Notes on Design Process: Intent, not instruction

Noam Chomsky divides ignorance into either problems or mysteries. “When we face a problem, we may not know the 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 look for it. However, when we are faced with a puzzle, we can only stare in amazement and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation might even be.

Because we have never developed practical tools for creativity that would constantly provide us with something new and valuable, we tend to treat the creative process as a mystery. We tend to think of idea generation as random, epiphanic, arbitrary decisions and luck rather than a process that requires skill, experience, and craft. Since the prevailing method is nothing more than the luck of the draw, much of the process is devoted to negotiating the ideas, desires, and tastes of various stakeholders. But design is about imagination disciplined to solve a particular problem or issue, not random flashes of inspiration.

In contrast to the intuition and creative equity introduced by design thinking, ideas are increasingly becoming the most overrated element of a design process. Good ideas are important, but rare. Good and novel ideas that a) do not rely on incremental innovation and b) reinvent a product or service regardless of execution are almost non-existent.

As a result, the quality and value of a design often depends on the commitment of a client and a designer to effectively collaborate on problems that inevitably arise during execution. In short, clients and strategists are responsible for the purpose or goal that the design is intended to achieve.

Designers, on the other hand, have the tools, expertise, and imagination necessary to find an appropriate solution to the need. When these two roles collide (which is often the case), collaboration leads to misunderstanding, frustration, and mediocre design.

Communicating in terms of design direction can be tempting – design is as easy to discuss as politics, or so it seems. On the surface, it may even seem more efficient: ‘Let us make it blue!’ is much shorter than a detailed description of the business purpose (i.e., intent). But usually – with the best of intentions – it leads to disaster. The only factor that makes collaboration purposeful and rewarding is the distinction between instructions and intentions. Good clients always express an intention, never an instruction. Good designers ask for intent, even when given an instruction.