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.