From order to chaos and back - an inside look into the design process

A 2 minute read written by Phil October 10, 2013

illustration of a sausage on a fork

The big D - Design process is a little like making sausage - everyone loves the outcome but would rather be spared the gory details of how it’s made. Almost every design agency has their own marketing spin on their process and it’s always a clean, clinical, seamless process that includes some type of discovery research, followed by some type of iterative design process that leads seamlessly into a development phase. No fuss, no muss, just follow these simple steps and you’re guaranteed success.

This is a great big picture view that gives clients a sense of what to expect, but the reality is quite different.

waterfall diagram

The reality looks more like this:+

a more realistic process diagram - squiggles

The design phase isn’t a simple waterfall process that moves from one deliverable to another, it’s like a messy iterative process that involves moving forward and backward, zooming in and out.

I like to think of the design process as two competing forces: expansion and contraction.

We ask questions, expand our knowledge, making the playing field as wide as possible. At this point anything is possible and the world’s our oyster. And then we contract - returning to reality, embracing the constraints, honing in on details and reducing things to the core concept. Inevitably, this process will hit a barrier or a wall and we will have to start asking new questions and expanding again. The process continues each time expanding a little less and focusing a little closer.

Each time you start asking questions or prototyping, you put everything you have done to date in doubt, you question every answer you have collected and potentially have to go back and revise assumptions, technical infrastructure, content management system etc. and every answer you receive means reviewing and revising your documents, prototypes, wireframes etc.

While you are in the process it always feels like you are moving forward, but when you start to look at the process in detail you see the chaos. The truth for almost all projects is that we know where we want to end up and we know which steps we have to take, we do not know what the journey will actually look like.

We describe our process as a series of simple, coherent, linear, steps because no one would voluntarily sign up for the chaos that is the reality of the process. One of our biggest jobs on any project is to collaborate with our clients, involve them early and often and guide them through this process. This way they get to experience it first hand and see the magic that happens when all of these collaborative and chaotic forces combine to create a truly unique and extraordinary interactive experience.