Accidents are part of the design process too…

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

Discussing clients’ need to know what the design process is, Michael Johnson writes: “Recently I’ve also realised that a whole series of our projects have almost been designed by accident.

At that critical stage where only a finite series of days remain until the big presentation anything goes in the johnson banks studio, so critiques and commentary and indeed design by accident can happen at any point.

I’ll give you some examples.”

It’s worth looking at the examples, many of which will be familiar to UK readers.
But I want to take (gentle) issue with the idea that ‘accident’ isn’t process.
If you read the stories Michael tells you’ll realise that they are all connected by the fact there is a clear process going on. It’s just that the process is particularly fluid.
And if you extend the case studies to include the briefing, the clients’ identification of needs, the presentation, the production and so on the process becomes clearer.

There’s a difference between macro and micro here, I think. It rained today, but it was generally sunny and very warm. The weather forecast usually summarises: bright and sunny with occasional showers. But if I’d been caught in the shower, which was quite heavy, I’d have said “it rained hard today”.

Erm, that’s not making any sense is it?! Trying to be enigmatic and I can’t quite pull it off.
Let’s try again…

A former student of mine once interviewed several well-known designers to identify their working processes. All of them, if I remember correctly, insisted they had no process and were almost angry at the suggestion they would. For them, the lack of process, the serendipitous nature of their work, was a badge of creative honour. They would pick out individual projects and say “we did it this way on this one” and “we did it this way on another one” therefore we don’t have a process.

But when my student and I read this and looked at the different examples they cited, we could see quite clearly that there was a definite process, almost an habitual approach to the way they worked. It’s just that each one had an ‘aha!’ moment where an idea appeared and was used. This, they said, was accidental. Creativity, then, is accidental and those of us who teach design as a process are evil. (I think one did actually say something like that!)

Reading “Designerly Ways of Knowing” by Nigel Cross (a great book, scholarly and well researched but very expensive in hardback – wait for the paperback) he identifies that a lot of designers actually have an idea fairly early on, discard it, go through a process and then keep coming back to the original idea. But, it seems, they don’t see that this is what they do. Designers are actually quite conservative!

Yet none of this takes anything away from the effectiveness of the examples Michael cites – I like all the designs he talks about.

It’s odd that a lot of designers and creative types assume that creativity is random (and that it can’t be taught). If it were true, no one would make a living from it. But I think it has a lot to do with trying to make out that creativity is a magical and rare talent that can’t be forced.
While that’s okay as a sales technique it annoys me if I hear teachers saying this, as though all they do is ‘facilitate’ a student’s already existing creativity. It’s more than a little lazy.

What is clear, however, from Michael’s introduction to the article, is that clients like to assume there is a clear process to the way designers work. To be honest, I wouldn’t disabuse them of this notion. For one thing, clients need to know their roles and responsibilities, otherwise they end up being nightmares (because we haven’t told them what’s needed). For another thing, if I hired someone to come and do a job for me and they started spouting some of the pretentious crap I hear some designers come out with, I’d run a mile.
You only need to give them the “macro” process, don’t go in to detail about what happens within that. As Cross points out (I think it was him) most people think design is a linear activity, that if you give ten days for a project then it will be half-done at day five, 70% done at day seven and so on. In actual fact, most design occurs in a sort of logarithmic fashion – little apparent progress for most of the project and then BAM! it all comes together at the last minute.

Of course, whether that’s because this is how the creative process works, or because designers are just shysters who piss about for 90% of the time and only work when the deadline’s looming is anyone’s guess… (I jest).

(Or do I?)

One comment on “Accidents are part of the design process too…

  1. Qin says:

    I guess what we teach is how to handle these accidents in the process, and turn them into sth useful. (if you and me are teaching the same thing…)My process is always full of accidents, to be honest… the plan never goes as the plan… you know what i mean…

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