often difficult to record or explain. Sometimes they are so simple that if they knew the truth the clients would feel like they were paying for nothing, sometimes they are so complicated that they are impossible for anyone other than the designer to understand. They can be painless or endlessly painful.

So where do these toddler-like descriptions of the design process come from? Why can't the reality, that each designer would recognise, be recorded?

Partially it's the designers themselves. Process descriptions serve to reassure clients – "do not worry, I work according to this process, so you have certainty," allows a designer to soothe their client and split the work into billable parts. Managing expectations has obvious benefits for all parties.

But the real culprits, who present the design and creativity of each individual as transparent, easy accessible and interchangeable, are the ones who sell the process. They are the design managers, design thinkers and design writers. They want to plot uniform and understandable maps of a process, which most designers know is practically impossible.

There's an inherent tension in the reality of design as a profession – a challenging combination of management and creative skills. The management part can be scripted with reliability, but creativity is by definition an unpredictable and unscientific activity. Creativity can't be duplicated in laboratory conditions. The context and the conditions can be repeated, but they don't guarantee the same results. The roots of an idea will often remain uncertain.

Creativity is just as irrational as love. It can be observed, but not repeated on demand or even predicted. Creativity is a maladjusted, anarchist dark horse. It doesn't do what you want it to do, and certainly not at the moment that you need it. Most scientists in the creative field will agree with me. There is no NEN certification for a design process, for it is impossible to capture a successful design process. That is the reality that we have to deal with. It's time to stop lying and presenting design as a simple management process.


Lucas Verweij has been teaching at schools of design and architecture around Europe for over 20 years. He was director of a master's programme in architecture and initiated a masters course in design. He is currently professor at the Kunsthochschile Weißensee and teaches master's students at Design Academy Eindhoven. He has initiated and moderated various seminars devoted to designing design education.