Strategic design is a continuum—not a step-by-step process. Inspired by Erika Hall’s Design Research Framework, I’m introducing a Flexible Design Framework to help designers shift from incremental outputs to meaningful outcomes.
Design is a versatile and iterative continuum of questions, methods, and outputs that contribute to shaping better outcomes. When approached strategically, there's no fixed, "do this, then that" way to apply design.
Although the design process isn't linear, it is purposeful. This can be challenging to explain, especially to someone who may be looking for a step-by-step guide on strategic design!
When Erika Hall of Mule Design released her Design Research Framework, I noticed parallels with the design process. Erika describes her design research framework as "asking and answering questions in a systematic way to make more intentional and informed decisions about planning and creating new things and ways of doing things."
At DesignMap, research underpins everything we do. I joined the company because I saw the team embrace ambiguity and complexity at every stage of the design process. With design and research so closely intertwined, I felt compelled to create a design-focused companion to Erika's framework. Thus, the Flexible Design Framework was born!
My hope is that this framework will help any designer shift project outcomes from incremental outputs to substantial results. Here are a few common challenges this framework can help overcome:
1. “Checkbox” Design
Some teams can fall into the habit of viewing the design process as linear. They go through a repeated checklist of steps, regardless of the big picture problem before them. A “checkbox” design approach often breeds a rigid and brittle design process that can frustrate designers and stakeholder alike. Even worse, it can lead teams to operate on autopilot instead of tailoring their actions to the situation. The Flexible Design Framework helps designers break out of this pattern by demonstrating the thinking needed to achieve a flexible approach to design.
2. Scope Skipping
Many designers skip the scoping and planning part of the process and jump right into methods. In jumping ahead, they may not ask critical questions like:
- What assumptions are we making?
- What decisions are we trying to drive?
- What are we trying to learn?
These questions provide guidance on which methods to apply. By overlooking them, designers risk missing the mark or delivering something of lower impact than its potential.
3. Analysis Amnesia
It’s important to “stick the landing” through analysis and synthesis that can be used to drive actions and/or outputs that shape subsequent activities. Analysis amnesia occurs when teams fail to translate their findings into actionable steps, leaving designers and stakeholders uncertain at the project's end. This framework prompts designers to turn insights into concrete next steps that can be communicated effectively.
This Flexible Design Framework is intentionally continuous. It demonstrates how the design process helps us find strategic direction through articulating/learning about our critical unknowns and integrating our new understanding to move forward more purposefully.
Like I said, at DesignMap, we not only accept the inherent ambiguity in the design process—we enjoy it! The more complex the problem, the more rewarding the outcome. We hope you'll feel the same when you put this framework into practice.
And if you really want to be successful in this process, be sure to refer back to Erika’s original Design Research Framework. Good research requires good design and good design requires good research. Big thanks again to her for inspiring me to create this!