10 Tips on Better Design



Editor’s note: This is a guest post from David Straker on how to improve your ability to design things, whatever your art or craft may be.

David is the creator of CreatingMinds.org, where he shares his wealth of insight and action on the art and science of creativity and imagination.

Design can be your best friend to help set you apart, and rise above the status quo.  Getting better at design, can also help you bring your ideas to life, and express yourself with skill.

Without further ado, here’s David …

I’ve been chewing on design for most of my life. From Lego to hardware, software, houses, organizations and more, I’ve been involved in all kinds of design. And why not, because it’s about the most fun you can have (outside of a few things that perhaps we shouldn’t talk about here). Because of this, my career has gone largely sideways. I never wanted to be the big boss – I just wanted to do interesting and cool things.

So here’s a few useful things I’ve found along the way.

1. Start with a brief, not requirements

In advertising, as well as many other industries, designers are given a brief rather than a set of requirements or a stiff contract. The brief is, unsurprisingly, brief. It points you in the right direction but doesn’t do the design for you. If you don’t already use a brief, look further into this and get your process changed.

2. Don’t dive in

Don’t dive into design, otherwise you’ll end up with a great design that nobody likes or wants. Start by swimming around for a while, talking to people, including everyone who has a finger in the pie as well as those who might use what you are designing. Look at what’s new. Get ideas from outside your industry. Go to exhibitions. Look for possibility. Collect stimuli, from toy cars to alternative magazines. Go slow now to go fast later in creating a design that blows people away.

3. Watch people

Both in early exploration and with the prototypes and final designs, watch how people approach things. This can be agony when you think it’s all obvious, yet observing people in action can be highly educational. Look for confusion. Watch them try things. You can also ask them (gently) why they are doing what they are doing and what they are thinking while they are doing it. Then design to align with what they do and think.

4. Isolate the design nuggets

One of the early exploration tasks is to find the nuggets of work that encapsulate the key challenges of design. These are the nuggets that are both most fun and hardest work. If you can isolate these, then you will both be able to estimate the time needed more accurately and also help schedule focus in your work to crack these nuts, one by one.

5. Develop the concept

Industrial designers and others use concept development rather than diving into the guts of the design. They play with ideas, make prototypes, show one another and gradually let the best design emerge rather than assuming they know the one best way. Advertisement folks take a set of designs to their clients rather than say ‘this is what you’re going to get’. Keep your options open until you’re confident you’ve got a winner.

6. Be promiscuous with ideas

When you’ve got the beginnings of an idea, there’s a kind of dilemma. Do you fall in love with it and exclude all others? Or do you quickly winnow through ideas, rejecting the obviously non-useful ones. It’s a dilemma as you can either throw out the baby with the bathwater or get married to a doozy. A better way is to be promiscuous. Get close to ideas that stimulate you. Spend time seducing them. Get your head inside them and figure out the possibilities. Only then decide whether it’s worth pursuing them further.

7. Design for everyday people

Let’s face it. You’re not everyday. You’re special. You’re smart and work on important things. A problem with being smart is that it can be difficult to design for people who aren’t as smart as you. What is obvious to you is not obvious to others. What you quickly understand takes them somewhat longer. Design for what they do, how they think and what they feel. So you’ve got to understand them and design for them, not for you. The best buzz of design is watching people light us as they realize what a great design you’ve created.

8. Use form as a constraint

One of the things that paradoxically leads to better design is constraints, the list of things you must and must not do. And a great way to get great design is to set up the form first. Classic examples from electronics include the first HP calculators, the Sony Walkman and the Apple iPad. Design the outside first, then make the inside fit. You can do the same with software, houses and all sorts.

9. Stare at goats

Well, maybe not goats. But like the book and movie ‘Men who Stare at Goats’, you can get a lot out of staring at designs and prototypes. If you are designing a kitchen, just stand there and look at it. Go back frequently, even during construction and stare. Wait for ideas to arrive. Maybe go for a walk and then go stare again. It’s surprising how many ideas can be got from staring.

10. Travel and try

Great chefs do a lot of travel. They visit other countries and small towns, looking for recipes they can try, adopt and adapt. You can do the same. Look for design in all things you do. Wonder how they developed the cup you are holding or the train on which you ride every day. Read magazines and websites from other disciplines. You can even switch horses, taking your learning from one area into another in a completely new domain. I did, and it was brilliant fun!

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Image by Mike Lyncheski.

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  1. I like the simple and prescriptive guidelines here. I like these the most as i seem to apply them at work:
    1. Start w/a brief/
    4. Isolate the design nuggets
    5. Develop the concept
    8. Use form as a constraint

  2. Do a quick product (not final one) get it into customer’s hands and WATCH them interact with it.

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