Excerpted highlights from How Designers Think

~ 07 July 2008 ~

I’ve not made it all through the entire book yet, but Byran Lawson’s How Designers Think continues to impress me as I’ve given it an on/off reading the past few months. Though it’s written with a slant towards architectural design, its content easily applies to designers of all disciplines.

Towards the end of chapter 7, “Problems, solutions, and the design process,” I found myself underlining all kinds of stuff. Quoted here are a few excerpts.

There are no optimal design solutions

Design almost invariably involves compromise…. Rarely can the designer simply optimise one requirement without suffering losses elsewhere…. There are no established methods for deciding just how good or bad solutions are, and still the best test of most design is to wait and see how well it works in practice. Design solutions can never be perfect and are often more easily criticised than created, and designers must accept that they will almost invariably appear wrong in some ways to some people.

Design solutions are a contribution to knowledge

Once an idea has been formed and a design completed the world has in some way changed. Each design, whether built or made, or even if just left on the drawing-board, represents progress in some way…. Thus the completion of a design solution does not just serve the client, but enables the designer to develop his or her own ideas in a public and examinable way.

The process involves finding as well as solving problems

It is clear from our analysis of the nature of design problems that the designer must inevitably expend considerable energy in identifying the problems. It is central to modern thinking about design that problems and solutions are seen as emerging together, rather than one following logically upon the other…. [B]oth problem and solution become clearer as the process goes on.

Design is a prescriptive activity

[D]esign is essentially prescriptive whereas science is predominantly descriptive. Designers do not aim to deal with questions of what is, how and why, but, rather, with what might be, could be and should be. While scientists may help us to understand the present and predict the future, designers may be seen to prescribe and to create the future, and thus their process deserves not just ethical but also moral scrutiny.

Designers work in the context of a need for action

Unlike the artist, the designer is not free to concentrate exclusively on those issues which seem most interesting. Clearly one of the central skills in design is the ability rapidly to become fascinated by problems previously unheard of…. Not only must designers face up to all the problems which emerge they must also do so in a limited time. Design is often a matter of compromise decisions made on the basis of inadequate information…. Designers, unlike scientists, do not seem to have the right to be wrong. While we accept that a disproved theory may have helped science to advance, we rarely acknowledge the similar contribution made by mistaken designs.

On that note, I vote for celebrating “mistaken designs” much more than we currently do as a community. Who’s with me?



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1   Aleksei Rastimeshin ~ 07 July 2008


2   Tor Løvskogen ~ 07 July 2008

Sounds like a good, although heavy read. Could you name some examples of ‘mistaken designs’?

3   John Dilworth ~ 07 July 2008

I came across a “2nd edition” copy about 10 years ago. The language of the book is a bit tough at first, but it really changed my thinking about design.

I refer back to the book for reference often. Lawson’s approach as an architect and psychologist provides a unique perspective which is very useful for understanding and communicating the design process with others.

Definitely recommended.

4   Timo ~ 07 July 2008

Roger that!

5   chuck ~ 08 July 2008

what nuggets of wisdom … great stuff! thanks for sharing, Cameron - I may have to pick up a copy of that book myself.

6   Martin ~ 09 July 2008

I enjoy the holistic image of design and designers in these quotes, the philosophic approach, the truth that came to surface. Great!

7   Mary ~ 09 July 2008

Loved this post! Especially as Martin said, the holistic approach.

8   Maaike ~ 11 July 2008

Agreed! Bruce Mau said: “Love your experiments like ugly children”. The same goes for mistakes in general :-)

9   Sarven Capadisli ~ 11 July 2008

There isn’t enough contrast between “#storysub p” color and “#storysub” background image.

10   Natalie Jost ~ 12 July 2008

Since most of my work that turns out good was mistakenly done so, I’m so with you!

And as one who takes criticism hard, I’m grabbing the end of that first quote for a mural on my office wall:

“…designers must accept that they will almost invariably appear wrong in some ways to some people.”

Thank you for sharing these excerpts!

11   Sheri Bigelow ~ 13 July 2008

I’m with ya. Acknowledging mistaken designs can be part of a growth mindset if you simply frame them in a positive light. It’s all about attitude and the value in learning from your mistakes.

12   Ben Potter ~ 14 July 2008

Great post Cameron.

13   Aaron Stewart ~ 14 July 2008

There’s some good stuff in there, but the distinction between science-as-fact and design-as-ethics is waaaay too overdrawn. Whoever heard of a scientist that doesn’t engage in ethics with everything they research and attempt to facilitate?

14   David ~ 18 July 2008

Absolutely agree!


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