Thinking About Design Maturity


[Apologies for this being such a long post. But it gave me a chance to write down, rather roughly and incompletely still, ideas that have been kicking around in my head for a while.]

Jess McMullin has posted a new version of his “Design Maturity” framework, which looks at different levels of design “sophistication”, as it were, and how design contributes to outcomes of different problem types.

Using cars as an example, he labels the fives levels, from least to most mature, as:

  1. Default: Status quo determines design. No conscious effort made to differentiate design.
  2. Style: Design is a creator of fashion and trend. It also reacts to the same.
  3. Function: Design makes things work better.
  4. Problem Solving: Design finds new opportunities by solving existing problems
  5. Framing: Design redefines the problems facing the organization

Broadly speaking this is a fine set of categories, though the line between Function and Problem Solving seems quite slim. My sense at the moment is that the list is not MECE — mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, to use a nerdy BCG term. But it will take some more thinking to see if that hunch is right.

Jess, if you read the following please take it as constructive feedback (which is why you labelled it a “Beta” diagram obviously). I’m as concerned and invested in finding a way around these issues as you are. There is way too much sloppiness in the writing about design thinking, which at the moment makes me reject it as self-serving and not actually that helpful at clarifying what designers bring to the table without pissing a bunch of other people off. So it’s important that we sort this out and I appreciate Jess continually putting his frameworks out there as a way of provoking conversation.

My main concern with the current diagram, and this is not a dig at Jess, but more of an issue in general with the notion of design thinking, is that design is becoming everything and therefore nothing. 

Scientists, researchers, engineers, marketers, inventors and entrepreneurs could all make equally valid claims to the function, problem solving and framing layers. In terms of disciplines I would think they’ve had much larger proportion of contribution to these layers over the decades than trained designers. And this is the point of design thinking I suppose, to assert the design discipline’s seat at the table, arguing that those other disciplines are doing an incomplete job.

Would the late Geoffrey Frost, former CMO of Motorola and who shepherded the Razr through the bureaucracy, have self-identified as a designer? Unlikely. But he was concerned with many of the same things that designers concern themselves with, though he did not necessarily possess all the necessary skills for executing on them. But he knew how to assemble a team that could execute on them.

So we keep running into the slipperiness of the word “design”. It’s a verb, an adjective, a noun. A lot of writing on design thinking seems to move between these three things as though they are interchangeable when they are not, in fact. Design as an activity of problem solving is quite universal, though designers are trained in a particular approach that is broadly similar across the various design disciplines. But it is somewhat different than the problem solving approach used by engineers, scientists, marketers, etc.

So to say that “Design makes things better” and “Design finds new opportunities for solving existing problems” makes it sound like we are trying to sweep all the problem solving approaches of those other disciplines under our discipline. All your base are belong to us sort of thing. Or that’s how it can be interpreted even if we don’t mean it that way.

I’m reminded of sitting in algebra class doing proofs:

  • If A=B then B=A
  • If design = solving problems then solving problems = design

If you’re a scientist or a marketer and you’re told this, you may see some grain of truth but you also wouldn’t call yourself a designer. But if a designer in your organization comes along and tells you that you’ve been doing design, but that they are the design specialist, then the implication is that they are also the problem-solving specialist. This gets to be threatening to non “designers”, and also again misses the differences in how problems are solved and approached.

The notion of design “maturity” could also be easily misconstrued. Just because a company treats design “immaturely” by “relegating” it to style status, does not mean that it may actually be extremely sophisticated about how it goes about framing and solving problems.

In a 2004 article that many have cited, Rotman’s Roger Martin says:

The truth is, highly-skilled designers are currently heading-up many of the world’s top organizations – they just don’t know they are designers, because they were never trained as such.

The problem I have with this is that it devalues design at the same time that it tries to raise the value of it. If there are many hidden designers out there who have never been trained, then what exactly is it that trained designers bring to the table? Did they waste their money and time getting trained? At the end of the day, what piece of the venn diagram are trained designers left to claim? Anything?

I can’t do everything that a scientist, an engineer or a marketer does. But does this mean they can do everything a designer can do? If so, what value is a designer to an organization? Might as well just lay them off.

I’m also troubled by this because it makes it sound like designers are, every last one of them, all-encompassing in their approach and equally comfortable at all four of the upper layers of Jess’ diagram. Design thinking advocates often make the same implication: they never say it directly, but it’s done with the same kind of algebra swap above.

Yet I’ve known plenty of designers that just want to make cool looking shit. (I like cool looking shit so this is not a knock on them.) They are only slightly interested in user research or the competitive environment or what the client/company’s business goals are. So the notion of design inherently containing all these different levels is not necessarily true. And for much of industrial design’s history, at least, style has been the predominant factor.

Sure, the Eames were great at combining a lot of these layers and are rightly lionized for it. But they didn’t exactly do user research did they? At least in the biographies I’ve read of them I’ve never seen any mention of it. They paid meticulous and luxiouriously lengthy attention to craft and did a lot of prototyping and working with the final production materials. And they were extremely good at information design. But this was largely done through intuitive understanding of the audience and their needs.

And while Dreyfuss looked at humans from a dimensional point of view, Loewy was 99% concerned with style. How the product worked, what it did, how it addressed socio-cultural conditions were none of his concern. And I’ll bet he made a lot more money than Dreyfuss.

Go to the Museum of Modern Art and see what is shown as great “design” there. Lots of uncomfortable chairs, impractical furniture, expensive limited production run tableware, and minimalist hard to use electronics. I’m exaggerating to make a point, but not much. Rietveld chair anyone? Starck kettle with a handle that gets red hot? Design’s track record at solving problems in a way that many people would find satisfactory is not that great, judging by MoMA’s collection.

(The story is a bit different in interaction design, arguably almost the reverse where style has had to fight for a place rather than it being the foundation.)

While I think it is brave to try and re-take the word design in a “I’m a PC” kind of way, there is too much baggage there. There has to be another way to make this meeting of the disciplines work that doesn’t involve getting all wound up on semantic battles only to find out we’re all basically saying the same thing. This is what gets religious sects in trouble for centuries on end.

To get back to the specifics of Jess’ design maturity graphic. He has the second generation Prius as Problem Solving, and the first generation as Default (i.e. no formal design contribution). I find this puzzling. The first hybrid was a much harder technical problem to solve. The second generation was a refinement, an adjustment of the recipe. It is better looking, but that’s not what the Problem Solving level is supposed to be about. The second Prius was better marketed. So is this what Problem Solving is about? I’m having a hard time understanding the hierarchy here.

In the Function layer we have the Nissan GT-R. It has won accolades around the world for being a giant killer with staggering performance. But the word on the street is that it is a technical achievement, less so an emotional one. (Britain’s two premier car magazines just weighed in an one gave the GT-R car of the year honors, the other second place to a much more expensive Lamborghini, praising the GT-R’s performance but knocking it on the involvement front.) But much of the greatness of the GT-R can be laid at the feet of engineers, materials experts, and so on. The “car designers” had relatively little to do with how fast it goes or how well it handles. Indeed one could argue that it succeeds in spite of being rather blocky looking and with an interior that looks like Tokyo at night.

Lastly, if Function is making this “better”, is the GT-R really better? Yes it is fast and handles exceptionally well, but there are many other ways that a car can be better that are arguably more important than speed and handling, especially in this day and age.

By way of closing this ramble, my parting thoughts are that I think focusing on equating design with individual outcomes is misleading, because lots of other disciplines also focus on those same outcomes in isolation. What designers do in a particularly intensive way is the collaborative process, the prototyping and problem visualization process, and laddering up and down in a micro/macro view of the world that is intent on connecting the various views together. In other words travelling up and down Jess’ five layers and seeing the interconnections between them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is entirely unique to design, but I think that designers who are inclined this way do it in a particularly interesting and fruitful way. But we are still poor at talking about it and making the value of it clear in ways that don’t rely on tautologies, or at least I am.

Related articles