For over twenty years, I’ve been writing proposals for projects. And almost every one of them has a passage somewhere that begins something like this: “This project will be divided in four phases: Orientation and Analysis, Conceptual Design, Design Development, and Implementation.” All clients want this. Sometimes there are five phases, sometimes six. Sometimes they have different names. But it’s always an attempt to answer a potential client’s unavoidable question: can you describe the process you use to create a design solution that’s right for us?
The other day I was looking at a proposal for a project I finished a few months ago. The result, by my measure and by the client’s, was successful. But guess what? The process I so reassuringly put forward at the outset had almost nothing to do with the way the project actually went. What would happen, I wonder, if I actually told the truth about what happens in a design process?
When I do a design project, I begin by listening carefully to you as you talk about your problem and read whatever background material I can find that relates to the issues you face. If you’re lucky, I have also accidentally acquired some firsthand experience with your situation. Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can’t really explain that part; it’s like magic. Sometimes it even happens before you have a chance to tell me that much about your problem! Now, if it’s a good idea, I try to figure out some strategic justification for the solution so I can explain it to you without relying on good taste you may or may not have. Along the way, I may add some other ideas, either because you made me agree to do so at the outset, or because I’m not sure of the first idea. At any rate, in the earlier phases hopefully I will have gained your trust so that by this point you’re inclined to take my advice. I don’t have any clue how you’d go about proving that my advice is any good except that other people — at least the ones I’ve told you about — have taken my advice in the past and prospered. In other words, could you just sort of, you know…trust me?
Most processes leave out the stuff no one wants to talk about: magic, intuition and leaps of faith. Like a lot of designers, I’ve considered my real process my little secret.