Consistently describing design

I’ve been writing about the design process, suggesting that different models can give us different perspectives on what we’re doing when we’re designing. I’ve suggested that design is a process of translation and balance – transforming ideas between abstract forms to concrete instantiations that people can experience. In my last post I used the metaphor of scaffolding, suggesting that we can introduce supporting structures within the design process to create space to do this translation. 

Why am I doing this? I’d like to arrive at a model of the design process that can be translated down from abstract “big picture” to a concrete level. The double diamond is a fine simplification of design – but it only gets you so far in answering questions about what to do next when you’re stuck in a design project. I think an effective model could help you sell the “idea” of design and help you justify (and navigate) the process that follows that sales job – I want a way of not just describing what design is or and what it can do for an organisation (and set expectations), but also provide a map for people to follow to do design (to meet or hopefully exceed expectations). I think a model can be practically helpful to designers because the consistency in what you say and what people see about design will aid understanding and credibility. To achieve this, I think I need a coherent set of descriptions at different levels of abstraction. 

An aside about why metaphors matter

Humans have analogical minds – we make sense through comparison. We compare something we know well with something new, like a new project or design opportunity. We use the comparison as a way of understanding the new situation and we draw analogies between different levels of abstraction when we don’t have direct equivalents or when a broader category is more efficient.

We see the affect that metaphors and using them consistently has across everyday life. It’s noticeable when you consider organisational culture. The dominant metaphors within an organisation shape the culture. Is your organisation full of targets, missions, chains of command? This militaristic language might have an impact. Is your organisation an organism, an engine, a family… each of these will manifest in the way it feels to exist and work within the organisation. It can also reveal the disconnect we can feel between the “espoused” metaphors and the “lived” ones. If leaders talk about the organisation as being a “family” and they act like it’s a machine or engine, the disconnect is likely to be felt.

The same is true for the way we think about and communicate design. If we can’t move beyond an abstract formulation, it will be harder to convince people of the tangible benefits, and practitioners will spend more time filling in the gaps at the bottom of the ladder of abstraction with concrete methods. When these methods don’t ladder up to the abstract model that we’ve used to talk about design to stakeholders, the dissonance undermines the case we make for design and makes it more difficult for less experienced designers to develop a coherent practice.

Back to my metaphors

I like the metaphor of scaffolding because it suggests a sort of skeletal support structure. It’s not over-engineered, but it does introduce some stability. Jason Hobbs has also written about information architecture in the design process providing a scaffolding-like structure. He also references Richard Rumelt, and one of the things I like about strategic thinking is the consideration of points of leverage. Levers are powerful because they find a fulcrum and use the mechanics that a focal point can provide to exert more force than you would otherwise be able to generate. 

So – I like the idea of fixed points within the design process. These are the anchor points between which you can construct the structure of a design process. The anchor points might be deadlines or deliverables generated from a specific tool you favour. They might be landmarks that help collaborators all orient towards similar goals. They might be checkpoints that prompt reflective practice and evaluation.

Design as a temporary structure (the tent)

A pyramid structure depicting the design process. At the basis there are labels for problem, ideas and experiments. Resting on these are hypotheses, solution and creation. The higher level is labeled intent and experiences which supports a section labelled Evaluation. The top of the pyramid is "value".

In the model I shared last week I introduced junction points within the scaffolding-like structure. I didn’t really develop the idea of leverage. In my metaphor these points serve as both landmarks and junctions which support a structure. I pictured this model a little like a tent. 

The lines of the structure mark a series of boundaries – and create separate “spaces”. There is the larger structure of the entire process – marked by the outer, thicker continuous lines. Through framing activities we set the boundaries around which we’ll construct our process. 

The structure within (the thinner broken lines) demarcates different stages or processes that need to be completed. The tent metaphor gives me a lot. The triangular structures means I can still invoke the divergence and convergence of other models from Banathy through to the double diamond. A tent is placed onto an existing foundation – it works best when this is stable and level – so it gives you a chance to talk about context and framing activities which surround and define the process. And by making the lines within the structure broken I starts to explore the relationship between the spaces/activities within design and the boundaries between them. 

But design is all about trade-offs and managing variables to improve outcomes – so what happens if we explore another metaphor…

Summary of the “tent” metaphor:

  • Points of anchorage (more so than leverage although this idea is within reach)
  • Placement of the structure/process within a context – Framing
  • Specific activities/regions/spaces within a broader category of “design”
  • Proximity and the potential of “movement” between these spaces
  • Angular structures to evoke divergence and convergence – also seen in diamonds and kites 

Design as a healthy organism – a cellular system metaphor

In the last post I acknowledged that the relationship between the “equation” version of design (problem = ideas = intent = experiments = experiences) and the tent/pyramid isn’t immediately obvious. I got to the triangular structure of the tent by pulling parts of the equation upwards, literally creating more space to explore as I extended the equation across another axis. But I felt it could be a source of inconsistency, so I returned to the equation to explore the idea of adding another axis alongside the “temporal”/sequential element of the design process that the equation represents well. 

I created a map of the design process containing different “cells” which can be used to describe different types of activities, processes or products produced during design. I labelled these to explore whether this might get me down to the bottom of the ladder of abstraction and start to categorise the tools a designer might use during design. 

A 'celular' depiction of the design process. Four "cells" at the concept level are labelled conceptualisation, ideation, data insight and formative research - moving left to right along the axis/equation labeled problem = ideas = intent = experiments = experiences. The next "level' is descriptions and the cells are: Definition, Iteration, comparison, evaluative research. Above these is the design/prototype level which contains Categorisation, Integration, Hypothesis, and BAU.

The different cells are constructed by considering the relationship between the “stage” of design that you’re at and the level of abstraction that the designer and team are operating at. The further to the right you get, the closer to something being experienced by the team as a whole and ultimately the intended user. The higher up the structure you get the more concrete things become. The activities are drawn from academic research into the value that design and design thinking can bring to complex problem solving. They also reflect the multidisciplinary integration of design with other disciplines and capabilities within the BBC.

There are multiple ways you could label and categorise this structure – I know, because I’ve done it.

I’ve considered how and when designers will be focused on collaboration, testing and developing ideas with the team vs. when we start to look outside and engage in an external perspective.

The same model as above but colours are used to label the concept level as internal and the other two levels external.

I then tried to apply categories to group the different activities – again, I’m searching for a consistent model that can operate at different levels of abstraction – so that I can move from describing the design process in broad terms and then move down to specific tools and toolsets that can be employed to ensure design makes the most valuable contribution that it can.

This idea of identifying toolsets and the activities used during design is appealing. But I’m not convinced that the “cells” model is better than the tent pyramid at the metaphorical level. In the past I’ve developed this type of model and by rotating it I’ve managed to introduce the divergence and convergence of the diamond shape – Dan Ramsden’s Fish of Design. But in this case it results in a structure that looks unbalanced and leaning backwards, not a useful visual representation of what design is and how it works.

The same model rotated at 45 degrees.

Summary of the “labelled cells” metaphor:

  • The granularity of specific activities is useful to suggest tools
  • Breaking the design process down across time and levels of fidelity is useful
  • This more granular level of description provides a checklist or set of heuristics to judge design projects – identifying unpopulated regions within the map might reveal how to unlock progress and what to do next.


Analysing the strengths and weaknesses of each approach leads to a further evolution of the model/system as a whole. The equation provides the highest level of abstraction and introduces the points of leverage that design creates for an organisation.

We can use these points of leverage to lift the later elements of the equation and creates structure or space for design to operate within – we fold the equation back on itself – sort of zigzag like to create this space. This is useful to describe how design needs dedicate time and resource to realise the advantages it is capable of producing.

Metaphorically we’re “putting up the tent” creating a temporary but reliable structure to contain focused activity. The location of the “tent” is our problem space and the tent is the “frame” or structure we construct to contain (and constrain) the problem – bringing some things inside and outside of our concern. The interplay between the internal activities undertaken during design and the external realities that affect and are affected by those activities is important.

Once we have the pyramid, we can describe the spaces inside and outside the structure at different levels of detail depending on who we’re talking to. We might use broad categories with stakeholders. For designers we might delve deeper into more granular descriptions or even specific tools or methods.

The design tent pyramid labelled with different levels of description.
1. synthesis/sensemaking, creation/difference making and evaluation.
2. A range of specific tools taking from the cell model: Framing and Comparison sit outside the structure at either side of the base followed by Conceptualisation, Ideation, Iteration, Experiment design within the "tent" at the base. Above are "definition" and evaluative research outside and integration, categorisation inside.

This is the model I’m going to be exploring next – and building the next lowest levels of the model – which I think will be a toolset of canvas.

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