The Missing “Why”

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Many designers aren’t aware of the perceptual and cognitive principles that should inform design decisions. Making these decisions in response to those principles will help determine whether a solution is understood by their users.

Either if you are an experienced designer (e.g. have been working in practice for over 15 years) or if you have just graduated, you most likely make design decisions largely based on either your intuition (“I just know”), your experience (“This works well many times before”) or, more recently, users’ feedback (“this option is much clearer for me”). However, my bet is that you actually don’t really know the perceptual and cognitive principles, and theories that should be considered before making those decisions.

This is because teaching the science behind design has not been part of design education. Traditionally design education has been based on training students’ observational skills. Teachers bring to class case studies of good and bad design, analyse and compare them to explain how design principles (e.g. legibility, the use of visual variables, how to structure information on a page or poster) have been applied, pointing out effective and ineffective uses. Students mostly learn by trial-error cycles, looking at and analysing examples, and making decisions based on peer, client and teacher feedback. More recently, designers have also started to make decisions based on research which is often focused either on understanding the audience/user or on gaining familiarity with the topic of the problem. In some courses, basic visual perceptual principles are explicitly taught. Some design books provide light explanations of this topic describing, for examples the principles of proximity and similarity. However, at the end of their design education, students (and designers) don’t really know why some decisions help a solution work and others don’t. Interestingly, in many cases, teachers don’t really know that why either, simply because they are also designers to whom their teachers haven’t taught this science either.

Scientific approach to design

In the last 10 years, the world has changed the way it sees design: now studying design is not as closely attached to the idea of being an “artist” as it used to be. Increasingly, becoming a designer is now related to being “a creative mind” capable of tackling complex social, organisational, and financial challenges, among others. This new way of seeing designers has pros and cons. In this post, I discuss the positive aspects that this shift could bring to design education if it designers and teachers fully embrace it. Three aspects of design could be approached and taught differently to support designers’ new role in problem-solving: the science, the process and methods.

The science: A stronger and more explicit focus on perceptual and cognitive sciences. Understanding how the brain works, how we process information, how we interpret images, and the cognitive and perceptual principles involved in those processes will help designers make more informed decisions throughout the process and find out why a solution may have not worked as planned. This will also encourage self-reflection because designers wouldn’t be making blind decisions but they actually would have specific principles to refer back and frameworks to support their thinking and the conception of ideas. Also, this knowledge will help designers determine evaluation criteria to assess the performance of their solutions. Designers do not have to become experts in cognitive science or read highly complex books to gain this knowledge. There are some excellent books that bridge design and science in a very understandable and practical way (e.g. Malamed’s Visual Language for Designers).

The process: In-depth and explicit focus on unpacking the design process. Deeper understanding of the specific steps and tasks that designers need to perform in order to make sense of information will help go through the design process with more confidence. Furthermore, they will become more effective project planners because they will have better awareness of the tasks they need to perform and what they need. Of course the process isn’t linear and sometimes it is impossible to quantify the time needed for certain tasks, but the more awareness designers have on what they need to do, the easier it will be for them to identify their weaknesses and strengths, and calculate how much time they may need to complete each step. They will be also able to determine earlier in the process whether they need external expertise, and distribute tasks more effectively among members of the team. More junior designers will develop more confidence and start working with less supervision much earlier in their careers. What is more, they will have more tools to go through the first part of the process (conceptual design), minimising the risk of conducting poor analysis or missing key steps in the process.

Methods: A stronger and more direct focus on sociology, anthropology and psychology. Gaining an awareness early on in the career of the rich variety of methods that can be used to support the design process will encourage their adoption in professional practice. Working with methods will provide guidance and structure to designers’ way of thinking and working, for example by adding more systematic approaches, which will eventually help make better use of time. Designers will have a wider repertoire to manage information, and identify trends and patterns.

Overall, learning the missing why will help designers:

  • Develop a strong foundation in the design process
  • Be more confident
  • Adopt more systematic and rigorous ways of working
  • Be more efficient planner and managers of time and budgets
  • Create more accurate briefs
  • Improve the generation of ideas
  • Gain a better understanding of why a solution did work or did not work
  • Have the knowledge to make more supported decisions based on science and not on trends, taste or personal preferences
  • Explain clients how they work and why something would not work
  • Request budgets more in line with the level of thinking and depth of work that they need to produce effective solutions

A more scientific approach to teaching and practicing design would promote more thoughtful design problem-solving in professional practice and be a step forward towards the consolidation of the discipline.

– Gobert, I. & van Looveren, J. (2014) Thoughts on Designing Information. Lars Muller
– Malamed, C. (2011) Visual Language for Designers: Principles for Creating Graphics that People Understand. Rockport Publishers

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