Creative design: a quest for a thousand quests

There was a time when I called myself a designer, and proudly so. The term design has now been appropriated by people that design furniture, fashion, websites etc. I’m fine with that as I love and admire what they do. Myself I came into this as an electronics engineer and I designed circuits. (Don’t stop here if you think this is going to be geeky, skip straight to the 5th paragraph!)

Circuit design is a very creative activity that involves form, function and constraints as well as the ideals of simplicity, balance, aesthetics, surprise, innovation etc. Although these are evident to me when I see work of others, for most people this design is hidden from the world. Few will question the design quality of an iPad or its siblings, but that design isn’t limited to the external aesthetics. It’s a master piece at all levels and the geeks that designed the innards are genius in their own right.

This sort of design is inside-out design. It starts entirely in the mind(s), explores conceptual space before carrying out trials and prototypes. The final product is only the result, an outcome. This is no different from what is now called design. The most successful designs can only be inside out, i.e. starting in the private mind space of the creator.

As a young professional I had made a number of successful designs and as I admired my own work (as you must!), I asked myself what it is that makes a design good or not? I was convinced that there must be method to this. But what was that method? That question has become a quest which means that there is no one convenient answer but an ever growing trail of nuggets and no-no’s. In this blog I wall occasionally write about some of these nuggets an no-no’s.

Design and creativity are close relatives and so, the quest for design is as much as  quest for creativity. If you’d asked me about this all those years ago, I would have said that there is a process: problem -> creative solution -> design -> product. Sadly, it never worked like that for me.

Alan Watts had some very interesting things to say about causality and the logic of one thing preceding another. He successfully argues that cause and effect cannot be separated even though one precedes the other. He compares it to seeing a snake through a small hole. First you see the head, then a body and then a tail. From this perspective we consider that the head causes the tail and they always occur in this order. We know of course that both head and tail are just part of the same snake.

Problem, creative solution, design and product – and all the other bits – are all part of the same snake and although we may perceive an order in that creative design thing, that order is purely in our imagination. In my experience, you can’t start with a problem – any problem – and work your way to a solution. Unless you look at the creative design challenge as a whole, you’ll never see the whole snake emerge and at best you’ll create a slithering contraption that lacks all grace.

This is a very messy ‘process’. But life is messy, right? You have to study the problem, be creative, design a bit here and there, build a product all at the same time. It is madness without method. Or is it?

Problem and solution in the same wiggly realm
Problem and solution in the same wiggly realm

For religio-cultural reasons the western mind likes to think sequentially, divide the world into convenient components and deal with a few things at a time. Sadly, the world isn’t like that at all. Everything happens at the same time and everything is linked. Our eastern cousins got that right!

Back to creative design. In my experience, design is a voyage of discovery at the end of which we have become one with the problem and the solution. We become citizens of a world in which problem and solution are the same snake. We know this snake intimately. We know what it eats, its favorite colors, when it gets mad or when it lies back purring with joy.

These days my design challenges are in different domains such as leadership challenges, business development, marketing etc. I still find it hard to forget about following any form of process but I know that the only successful approach is to play with the problems, to go for lengthy coffee breaks in Starbucks. To design power point presentations of a solution that no one will ever see. To lose time in studying some new business approach or write simulation code in Ruby that doesn’t get finished. Start a new blog or re-draft an article for HBR.

I could never justify this approach in terms of logic or economics but if we are to find the right solutions, we have to dive deep into realm of problems and solutions. Nature doesn’t believe in straight lines and when we explore these creative design realms, we must expect to make a random walk if we are to reach any destination at all. And so, the quest for good design has exploded into 1000 quests into as many problem-solutions realms. And that, is actually quite cool.

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