Design as a Way of Knowing

“The act of envisioning possibilities and elaborating them is itself a pleasurable and valuable experience. Just as realized plans may be a source of new experiences, so new prospects are opened up at each step in the process of design. Designing is a kind of mental window shopping. Purchases do not have to be made to get pleasure from it.”

— Herbert Simon

After years of kvetching, designers finally have a “seat at the table.” Large organizations increasingly acknowledge the importance of good design, and many have developed internal design capabilities. But many also misunderstand what design is good for.

Design is not just for creating more engaging experiences, or seamless interactions, or driving conversions, or reducing call center volume. The point of design is to envision and test possibilities in a tangible way. What would the world be like if this product/service/system existed? How would our customers react to it? What would it do to the rest of our product line? How does it fare compared to competitors? What do people call something like this? How do they interact with it? What effect does it have on our systems?

We can argue about these things and build mathematical models to compute the odds of success. But there are limits to the things we can know about the future using only words and numbers. Design gives us a different way of knowing; a way that involves making and testing models of the thing we’re imagining. What would the effects be on our customers/our organization/the market/the world if something like this existed in this particular configuration? Does it feel natural? Does it make us more or less assertive? What changes does it ask of us?

Trying on possibilities is very different from imagining what it would be like to do so. The acts of making and testing (even if it’s just a rough sketch of the thing we have in mind) provide insights that no spreadsheet can account for. Design allows organizations to sample different ways of being in the world without committing to production — a more strategic role than merely making things better and making better things.