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This chapter is from the book

How The Design Method Came to Be

This book and method directly stem from my ignorance and need to find a more sensible way to create design. Like many designers, my career didn’t follow the standard path of design school, interning, and finally becoming a designer under the tutelage of more senior designers and art directors. Instead, I studied painting in art school and did production for a newspaper. These visual language and technical capabilities provided a starting point to begin my career as a designer. The part I was missing was the how and why of design.

Like me in my earlier days, many designers just want to make innovative work and challenge design conventions, especially when they are new to the craft. I shirked the task of doing research and documenting my findings; all I wanted to do was to pull out my markers and play with ideas. My early forays into design suffered from this blind enthusiasm. Eventually, I started to ask what my design needed to accomplish. The more often I started a project with this question and answered it in a clear fashion, the better the response I would get from clients and audiences. The design solutions that got the most praise were often the most plain and obvious.

The Design Method was born from experience. The observations that shaped this approach came from opening a studio we had hardly any right to run and learning about design in a hands-on fashion. The questions we faced ranged from how to determine what steps to take in our projects to the best way to version a file. The method we used became stronger with each varied job our agency faced. Through these projects we learned to recognize patterns in the work we did and determine which aspects of our process might be repeatable in future work. Similarly, we knew we could gain efficiencies by standardizing project phases and tasks.

In our first approach we itemized every project step and created detailed task lists. This act helped us identify stages in our workflow, but adhering to these lists became unwieldy. Being so granular meant that every job needed its own set of tasks, which often numbered in the many hundreds. On projects with overlapping deliverables (like a website and a corporate identity), the task lists didn’t transfer well. Worse yet, they were so inconvenient to keep on top of that they interfered with our work.

Later, we sought technologies that would help us better organize our methods, but software fell short as well. After spending many weeks looking for software that would magically solve our problems, we realized that a GANTT chart creator, a task manager, or a collaboration tool could not accomplish so much. Although many good technologies exist, these tools need to support a well-defined process—not take its place.

For a long time we didn’t believe we even had a stable process, given how we’d adhere to an approach for a while and later encounter its limitations. But after we began incorporating certain techniques, these methods clicked together in our studio and produced the results we had hoped for. There’s an irony of sorts in how much our agency utilizes (and espouses) methodology now, given the organic and rather cumbersome path we took in developing it.

We’ve now earned an applied sense for how to effectively create design. Between analysis and hands-on learning, we’ve established a series of rules and systems that work quite well—particularly for those who are asked to design items that may still be undefined. One of the core notions that allow The Design Method to work is to employ a singular approach, which we affectionately call the funnel.

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