Design and its successors “design innovation” and “design thinking” are often presented as something that is fun and engaging. And designers and design innovators often have an image of happy-go-clappy-postit-sticking-enthusiasts (using the words of Kennisland’s Marlieke Kieboom). But is designing really such an enjoyable and exciting activity?
As part of a study into design-led social innovation practices I recently interviewed people who have led or participated in design projects in a social innovation context, often for the first time. These people expressed many emotions about their design experiences that did not sound like fun at all, including feelings of frustration, confusion, irritation, fear and despair. And to be honest, this comes as no surprise. I’ve experienced it myself, I’ve seen it with my students, and I’ve seen it with the people I work with. In this blog I will explain where these negative feelings might come from, and why we shouldn’t ignore them.
Why designing is NO fun
Here are three of the various emotions that people might experience while designing that have very little to do with ‘fun’:
Confusion – The nature of design thinking is that design problems are open and designers interpret and re-interpret these problems through framing (Dorst, 2010). Therefore there is usually quite a long phase within any design process in which the problem and solution ‘co-evolve’. It is not clear what the problem is, nor is the solution. I once heard someone call this the ‘valley of confusion’. Particularly for first-time designers this is an incredibly uncomfortable place to be. Anyone who has tutored design students knows how hard it is to guide students through this phase. The same goes for facilitators of a co-design process with stakeholders who have not been involved in design processes before.
Insecurity – In design projects you very often get to a stage where you just have to make some decisions. The client demands more clarity and/or the deadline of a project is fast approaching. Sometimes this pressure leads to break through insights and design proposals. And sometimes you just have to force a decision to select a design proposal to present to the client or broader co-design group, even though you probably need to spend more time in that valley of confusion. This might feel like a leap of faith. Some of the participants I interviewed expressed a strong feeling of insecurity about the path that was taken in their project.
Fear – Designing something new inevitably leads to change, particularly when design is applied on a strategic level to create systems change. And for many people change can be scary. For example, two years ago I ran a design-led innovation program with my colleague Sam Bucolo for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), many of which were family businesses. Even though the enterprises knew they had to innovate and ‘disrupt their business’ to gain the needed competitive advantage, they felt bad about changing a business that had often been built by their parents or great parents. The business owners had to overcome this fear to be able to design and implement radically new products and services. Resistance to change, fear of failure and risk aversion are also well-known barriers towards innovation in the public sector.
Why people think designing is fun
So if there are so many negative emotions associated with the act of designing, why do people think that designing is fun?
First of all there are of course many reasons why designing does make us happy.
- Design is a great learning experience
- Design can provide a tremendous sense of achievement when a proposal is implemented – particularly when it contributes to the greater good
- Some of design’s elements – experimentation, sketching, role-playing – are experienced as playful
- The team work and collaborations that are associated with design can result in an amazing senses of belonging
- and there is no better feeling then getting through that valley of confusion, finding the perfect solution for a problem that is crystal clear.
But people might also associate designing with fun for reasons that I think are not valid, and that contribute to misconceptions about the value of design. For example, the idea that design thinking would require a room that looks like kindergarten and has grass on the wall. Although this is a relatively innocent myth (and I admit we do have a ping pong table in our office), it reflects a more important mix-up about designing, namely that
Design is often confused with creativity.
Design thinking classes or programmes often involve activities aimed at creativity and divergent thinking. A very popular exercise is the ‘marshmallow challenge’ (build a structure out of 20 spaghetti sticks that supports a marshmallow). Yes, the marshmallow challenge can be fun, but in itself has very little to do with design at all. The reason is that the challenge is not a realistic design challenge. Not because a supporting structure for a marshmallow is pretty useless, but because a design problem never starts with a fixed problem statement. As I mentioned above, design problems are open en designing involves a (sometimes unpleasant) phase in which the problem is not clear at all. A creativity challenge is not the same as a design challenge.
The risks of ignoring negative emotions
So there are positive and negative experiences associated with designing, and there are some misconceptions about design and fun. The point I want to make here is that those negative emotions might be uncomfortable, but they are inevitably part of the design process. There will always be a sense of insecurity and confusion in the stage of framing the problem, and when a problem is ‘sticky’ there is no other option than to change something. More experienced designers are used to it and might even like it, but at a time where we are increasingly working with people outside the traditional design domain, there will always be people feeling uncomfortable with the process.
Ignoring these emotions can be tricky for several reasons:
- Looking for fun presupposes that design is nothing more than just some kind of superficial team building activity. This stands in the way of the adoption of design as an effective innovation approach (and leads some people to think that design thinking is a failed experiment).
- In a co-design process, ignoring negative emotions might lead to conflicts between team members or participants, or to people withdrawing from the process altogether.
- For novice designers and students it can lead to a lack of confidence. For years I was a student coach for a design school that was part of an engineering faculty. Students often felt particularly insecure when they compared their struggles with their design process to the structure and predictability of the processes of their peers in the school of engineering.
So if we shouldn’t ignore these negative emotions, what kind of strategies and coping mechanisms could we develop to support and guide people through these experiences? One example is a strategy we developed for the SME programme I mentioned above. There we managed to make people feel better about redesigning their businesses through developing a trusted community of peers. The different business owners trusted each other because they were not competing and all felt they were in the same boat. This subsequently helped them to support each other. I think trust is an essential element of a successful and not-too-uncomfortable design process. And I hope that if we find better ways to support and guide people through the more challenging bits of a design process, we can get more people to experience the real joys of designing.
van der Bijl – Brouwer, Mieke, & Bucolo, Sam. (2014). The learning needs of small and medium-sized enterprises for design led innovation. Paper presented at the DRS2014: Design’s big debates, Pushing the boundaries of design research, Umea, Sweden.