Key process, management & organizational interactions

XV.1 January + February 2008
Page: 46
Digital Citation

FEATUREDesigning for disagreement

Paul Burke

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Creativity is a leap of faith into unknown territory, and the key attribute of a creative problem solver is the ability to make the appropriate leaps. It is through a methodology—whether implicit or explicit—that a creative mind can navigate a problem space, know when to make a leap, and determine how that leap will aid in delivering a richer solution. But as defined, this event is a singular creative process. One person collects information, synthesizes it, and produces a creative result. The difficulty of methodology comes when individuals are asked to join a group and work together to solve a problem.

The problems the design community is being engaged to solve are compounding in complexity. As a result, what used to be something one person could solve alone now requires participation by a group of complementary collaborators. With such problems, the ways in which individuals solve problems have become less useful than the ways a collaborative team solves a problem. While the individual approach should still be respected—the value of design for today and tomorrow lies with understanding collaborative problem solving, the methods that enable a fluid design process, and the value of disagreement in solving complex problems.

back to top  Thinking

As one of the two conjoined parts of the design process, thinking needs an upgrade. In a collaborative design group, and with the increasing complexity of problems, thinking cannot simply be a private act within an individual designer. It needs to be a capability that transcends the individual and reaches every layer of the design problem from team and project management all the way down to the specific needs and requirements of an artifact in the process. At every stage of the process, thinking and theorizing are essential to engaging in solution-improving debates and dialogues.

Shared Understanding. The first part of thinking with a group is getting to a common ground through clear and collective definition. It is essential to understanding the task ahead and clears the path for rapid, efficient ideation. Without it projects spin out of control and lead to costly changes at later stages, when investments have already been made.

However, getting to a clear and collective definition can be difficult. As mentioned above, creativity is a singular act. Individuals do creative things, and they tend to do them their own way. Herb Simon introduced the concept of "bounded rationality"—the idea that in a complex world, decision making takes place within an environment of incomplete information and uncertainty. In that world, decisions are made through individually learned and interpreted schemas and heuristics [1]. For a designer, their specific training and sets of experiences are those schemas and heuristics. Collaboration requires that the individuals understand how to resolve these differences and find a common ground.

When approaching a new design problem, all collaborators come to the table as individuals with their own judgments about what output is needed and how to solve a problem. On some level they will have no choice but to disagree. Prior to presenting thoughts and ideas about the project/problem, collaborators should first acknowledge the need for structure, establish the governing principles of the team (including the desire to focus on the problem, mutual respect, motivation to make progress, a general agreement about the problem solving sequence, and egolessness). Following that, designers can proceed into the discovery and definition of the problem. Such guidelines will set the boundaries for disagreement by separating out organizational issues from the project issues. By formalizing a set of protocols for debate, mediation, and issue resolution, the team can have a more dedicated, focused investigation of the problem without involving team politics.

At this point the team will begin the initial stage of project definition. Collaborators should think as egolessly and objectively as possible about the problem. They should seek out information and provide ideas from every perspective imaginable to determine the extent of the problem. To borrow a term from the film industry, collaborators should attempt to suspend disbelief [2] to drive out the true values, objectives, and opportunities within the problem space, including an analysis of the business values, technological limitations, and requirements of the audience. This collaborative exploration will result in the large set of items and concepts that make up the space of the problem to be solved.

From this set, visualization of the ideas into a model allows everyone—on a single surface—to see the scale, scope, and relationships between parts of the problem and begin to create a model of the problem. Throughout the development of the model, there will be a range of disagreements from tuning and tweaking of language to wholesale objection. This is outstanding—it's where all of the individuality and independent creative sparks can be captured, discussed, debated, and brought into a common shared view of the problem territory. Shelley Evenson, head of the master's program at Carnegie Mellon University, calls this mapping the territory and we see it as the first stage of designing for disagreement. As an additional output, definition by disagreement should result in a set of terms, common as well as unique, that are vital to the discussion and resolution of the model and territory. By establishing the specific definitions of these terms as an amended glossary to the model, the two become reference artifacts that will be a platform on which to make changes, a map to plan design activities, and a tool to mediate disagreement.

Enough Process. Design organizations tend to architect hierarchical activities to create a unique, repeatable, and sometimes proprietary methodology. While this is good from a business-model standpoint, it doesn't work well as problems become more complex and unique, or wicked. As defined by Rittel, "Wicked problems have incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements, and solutions to them are often difficult to recognize as such because of complex interdependencies." In addition, "while attempting to solve a wicked problem, the solution of one of its aspects may reveal or create another, even more complex problem [3]." Different tools and resources are required to solve a wicked problem, and it is expected that those tools will change throughout the discovery of the solution in response to findings. For these types of problems, a fixed method can become too prescriptive and limiting. Designers can no longer afford to strictly rely on and faithfully implement a process as written. They must proactively engage more fluidly in problem solving by constantly thinking about what tool or task is necessary to solve which problem.

For problems that resemble previous ones, the existing methods or patterns can be a point of departure. However, they should be used only as a baseline to model the project. The team should be cautious of the specific differences between the previous and current problem and select activities that best fit the problem at hand—not activities that are most familiar.

For new problems, teams must know each other's capabilities and the scope of the problem. They can then pick the methods that will best derive the result from the unique team-member expertise, the breadth of experience with the problem type and subject, and the information available. These activities can be iterative, cyclical, linear, or singular depending on the situation, team capabilities, budget, constraints and accuracy of the inputs.

Working fluidly, teams can swap, reorder, and reconsider activities to make them appropriate or irrelevant to the solution based on the constraints of the work, thereby saving time and money and allowing for a more direct focus on the activities that have the highest impact. Disagreement with proposed activities is expected and should be embraced as a continued opportunity to maintain and grow the shared understanding of the team. When disagreeing and evaluating, teams should remember to use as much process as is necessary, but not too much to overwhelm the problem with valueless exercises.

Suffice Satisfactorily. The more unknown the territory of these complex problems, the more difficult it is to know what the right answer is to that problem. Mixing "satisfactory" and "suffice," Herb Simon proposed the term "satisfice" to describe a decision-making process that allows people to make decisions that meet the given needs of a problem rather than searching for the optimal solution. He believed that with the increasing complexity of the world, seeking anything more than "good enough" is impractical.

Through the discovery process, designers learn constantly. Knowledge acquisition across multiple lines of inquiry allows the designer to see a problem in perspective. The value of the designer lies in the ability to objectively synthesize that knowledge. However, with so much information in the world and the designer's quest to understand and properly reflect back, there is a propensity to be overly thorough. The differentiator in designers is the ability to know when something is good enough and move on to the next activity—to factor the singular output into the bigger picture of the problem being solved. This notion of knowing when to stop results from deciding what constitutes a satisfactory outcome and looking for ways to achieve that outcome by optimizing action instead of maximizing action.

Products and solutions are all in a constant state of change due to technological, cultural, and business drivers. The speed of change is outpacing traditional design processes. As a result, it is no longer important to quest for perfection in design problem solving, but to build a series of satisfactory answers that add up to something great. For instance, quality is still vitally important, but is simply one of the given needs that define the goals of the output. And while quality and good thinking are vital to the delivery of design solutions, it is increasingly important to make something, get it done, and get the solution into the marketplace. Satisficing offers the designer the ability to optimize actions in favor of quicker results.

back to top  Making

In the collaborative design world, clear focus on the objective is one of the primary requirements of efficient design problem solving. Creativity and interpretation are vital to the exploration of a problem, but without governance and constraint, they derive unfocused results. Boundaries allow for more explicit exploration of concepts and ideas that propel the project forward by ruling out the unimportant. With the shared understanding of the project problem territory, the rules of collaboration, and the framework for thinking about and solving the problem in place, making becomes of primary importance.

Visual decision making. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, or according to Ivan Turgenev, "A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound" [4]. People agree with Ivan. They respond to visual information far better than they do to long prose. (As a matter of fact, this is probably right at the point where you wish it was a picture. See page 47)

One of the unique and differentiating capabilities of a designer is the ability to visualize business problems and present that visual argument back to stakeholders, clients, audiences and peers in a way that can elicit response and expose new opportunity. (For example, Hugh Dubberly reinforces this point in this magazine through one of his visual explanations; see page 28) By way of training in the craft of making, the analysis and synthesis of content, and the study of people and culture, designers can distill information into something more useful, interesting, approachable, and visual. Knowing this, it is best for the designer to "make early and make often." This is visual decision making—or synthesis and distillation with the express purpose of generating a reaction. Designers should use the output of visual decision making as a conduit to disagree with team members, stakeholders, clients, and audiences in an effort of finding the true answers to the problem—to get information out of Word documents and into a form that is more engaging.

Throughout the entire life cycle of a project, designers should be making artifacts with the purpose of presenting a visual argument. This argument should be egolessly delivered as a logical, structural representation of the solution derived from synthesized information. This could be a diagrammatic model, a wireframe of an interface, a screenshot of a website, a 3D rendering of a product, or any of a number of outputs depending on the project requirements and the activity selected. Regardless of the output, the primary function of making visual information is to isolate the product, the problem, the purpose and the people in the problem, arrange them spatially, and make a platform for making decisions.

The designer should continually balance the micro-focus and the macro-focus to ensure that ideas and information track back to the master objectives and don't stray from the vision and ideals of the project. Designers should also not hesitate to take a step backward in the project to seek out other evidence that can deepen and broaden understanding when needed and appropriate. Often, one small step back to look at the whole problem makes way for discontinuous leaps forward.

Designers need to remember that, in addition to being visually focused, people are also becoming increasingly aware of their likes and dislikes—and are rather vocal in their position about these preferences. To put it another way, people are getting increasingly disagreeable. In working with clients and audiences, the designer has the opportunity to embrace this fact as an opportunity. By approaching the situation without ego, the designer can use the presentation and feedback process to collect more data from the audience for further synthesis and iteration.

Visual Language. At the close of a complete project process, the output is a product, service, or solution that will have a life in the marketplace. As such, each idea will ultimately need to have a visual appeal that projects an image of quality and confidence to the consumer. Therefore, the design team shouldn't save and build visual language exclusively for the final artifact, but should instead bring visual attributes into the process early. For both new and existing brands, embedding graphic language into the visual vernacular of the process at the start will build passion for the approach that aids in the collective support for the idea without the need for the "big" design presentation.

For projects that involve existing brand structure, the character and rules of combination for that brand can serve as guardrails for the design team. Endorsing the brand language can remove the need to generate an original graphic language as part of the design process and may serve as the foundation to build a more robust brand attribute library throughout the process. The benefit to the client organization is that with branded models and illustrations, the artifacts of discovery and synthesis can be used to extend the vision and ideas of the design team to communicate the territory and new opportunities to internal and external audiences.

For new innovations, aligning to a graphic style brings passion to the group. Over the course of the process, each participant (both team member and client) will build a relationship to the solution by watching it come to life before their eyes—not dissimilar from watching a child grow up. In addition, by building the brand into the product or idea along the way, the brand becomes integrated into the solution itself. This allows for a quicker product release by removing the need to brand after the product is developed and by debating the technical issues well before the engineering has been done. Additionally, it fosters quicker adoption by decision makers because they have been a part of the brand's growth and development throughout the growth of the solution [5].

The Impact of Language. For brands and new market innovation, words have become increasingly important. As concepts and ideas get more complex and the marketplace becomes more saturated, tone, voice, and language are quickly becoming key differentiators in the cluttered world. Overwhelmed consumers are gravitating toward products that resonate emotionally or can accurately and effectively communicate the reasons to believe in their offering—ignoring those that don't. Therefore, for any answer to any opportunity, semantics are a vital component of the process. Definitions have to be descriptive of the precise position and intent of the solution but must also have a tone that meets the consumer on their level. If it misses, it will be ignored.

Language should be argued to seek out the most appropriate terms for a concept. The disagreement and dialogue will either result in the assignment of a term, removal because it is deemed inferior or coopted, or the invention of an entirely new term. As a constant, language should be considered, assessed, defined, refined, and rejected across all levels of the problem; it should also be governed by and with the same rigor as the problem definition process. Collaborators should drive out the unique to build a vernacular that is differentiated, protectable, and that resonates with the audience it is intended to serve.

Emotion and Egolessness. There exists an interesting dichotomy in the mind of the designer. Armed with empathy and experience, designers are capable of getting into the heads and hearts of users to uncover the motivating values for a product or activity. Over time, experience allows the designer to gain confidence and make the right choices that lead to a quicker or better result. With the increase in confidence, ego can often follow. While confidence through experience is an important and useful trait for designers, ego can make collaboration difficult. Part of the shared understanding in a project group is that everyone on the collaboration team is a peer respected for their opinions and experiences. The influence of ego in a group changes the dynamic, moving focus away from the project and removing the fluidity of team thought. Though it is a fine line to walk, designers need to be confident enough to believe in the value they bring without reaching the level of ego.

As it pertains to projects and tasks themselves, emotion derived from confidence and interest in the subject lead to passion and energy. These are motivating influencers for everyone in the group. When one person becomes passionate, the energy of the team increases. As another fine line in this process, passion can sometimes lead to overwork.

With wicked problems, timelines can sometimes be quite long and include a variety of activities and tasks with varied purposes. Some activities are intended to result in more questions, some are meant to add to the final solution, and some eventually become the final solution. Designers need to be passionate enough about the problem, the process, and the output to know when to stop—they need to realize when they have satisficed. When creating anything from any point within the project timeline, designers need to take note of the purpose of the task and use the appropriate amount of energy to get the item to where it needs to be for the moment, or to make it "good enough." And with tasks that result in visual choices, designers need to be cautious to not get too attached to an artifact, as that attachment will lead to a skewed perspective when receiving feedback. Though they can certainly argue the position that led to the visual choices, designers must be willing to receive the disagreements from peers and clients openly and honestly.

back to top  Collaborating

The difficulty of fluid collaboration is that everyone in the organization needs to have an impassioned understanding of how to solve a design problem regardless of a particular process. The problem solver must be confident, assertive, inquisitive, pragmatic, empathetic, and passionate. Each designer must value themselves and their opinions but also be respectful of the opinions and experiences of others on their team. They must not only understand how to execute on tasks but they must also be able to rise out of a task and look holistically at the problem, considering all parts of the system from the business issues to people management to production requirements. They can no longer strictly sit inside the task and rely on the process to carry them through. Instead the designer must become fluid, moving freely between thinking and making as each new situation emerges. And ultimately, the designer must learn to use visual decision making as a way of presenting synthesized thoughts to generate a response—disagreeable or not.

Terms of Reference

  1. Egolessness: In psychology, egolessness is an emotional state where one feels no ego (or self); of having no distinct being apart from the world around oneself.
  2. Methodology: a system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity
  3. Method: a particular form of procedure for accomplishing or approaching something, esp. a systematic or established one
  4. Process: a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end
  5. Philosophy: the study of the theoretical basis of a particular branch of knowledge or experience
  6. Standard: a level of quality or attainment
  7. Satisfice: "Satisficing" means deciding what constitutes a satisfactory outcome and then looking for ways to achieve it. We stop looking when when we have "satsficed." (See

back to top  References

1. Simon, Herbert, ed. The Sciences of the Artificial, 2nd ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981.

2. Wikipedia;

3. Rittel, Horst

4. Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons. Russia, 1862.

5. Pacione, Chris and Margaret McCormack. "Designing for an Internet Speed Up." Bodymedia lecture, 2001

back to top  Author

Paul Burke

About the Author

Paul is the co-founder of thinktiv, a design innovation consultancy. ( His firm is dedicated to visualizing business through passion, empathy, creativity, and business alignment to make discontinuous improvements for clients. Additionally, Paul holds a position as lead designer for the ITSqc at Carnegie Mellon, where he creates diagrams, visualizations, products and materials for all audiences of the eSCM solutions. With a B.A. and graduate coursework from the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, Paul has spent the past decade developing his skills in both large corporations and small studio settings, including Wall to Wall Studios, Trilogy and his previous consultancy, Inkwell Studio.

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