Notes on Design Process: Intent, not instruction

Noam Chomsky divided ignorance into either problems or mysteries. “When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for.” We know how to find the solution or at least where to search for it. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.

Since we have never developed practical tools for creativity that would constantly deliver newness and value, we tend to treat creative process as a mystery. We think of generating ideas in terms of serendipitous, epiphanic and arbitrary decisions and luck rather than a process involving skill, experience and craft. With nothing but the luck of the draw as a prevailing methodology, a great deal of the process is devoted to negotiating ideas, aspirations and tastes of various stakeholders. Yet design is all about imagination disciplined to resolve a specific problem or circumstance, not random acts of brainstorming.

Contrary to intuition and creative egalitarianism introduced by design thinking, ideas are becoming the most overestimated element of a design process. Good ideas are essential but scarce. Good and novel ideas that a) are not based on incremental innovation b) reinvent a product or service regardless of execution, are almost non-existent.

As a result the quality and value of a design often relies on commitment of a client and a designer to effective collaboration on problems that inevitably come up in the execution. In short: clients and strategist are in charge of the purpose or aim that the design should achieve.

Designers, on the other hand, share the tools, expertise and imagination necessary to deliver an appropriate solution to the needs. When these two roles collide (as they often do), the collaboration glides along a slippery slope of miscommunication, frustration and design mediocrity.

Communicating in the matter of design instructions can be tempting — design is just as easy to discuss as politics, or so it seems. On the surface it may even seem more efficient: ‘let’s make it blue!’ is much shorter than elaborate description of the business purpose (i.e. intent). But it usually leads — with best of intentions — to disaster. 

 The single factor that makes a collaboration purposeful and rewarding lies in the distinction between instruction and intent. Good clients always express intent, never instruction. Good designers ask about the intent even when handed instruction.  

Henri RousseauA Centennial of Independence
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