Usefully recognising the boundaries of design

Further musings on the implications of Herbert Simon’s definition of design as “to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” and Gorb and Dumas’s concept of Silent Design: design done by non-designers

Taking Herbert’s definition of design at face value – that devising any course of action that is intended to make things better is design – it starts to be very clear that lots of design is done by non-designers. And having a label for Silent Design helps us recognise it’s importance and position it along side Professional Design. Perhaps we can label overlapping area Design Thinking?

A holistic view of all the design that happens in an organisation must include silent design

This gives us a (very simplified) holistic view of all design that happens in an organisation split into three broad categories;*

  • Silent Design,
  • Professional Design,
  • and Design Thinking where they overlap.

Note 1: Design Thinking is a loaded term. For now I’m using it to mean when designers help non-designers use design methodologies to solve strategic business challenges. If the term doesn’t work for you just think of that area as the space where there’s deliberate collaboration of designers and non-designers doing strategic work. i.e. before the backlog.

Note 2: There are probably many ways to split these categories. What’s in the diagram is a highly generic model, each organisation is unique and if the thoughts in this post are interested you’ll need to map the model to your organisation before it’ll be useful

How is any of this useful?

Most design is silent design

A bit like the idea of seamful design, being conscious of the boundaries of design in an organisation allows us to manipulate those boundaries; deliberately choose where they sit and choose the right strategies for increasing value(s) created by design in each area. Having a view of all design across the whole organisation – rather than just the design within the design team – means we can better manage it, better improve it. And organisations that use design effectively make more money/deliver more value. Which isn’t surprising when it’s design that creates value in the first place (even when it’s silent design).

This gives us four reasonable design management strategies for improving value created by design across an organisation. But it’s the last one where there is usually the biggest opportunity to improve:

1. Increase the amount of professional design

Many design teams are undersized, so getting the design team to be right-sized is a no-brainer. But adding more designers can be expensive and doesn’t always create value.

2. Increase the efficiency of professional design

This is where DesignOps and design systems step up. The principles of product orientated production-design are well understood now so should be table-stakes for mot teams. Larger teams will benefit more.

3. Increase the amount of design thinking

Design Thinking activities generally involve leadership stakeholders working with senior designers of on significant strategic design decisions. It’s high impact but usually has limited scale; organisations should need relatively small amount of strategic design. And with dedicated time needed from business and design leadership, it’s expensive.

4. Increase the quality of silent design

Most design is silent design and this is the area that has least design-literacy. Increasing the design literacy of non-designers in an organisation is where there is the biggest opportunities to improve. Sabine Junginger talks of organisations having organically created ‘design legacies’:

Design principles, methods and practices are already deeply embedded in
organizations. That is, in fact, the real problem: Organizations are full of design legacies,
however flawed and poorly suited.

Junginger Design Legacies

It’s these silent design legacies where where design is happening but is untouched by deliberate design methodology that there is the greatest potential for unlocking the latent potential of an organisation. But there’s not much emphasis on actually doing anything about it. We don’t value it much. Maybe we just don’t see it. Design is done by designers in their designy box and hipster glasses. Meh… Increasing the baseline understanding of user-centred design methodology in a organisation will be where design has the biggest impact.