Back to all stories

Design Project Retrospect

Design Project Retrospect

At my master program „Innovation and Product Management“ it was the task to design the solar car of the future. Divided in two groups I was the project manager of one group that dealt with the concept of a solar muscle car. Because it was, at least for most of us, the first industrial design project in our career, I did a short review about some aspects that are important to consider in design projects in general and especially if you work in larger groups.

Design is a permanent loop but with a definite end

Design is a process like a squiggle, with many loops and iterations, redefining the problem definition and the already defined design decisions. So it is good to go back to the beginning, but only in the process, not in the experience, if a better idea pops up. But there are constraints, especially concerning time (internal and external deadlines), otherwise design is caught in an endless loop.

Design is not democracy but no dictatorship

Design will never be good at finding a compromise or democratizing decisions like „four people say this, the other four people say that, let’s find the middle way“. Exactly this behavior makes a design to some degree inconsistent, but for sure average. Individuality and being different are key elements in design. It is the task of a design team to utilize this individuality of everyone. It is good to have a design „master“ that has the overall design in mind and uses the creative power of the team. So it is neither democracy, nor dictatorship. For a design master it is good to find a balance between too less decisions (not good for team motivation), and too many decisions (also not good for team motivation).

Design is communication

In general, it is better to have too much discussion and communication than no one in a team speaks with each other. But for sure, there should be, at least some communication rules (how to give feedback, how to handle ideas in different stages, how to respect each other, …). It is also necessary to put more emphasis and time to understand the colleague’s point of views and ideas, because usually there is much interference and noise in communication.

Define not only rules, but also channels. It is crucial, if you are a team working remote to decide on a virtual communication channel, to which everyone agree on in the team. It should also be clear, that this channel is „valid“ (or alternatively decide that this channel is just for fun).

Communication is not only verbally, but – especially in design processes – visually. How to communicate design ideas and concepts should be clear, but when it comes to already fixed design decisions, it is sometimes not clear, how to communicate these. Sometimes there were decisions made, but not written down and not visible for all team members. It is essential to do that, so that the team has the big picture in mind. It is also a good tool for team motivation and of course for team members that cannot attend the whole design process. Some sort of a visual protocol can be helpful for this issue.

Too much structure in design is bad, but the same is valid for too much chaos. In fact, chaos (this means no rules, roles, deadlines, goals, vision) can damage the motivation of the team. Balance is the key. There are some tools to organize chaos in design processes:

Roles: e.g. design manager, process manager, project manager, client (also possible that a team member is the client), task-oriented roles, etc.
Responsibilities: A role implies also responsibility in this area.
Time frames: Set not only hard deadlines, but also soft deadlines to keep up flexibility in the design process.
Goals: Time frames are connected to goals, what to deliver at a specific date.
Vision: Most importantly, a convincing vision organizes the team almost by itself.

Design is decision-making

First of all, it is necessary to know how to decide in a design process (emphasis on deciding roles, quality of ideas or defined criteria, democratic vs. autocratic decisions). If you do not discuss this before a project starts, you end up in democratic decisions that lead to average design outputs or in silent moments, where no one knows how to decide and how to go on.

In general, it is not good to be too decisive, especially at the first stages of the design process. Often, it takes time that an idea is accepted and agreed on in the team. This so-called incubation time of an idea that has to be developed in one’s brain, comparable to a virus in a body that explodes some day. Therefore it is good to have some sort of soft and hard decisions. Soft decisions mean that there are still changes possible to a certain date (hard decision). Finally, if the team is not sure about an idea or a decision, then it is far better to wait and develop the idea further or work parallel on alternative ideas.

Design is respecting other's ideas

Respect is essential, that everyone is motivated. This respect should be defined and clarified, because no one has the same opinion about what is ok and what is not ok. This communication or discussion culture should have been defined before the project really starts (e.g. brainstorming culture, criticism with arguments or alternatives, do not interrupt others, …).

Why is it so important to value the (maybe stupid or crazy) ideas of others? It’s not only helpful for the people’s motivation, but you also never know what idea is working outside of your team in the real world. A nice example in this context was the selection of the solar muscle car concept. No one can know what happens with such a concept in the future.

Design is team sport

A team with strong characters has advantages (doing and leading mentality), but also disadvantages (stuck in discussions, putting your own opinion over others). It is necessary trying to integrate proactively others in the design process, especially if you are the strong character in the team.

Design is play and fun

Design is always playful thinking. This means not to play with toys, but to think in all directions and be crazy. Do not be too serious and do not tell arguments why something does not work in the first place. Fun is an essential tool to come in a mood that everything is possible. No one should be afraid that an idea is not well-developed or not serious enough.

Design is optimistic

Design is never realistic in the first stages. Try to be positive and find ways why something can work out, even if the idea is crazy. Work together to find alternatives.

Design is always friction

It is hard, even impossible, to find a common design language in one single team (everyone has different ideas, opinions, values, concepts in their minds). So, friction is a natural element in the design process. There is a good thing about friction – you can utilize „good“ energy out of it. Probably, it is the toughest skill to acquire in design, because you have to forget your „ego“.


Back to top