Design as Experiment

by Ralph Ammer

Designers must cultivate a healthy relationship with reality (or realities for you radical constructivists out there). We as designers don’t just fantasize or indulge in our own ideas about the world, we interact with the world.

This way of working is nothing new to the craftsman who trains his mental and physical understanding of his craft and the materials he employs. He grounds his understanding in an interaction with the world by making things. Thinking and doing can not be separated. The thought processes of our brains and bodies are wired according to our interaction with the world. If we don’t make then we can’t think. At least not about good design.

Ideal models of how a design project might be carried out should thus be taken with a grain of salt. They are a construct, a grid, an organizational tool. Nothing more than that. Design projects rarely look like this:


And all the post-its of this world cannot change that fact.

Some project management models such as “agile design” already take the realities of a project into account by introducing feedback loops and iterations and yet determined to work smoothly on a fixed path:


But let those calming structured concepts not mislead us!

The world is a messy place.

So what do we do?

Of course we want to organize how we go about. We do research, ideation, prototyping, etc. in a particular order, we develop habits and synchronize our actions. But we don’t expect the world to necessarily comply with our ideas about it. Instead we are prepared for the unforeseen, for the obstacles, the frustrations, the irritations. We appreciate them because they help us to improve the course of our thoughts and actions.

So our processes might look like this:


Design as experiment

In this project we don’t play it safe. We don’t consider the perfect result as the goal of the project. Instead we cherish the path of our explorations. We employ the rich set of design tools (system thinking, structuring complex information, typography, photography, programming, ideation, illustration, etc.) to explore questions we consider to be important.

A healthy Design discourse

Communication designers do not only make legible typography, structure messy data or create compelling illustrations. We are in the business of engineering minds! The complexity of this undertaking forces us to participate in various sophisticated discourses. We discuss the findings of our work based on solid knowledge of our intellectual environment using elaborate language trained and sharpend in the wilderness of books and conversations.

We think, read and talk.

So many brilliant minds put years of effort into writing down their most precious thoughts and ideas. It would be downright stupid to ignore those treasures. This is why we encourage each other to read – a lot.

And we regularly make room for discussions about what we have learned to help us digest and incorporate those new ideas into our lives and practice as designers.

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