The process mindset and the toolkit mindset

People who are new to design often learn it as a process. As you learn more about design, and the messy world it lives in, you might find it better to think of design as a toolkit.

Design as a process

Processes are easy to learn, like a recipe. The double diamond model is a good example: Take this step. Now take the next. Here's the result. You don't need to worry about the importance of each step.

If it's easy to learn then it's easy to teach. It's no surprise that lots of people in design school are taught a process. They're given something complete that they can walk out into the world with.

If there's a process it helps to plan your syllabus: This week we'll focus on research, next week we'll focus on ideation, and after that we'll hand out the certificates.

But what's good for the student, and good for the teacher, is not always good for the designer. When you get your first job, you'll be frustrated if the project thrust upon you doesn't fit neatly into the double diamond shaped box you built. Where's your research phase? What do they mean you can't talk to the users? How are you supposed to do the first step?

And if you can't do the first step, how are you supposed to do the second?

Design as a toolkit

If you didn't go through this experience, that's wonderful. Design would be easier for everyone if companies structured their work around the design process. But if you're nodding along, try to think of design as a toolkit instead.

In many ways, your job as a designer is to add value. Here's a feature, and if you make it better you're a good designer. If the company makes more money as well, you're a great designer.

Each project is different, but almost every one is messy. When you discover new things, and answer questions that haven't been asked before, of course it's messy. You can't dig a hole without throwing some soil around.

As a new designer, you can't predict or change what shape a project will be. The chances it'll fit into your double diamond shaped box are slim.

Instead, you can react to the situation you're in, and that's design as a toolkit: In this situation, with the set of design methods you have, what can you do to add some value?

In this mindset, being a good designer involves at least two things:

More importantly to your bosses, no matter how often the rug is swept out from under you, you'll find ways to add value.