Let me explain…

Many designers today have been trained in design processes. There is the double-diamond approach (or triple-diamond approach), Lean UX, user-centered design, agile UX, design sprints, and, of course, the over-popularized “design thinking” process…to name a few.

But why are there so many different design processes? When design is not a process. Let me say that again: Design is NOT a process.

Many bootcamps and programs have trained a generation of UXers to think like production line workers. This has done a disservice to design and ultimately undermined its value over time. Plus, trying to shove design into (poorly defined) sprint cycles has reinforced the misguided production mindset for design.

There are lots of processes out there, but none of them is true to the details of the real world. They can't be followed relentlessly.

What is a process?

When I asked ChatGPT 4o to help me define the word “process,” it said…

A “process” can be defined as a series of actions or steps taken to achieve a particular end. In various contexts, the definition and implications of a process can vary, but the core idea remains the same: it involves a sequence of activities that are systematically followed to reach a goal.

Along the same lines, Merriam-Webster says:

“a series of actions or operations conducing to an end (especially : a continuous operation or treatment especially in manufacture)”

In most definitions, the word “series” appears. That generally means things or events coming one after another in spatial or temporal succession (again from Merriam-Webster).

The Non-Linear Nature of Design

Despite the structure of many popular design process frameworks, design is not a predictable linear series of steps that will produce the desired outcome every time. Design is not repeatable or predictable in that way.

Design certainly has criteria and requirements. It has elements that can (and should) be repeated, but it is not a process. There are no roadmaps or series of steps you can follow to definitively end up with a solution that meets the outcome you desire.

Design isn’t that simple.

Design is something else.

Design is more of a craft or a discipline. It’s full of tools (and activities) we use to reach our end goals. But the tools aren’t the craft. It’s the choice of when and how to wield those tools.

This applies beyond digital experience design. Unfortunately, the UX industry is flooded with media and content that has hijacked and redefined the term “design.” But design has been around much longer than digital experiences. Some of the greatest design minds were in a pencil-and-paper era. They were industrial designers creating physical products that defined many of the standard experiences we take for granted today. They were architectural designers creating incredible buildings that have influenced our modern understanding of structures and dwellings.

During job interviews, I usually ask candidates to tell me about their design process. It’s a bit of a test. The best answers typically come from the most seasoned and experienced designers who say, “Well, there’s no perfect process. I usually do some of the following things…” They proceed to explain the practices and principles they try depending upon the circumstances. Then, they can offer different examples of how they approached each situation with a different composition of tools and approaches because that’s the messy real world of design.

Jazz as a Metaphor for Design

Yes, the discipline of design contains some necessary elements. You must explore multiple options. You must test those options to see what succeeds and why. You must understand that you’re solving for something. You must work with the end materials. These are some basics but are not a linear, end-to-end process. You can’t lay these out in a line and end up with a perfect solution to reach the desired outcome.

Design is intentional, but not linear. This is a framework I’ve been working on for a few years now. It proposes four quadrants of design work. This verbage shows exploring options, acknowledging outcomes, working with materials, and evaluating.

Design is less like a factory production line and more like musical jazz improvisation. You follow some fundamentals, but no one can tell you what next note to play. Famous bassist Victor Wooten said this: “People don’t hire me to play the key. They hire me to make your jet groove. [a little later] All the notes are right, but it’s the context that makes them right.”

Go forth and design

Use your design methods and UX practices as tools, not a rigid dogmatic process. You can follow any process and fail to reach the outcome. If the goal is to reach an outcome, consider the tools and methods available to you. Consider which one might be the most appropriate at any given moment. Consider a different tool and how that might be helpful. And don’t forget that the act of making (drawing) something is an incredible tool for understanding.

Want to get better at this? Here are two recommended resources.

Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work

by Nigel Cross

This book is the OG of design thinking. It’s the commoditized, over-simplified version many designers are familiar with today. Read this book if you really want to understand how the most successful designers think.

Notes on the Synthesis of Form

by Christopher Alexander

This is an intense book, but if you devote the time and energy to understanding it backed with several years of hard lessons through real-world experience, it will pay dividends. It will help you understand the critical nature of ‘making something tangible’ to really be successful..

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This article contains affiliate links. By purchasing any of the products through the links included, you support my work since I’ll get a small commission on the sale. However, I have purchased and read these books on my own, and personally recommend them.

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