“Backward-Design” is Forward Thinking: Design-In-Practice Series
So often, designers struggle to figure out the reasons why their designs did not feel finished or as successful as they could be. They get so caught up in the here and now of design that they forget to study what was, and fail to sufficiently anticipate what will happen when that design is introduced publicly — to the client, to the client’s client and to the world.
Clients sense this. When the designer does not share, or at least anticipate, the understandings and expectations of the client, the project could go awry. The designer could end up expending many non-billable hours trying to adjust, tweak, re-do, re-conceive the project. And the whole process ends up not feeling good. Unfulfilling. A chore.
Often the core of the problem is the design approach to the project. Designers like to follow a linear process of design. This is an unfortunate remnant of the scientific management philosophy prevalent in the 1930’s. A belief that everything can be reduced to a progressive series of steps, performed in an objective, almost-scientific way. Processed from a beginning, through a middle, and leading to an end. No iteration or back and forth. Little trial and error. Objectively gather information and data. Analyze it. Formulate a hypothesis. Test it. Draw conclusions. Set goals, objectives and activities accordingly. Organize resources. Arrange things in a pleasing manner and implement. Evaluate. Happy client, happy life.
But, as we all know, things aren’t so linear. They aren’t so clear-cut and pat. They are not so perfectly objective and universally understood. We have all felt these things:
- Working with imperfect information.
- Often inarticulate clients.
- Or clients not understanding or appreciating or anticipating what you are trying to do.
- Some limits to the access to resources we want and need.
- Not fully skilled in every single technique that might come to bear.
- Can often get caught up in our heads, sometimes over-thinking, other times not thinking enough.
- A fear of failing to know when enough is enough.
- A weak sense of what happens when we introduce our designs publicly.
- Never fully sure if we have achieved acceptable results.
Design should not be seen as a set of steps per se. Rather, design is a way of thinking. That way of approaching the professional task with fluency, flexibility and comprehension. Here the designer must provide a sense of the underlying intellect in the design of the project, or else others cannot appreciate or anticipate what the designer was trying to accomplish. They need to sense the designer’s thought process all along the way.
Towards this end, we want designers to get socialized into a disciplinary literacy as they pursue design as an occupation and profession. They need to learn how design differs from art. Achieving a harmony and some variety in design — the goal in an art project — often falls short of client expectations. There’s that “It’s nice, but…” or “Where’s the WOW factor I was looking for…” or “I like it, but I’m not sure how I’m going to use it…”.
And professional, experienced designers need to learn how to tell when enough is enough. That is, they need to have this automatic, intuitive sense when if they added or subtracted one more thing from their design, it would not be as good.
One useful type of tool, designers can resort to is called a Thinking Routine (see footnote 2). The Thinking Routine is any structured way of asking yourself questions which help you organize your thoughts. You should have several thinking routines in your designer tool-box. These aid you in applying that disciplinary literacy you are forever developing and improving upon.
One Thinking Routine I want to introduce you to here is called “Backward-Design” (see footnote 1).
How the designer begins the process of creating a design is very revealing about the potential for success. One of the things designers more literate in their discipline learn to do is called “Backward-Design.” The designer starts with determining how their finished project will be assessed, then works backward from there in specifying the tasks and methods to be employed.
The designer begins the process by articulating the essential shared understandings and desires against which their work will be evaluated and judged. The designer starts with questions about assessment, and then allows this understanding to influence all other choices going forward. The designer anticipates what evidence others will use in their assessments of what the designer is trying to do.
Given that the more successful designer “backward-designs,” he or she would begin the process by anticipating those understandings about how their work will be assessed. The first assessment is how others, particularly the client, but including the client’s audience(s) as well, will see the design as finished, complete, coherent, and parsimonious. The second assessment is how others will see the design as successful, satisfying, having the desired effect, contagious, and impactful.
The designer then is equipped to make three types of informed, purposeful choices:
1. Choices about composition
2. Choices about construction and manipulation
3. Choices about performance
These choices involve what to include and not include. How to organize and how not to organize. How to mesh things together and not mesh things together. How to introduce things publicly and not introduce things publicly.
Given what the client wants, your choices will be influenced by what evidence they will look for to know you have achieved it. These choices involve evidence about what tasks will be worthy to be accomplished, and the most efficient and effective ways to accomplish them. These choices signal that the designer really gets it and is ready to perform with understanding, knowledge and skill.
In backward-design, these choices emerge through dialect and communicative interaction. Choices about tasks are purposeful. Design is more seen and operated as an action, rather than an object.
When beginning the process of design, the designer thinks about assessment before beginning to think about what and how they will design. Designers do not wait until the end — what scientific management calls the evaluation step — of the process. Thinking backward as a strategy for problem solving really isn’t that difficult. While this may feel illogical or counter-intuitive, in the end it makes more sense.
Again, we can set up a backward-design process as a Thinking Routine. A Thinking Routine can help the designer internalize the backward-design process. It can help the designer sharpen their focus. The Routine becomes a way, used informally or formally based on your style, to structure the client intake process. It also becomes a way to force you to prioritize your tasks.
Here is a simple example useful for designers interested in backward-design, and which I call DESIGN FRAMEWORK.
How Do We Elicit This Information From The Client?
Critical here is the designer’s ability to elicit a lot of information from the client. Information about expectations. Past experiences. Things they like and dislike. What they want to happen at the end. Values, desires, worth, risks, rewards. What the client’s various audiences might expect and desire.
Understandings are often revealed through the exercises of comparing and contrasting or summarizing key ideas and images. We can provide pictures. We can take the client on an internet tour. We can ask the client to take us on an internet tour. During all this, we encourage the client to explain, interpret, apply, critique, empathize or reveal prior knowledge about and experience with. This gives us a lot of information to start with.
We can then seek to find specific examples of what the client has done in the past, or has tried to do recently. They can describe certain actions they have taken. They can share with you various products they have designed or had designed for them, and their feelings about these products. They can explain the “facts” as they present them. Or offer up “interpretations”.
We then have to step back from our interactions with the client, and ask ourselves: Does the information we have collected provide enough evidence for us to determine a task plan? Can we see patterns and themes emerging? Hard and fast convictions? Things loosely connected? Are the client’s understanding of the problem(s) to be solved consistent with those of the possible solution(s) which can be implemented?
Or is there still some ambiguity needing clarification? Are any expectations unrealistic? If so, we return to interacting with the client to gather more evidence of their desires and understandings about what they want to be accomplished.
The Successful Designer
The successful designer is one who can generate designs which are engaging and effective, as judged by the client (and perhaps by extension, the client’s various audiences).
The design process should allow the designer to identify and prioritize those tasks which are most relevant to or likely to achieve the end result. And in turn, reject or shorten tasks which do not.
The client should see the design as relevant, provoking, meaningful and energizing. The project should feel finished. It should meet the client’s understandings about what constitutes success. You do not want the client to walk away thinking the design was merely the result of an academic exercise. You do not want the client to think or feel you have sold them a cookie-cutter solution.
The design process itself should impact not only the final product, but the client him- or herself. It should elevate the client’s own sense of design and accomplishment. It should result in a client more competent when interacting with you and securing your services the next time.
(1) Backward-Design. I had taken two graduate education courses; one in Literacy and one in Planning that were very influential in my approach to disciplinary literacy. One of the big take-away from Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, 2nd Edition, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005, was the idea they introduced of “backward-design”. Their point is that you can better teach understanding [and my words, perform professionally] if you anticipate the evidence others will use in their assessments of what you are trying to do. When coupled with ideas about teaching literacy and fluency (see Literacy: Helping Students Construct Meaning by J. David Cooper, M. Robinson, J.A. Slansky and N. Kiger, 9th Edition, Cengage Learning, 2015), you can begin to introduce ideas about managing the design process in a coherent and alignable way.
Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, 2nd Edition, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.
Literacy: Helping Students Construct Meaning by J. David Cooper, M. Robinson, J.A. Slansky and N. Kiger, 9th Edition, Cengage Learning, 2015
(2) Thinking Routines. There are many different types of Thinking Routines. The Harvard Graduate School of Education has researched, evaluated and categorized these. These routines can be used in your own reflections with yourself, or as active tools when working with clients. They are used to help you understand and manipulate your world.
Project Zero’s Thinking Routine Toolbox. Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Other Articles of Interest by Warren Feld:
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