Thursday, February 23, 2017

Grail Syndrome

 or Why I am a "Process" Guy




There is in graphic design (and other design disciplines) a tendency to fixate on the "thing" -- the artifact, the whatsit, the object that we believe will be the end of our design process. It can be a blinding obsession that can result in premature design-ation. The "thing" is our sirens on the cliffs, the big red shiny button, the beautiful glowing destination that calls to us like the bug to the zapper, it is our holy grail. It's difficult for me to describe in mere words the overwhelming power that the grail has over us as designers. I have begun calling this obsession the "grail syndrome." This syndrome is real and pervasive. It can result in designers falling in love with early ideas and clinging to them until the bitter end even though those ideas may be bad ones. The syndrome can result in designs that ignore any other number of  problems that should be addressed in order to generate effective, enjoyable and efficient designs.

For designers who don't understand the extreme importance of the context-of-use or the humans-we-design-for or the goals we are trying to help those humans reach, the call of the grail often ends badly. We must understand not just the grail itself. We must strive for a deep understand of it... in context... with humans... and goals. This "grail" is the literal object of our design efforts and it is often referred to in design as the form. Present day forms are rapidly evolving and accelerating in complexity. In the last twenty years we have experienced a radical shift in the types of designs that people interact with. We have moved from relatively static designs like printed catalogs to kinetic experiences like websites and mobile technologies. It is difficult to keep up with changes of this magnitude that are happening at such a rapid pace. And more importantly it is increasingly difficult to predict what we will be faced with fifteen, ten or even five years from now.

Teaching design in such a world is very exciting. It's tempting to spend most of ones time teaching students how to deal with forms that are currently in use. To some degree it is necessary to do this. But, I feel that too much emphasis on this is time misspent. Unlike the scale and speed of the evolution of form, the evolution of "design process" has been much slower. We frame, we ideate, we empathize, we iterate, we test -- these are things that designers have been doing for generations.  An emphasis on "design process" encourages students to understand design in terms of systems, humans, contexts and goals. These are concepts that don't change much over time and as design educators these are where we should be spending most of our efforts. We can prepare students for the rapid evolution of forms by teaching these concepts along with strategies for dealing with complexity (but, complexity is probably a topic best left for future post).


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