Summary: If we always automatically reach for the Double Diamond for every conversation about design we might miss opportunities to say something more useful. There are alternatives to the Double Diamond, including creating your own message and model.
I recently wrote about the Double Diamond, a popular method for describing design. I said that I’d offer some alternatives. I’ve already described some limitations of the Double Diamond which might provide reasons to turn to alternatives. But I also got some feedback on that article that suggests two more reasons. The feedback I received was:
“…maybe this is an example of semantic satiation — but I’m left questioning what the hell ‘design’ means. It’s such an ambiguous category and seems intrinsic to things humans do automatically.”
This gives me a nice summary of why I think we might sometimes need alternatives to the Double Diamond. If we always automatically reach for the Double Diamond for every conversation about design, we might miss opportunities to say something more useful.
We can erode meaning through overuse (semantic satiation) and a lack of precision (construct collapse)
We can make language less meaningful through overuse. ‘Semantic satiation’ describes how sometimes when you repeat a word or phrase over and over again it loses meaning for you — try saying the word “dog” 47 times and see what happens. Design is a term that gets used a lot. Repetition can provide consistency which is helpful. The widespread adoption of the Double Diamond has introduced some consistency to the way design is described. But I fear sometimes the automatic script of the Double Diamond can be ineffective. Maybe we overuse it and fail to make the most valuable specific points for our given context.
Overusing generic language can affect our ability to communicate specifics effectively. Micheli introduced me to the term “construct collapse” (Micheli et al. 2019) which is caused by there being many possible meanings for the same word. He argues that the flexibility of the term design means we need to put extra effort into establishing shared definitions inside organisations. Specialist terms and language has the potential to marginalise people and communicate less, even when it’s more accurate. We should be wary of jargon. But we should also strive to be as precise as possible. Especially because — “design” can collapse into being a generic activity and eventually might feel so “intrinsic to things humans do automatically” that it stops meaning something specific.
Being clear and unambiguous is valuable
I might be biased because it’s my job and how my brain works but I think most people might naturally blend imagining, considering, choosing, enacting and evaluating to solve the problems they face. Anyone is capable of a designerly response to a situation. But that doesn’t guarantee it’s how they’ll always act. Often even designers and design-led organisation struggle to design. Stress, limited resources, disruption from technology, social changes, economic pressures and politics can all affect how we act in situations. When our language is clear and unambiguous it’s easier to check in to see whether we’re actually doing what we say we’re doing. It makes it easier to intervene when our reality falls short of our ambition.
I think that’s the value in these models — they’re not perfect, but at the very least they can be useful mirrors to depict an intended set of behaviours and to check in on whether we’re doing them… They provide a template of an idealised approach that we can use to compare against reality.
Design is a shared competency
Establishing a definition of design isn’t about ownership, it’s about collaboration. Language can be used to control. Sometimes it feels like disciplines try to stake a claim when they define what they do. I don’t think spending time communicating what design is and what it can do needs to feel like a zero-sum game of organisational land-grabbing, where design is competing for influence alongside other practices like delivery, business analysis, engineering or product management. Design can and should be a shared competency that aligns disciplines to solve problems together. Design doesn’t belong to designers — but we do have the responsibility for establishing what it is and how it can help in the situations in which we operate.
Designers communicate and act with intent
For me, designing is about acting with intent and following structured processes to manage ideas. Design wraps structure around creativity so that we can apply it to the biggest problems and opportunities we face and increase our chances of understanding and resolving them. It means we can be intentional as we plan, organise, lead and control creative responses to situations. If architecting is a word to describe how we intentionally create architecture, and engineering is a word we use to describe how we intentionally create engines, then designing is a word we use when we intentionally combine our understanding of a situation with a creative response. [And if that’s true then the Double Diamond is a good place to start].
The “structured process” part of designing doesn’t mean that it needs to be formulaic and industrialised — it means that it is intentional and can be co-ordinated and shared across disciplines. It also means we can employ a common set of tried and tested tools and techniques to increase efficiency and the likelihood of achieving desirable outcomes.
The Double Diamond suggests some conscious decision-making that enables planning and makes execution and co-ordination easier. But depending on your context it might not do everything you need — maybe you’ve used it so often it can’t now be focused on the specific type of challenge you’re facing, maybe you need something more specific, maybe you want to standardise activities at a practical level, so you need something more prescriptive. If you find yourself in any of these situations, you might need an alternative…
Alternatives to the Double Diamond
The ‘dualistic’ approach of splitting design into the two parts that we see in the Double Diamond is helpful. As Norman describes: “Design thinking is a process of determining the correct problem (as opposed to jumping toward a solution). After the correct problem has been determined, then it is a process of working toward an acceptable solution.” (Lafley et al. 2013). This balanced equation, based on identifying and satisfying needs has been present in models since JJ Foreman in 1967 and echoes Polya’s work on problem solving back in 1945.
Something like this gives you the language of ‘needs’ and I like the additional layer of abstraction of factors, relationships, principles and forms — maybe you miss the convergence and divergence of the diamond shape, but I think you gain this idea of layers of abstraction which might be useful when talking about systems thinking or information architecture.
Replace linearity with dialogue
If you’re facing expectations of formulaic linear processes but think something like the design squiggle might damage your credibility, there are more structured alternatives which let you move from talking about linear stages into a contained and structured dialogue between problem and solution.
Cooper talks about the need for “design to precede programming”. Describing a ‘goal-oriented design process’ he introduces some fixed constraints, focused on the user and their goals or needs (Perfetti 2007). This user-centredness is supported by a set of principles and patterns — much like Schon’s recipes of the skilled professional — which sees designers navigating a creative process to efficiently meet user needs (Dubberly 2001). Although therefore more detailed and complex than the simple shape-based depiction of design in the Double Diamond, we begin to see a model which combines the linearity of project delivery with feedback loops, definition and exploration of structured design process.
The Design Council’s framework for innovation adds arrows to the original Double Diamond which can help to describe the more fluid nature of the task of ‘balancing the equation’ of problem/solution. Dubberly depicts and describes a process he dubs THEOC, which illustrates different stages but also shows loops which allow us to revisit and systematise the insights that are generated through the activities.
We see the dialogue between stages and looping in the work of Alice Agogino of NASA’s jet propulsion lab; in the ‘V model’ developed by Paul Rock which represents the interplay between software development and software testing; IDEO’s three core activities in design thinking depicts the interrelated and looping nature of activities and mindsets within the design process; we get a feedback loop in Paul Pangaro’s goal-action-feedback loops; and service designers and systems thinking give us lots of depictions of both balancing and reinforcing loops. For lots of these models — and as a one-stop shop for models to depict design, Hugh Dubberly probably provides the definitive compendium in How do you do design?
If you want a more sophisticated discussion around matching the challenge to the approach you take and methods you use, and not just the solution you create then you might like to use Cynefin. Cynefin can help you talk about diagnosing the situation and then adapting the approach. It suggests the type of activities you might carry out and alternative orders of these activity types, for example it lets you compare acting-sensing-responding which might be required in Chaotic situations to sensing-categorising-responding approaches that are more appropriate in Clear and stable situations.
Having a more precise conversation about the type of design challenge you’re facing enables you to be more intentional in your approach. Cynefin gives us the language of complex, complicated, clear, chaotic and confusing domains and marries these to emergent practice, good practice, best practice and novel practice. This might be useful as you talk about the process challenges you might face in addition to the specific problems in your brief.
Add diamonds or details
If you want to talk about tools, techniques, and practices then there are alternatives out there for that too. You could use Dan Nessler’s Revamped Double Diamond, which is probably the most useful version of what Gustafsson calls a customised rather than standardised version of the Double Diamond. Although I think there is a debate to be had about how we introduce and use the “standardised” abstraction alongside “customised” toolsets and playbooks of methods. Abstract models introduce a generalised ideas. By using the same model to prescribe specific customised approaches I think we might risk confusing people.
I’m not a massive fan of throwing additional diamonds at the Double Diamond to enable conversations about specific stages — but that’s also an option. For example, if you want to talk about preparation for design activities, you may want to introduce a pre-discovery stage that covers logistics of planning and team formation. The point is, if you have a specific communication need, understand it and work out a way to express it.
Design your own
Models like the Double Diamond benefit from widespread adoption and external third-party credibility and validation. But if you need to make a specific point, you could create your own model. It’s actually something the Design Council celebrate:
So, in the final article in this series I’ll describe how I did that to help describe a designerly approach to innovation and new product development.