Principles for creating *meaningful* design

As a design management consultant for organisations looking to integrate value creation capabilities and a culture that actually achieves growth and customer relevance, I often need to challenge assumptions on what "good design" works like, looks like, and feels like.

I've been working on capturing my thoughts on key principles for creating meaningful design; meaningful in this case being design outputs that are inherently human-centred and directly connected with what is relevant and desirable for those impacted by your solution. These outputs must also be supported by the stakeholders within an organisation, create a sustainable business platform, and in the case of for-profit, are difficult to mimic and/or create new markets.

Based on recent questions from executives, designers, and students, I thought it would be helpful to share some of the (not exhaustive) framework I use to establish meaningful design practices.

In no particular order:

  • The first design problem is creating an environment where design can flourish (or is possible at all). 
  • The term ‘Design’ is more accurately thought of as shorthand for an approach to solving complex human problems. It’s a philosophy, not a particular activity.
  • Management’s responsibility is to create intent and protect the process of creating value. It is not to play the role of “decider”.
  • If you haven’t participated in user research and synthesis, your opinion on what users need is meaningless at best, and destructive at worst.
  • Empathy is the ability to see the world through the eyes of your users without judgement. Don't confuse it with sympathy, or the tendency for us to imagine ourselves in our user's world.
  • Insights without empathy are worthless. Never design to insights you haven’t developed through your own research. Thus user research can never be farmed out or carried over from previous work.
  • Without empathy for your users, you *will* design for yourself.
  • Everyone is a designer, but not everyone is designing well.
  • Ask questions as if you are a blank slate. Assume others are not comfortable asking the obvious.
  • Assumptions destroy design effort. Never assume the intent or reasoning behind someone's thoughts or behaviour. Inquire!
  • If you can’t do it right, fix it or don’t bother. Meaningless effort hurts everyone. Move on to a project you can do right.
  • You can't recover from compromised design practices. Never negotiate your approach to appeal to external constraints (budgets, timelines, opinions).
  • Lean and Agile, et al, are not design methods. They are development methods. Use them appropriately after you've established a complete design solution.
  • You have the right (and responsibility) to challenge assumptions.
  • Your design is only as good as your understanding of the problem. 
  • Don’t confuse skill in design methods with being a skilled designer. Methods are tools for understanding, not understanding itself.
  • Everyone is biased. Recognise how it will impact your thinking.
  • Prepare to be fired, criticised, or disregarded for doing the right thing. There is no magic world where a lack of rigour and integrity create future opportunities for good design.
  • The right thing is always to the benefit of your user from their point of view.
  • You never master design, you’ll just keep getting better at it. It's OK to make mistakes as long as you revisit and rework until you've got it right.
  • If your problem frame isn’t about user relevance, try again.
  • Designing is hard. It shouldn’t feel comfortable. If it does, you’ve missed something important.
  • Always revisit your problem frame (hypothesis) after user research. It has likely changed.
  • Ambiguity and uncertainty breed anxiety. Don’t forget to support those around you. Don't forget you'll need support too.
  • Bring 100% of yourself to work. That means both your optimism and your fears.
  • When experiencing conflict, critique behaviour, not the person. "When you do this, it make me feel like _____". Most people will change behaviour when they realise it won't lead to the outcome they desire.
  • Ego has only a negative impact on design. Nothing is precious and effort isn't the same thing as importance. 
  • Qualitative research allows us to imagine what could be. Never limit yourself to what is and miss a powerful opportunity.
  • Advocate for your user. They can’t be in the room championing themselves. If you don't do it, no one will.
  • When exploring your user’s world, listen more than ask. And if you do ask, use it to better understand their behaviour and motivations. Never assume their reasoning.
  • Design done right looks wrong to those who haven’t gone through the process before. Have patience and understanding. 
  • There are no shortcuts to meaningful design. A designer's responsibility is to ensure rigour.
  • You can’t know the outcome of a design effort before you’ve started. Anyone who promises a particular solution is practicing meaningless design, lying, or naive.
  • Design is about deeply understanding novel and complex problems. Every designer has the tools to add value in every situation (you don't need to be an expert, you have the tools to bring expertise together in powerful ways).
  • The design process is a framework, not a method. Focus on outcomes, not activities. 
  • Designers collaborate. That’s not the same thing as cooperating. Don't confuse the two.
  • Every day you have more information. Trust it, even if that means throwing out previous effort. 
  • A strong design approach and a strong business approach are the same approach.
  • A good rule of thumb is that core design teams should comprise at least 4 and not more than 6 participants. Subject matter experts and stakeholders should be included as needed, but the core team is responsible from problem framing through to implementation.

Finding insights, not platitudes

Design has a particular competence–divining insight from people’s experiences, needs, and worldview. This is paramount to good design, as insight is the basis for any concepts an organisation might entertain for implementation. Get it right, everyone is a rockstar. Get it wrong, the organisation will waste time and money, and become increasingly irrelevant to their customers.

However it is all too common that the process that should lead to insight results in platitudes instead. They are essentially “motherhood statements” that sound nice, but are actually meaningless. Examples of some motherhood statements:

“People want things to be simple and easy.” 
“I want to be in control of my finances.” 
“Family is at the centre of people’s lives.” 

These are just a few of the very real “insights” I have seen from experienced researches, designers, and marketing professionals. And these same insights have been the basis for multi-million dollar projects. Even if these were insightful statements, how does one design to ideas like “simple and easy”? Were the previous products and services designed to be opaque and difficult, take control away, or ignore the importance of family? Of course not.

The correct approach to gaining insight actually starts much earlier. Strong insight begins with rigorous problem framing, research, analysis, and synthesis. When these phases are done well, insight becomes almost obvious. When practitioners shortcut the process, either due to time constraints, budgets, resources, or poor design practices, the result will almost always be a platitude. Unfortunately, to the uninitiated, a platitude can seem just as meaningful as an insight.

So what leads to such a lack of meaningful insight within both design and organisations? Long story short, insights are extremely hard to uncover. They require four steps that must be carried out with intense rigour and critical thinking:


Proper problem framing. Your problem frame forms the basis of your research protocol. Problem framing defines who you will interview and what areas of their lives and experiences are most relevant to your initial hypothesis.

If your framing is inherently organisation-centred, it will likely boil down to one of two goals: cut cost or raise profits. It is impossible to develop a meaningful research protocol based on these or any organisational needs. Proper framing is always about finding relevance for users. Once you know what is relevant, it is relatively easy to make a business out of it. Not true for the reverse. So, by definition, problem framing is from the perspective of your user.

With a well defined frame it is possible to determine how many people to interview, whether gender matters, they type of age groups and spread, if cultural background will have an impact, or if being single, married or having children plays an important role. And a myriad of other qualities that either need to be accounted for or can be determined as not having a meaningful impact on your research findings.


Qualitative and desktop research. Research is a starting point; it is about going out in the spirit of discovery and gathering the knowledge needed to fuel a robust creative process. Research must include a special focus on the customers or end users—those who will be on the receiving end of value creation. This exploration includes both desktop research and observation; It is necessary to be both an analyst and anthropologist if one is to a.) understand the present market situation, b.) reframe the current situation in new ways, and c.) get predictive about where future opportunities might lie. It’s also important to see that, while assembling historical data is an important part of expanding our knowledge, data analysis alone is a passive and backward-looking activity. It must be framed by immersive and active research into people’s lives and experiences right now (ethnography).

The key output of the research phase is an intelligent representation of the current market context, including a lively description of customers (or potential customers) and their needs. Research is a divergent activity, in that we are not immediately seeking the closure of solving problems (which comes later in our process), but rather opening ourselves up to a wide landscape of contexts and possibilities. The wider we are able to push our research, the more we increase our ability to generate imaginative new concepts. 

It’s important to note that it is common for a fairly pedestrian research phase to create over a thousand discrete data points: verbatims from participants, observations of context and customer behaviours, as well as market and industry data. Post-Its are commonly used to capture each data point, as they are easily group and resorted.

At this stage, it is also common to reframe your problem statement. This can require another round of research based on your new hypothesis. If you are fortunate, you'll become aware of the need to reframe after the first several interviews.


Pattern analysis. The typical approach to problem solving often collapses analysis and synthesis into a single fluid activity. In design, we are careful to distinguish between our answers to the questions “What?” and “So What?” This is because the starting point for idea-generation is often mysterious. It comes more from intuition than from any kind of logical thought process (which is why we can’t analyse our way into innovation). Developing good intuition is a direct result of deep immersion into our research.

Analysis allows us to replicate or extrapolate. We are not trying to make conclusions about why, we are just looking for the basis for how people behave and what unmet or inarticulate needs they’ve revealed. What is unsaid can play as much a role in what users have explicitly stated. 

The activity of analysis requires that we become intimately familiar with all of our data (each Post-It) so that we can leverage our own innate ability to see patterns across a diverse range of information. This requires weeks of sorting, creating clusters, challenging assumptions, and exploring all potentials within our research data. When we first begin the process of pattern finding, our brains take shortcuts. We see clichés and our own biases. This is often where design and market research stops. However the key to understanding is to fatigue our brains sufficiently that we begin to freely associate. At a minimum, this takes a week of effort, and depending on the amount of data, up to several weeks.


Synthesising meaning. This is where we gain actual insight. An good rule of thumb is that an insight is a non-obvious behaviour that makes us say “aha!”.

Synthesis is the spark that allows us to see and identify opportunities. It comes when we ask ourselves, “so what does this all mean?” At this stage, we are making connections, looking through patterns to draw new conclusions. We look for things we didn’t see when we review our research as discrete data points. We look for the ways in which the experiences we observe in the world reflects or refutes our data. Meaning emerges when we draw connections between the range of research and observation.

We want to formulate insight based on people’s actions, needs, and desires. We look for those “aha!” behaviours that allow us to define the shape of our design space. Each insight helps us describe the bounds of our concept generation phase. All potential solutions must be in support our insights. Without these limits, concepts will tend to focus on “me-too” products and service or overly broad ideas such as “apps” or “micro-sites”. Well defined insights provide clarity and helpful limits on “what could be”.


But what does a good insight look like?

Remember, they are “aha!” observations. When you hear them, you say to yourself “of course!”. They form the very basis of how we behave and their importance gives us direction on how we might design a solution.

As one example, I led a design project within the financial services industry. The organisation’s framing was “how do we make people consolidate their super with us?”. And, yes, it was how do we “make” them consolidate. The reframe was to look into what people valued in their lives. I interviewed 26 Australians that covered a spread of demographics. In my favour, the target group for superannuation was effectively anyone between 18 and dead. Segmentation was used to ensure that results were not inadvertently biased towards any one age, gender, income, or location.

One important insight that emerged was related to how people think about money. They acted as if it had physical weight. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. Imagine that you have two piles of logs. One pile has 5 logs and the other has 100 logs. If I asked you to consolidate them. What do you do? Well, if you are like most people, you will toss the 5 logs on to the pile of 100. It’s easier.

What if you had two superannuation accounts, one with $5,000 and the other with $100,000. If I ask you to consolidate them, what is your first instinct? If it was to move the $5,000 over to the larger super, congratulations, you are like 95% of Australians. If you thought “well, I’d consider which had the better return and fees”, you are a rare outlier (even those who said they would consider fees often ended up moving the smaller amount because it was deemed to be easier).

So, if you are a superannuation company and you spend a significant amount of marketing trying to convince your customers to consolidate their supers, what is the likely outcome? If you have their big pile of money, you are likely to get their other funds. But if you aren’t the big pile, that same customer will move their fund away from your company (note, superannuation companies don’t have visibility of customer’s other balances). Customers won’t even think twice, as they will be very confident that it is the right thing to do because it is easier. Of course that’s not accurate, it’s all digital and there is no difference in effort. But people’s behaviour is so tied into the fact that they treat money like it has weight, they will make their decision based on less perceived effort, namely moving the smaller fund.

You can see how this insight drastically changes the conversation for a superannuation company. If they speak to super consolidation as a pile of cash, they are just as likely to lose someone’s funds as to gain their other super. If they engage the topic of consolidation such that other considerations take precedent, there is a much higher likelihood of keeping their customers funds in-house and increasing overall balances through consolidation.

This is just one example. But it’s important to note that if your insights don’t provide actionable direction on people’s behaviour, they’re likely platitudes that sound nice but are meaningless. The only way to address this is to go back to where your understanding lacks the necessary rigour: revisit your problem frame, revise and conduct your research again, spend sufficient time pattern finding, or stay with your analysis until you’ve been able to synthesis real understanding into people’s behaviours.

I can’t overemphasise how important it is to have meaningful insight, as these become the foundation for the concepts you and your peers will be developing. Without real insight, your solutions will be irrelevant and clichéd. And as a bonus, real insights are one of the few defences against the opinions of those who have “been in this business 20 years and know what customers want.” Do yourself a favour and don’t shortcut the process of determining what it means to be relevant to your users. Your customers and your business will thank you.

Is anyone practicing meaningful design?

In recent weeks, I’ve been asked by practicing designers, eager beginners, and those looking for a career change, a rather simple question: “Which companies and design teams are implementing a positive design methodology”.

After much consideration, I realised that this question opened up a much bigger issue regarding the role of design, organisations, and participants in creating meaningful and sustainable outcomes for both customers and for businesses.

I don’t believe that design in Australia (and, in my experience, much of the world) has lived up to its potential in a meaningful way. But I don’t feel that this is necessarily the fault of designers, or even organisations. I believe the main constraint is our ability to successfully manage ambiguity. Design works in a space that is, by its nature, uncertain. Uncertainty creates anxiety, and as normal human beings, we will work hard at trying to reduce our anxiety. In short, the reason design hasn’t lived up to it’s promise is tied closely to the very nature of human behaviour itself.


But let me take a step back.

Both clients and organisations want innovation, improved experiences, and better products and services. But few are ready to invest what it takes to obtain these outcomes–namely living with anxiety and uncertainty, and working outside of “what is”.

It doesn’t take much to undermine an effort to really understand the needs of customers. In fact, an organisation’s culture of managing to cost pressures alone can torpedo good design intent. If you’ve ever experienced the argy-bargy of developing a design brief, you’ll be familiar with the first thing to be cut to accommodate cost–research. Without strong research, any solutions are guaranteed to be clichés that are neither relevant to customers or difficult for competition to mimic. Yet, these two traits are the hallmarks of meaningful solutions for businesses.

And then there is the self-limiting dynamic within organisational culture. Management, as a rule, have earned their place by being strong at maintaining a current value. When the needs of customers change, organisations are ill-prepared for developing new value. When business demands innovation and without alternatives on how to proceed, management have no option but to try what they are already doing, just with more effort. If you’ve ever worked within a large organisation, you will be all too familiar with rallying behind the same activities, but now with demands to work longer and harder to achieve more innovative outcomes. I have never seen this approach work well. Typically, this cycle with finalise in an organisational restructure which will lead to across the board reductions in fixed costs. The imminent danger is over, and the cycle will start again. Australian financial institution are particularly adept at this strategy where restructures occur about once every 18 months. The message seems to be “If we can only figure out how to structure ourselves, we’ll figure out how to be relevant to our customers.”

So what is the alternative? How might designers, design consultancies, and organisations move towards a model that actually achieves meaningful outcomes?

My experience shows that it comes down to making a clear distinction between working in the world of “what is” and the world of “what could be”.

Every organisation is well supported by professionals who are extremely effective at maintaining an existing value proposition. When any organisation comes into being, it’s because it had something that was relevant to customers. This was their initial “innovation”. Microsoft had Windows and BP had a powerful oil and gas distribution network.

As soon as an organisation has something of value, the growth of the organisation is dependant on bringing on professionals who can scale. Lower costs, increase efficiencies, finding new markets, and supporting the internal dynamics of the organisation itself. But what happens when the current value proposition is no longer relevant to customers? The tool for maintaining a business is analysis. Sales trends, market trends, industry trends, etc. Analysis sits squarely in the world of “what is”. It is an inherently reflective activity that attempts to divine the future by looking at what has already happened. As a trending tool, it has merit. As a way to understand what people find relevant, it creates powerful, but false narratives.

When used to understand customer needs, analysis alone fails in ways that are insidiously difficult to catch. Analysis demands that we ask our customer what they want. And these same customers will be happy to tell you–but their answers will be misleading. They aren’t being malicious, in fact they are being absolutely truthful. But what people say, what they do, and what they say they do are not correlated in any way. At best, asking anyone to predict their own future will result in a response that looks a lot like an improved version of “now”. So analysis, when applied well, helps us understand what has happened. If your value proposition is still relevant, analysis can help you maximise your market, features, and costs.

What happens when your organisation’s value proposition is not longer relevant, or quickly waning?

If you are like most organisations, the typical response is to discount. This begins a race to the bottom as completion responds in kind, thus changing the organisation’s skill from providing value to one of providing efficiencies. The world of the MBA was created to master this challenge by understanding all the levers that lead to efficient production and cost management. Eventually, this will not provide sufficient returns. The customers will vote with their wallets when they no longer find a compelling reason to patronise an organisation’s products or services.

There is now a need to “innovate” or create new value based on what people need. Yet most organisations are highly tuned to maximising a current value proposition. They are the masters of providing “what is”. And here lies the problem. The tool for maximising relevance is becoming fluent in the understanding of “what could be”.

This is where design (done right) comes in. Design is (or should be) about understanding complex human issues such that one can see and hear what people find relevant and create a value exchange based on that relevance. Design, by its nature, is built upon a broad array of disciplines, philosophies, and methods. There is no specific design approach that can be applied to a problem and there is no way to anticipate outcomes before doing the work. There is no shortcut to proper understanding and there is no shortcut to synthesising insight and there is no shortcut to creating meaningful solutions that are relevant to people and strong business platforms.

But if you were to look at the Design industry and organisations as a whole, the pressure to shortcut understanding, synthesis, and meaningful solutions is overwhelming. Design as it is most often practiced today is an effort to appease the “what is” nature of business while trying to explore the “what could be” of customer needs.

In theory, design consultancies should be masterful at providing these services to organisations. In practice, design as an industry has adopted a management consulting approach–selling organisations on a clear outcome and a well-defined timeline of activities. This is terribly attractive to organisations which work best on budgeted projects with very defined outcomes. It appeals to the very nature of how organisations are run.

However we’ve just explored the notion that design is about exploring “what could be”. There is no clear outcome at the beginning. And because we don’t have any sense of understanding when we begin, there can be no defined timeline for activities. And any design agency that is guaranteeing a outcome or a specific timeline is ultimately leaving something very important on the table.

I have a lot of empathy for design consultancies. I’ve worked within them and I’ve hired them as an executive. They are between a rock and a hard place when it come to providing their services. If they are honest about the nature of problem solving, they’d never get past the first meeting for any project (especially when management consulting firms are promising innovation without the drama of ambiguity). If they try to manage a design effort within the framework that organisations manage day-to-day activities, they’ll effectively undermine their own success.

The approach for every design firm I’ve work at, worked with, or seen the output of, has been to try and do their best with what little they have. Project timelines are negotiated. Costs are challenged and lowered, and outcomes are explicitly stated based on an organisations problem framing (not a customer problem frame). The hope is that the design firm will impress and the next phase, or the next project, will be framed and funded properly. The design firm comes into each project at a disadvantage, and frankly a chip on their shoulder. They want to be treated as equals, but they bring little change to the outcomes organisations would achieve without their influence.

This unbalanced relationship between design and business rarely resolves well. Each time a design firm under-prices a project, they establish the real cost of design. Each time they capitulate on their rigour, they establish the acceptable approach to problem solving. Each time they entertain a pre-defined outcome, they undermine the ability to explore “what could be”. The reality is that the tend in design consulting has led to clichéd and mediocre outcomes and many organisations are reaffirming their belief that design is an approach best applied to journey maps and design thinking workshops. If design’s promise was to lead to meaningful and sustainable change for organisations, I have not personally seen that happen.

In practice, we often debate the methods of design versus business, but ultimately, I think the challenge in creating value is one of management. I feel that design firms need to reframe their business models around providing real value and ensuring integrity in championing customer needs. And I think that reframe is the role of management. In addition, organisations need to reframe their role as specialist in maintaining value to one where they champion an environment where great outcomes can happen within both contexts.

So how might we get there? The short answer is, I’m not sure. It is a wicked problem. What I do know is that the solution will look very different to the effort that is currently practiced within the field of design and the world of organisations. It will be transformative. It will be ambiguous. It will require enough of us to be comfortable in the world of “what could be”. The skills and structures that are so good at maintaining a value proposition can become a liability as customer needs evolve. Organisations need to be fluent in connecting to customers and in maintaining the rigour in developing real and sustainable platforms, products, and services.

In my own work, I’ve explored new approaches to design that focus on the rigour of understanding at each stage and the ability to help all stakeholders (designers, clients, management, and participants) to be able to cope, even if just barely, with the ambiguity that change brings with it. This has been extremely successful when practiced within a strong intent for change. Good problem solving will never feel comfortable for anyone involved, as by nature it is inherently ambiguous. But strong organisations are able to withstand the uncertainty long enough to explore its potential. Supporting this change while ensuring integrity, rigour, and meaningful outcomes is the new role for management and what I feel design should champion. I have seen great promise in championing this change and mentoring participants during their own transformation.

The next phase of industry will necessitate a change in how organisations are run, how managers see their roles, and how all participants in a workplace see their efforts in service of something meaningful. This change starts with all of us, in small ways. It is up to all of us to be the change we want to see.

So, in response to my opening paragraph, I don't have a suggestion or recommendation for an organisation or team that is implementing a positive design methodology. I am hopeful that will not be the case much longer. However, that doesn't mean that we all can’t have a positive impact within our current situations. It's a fools game to wait until both organisations and the design industry “get it”. I urge everyone to use their time to start leading, in their own way, and begin to integrate more rigour, critical thinking, and a culture of progressing projects only after your understanding is robust enough to confidently move to the next phase. Work on the skills of helping people deal with the anxiety working in "what could be" provokes. 

We're at the beginning of a big shift in what it means to design well. You, the reader, and your peers are the ones who will ultimately progress this change as we go forward.

Our Obligation For Effective Critique

Our Obligation For Effective Critique

There are many ways to work collaboratively and one of the best is to solicit a specific kind of feedback and to be able to provide it to others in an open and constructive way. This approach is called a critique and it’s more than providing opinion or advice, it’s a process that helps divorce our work and decisions as a reflection of ourselves and instead focus on the needs and experiences of others.