08/05/2013 09:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Design Puzzle -- Pieces to Focus on and How All Fit Together


Designing is much like laying out a large puzzle and requires juggling nine Design Quality Criteria (see illustration), while constantly cycling between observation, reflection, concept synthesis and experimentation. To do this efficiently and effectively, one has to juggle the dominating pieces first and then adjust the overall puzzle to make all the remaining pieces fall neatly into place.

A study of designers from business idea inception to product concept at Hanyang University revealed that most of the pieces in design are tightly coupled. Which may help explain why designing can be so challenging and iterations are so essential.

Though all criteria are connected, some elements are more connected than others and, therefore, most critical at a project's inception. These criteria are: Social/Human, Environmental and Expression criteria. These criteria comprise thirty percent of all connected criteria and have two to seven times as many dependent pieces as all the other criteria. Since these criteria represent fifty percent of all dependencies, these are the criteria that designers really want to nail first.

Where does one find the most important information needed to inform Social/Human, Environmental and Expression? Studying the link between strategic comprehension (consisting of business strategy, business modeling and design briefing) and design shows that the most significant information carriers are Structure and Process. In other words, the design briefs description of supply chain management, eco-system and internal network, as well as, the description of how the design is supposed to be executed.

Keeping key pieces of the puzzle in mind, how they connect and what influence they have, will reduce the number of iterations, allowing the design team to quickly arrive at a better result. Designers can then spend their valuable time focusing on the ingredients for each single piece of the design puzzle.

Perhaps even more interesting than the established connections are the ones that were absent and it can be crucial to establish those performance links not appearing. For example, the criteria of Philosophy, was only significantly connected with Viability and Social/Human criteria and Innovation was only significantly connected to Social/Human criteria. These links may represent a real opportunity for improving of our current thinking concerning how to inform design.

Finally, it is one thing to know what makes for good design and quite another to understand what external investors look for when evaluating business opportunities and their supporting design concepts.

What we learned from the Hanyang University study was that investors first judge the outcome along the Performed criteria (Process, Function & Expression), then Context criteria (Social/human, Environmental & Viability) and, to a lesser degree, Strategy (Philosophy, Structure & Innovation). The final physical deliverables seems to overshadow the supporting strategy and the context in which the product concept is intended to exist.

The beauty contest of parading competing product concepts seems to blind us all, appealing to all our intuition biases. Studies in behavioral economics tell us that one way to escape the "Bling Effect" is to step back and have independent judges rank important criteria separately and then to use the aggregated score for informing the final decision. This process may not be nearly as glamorous as flying by the seat of our pants but it may prove to be infinitely more profitable.