“what if?” design

The Design Continuum


Design rests on a continuum between production and innovation. Along this continuum, whether working in product, communication, or interaction, designers focus on providing a compelling experience, an experience that is useful, usable, and desirable (or, as the architect Vitruvius wrote in the first century BCE, firmitas, utilitas, venustas).

In those realms of design that are mature as a practice, it’s not necessary to invent new approaches in order to provide their audience with a satisfactory experience. For instance, print design for corporate reports or brochures or magazines may benefit from new approaches, but in a narrow sense innovation isn’t required to be successful. These design realms lie closer to the production end of the spectrum.

While there are many designers doing successful work in these fields who don’t feel the need to change the recipe for success, others are feeling “the squeeze of print” during our time of interactivity and connectedness and environmental awareness. Many writers, illustrators, and graphic designers have taken the best practices of print communications and are now applying them to the web and interactive world. For these artists, it’s not too great a stretch to design for interactivity.

These artists are well-served by understanding basic principles of people-centered research and design, but a deep knowledge of these realms isn’t absolutely necessary for their work to be successful and engaging and compelling. The intersection of motion design principles with ‘swiss’ design grids and hierarchies is bringing out some great design work. But most of the change is formal rather than essential.

Designing Change


For many designers, interactivity and connectedness and socially responsible approaches have led to new paradigms; there is an increasing overlap between the worlds of ‘strategy’ and ‘design’. Business strategy in particular is closely aligned to design innovation; in fact, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two, though there are important differences. What are the specific approaches that allow designers to create new products? And how do these approaches align and diverge?

As we look at the new paradigms in contemporary design practice, there are many terms currently in play. For instance, design thinking has gotten a lot of press, and there are other terms bandied about to describe these new approaches; people-centered design, participatory design, interaction design, metadesign, concept design, systems design, innovation design, and story-centered design are just a few, and each speaks to some part of this evolving approach to designing change.

It’s possible to consider all of these as components of a broader world of design strategy. At the least, they tend to share some characteristics; for instance, most combine research and generative components, advocate for iterative methods, and encourage the use of narrative as a tool for discovery.

Research Components

The value of ethnographic and other qualitative research techniques in the development of people centered design is broadly understood and accepted. Observation, interviews, journaling, and other techniques offer designers working in a variety of fields (product, experience, communications, interaction, etc.) the opportunity to gain insights that inform the design process.

Some research approaches are comprehensive and take a considerable amount of time and expense to complete, while others focus on quicker turnaround with a guerilla attitude. The appropriate combination of research components has to be tailored for each design problem, and may vary from conducting a few interviews with friends to spending months or even years recording the behaviors of whole families or organizations.

What is undeniable is the value of conducting some research on any innovation project; you don’t want to overbuild your initial solution, but a key component of designing innovation is “getting out of your head” and understanding the perspective of the person who will be using your product. Even short research can often reveal adaptive and compensatory behaviors as well as individual peculiarities that help to inform the design process.

For instance, I conducted a series of interviews with University of Denver students recently, and found both surprising alignment and extensive differences both in terms of behavior and values. A well-conducted interview can reveal quite a bit, but I’ve also had great success using participant photo journals to explore beyond the time limitations of the interview session. More extensive research programs have been used to create whole new product categories.

Rick Robinson, formerly of eLab and Sapient, and now at Continuum, has defined an ethnography as follows:

  • A description, of a system, activity, belief, setting, culture, etc.
  • and interpretation – not just a summary-of that description
  • toward an end – both instrumental and salient
  • within constraints – of site, setting, time, tools, materials, and solution spaces

Whatever the scope of the research project, understanding the importance of interpretation, goals, and limitations is critical to success. This is not research for research sake; the findings may be surprising, but the goals should be well-defined.

Generative Components

I have written extensively on story-centered design; it’s an effective approach to collaborative problem solving, particularly as a tool to help generate new ideas. This approach is gaining broader interest and acceptance, especially among interaction and product designers. In an article titled “Creative gesture or vapid prototyping? The importance of fictional products” posted on the adobe design center site, Allan Chochinov of Core 77 says the following:

Too many of our products are function first/form second—or form first/function second—with narrative, story-telling elements nowhere to be found. How bad would it be if our products began with narrative in the first place; with an idea of the experience of the product in mind, before that product ever had the chance to turn into landfill? Not bad at all, really.

He goes on to quote Scott Klinker of Cranbrook who argues that:

more and more product designers are now exploiting the power of storytelling to probe user behaviors, find experience “touchpoints,” create novel forms, and ultimately deliver new product experiences.

As with research techniques, narrative exploration needs to be focused on well-defined goals; stories need to be individualized and involve specific interactions. Story-centered design is a method that needs to be combined with other design approaches to be used successfully.

Innovation Design, understood broadly, provides a rubric that can help to understand the components involved in the process. In the current issue of Interactions Magazine (published by the Association for Computing Machinery), Hugh Dubberly offers A Model of Innovation that explores a lot of these parameters. The introduction to the article states:

As businesses have become good at managing quality, quality has become a sort of commodity – “table stakes,” necessary but not sufficient to ensure success. When everyone offers quality, quality no longer stands out. Businesses must look elsewhere for differentiation. The next arena for competition has become innovation. The question becomes: Can innovation be “tamed” as quality was?

One component that Dubberly discusses in his model is the importance of values (beliefs may lead to actions may lead to artifacts). Experience shows that an iterative design process based in the experience of the individual requires grounding in the importance of providing value.

Emergent Design

There is a facet of the design process that isn’t satisfactorily described by any of these terms; specifically, the experience of design as iterative, evolutionary, and, in a sense, out of the designers control. I’ve written about this before when discussing the work of Jan Chipchase, who argues that designers provide the basic functionality, and the extensions are added by the users. How do we design for a future that we can’t foresee? The best term I’ve heard for this is ’emergent design’.

I first started considering the idea of emergent design based on reading Henry Jenkins ideas of “emergent narratives” in his description of Game Design as Narrative Architecture:

in the case of emergent narratives, game spaces are designed to be rich with narrative potential, enabling the story-constructing activity of players. In each case, it makes sense to think of game designers less as storytellers than as narrative architects.

If we abstract the idea of emergent narratives beyond games, perhaps emergent design offers the opportunity to describe a design process that is equally “rich with narrative potential” while inclusive of other design methods (for instance, ethnographic research and prototyping). It points to iterative and participatory approaches, without requiring a particular methodology.

In an article titled “Emergent Design and learning environments: Building on indigenous knowledge” published the IBM Systems Journal (Volume 39, Numbers 3 & 4, 2000), David Cavallo of the MIT Media Laboratory says this of the limitations of current approaches to systems design:

When the desired changes cannot be reliably foreseen, and particularly when the target domain is computationally too complex for automation and thus relies on the understanding and development of the people involved, then top-down, preplanned approaches have intrinsic shortcomings and an emergent approach is required.
[…]
The critical point is that adoption and implementation of new methodologies needs to be based in, and grow from, the existing culture, and typically fails when it is merely imposed from above without such cultural considerations.

What If?

Going back to Allan Chochinov’s discussion of ‘fictional design’, we find a great summary of the emerging approach to designing for change:

Playing out “what if” scenarios has well served designers, conceptual artists, and provocateurs of all stripes to explore their craft; to take license (or to take “design permission,” using Leonard’s phrase) with what is expected, what is sensible, or what is pragmatic. Design fictions remake the playing field into something beyond a commercial go/no go enterprise; they let designers ask “what if?”

Of course, there always has to be balance between production and innovation. But more and more there is a need to ask what if, to get out of our own heads, to explore, to innovate our way into the future.

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