You can’t design without making stuff.

It might be a bold statement, but here’s an explanation.

In a previous post, I said, “Design is NOT making stuff."

However, it’s not the other side of the pendulum either. Design is not simply thinking work. It’s not just researching to understand. It’s not just getting clear on problems. It’s not simple.

Design is a discipline that helps define solutions to problems. The catch is that design problems aren’t typically straightforward. It’s not a mathematical problem with only one correct answer: 1+1=2. The kinds of problems designers face are much more ambiguous. In the words of Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, they are “wicked problems.” To solve them, designers must have “their head in the clouds and feet in the mud” (Bill Buxton).

What does that mean? It means designers understand the world by exploring multiple possible solutions and testing them against our understanding of the problems we face. Exploring means we don’t just “think” about and “imagine” solutions. We make them real in some way. We sketch them. We build them with mock materials. We craft with real materials. We interact with them and put them in scenarios where the problem exists. We do this to understand the best possible solution fit for the problem we’re focused on.

Designers do not work on an assembly line of ideas like modern car manufacturers. Those assembly lines are bringing together solutions to already solved problems. Instead, we pit solutions against each other to learn why aspects of solutions succeed or fail. In this way, we know what to deliver and, more importantly, why. This is why design can be so powerful. Because, in the right environments, it can leverage transformational creativity to deliver unexpected solutions that are truly innovative.

Designers make as a way to understand what to make. If designers aren’t making (more than one option), we’re not designing. We’re just producing. This is why designers must make stuff.

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