Design is an art of decision-making

I knew of Herb Simon somewhat before I went to study design at Carnegie Mellon (CMU) but only as “factoid” bits of info: Nobel Laureate in economics, contributions to AI, legendary scholar par excellence. Once at CMU I finally dug into his writings, particularly “Sciences of the Artificial”, a definitive treatise which articulates a theory of design based upon “changing existing situations to preferred ones” and characterizing design as “artificial” — human-made creations of some value, as opposed to results of non-human forces, like forests, animals, mountains, etc. (climate change and similar manipulations notwithstanding, of course, but I’m speaking in terms of original making)

Another book he wrote, that’s less well-known, is “Administrative Behavior”, which my thesis advisor had recommended to me at that time, since I was curious about the emergence of “e-business” and digitizing organizations and cultures. Spoiler alert: it’s super dry, dense, and mostly about “decision-making” models. I didn’t really get it at the time… I mean, who studies how or why humans make decisions in giant organizations, how is that important in the grand scheme? Hmm…

Fast forward 15+ years working in software design and… OMG yes, I totally get it now! Indeed, I think I’ve sensed for awhile design is not simply “problem solving” — often proudly cited as the value quotient which makes design so damn important to business & engineering, and to counter notions that it’s some “funky art” of stylizing. Design is a complex practice with systematic rigor that aims to solve problems with empathy and creativity, no doubt. And it is also a decision-making discipline, grounded in an artful balance of negotiated concerns, guided by empathic & creative approaches to enable progress, or possibly even “innovation”.

To design, to lead designing, to manage a design process, to deliver a design spec — these activities all involve making decisions, actually selecting an option among many options under varying circumstances (social, technical, cultural, organizational, etc.). To design effectively is to be mindful of the constants and constraints, the conventions and concerns, the consequences and considerations when it comes to defining the user experience, creating the right icon, laying out the best table format, folding in animations elegantly, editing warning messages for tone and length, or spec’ing out behaviors and states. You make such decisions (ideally) informed by research and user feedback, guided by relevant principles and shared objectives, and along with your team of stakeholders or peers as a collaborative (at least coordinated) effort of collective responsibility.

Good decisions require a mindset of self-awareness while reflecting on the potential effects on other parts of the system or people involved. Deeply considering the risks, trade-offs, opportunity costs, and ripple effect of impacts, both tangible & intangible. Prioritizing which criteria are useful to help lead everyone towards the right decision to helps the team and the customer. The classic Eames venn diagram comes to mind, illustrating the dynamic of multiple layers of concerns in the mind of the designer. Indeed, it’s a lot! Yet this approach of making choices, elevates design from simply “making it pretty” —connoting a silly, mindless activity — to a thoughtful human enterprise of judgment and consideration. One that demands deep understanding and ability to communicate rationale, as part of a conversation (or an argument — yes, both sense of the word!), while also learning or adapting towards making the best choices to move the overall product or business forward.

There’s quite about bit about human decision-making at the heart of design that we should recognize, honor, celebrate, and evolve in our practices. Indeed, delving into this matter might even help crack the issues of fitting Design with Agile and Lean — all are fundamentally human decision-making models within product development. Hmm…maybe I should pick up that Herb Simon book again and re-read it with a refreshed outlook.

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