Change the way you think about design.

When people ask me what it is that I do as a designer, I often come up with a pretty broad and solid description. But then, I get reactions like these: “So you are doing advertising” or “So you are painting signs?” When people think about design, what they have in mind often is something like a fancy toaster or overpriced furniture.

I learned that, if I want to make my role more clear, I have to work on having a clear picture of it. I had to make clear to myself about which design I was talking. How do I define design for myself?

A lot of people have defined the term design in different ways. Some of them cover a lot of ground, some are about a specific aspect. I think about the concept of design in a broad sense. Designing is an approach, a way of thinking about our surroundings. It is the will to change, to improve, to create.

It does not matter what you design. The core principle always applies. The core principle of design is forming novel solutions to problems, through shaping objects and systems. What makes design special – in comparison to mathematics for example – is that it produces artefacts.

The artefacts are what set design apart from disciplines like mathematics and philosophy. But the ways of thinking behind them are a lot closer related than you might think. What makes a designer powerful is not the creation of things, it’s the thinking behind the creation.

Think about process, not artefacts!

So if the thinking is the important part, why is it that when you look at portfolios or design blogs, what you see is a vast land of pictures of things? People fall back to describing the artefacts of the design process. The artefact is simply the most tangible, visible part. It is the easiest to share and describe.

When you describe a website it is easy to analise its structure, the layout, typeface choices and colours. What you can’t see that easily is the reasoning behind those decisions. But the reasoning and thinking behind the actual objects are what make up the designed work. Without those decisions there would be no website, or at least not a very good one.

Design is a set of formal choices based on decisions which are the result of a thought process. Thinking is the foundation. Without thinking, there is no conscious decision. Without decisions, there only are random shapes and colours.

In a well done design, all “surface-level” choices will tie back to a thought and decision process. The process is based on the defined goals, organisational circumstances and its context.

The next time you see a new website launch, I want you to try something out: Try to imagine what you can’t see. Try to reconstruct the decisions. Try to reconstruct a possible thought process and reasoning for the decisions. Also take in account the client and imagine the possible complexities that you can come up with.

Imagine a news organisation. That organisation has a revenue goal. Different media outlets (i.e. web and print) create the revenue. Within each of those media, there are different resorts. Different resorts have different revenue capabilities (people love sports). But there may be reasons for a resort that is not performing well still to have a lot of space in the newspaper. The feuilleton may be important to the organisation, because of the brand perception it creates. This thought experiment could go on and on. The point is: The problems are likely more complex than you expect. There are many things you cannot observe in the final result. Never jump to conclusions about a design without knowing the thinking. And never design without thinking.

You have to let go of judging design just by looking at it. The artefact is a mere reflection of all the intangible components of a project. No design artefact was ever created in a vacuum. A designed artefact is always an endpoint of a process. The artefact is not the design.

What you don’t do matters!

To understand when critical thinking is important in your design process, you have to look for invisible. The impact of the concrete outcome of the design process – the artefact – is easy to grasp. We can relate to aesthetics. We can understand how certain interaction patterns boost conversation rates. These artefacts may sometimes be hard to quantify, but they are always visible.

I want you to think about this: Every design decision leaves behind hundreds or thousands of different possible outcomes. You have to understand that the routes you did not take are just as important as the ones you did choose. They matter because of the reasons why you left them behind. Every Yes in the process is a No to a different world of possibilities. What makes you a good designer is not the ability to come up with one great way to do things. What makes you a great designer is the reasoning behind the things you say No to.

The sum of things you did not do is the most intangible part of this thinking process. But there are more important invisible aspects of it. Two main groups you have to train yourself to consider I want to call semantics and consequences.

Thinking about consequences and semantics

Consequences are everything that is not directly related to your work, but is affected by it. The consequences vary from concrete to abstract and from short-term to long-term. Watching out for consequences helps you to avoid problems further in the process.

Let’s say we are working on a branding for a small fresh juice shop. We deliver a top-notch fruity logo that is friendly and refreshing. We add a color system, a type choice and a small guideline. One of the main colours is a fancy bright orange. Sounds pretty good right?

Now our juice shop wants to send out some personalised letters and some leaflets about the shop. The owner prints those at home with his pretty good laser-printer. Suddenly his bright fruit logo looks more like a rotten mandarine. Orange is one of the hardest color to reproduce with inkjet or laser-print. So our business owner has two options. Either he will have to live with a not-so-fresh logo on the leaflets, or he will have send them to a proper printer. Both ways will be expensive in the long run.

This story just shows some pretty concrete consequences, which still get neglected often enough. Think about the circumstances of the object you design. What happens after you release it into the wild? Who will the client use the design? How will it be used by customers? Will it be modified? How robust has the system to be? There are endless questions for this. You will not come up with all the questions. That’s okay. But if you asked a question once, you are never allowed to go on designing without answering it..

The other large group of intangibles are semantics. Semantics describe the meaning an object or artefact holds. An easy example that comes to mind are colours. Generally we associate different attitudes or emotions with certain color ranges. A deep red may be an allegory for passion. Green could be associated with nature. They are rooted in psychology and vary vastly in different cultural spheres.

Semantics are a big part of design. Some people argue that what a design means (what it embodies or points to) is even more important than what it actually does. The meaning of an object describe the semantics. The functional aspects are what it does.

Think about a Mercedes Benz. There may be a lot of functional benefits for a Mercedes, but the real value is in the things we associate with the brand. The meaning is in the heart of the brand.

You may have learned how to use semantics. colours and the things we connect with them are an obvious example. Typography is also affected a lot by semantics. What you may not have learned is, that the artefact you designed also produces new semantics itself.

You might think “But isn’t that what design is about?” – yes and no. Of course you are trying to shape meaning with your work. You try to treat semantics like forms you can shape. But like the consequences of your design process, most meaning is formed a long time after your process finished. It is not even formed by you or by the client – it is formed by the perception of the customers and the surroundings. Furthermore the meaning is often build upon the goals you started out to begin with.

If semantics are formed after the design process and based to the goals and circumstances you are creating in, how can you even influence them? Simple answer: You have to design the goals and shape the circumstances. The only way to shape the meaning of an artefact, is to shape the circumstances of its creation. Your work does not start with designing, your work does not even start with research. Your work starts with thinking, defining the right goals and finding the right problems.

How to bring critical thinking into your process

Your job as a designer seems to be far far more, than what your client thinks you are doing for them. This difference in thinking about design is the root for a lot of problems. It is the reason for the lacking understanding of how important design is to a clients product and brand. Also it is the reasons why some clients are not willing to pay reasonable prices for design services. People are judging on what they see. If you are not trained in design, it is hard to see the difference between a bad and a well thought through design. You can’t judge clients for that: It is not their job. It is yours.

Implementing critical thinking into your process will help you to create better work. You will earn the respect of your clients because you are digging deeper. They will see you as more than the failed artist or magician many designers treat themselves like. In the end you will be able charge better rates and take on more interesting projects.

None of these paragraphs are easy How-Tos. What I want you to do is to shift your mindset step by step. Change the way you think about your process and start to use critical thinking in your process. As a designer you can be a lot more than just a problem-fixer. You have the ability to shape and influence things way beyond what is in the job description.

The first step to put critical thinking in place is to go back to the last decision you made and ask yourself some questions.

Why did I chose this? Why not the other option? What were the reasons why I came up with those options? How do they relate to the problem? How does the problem relate to the goals of the client? How do the goals of the client relate to his business structure? Are the goals compatible to each other? Are they the right goals to pursue?

On and on and on you ask. Ask your client, ask yourself. Critically check your decisions. Think about what you did not do. Think about the consequences and the meaning of things. In the end you will keep on creating beautiful things. But they will be build upon a firm conceptual foundation that will stand the test of time.