When to Let Go

Ahh... the never ending frustrations of design process...

In any creative process it is always difficult to know when you have what is needed to move into the next stage of thinking. Moving from research, the gathering of insights, into ideation, transforming those insights into action, is almost always a surprisingly difficult process. If you’re a little over-enthusiastic like myself, you’re likely to want to explore every insight and try to solve every possible challenge.

The real trick is identifying exactly what should move forward, and what can be left behind.

Good insights derail design process

As mentioned previously, the insights from good design research are usually extraordinarily simple in hindsight. But in the thick of things it can be almost impossible to summon up the courage to commit to such a simple observation, especially when you have reams of other data that you don’t want to go to waste.

For example, imagine you are doing an architecture project for community development in a specific habitat and have exhaustively researched all the biological models and that align with your functional design challenges. You are swamped with articles, spreadsheets and diagrams of incredible insights and opportunities. With your nose to the grindstone and a deadline looming, it is easy to be overwhelmed when generating ideas as you rush to pull every little element together into the utopian building that will foster the perfect community.

But do you really know what needs to be designed?

The reality may be that out of all of the research, one major insight was inter-connections within ecosystems. I’m going to steal from Tim’s blog and include this research:

Tim's superb diagram for Fungal networks.

Picture a forest on a hill. At the top of the hill is a small pine tree. The pine tree is twisted from the wind and water drains quickly away, but it does get quite a lot of sun.  At the bottom of the hill is a small maple. It has the unfortunate predicament of being in the shade most of the day, but it does have lots of water.

There is also a family of fungi that live on the hill. They have partnered with the maple and pine many times. In fact, it is often the case that the fungi will bring water from the maple up to the pine, and bring sugar from the pine down to the maple. Without the fungi’s work the pine tree would perish in a drought, and the maple would remain stunted and small in the shade. But with the fungi, the entire hill ecosystem is flourishing, is resilient, and continues to thrive. The pine tree gets the water it needs, the maple tree is growing taller, and as a result the fungi grows along with the ecosystem it is supporting.

Your ah – ha moment from the research says: “I’ve been focusing on designing a building, when actually I should be designing the connections between buildings.” How can I design the “fungal network” (sounds attractive) that shares and distributes nutrients through a community?

Easier said than done

It takes a lot of discipline to “abandon” all the previous research, design, biology and otherwise, in order to commit to a new stream of thought. Your project started as an architectural exercise, so as it morphs into something else that can be frustrating. Perhaps you also lose confidence in your project; “I know how to design a building, but do I know how to design a social network?” This is, in essence, good design process. If you knew what you were going to design at the beginning, the project was probably not very interesting. The real opportunity comes when your insights fundamentally shift your thinking and your project evolves.

Divergence and convergence

This may sound like design thinking 101, and in some ways it is, but the difficulty is always in the details. All design and creative education will explore the concepts of divergent and convergent methodologies, but that doesn’t always mean we are cognizant of them when we are in the thick of things. Here are a couple of standard diagrams I use when articulating this process.

A colleague of mine, Paul Epp, talks of design process as a dance, right and left brain thinking, divergent and convergent, always moving in step with one another.

Over convergence

The problem with many projects at the convergence stage is trying to combine EVERYTHING into one path forward, that everyone agrees on. The real task is in fact trying to simplify and articulate the deepest possible insights that should move forward. A more realistic diagram would in fact suggest the convergence into multiple paths to move forward, each articulating clearly defined opportunities to act upon, and each a possible project for different members of the team to champion.

The lesson is to let go

If the research is ultimately not used, do not think of it as a waste of time. All research is crucial to help define the context and complexity within any given project, but not all research is crucial to be “used” within the accompanying processes of ideation and development. Let go of the desire to act upon everything, and focus on extracting the deep insight that opens up your project to an innovative path forward. It may not solve all of the design criteria you set out at the beginning of the project, but it may highlight that there are deeper opportunities you were not aware of when outlining that initial starting point.


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