Kevin Vogelsang: Understanding the Design Process -- 4 Key Methods

We design art, software, personal schedules, business plans, essays, blog posts, and, hopefully to an increasing degree, our own lives.  This concept of "design" is important, and I think it's absolutely necessary to understand the different design processes we employ, or, more often, the design processes that play themselves out whether we're conscious of it or not.

Here are the major types of design that can be observed in most development processes:


Shotgun Design. 

This seems to be the M.O. of people that fall on the highly creative spectrum.  If there are many inspirations, the "designer" is compelled to make many things.  Many musicians, inventors, and artists even take strategies of doing many works every day until they produce something that was "properly inspired".  Supposedly, George Gershwin, the famous musician and pianist, wrote six pieces every morning "just to get the bad ones out."   (There's an important corollary here:  not everything you make will be good.)

Evolutionary Design. 

We see this in nature--over generations, a species learns from its environment and adapts to it.   Evolutionary design is a powerful process.  In fact, if you zoom out far enough, most development looks like an evolutionary process, whether it's a core technology, a product, personal habits, or a startup.  

When Steve Blank  and Eric Ries talk about the "customer development model" or "agile development,"  they're really talking about best practices in applying evolutionary design to building a company.  If you spend time talking to your customers, you learn from your environment.  And if you have faster iterations that incorporate these learnings, your company will adapt to the environment faster, survive, and hopefully prosper.

Pure Design. 

This is what happens when someone with a high level of expertise sits down, puts pen to paper, and specs out true value.  The nuance here is that what they design actually works, and they can do this consistently.  If it exists at all, it seems to be quite rare.  Nikola Tesla claimed to be able to design his inventions in his head, every single measurement and piece of minutiae, and never make a mistake.  Mozart is often depicted as being able to sit down and write music so flawlessly that it seems he was copying it from the astral plane.  Bram Cohen, creator of BitTorrent, paces around and, once he's ready, sits down and writes flawless code(Wired, "The Bittorrent Effect").  

Unfortunately, the creation process is often exaggerated by people to make it seem like Pure Design when it really isn't, so when you hear of these stories, I'd approach them with a bit of  skepticism.  I'll avoid going too much into the psychology, but most people aren't interested in hearing about regular people.  We want to hear about "geniuses",  giants, and heroes.  (Do people watch golf or Tiger Woods?  Basketball or Lebron?)  The desire to see superstars makes us vulnerable to tall tales and causes us to overlook the focus and honest labor that goes into accomplishment.  

Gary Kasparov, the chess grandmaster, illustrates our lust after stories of Pure Design in his essay, "The Chess master and the Computer":

"[The result of the tournament], though startling, fits with my belief that talent is a misused term and a misunderstood concept. The moment I became the youngest world chess champion in history at the age of twenty-two in 1985, I began receiving endless questions about the secret of my success and the nature of my talent. Instead of asking about Sicilian Defenses, journalists wanted to know about my diet, my personal life, how many moves ahead I saw, and how many games I held in my memory."

Introspective Design. 

This one is a bit curious.  This is simply creating something you personally desire.  Not just acting on an idea that's yours, but actually making something so you yourself can have it.  

Personally, I find introspective design to be the strategy I most often employ.  Personal desire is extremely powerful.  But to make something valuable, it requires the maker to have clear purpose, strong awareness of the environment, and strong sense of self.  To make something you want, you need to first know what you want.  

By having an understanding of these design processes, you'll probably find making things much easier.  You'll likely be able to formulate a better strategy for one. But, it goes beyond just that. Making something is an emotional process, it's a reflection of you.  Consequently, understanding  design is valuable for managing yourself.  Ever been frustrated by the fact that you knew your essay just wasn't right?  Worried your product lacked vision?  Or upset that so many of your creations just didn't meet your expectations? Understanding the design process will help you solve these issues and deliver better work.

But what about you? Do you see these design processes at work?  Are there ways you could be better utilizing them?




Kevin Vogelsang is an entrepreneur, writer and founder of Vogel Labs. You should follow him on Twitter @KevinVogelsang and check out his blog at