The art of design is a philosophy toward identifying a problem and generating a desired result in the form of a working solution to it. The philosophy requires a genuine interest in the solution by recognizing it is not about you, but about the individuals who desire a solution to the problem.
The art of design is a process (Figure 1), an iterative one at best. We imagine a solution to a problem and head off to solve it. Along the way, our outcomes do not meet our expectations. We fail. We must go back to the drawing board, or the appropriate 21st Century tool these days, and try again. Creativity, problem solving, intuition, knowledge, and a host of other personal, interpersonal, and collaborative skills are all involved in overcoming the obstacles to reach a desired result. The art of design is a process and a state-of-mind.
A problem is a matter involving doubt, uncertainty, or difficulty. It is a challenge. If it were easy, anyone could solve it. The solution to most problems often appears simpler and more effortless than what is really required. This misconception is common in inexperience designers. A famous chess master once stated, a novice chess player does not know the knowledge they lack; a grandmaster does. The same thought could be applied to design. Doing design provides experience from which the complexities and interrelationships become more apparent than first considered.
Analysis is the process of dividing a new problem into smaller, more manageable entities, for which prior learning may be the starting point to generate new knowledge and experience. In other words, analysis is the separation of an entity into its constituent elements.
The process of analysis begins by asking questions. Good engineers ask lots of questions – to others and to themselves. Questions help scope the problem and set the boundaries, then they provide a path toward a solution. Analysis involves critical thinking, abstract thinking, problem-definition, and problem solving in various scopes.
Aesthetics frame the relevant context of the problem. Aesthetics has two formal definitions: 1) it is the branch of philosophy dealing with concepts of beauty, ugliness, comedy, the sublime, etc, and it is typically directed at the fine arts as a way of establishing the principles for the critique of artifacts; and 2) it is the study of mind and emotion in relation to intense pleasure, expectation, or satisfaction.
Design is about delivering the desired result to the stakeholders in the problem. Design is integrating the environment into the solution methodology; solving problems in their context and making it relevant to stakeholders improves the acceptance of the solution. Aesthetics help ground the designer to the stakeholders, not to their own biases and perceptions.
When analysis is combined with aesthetics in the framework of a particular problem, the constituent elements of each are brought together in a unified concept. This concept can be evaluated in the stakeholder’s context. The criteria for success are whether the design artifact may be deemed a desired solution to the problem and an in alignment with the context. Unfortunately, synthesis does not often yield the desired result the first time around. Thus, several iterations are needed.
Iteration is difficult for many people since they can be afraid to fail. In 1981, the former president of a major technology-focused corporation published message on the back of the Wall Street Journal offering some wisdom on how to manage fear of failure:
- Don’t be afraid to fail
- You’ve failed many times, although you may not remember.
- You fell down the first time you tried to walk. You almost drowned the first time you tried to swim, didn’t you? Did you hit the ball the first time you swung a bat? Heavy hitters, the ones who hit the most home runs, also strike out a lot.
- R.H. Macy failed seven times before his store in New York caught on.
- English novelist John Creasey got 753 rejection slips before he published 564 books.
- Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times, but he also hit 714 home runs.
- Don’t worry about failure.
- Worry about the chances you miss when you don’t even try.
Source: Gray & United Technologies Corp. (1981).
Failure occurs when the mark falls short of success or when something expected, attempted, or desired is achieved through a faulty process. Failure is based upon perception from a particular perspective. One type of perceived failure occurs when the desired result (or outcome) is not achieved, i.e., when the root problem has not been resolved or eliminated. Another type of failure is due to process. This happens when the final outcome is reached successfully, but the perception exists that the activities performed to reach it were below expectations or did not meet intended standards. Examples of other types of failure are failure to anticipate, perceive, complete an activity, failure to act, failure to answer, and failure to realize. In design, failure has an infinite number of causes, just like everything else.
Realize the Failure and Failing Forward
Obstacles and difficulties are the nature of things and doing, as the understanding of all the details is not known. Success may be defined in terms of the way one responds to these entities and the failures they cause in the quest to reach a desired result. Achieving success may be related to an individual’s perception of and response to failure. Success may be achieved when the obstacles and difficulties are harnessed to form a foundation that builds and leads to success. Adversity—a situation marked by calamity or distress—challenges people to keep a positive attitude, to continue to believe in themselves, and to turn the negative into a positive. The objective is to change the negative experience into a positive learning event that is a stepping-stone to the desired result.
To fail forward, an individual or group needs to be open to learning from the failure. Being open requires that one not deny the failure or excuse their complicity. Rather it requires an honest assessment of where the truth and reality are crystal clear. Most critical is a commitment to understanding the failure, determining one’s role in it, learning from it, and making a new commitment to overcome it.
Doing this takes work and effort. However, by doing so, it is possible to recover quickly from failure. Getting back on track moves a person to the next stepping-stone on the path to the desired result.
Design is the preparation, initial thoughts, concept, and documentation (sketches, drawings, etc.) for an artifact, especially to plan the form, fit, and function of the solution to a problem. Design requires an individual to plan conceptually and to skillfully implement a solution that meets the project’s metrics of success. Design has a definitive purpose. Design requires cognitive skills and assessments resulting in a course of action. It assigns purpose to intention, artifact to thought, and solution to problem via the constraints, context, and relevance of all stakeholders in the desired result.
The outcome of a design in a working prototype, be it tangible or intangible. If the solution doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter.
- Adams, J. L. (1986). Conceptual blockbusting: A guide to better ideas, (4th ed.). Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley. OCLC WorldCat Permalink: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/13009818
- Dreyfuss, H. (2003). Designing for people. New York, NY: Allworth. OCLC WorldCat Permalink: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/249524715
- Gray, H.J.(1981). Don’t be afraid to fail. United Technologies Corp. Advertisement, Wall Street Journal.
- Imagineers (Group). (2005). The imagineering way. New York: Disney Editions. OCLC WorldCat Permalink: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/458644851
- Petroski, H. (1985). To engineer is human: The role of failure in successful design. New York, N.Y: St. Martin’s Press. OCLC WorldCat Permalink: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/11623617
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