Have you ever had to teach an infant child how to speak?

Does it make you a bad parent if you can't sit your 18 month child down and prepare them for all the things they need to know about talking?

Sounds Ridiculous, Right?

Because it is ridiculous. Breaking down and sharing a methodology for speaking is impossible.

The cognitive processes that go into speaking, let alone learning to speak, are extremely complex.

Even if you tried to teach an infant how to speak, you couldn't. A majority of speaking process for thought formulation, conceptual preparation, articulation and physical speech is automatic; you're unaware of all the mechanics at play.

Moreover, learning to speak and articulate thoughts are a natural part of human development. You learn through immersion. The more you do it, the better you get at it. The better you get at it, the more your speaking style and skills evolve.

So Why Are Designers Held to the Same Standard?

Similarly, solving a problem cannot be boiled down to a formulaic step-by-step manual; problem-solving approaches are comprised mostly of cultural and situational contexts, team dynamics, prior knowledge, world views and personality types. 

Like speaking, you're unaware of nearly all of these variables, and you can't really control them.

And so, it's equally ridiculous when someone attempts to articulate their problem-solving process. It's total bullshit. 

When I started my design firm four years ago, I had delayed the first website launch for months as I tried to perfect language around my design process. Like most agencies and consultancies, I wanted to prove legitimacy through a "unique" process, one that allowed potential clients to feel confident that work quality was thoughtful and consistent. 

But the objective is to solve problems, not be consistent just for consistency's sake.

I nearly lost my mind attempting to create what was basically a playbook for problem-solving, and in the moment, I couldn't understand why it was so difficult. What's worse, when I actually shared my documented process publicly, I felt pressured to abide by it. This was supposed to be the secret sauce, and I felt like a fraud if I called an audible. The unwillingness to veer from the process sometimes hindered my ability to do quality work.

It wasn't that the process was wrong, it was that each client, each problem, each project required a different approach. And sometimes the modification to the approach was drastic.

You'll notice now that there is no process defined on my firm's website--only a proven ability to deliver.

Use Principles, Not Processes

Because I spent years honing in on a process, I don't blame anyone that claims to have a process. On a superficial level, a process communicates that you know what you're talking about; it creates consistency and articulates a predictable path towards solutions. 

But the unfortunate reality is the best solutions aren't solved linearly. That said, it's best to confront processes with aggressive skepticism, both to anyone that tries to sell you on a process and towards your own, if you have one. You've got to be really, brutally honest with yourself: how often have you really followed your process to a T? And if your answer is always, how often did you encounter a situation that required a better way?

Granted, although I've hopefully made a case against process, it's still important to ensure that you're consistent. Process is still valuable around design operations: making sure everyone on the team is moving in the same direction, using the same tools and organizing files and information the same way. 

But consistency around solving design problems requires principles. Design principles don't communicate the mechanics. Rather, principles are used to align people around what matters, encrypting a shared sense of what's valued in an approach. When push comes to shove, how are you prioritizing? 

For instance, if you value simplicity as a principle, it forces clarity in how to illuminate the limits of human cognition and focus on the essence of the goals. There's no one way to understand what those limits are and how to gather evidence of the customer's goals. But they have to be defined each time before a solution is decided upon.

Allow Individuality to Flourish

The way to achieve a set of principles will differ amongst each designer or problem-solver. And frankly, that's the beauty of it.