Design is messy and 5 ways to Create Positive Impact on Creative Ideas

The second law of thermodynamics introduces the concept of entropy — a measure of disorder in systems. It tells us that systems tend to progress towards randomness and disorder, simply because there are more ways for a system to be disordered than to be ordered. The second law is a cornerstone of science, and we think it also explains other facets of life.

Design consulting firms have been trying to put a structure to the design process since the dawn of design consulting firms. The numerous flowcharts, acronyms, double diamonds and hexagons all begin with one assumption — there’s a start, a middle (the design part) and the end. But it’s all middle. The world is chaotic and its numerous systems mingle, overlap, interweave and influence each other. One can attempt to isolate different systems and simplify the design process. And that’s exactly what a German philosopher in the 19th century espoused.

Gesamtkunstwerk — that’s a real word

German philosopher K. F. E. Trahndorff coined the term “gesamtkunstwerk”, which roughly translates to “total work of art”. It described a design process with complete attention to detail, a design in which every curve, line, surface and touch point is directed towards an overarching vision in a closed off world that’s isolated from anything that the design is not intended to target. Gesamtkunstwerk is but a fantasy about controlling the chaos and mess, as there’s no such thing as a fully closed off system.

One can’t design for an electrical energy system by considering only the that system. The interconnectedness of systems is evident as the energy system impacts the environment, subsequently influencing air quality, which in turn affects individual health, ultimately impacting workplace productivity. Designing for the world that we live in is chaotic, disturbed, tangled and messy, as it should be.

Deloitte's Agile Tube Map

Embrace the chaos

Contrary to popular belief, messy does not equate to inefficiency or lack of creativity. Our brains are wired to think in a chaotic, tangled manner, constantly juggling emotions and thoughts. Our neural networks are complex system of connections that can best be described as jumbled. How does a single whiff of a forest scent take you down the memory lane to that time you hid behind a tree, then to your mom’s cooking, onto the train ride during a recent vacation, and finally jumping to the texture of your wooden table? Each one of the 80 billion neurons in your brain have connections to numerous other neurons and this drives human thinking.

Design mirrors this organic process, embracing the inherent messiness of human thinking. It is through this jumble of ideas, memories and data that remarkable design emerges.

Paved with intent

Within the apparent mess, there lies a profound sense of intent. A messy journey shows there is intent to ideate, iterate, test, get feedback and improve with each loop in the mess. The messiness in design signifies a deliberate exploration of possibilities, allowing the designer to convey specific messages and evoke desired emotions. This intent gives life and depth to our creations.

A straight line journey from design brief to production is never seen because such products never leave the drawing board. If your design process is anything but a straight line, pat yourself on the back. At least, you’re making some progress and solving problems.

Weed out the obvious

In the midst of chaos, we find clarity. The messy design process enables us to sift through the noise and identify the truly innovative ideas. By immersing ourselves in the mess, we can uncover unique perspectives, challenge assumptions, and discard the obvious. It is through this process that groundbreaking designs emerge, pushing boundaries and redefining norms. Point at any product that’s well designed and you’re pointing at 100s of hours of design work and double digit iterations. Even the Greek polymath Archimedes had to spend several days pondering the concepts of weight and density before hitting his famed eureka moment.

Embracing exploration and iteration

Messiness in design is synonymous with exploration and iteration. It encourages us to delve into uncharted territories, to experiment fearlessly. The messy journey is one of constant refinement, where ideas are tested, discarded, and refined. It is through this iterative process that we push the boundaries of what is possible, constantly evolving and growing as designers.

Jerry Uelsmann’s photography class at University of Florida found that students who were graded on the number of photos submitted (more photos equals better grade) had much better quality photos compared to students who were graded on quality of photos submitted (better quality photos equals better grade). Embracing the mess takes off the pressure to get it right the first time, which kills exploration and stifles any creativity.

The show goes on

All the theory in the world about chaos and disorder in design process isn’t going to save you if you show up empty handed for a client presentation. As designers, while we must be aware of the complications and interconnectedness of systems, the show must go on. Here are a few methods you can keep in mind for your next design project–

  1. Frameworks like gesamtkunstwerk can be used to isolate the target system and environment during the early parts of the design phase. Considering every scenario of the product and its 2nd order consequence can be overwhelming and many a time, impossible.
  2. The bell curve can be used to prioritise your efforts- optimise for the middle 70% of the most likely users, use cases and scenarios first and later, solve for the remaining 30%.
  3. Design thinking principles developed by organisations like IDEO are a great way to approach the design of a new product.
  4. At Analogy, we use techniques like bullseye mapping and multiple discovery workshops with clients to identify primary and secondary usage scenarios. This allows us to approach every project with a clear design direction and creative brief.
  5. Apple’s ecosystem of products work seamlessly with each other by insulating themselves from the rest of the world of communication protocols and operating systems. The Apple Watch is designed to pair only with an iPhone or other Apple products. This saves them from having to make their products work with every other operating system and pairing protocol. Even the charging system, which defines the way devices connect to the electrical grid, is proprietary to Apple. Creating a niche family of products has worked wonderfully for Apple.

A wise man named Albert Einstein once asked “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then is an empty desk a sign?” Let’s recognize the dichotomy of the chaos and entropy of this world and the human urge to control the uncontrollable.

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