Design Process: Creativity or method?

“Question everything generally though to be obvious.”

Dieter Rams

What is nowadays a possible definition of design? Why does design exist?

Since the beginning of time the human being tried to shape his surrounding environment, in order to fulfill the gap between himself and the Nature. Even the simple act of knapping a flint to create a blade or a flake during the Stone Age can be seen as a primordial act of design.
As stated from Gero (1990), “design exists because the world around us does not suit us”. The biggest aim of a designer is to change the world through the creation of artifacts.

There are many contemporary efforts to define the design act, that can be identified as an exploration and learning activity: its goal is to improve the human condition, acting through a physical change but taking in consideration every single aspect of the human life.

Jones (1992) portrayed two extremely different models of designers. The first one is the designers-as-magician: his mind is full of confusion art ideas, connected in undefined ways. He solves a problem he is faced with by means of his intuition, his mind is randomly organized, without following any recognizable specific process.

Le Corbusier painting in the nude at Eileen Gray’s Villa 1939

Le Corbusier painting in the nude at Eileen Gray’s Villa 1939

On the other side, the designer-as-computer rationally analyses, synthesises and evaluates all the pieces of information provided, thereby producing a justifiable, optimum solution.

Drewe (1975) maintains that an often unstated design-method feud exists between the traditional architectural designers (proponents of “intuition” and “creativity”) on the one hand, and the empirical researchers and more systematic designers (propo- nents of rational design) on the other.
In the most general sense, design is seen as a purposeful creating action, that leads to the building of a relationship between us and our world. Basically it is the conception and realization of “what should be” (Banathy, 1996). It is the manifestation of knowledge, beliefs, values, and aspirations, trans- lated into a great variety of what we want to bring about and make part of our lives: a future-creating, collective human activity. It is a continuous process of searching and finding solutions, carried out in it- erative cycles.

As remarked from Banathy (1996), the goal of the design activity is to improve the human condition in all its aspects through physical change, that usually follows a specific path that is concerned with the “how” and defines “when” things happen.

How is this process controlled and developed? Does it follow a specific path or is just a matter of intuition and manipulation?

When going deep in the discipline, it is first of all necessary to address the difference between the words “process” and “method”, that usually are used interchangeably but not in this case. While a process is a sequence of operation, method is a precise way of doing something.

“Methodology should not be a fixed track to a fixed destination, but a conversation about everything that could be made to happen. The language of the conversation must bridge the logical gap between past and future, but in doing so it should not limit the variety of possible futures that are discussed nor should it force the choice of a future that is unfree.”
Jones, John Christopher; Design Methods, 1992, Wiley

With this sentence John Chris Jones perfectly recognizes that there is no one way to practice design methods. Literature made much efforts to develop and catalogue a series of procedures and techniques to reduce avoidable errors and oversights that can adversely affect design solutions. There have been different results and studies about specific methods, ways of behaving in front of a design problems and possible paths to find brilliant solutions.

Since design is defined as a context-dependent activity (Reich et al, 2006) it is crucial to consider every single case with an open mind, taking in account the different frames of reference and developing a method according to all the variables.
Therefore, as numerous studies reveal, there is no single scientific methodology that is exercised in science or in any other research practice (Reich, 1995). Different methodologies can evolve in various ways including studying researchers’ activities and the way these activities correlate with research progress, thereby identifying the relationship between different assumption, methods, and consequences.

A tight relation between methods and results can be seen among all design disciplines: since the design process is a problem-solving process, the more the problem is approached in a systematic manner the more successful will be the designer. Successful fine artists usually follow the same pattern in developing creative ideas, even if they may be less conscious of the process they are following.

First phase is to approach to the problem in a rather random manner, collecting ideas and skills through reading or experimentation. After that a particular issue or question will become the real focus of the entire process. Next step consists in the formulation of the specific problem, that is eventually refined into a research question or design problem that the person will then pursue through repeated experimentation. Each effort solves certain problems, and suggests issues to be dealt with in the next work (or experiment). The ability to experiment, to value and learn from mistakes, and build new knowledges on the experience achieved is the hallmark of the truly successful individual, whatever the field (Beveridge, 1950).

And what about creativity? Is it part of the methods or something that goes further, unexpected?

“In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfactions, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the esthetic plane. The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization, a difference which the artist is not aware of. Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap which represents the inability of the artist to express fully his intention; this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal «art coefficient» contained in the work.”
Marcel Duchamp, Lecture at the Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas,1957.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicicle Wheel, 1951

Marcel Duchamp, Bicicle Wheel, 1951

With these words Duchamp gave his personal interpretation of the creative process. As he stated, the creative act is often an unconscious and completely subjective succession of mental events, a series of efforts that do not follow a defined path or a specific process.
The real value of the final result is in what Duchamp calls the “art coefficient”, the gap between what the designer or the “maker” wanted to create and what he obtains – a concept somehow similar to the platonic “Hyperuranion”.

In the Ancient time the creative impulse was thought to be generated by something (or someone) external: Romans and Greeks invoked “daemons”, “geniuses” and “muses” to receive the knowledge. This is the exact concept that the famous incipit “Tell me, o Muse” of the Odyssey, expresses. In the Christian tradition creativity was a purely divine act: the latin word “creatio” was reserved to the Lord and did not suit any human activity. The development of the modern concept of creativity, something that originated from the ability of the individual and not from a celestial helper, began in the Renaissance.

Nowadays it is reductive to think that creativity concerns just the introduction of something “new”: no one idea of creativity fits all fields of endeavor. Creativity calls on cognitive and non-cognitive skills, curiosity, intuition and doggedness. It is not rare for a person stuck at one step of a creative process to dream during the night a solution to the problem, after the dreamer has done extensive work on the issue awake. The classic example is the dream of Dmitri Mendeleev about the Periodic Table of Elements: he had worked for years on it, producing numerous drafts and studied, but the best version was the one he dreamed of. Therefore there is a part of the whole process that remains hidden and unknown: Schon (1983) used the notion of “surprise” in his theory of creative design, where it has the pivotal role of being the impetus that leads to framing and reframing. Surprise is what keeps a designer from routine behaviour. The “surprising” parts of a problem or solution drive the originality streak in a design project. The process of evolution in the natural world is nowadays seen as driven by a reaction to a surprise (change in environment), rather than a gradual changing of a phenotype and genotype in an ever closer approximation to an optimum in the fitness function. Therefore, creativity in the design process can validly be compared to such “bursts of development”.

If creative design implies a perturbation – so a variation, a changing in the canonic scheme of design – how can it coexist with a specific method?

Having a full understanding of the processes that lead to creative designs over routine designs is of great interest to both individuals and organizations. There has been work (Chapman, 2006) to establish design processes to enable more creativity; these process models are often termed “innovation processes”. However, to date there are no descriptive innovation process models able to make clear and consistent distinction between a design path leading to a routine product from a path leading to a creative product.

Christiaans (1992) reported from his study that “the more time a subject spent in defining and understanding the problem, and consequently using their own frame of reference in forming conceptual structures, the better able he/she was to achieve a creative result”.

It is clear from this statement that defining and framing the design problem is a key aspect of creativity. Different strategies are used from designers to organize the different approach to the assignment. It is possible to begin by deciding whether the process is about design or redesign, or for example focus on which stake holder should have priority in the project. Even if design problem situations are unbounded, designers have to set boundaries, knowing that doing so may have unbounded and unintended consequences.

Newness is another main feature: to be ensured is common to search for technical, behavioral or cultural factors that where not addressed yet. Without creativity in design there is no potential for innovation, which is where creative ideas are actually implemented (Mumford and Gustafson, 1988) and transformed into commercial value (Thompson and Lordan, 1999).

Indeed, creative design is not a matter of first fixing the problem and then looking for a satisfactory solution concept: it is a matter of developing and refining together both the formulation of a problem and immediately after ideas for a solution. This process enhances constant interaction of analysis, synthesis and evaluation between the two notional design “spaces” – problem space and solution space. Maher (1996), for example, proposed a model of creative design based on such a “co-evolution” of the problem space and the solution space in the design process: the problem and the solution space co-evolve together, with interchange of information between the two spaces.

Ricerca della comodità in una poltrona scomoda, Bruno Munari, 1944

Ricerca della comodità in una poltrona scomoda, Bruno Munari, 1944

Thinking back to the quote by Marcel Duchamp, it is possible to infer that even if the path between intention and realization is thought to be filled by subjective reactions, but at the same the given description of the artistic struggle seems to fit the explanation of a succession of acts, identifying somehow what is possible to call “methodology”.

Indeed, it is important to state the duality of the creative act in the design process: if on one side ther is no specific universal method able to foster the creativity, on the other hand this “bursts of development” can not be split from a defined system – sometimes the two aspects of the design process are heavily interconnected, and one can not exists without the other.

Banathy B. H. (1996), Systems Science and Cybernetics, Vol. II, Designing Social Systems in a Changing World, Plenum, New York

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Chapman, A. (2006), Design process and design management tips, www.busi-

Christiaans, H. (1992), Creativity in design, PhD Thesis, Delft University of Tech- nology, Delft, The Netherlands

Drew P. (1975), Inleiding Stedebouwkundig Planologisch Onderzoek, TH Delft

Duchamp M. (1957), Lecture at the Convention of the American Federation of
Arts, Houston, Texas. Published in Art News, vol. 56, n. 4, summer 1957.

Gero J. S. (1990), Design Prototypes: A Knowledge Representation Schema for
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Jones J. C. (1992), Design Methods, Wiley, London

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Advances in formal design methods for CAD, Chapman and Hall, London, UK

Mumford, M. D. and Gustafson, S. B. (1988) , Creativity syndrome e integration, application, and innovation, Psychological Bulletin, vol. 103, n.1, pp 27e43

Reich Y., Kolberg E., Levin I. (2006), Designing context for Learning Design, School of Mechanical Engineering, Tel Aviv University

Reich Y. (1995), The study of design research methodology, Department of Solid Mechanics, Materials and Structures, Tel Aviv University

Schon D. A. (1983), The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action, Basic Books, New York

Thompson, G. and Lordan, M. (1999), A review of creativity principles applied to engineering design, Journal of Process Mechanical Engineering, vol. 213, n.1, pp 17e31


Author: Laura Zura Puntaroni

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