Design Notes

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Notes on Design Methods

These are a number of notes about design methods.

The originial criticism by Jon Kolko is now unfortunately offline but still reachable via the wayback machine. (I also would extend this criticism to “innovation methods”)

These are the problems with design methods:

  1. Methods are watered down instruction, offering only the thinnest description of how design works. It’s not as easy as 1-2-3. It’s a profession, and it’s hard.
  2. Methods imply that experience doesn’t matter, and that anyone with a card can be a designer. Everyone should be able to benefit from the value of design. It should be a liberal art, one respected and taught with the same broad popularity as literature or philosophy. But as it’s an arduous process to become a competent writer, so too is it arduous to become “good” at design. Experience trumps method every single time.
  3. Methods are overly prescriptive. While some come with warning labels, most indicate that “design should be done like this” and students of the methods are taught that there is a right and wrong way to go about solving problems. I see this when I teach both graduate students and professionals. They are constantly looking for the right ways to do things, often asking questions as rudimentary as “what size post it note should we use?” – as if there’s an optimal way to design, and I have that answer and need to give it to them.
  4. And most importantly, methods make design seem scientific, when it is experimental. Design is not just a directed, purposeful activity. It is also reflexive, as is much creativity. We lose ourselves in the work, and the work talks back, and out of the creative process emerges magic. This is not a science of the artificial. It is an exploration of the artificial.

Maybe the best way of understanding methods is to take a page out of Georg Box‘ book: “All methods are wrong but some are usefull”.

That said there‘s a tendency of these methods to morph from tools to process. Meaning, the might have once been created as a tool to help guide the design of a product but have since come to dominate the process. They‘re seen as “the right way” to do certain things. This tendency may be more prevalent in “design thinking”. Are you actually being innovate if you haven‘t even dot-voted once?

The sociologist Tim Seitz wrote an insightful critique of design thinking as a “innovation method” that‘s also well worth considering. Since the book is only available in German I‘ve taken the liberty to translate the quotes here.

He mirrors Kolko‘s critique of design methods as something akin to recipes (i.e. overly prescriptive) blurring the boundaries between process and product:

In the same way that cooking recipes only require the ingredients to be processed together in the specified quantities according to the specified procedures, method cards are about enlivening the intended process with ideas or insights. And another similarity to recipes stands out: In everyday language, it is quite common to say that a recipe tastes good, although this obviously refers to the prepared dish. No distinction is made between recipe and dish — the recipe is the dish. Similarly, in Design Thinking, no distinction is made between the method maps, the methods, or their respective end products. An empathy map is the result of the method empathy map and if I want to know more about it, I should look in the method maps because everything relevant is in there. Over time, the method maps lose their importance in a certain way. Just as you learn a recipe by heart when you repeatedly (re)cook it, the actors also gradually memorize how to carry out the method. Accordingly, experienced design thinkers no longer need to rely on the method cards because they have internalized their guidelines.

Another interesting observation of Seitz is how design thinking workshops prescribe a role to its participants: they‘re encouraged to see themselves as “creatives” only. Criticism, discussion or a weighing of ideas are not part of the process.

[…] for the individuals in Design Thinking only the role of creatives is intended. There is no place for them as weighing, hesitating or judging individuals. Their ideas are explicitly not tested for feasibility at first — “Defer Judgement!” — and are given the status of provisional by working under time pressure and the instruction to produce as many ideas as possible — “Go for Quantity!” — are provided with the status of provisionality. The individuals are thus granted the possibility of a specifically framed self-development, while at the same time they are bound in a fixed structure in two respects: First, the temporal timing of the start and stop signals tells them exactly when their creative potential is to unfold.

Thus he describes “design thinking” as something akin to Taylorism. Every mental movement is not only prescribed by the process but also timed (“time boxed”).

Design Thinking extends the access from the body to the thoughts. The thought movements of the individuals are broken down into individual steps as sticky notes, thematically guided into paths and adapted to the rhythm of the process. The individual persons involved in the process are synchronized in their thought movements and thus connect to the human machine, which is kept going by the individual instead of through body movements through empathy and creativity. As a result of union resistance to Taylorism, the use of stopwatches was banned in U.S. state factories from 1912 to 1948 because they were considered its symbol. 100 years later, stopwatches are back — but now as a symbol of a labor process that promises liberation and emancipation.


Someone will write the word ‘data’on a post-it note and days later that note sits there, without context and becomes meaningless. It lets us off the hook from ever having to think through ideas and concepts in detail. They’re a lazy illusion of thinking. Instead we have whiteboards in the studio so we can stand together as a team and use written and visual forms.

They become constellations of words, illustrations, code, images of interfaces. You can amend them and it slows you down to properly communicate with someone. There’s an immediate need to do something with those ideas as the whiteboard feels more temporary. Post-its tempts you believe they work well as repository for thinking. So people delude themselves into thinking you’ll come back to a collection of Post-its.

They also create an artificial barrier between the facilitator or designer and the impact you can have by doing work. Services are not made of post-it notes, they’re made of data, interfaces and people. It also gives designers the illusion of control over a process of brainstorm but again, that’s not action. That’s not what a designer is capable of. There are other processes we can take, other ways to do things.

 —  Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino. (2020) ‘Creating a Culture of Innovation’. apress

Key to design thinking’s spread was its replicable aesthetic, represented by the Post-it note: a humble square that anyone can use in infinite ways. Not too precious, not too permanent, the ubiquitous Post-it promises a fast-moving, cooperative, egalitarian process for getting things done. When Cornforth arrived at IDEO for a workshop, “it was Post-its everywhere, prototypes everywhere,” she says. “What I really liked was that they offered a framework for collaboration and creation.”


But when she looked at the ideas themselves, Cornforth had questions: “I was like, ‘You didn’t talk to anyone who works in a school, did you?’ They were not contextualized in the problem at all.” The deep expertise in the communities of educators and administrators she worked with, Cornforth saw, was in tension with the disruptive, startup-flavored creativity of the design thinking process at consultancies like “I felt like a stick in the mud to them,” she recalls. “And I felt they were out of touch with reality.”

 — Design thinking was supposed to fix the world. Where did it go wrong? by Rebecca Ackermann


A list of things I found pretty useful when researching how to build and steward a design system at the Media Lab Bayern. Please note that this project did not include a component library of code base, which is why these recommendations won‘t touch on these subjects


Expressive Design Systems (2019) von Yesenia Perez-Cruz, A Book Apart [Link]

  • Absolutely excellent book when it comes to the implementation, structuring and stewarding of a design system.


Creating Etsy’s Design Principles

  • Helpful example of what design principles might look like and how to write them (it involves a lot of back and forth with stakeholders)

Tips For Managing Design Systems

  • A couple of rather basic but important tipps for implementing and stewarding a design system.

Picking Parts, Products & People

  • This is a neat little team exercise for figuring out which parts your new design system actually needs


These are a couple of notes about building and managing a design system at the Media Lab Bayern.

The updates are written in reverse chronological order with a date added to each.

  1. Preparations
    1. Mapping the landscape
    2. First experiments
    3. Research (a.k.a Talking to people)
  2. Context setting


Mapping the landscape

2023-02-04 It‘s been two months since the last update mostly thanks to the slow and busy holidays and first weeks of the year and with other projects demanding my attention, this one was put on the back-burner for a while.

Still, a couple of things happened.

Starting at the beginning of January, I designed a questionnaire for the team based on the audit of our design output. The goal was to map the uncertainties of working with the current state of the CI. From brand related topics, to typography, down to workshop canvases. The questionnaire was created to be printed because I wanted to get people‘s thoughts and notes as well as their opinions.

Charting the results of the questionnaire didn’t yield any big surprises. Still it was quite notable how many of my colleagues felt insecure when it came to basic guidelines of how to work with colors, fonts, icons and images. There‘s a lot to be said about the need of “operationalizing” a CI — something the team had been lacking and the agency obviously didn’t deliver.

We‘re also currently introducing Notion as a new knowledge-base for the team, which will make including CI guidelines easy and fast.

First experiments

2022-12-19 With the holidays drawing closer, here are a couple of updates:

  1. We have a somewhat complete list of all the relevant parts of the design output of the teams. It currently packs 63 items from colors and fonts to office signage, contracts, social posts, and merch. There‘s a lot of stuff we‘re producing in a given year.
  2. I experimented with Notion as home for the new design system based on the Design System Template from the gallery. Conclusion: It‘s a pretty nifty tool or how our head of marketing put it “I love it ❤️”.
  3. I started a typography audit, starting with our marketing slide template. It‘s, to be honest, a bit all over the place. The goal is to define a new typography system based on size ratios, instead of the fixed pixel sizes, currently in use.

With the preparations now complete, the project will “officially” launch next year with the rest of the team. The next steps will be:

a) Gathering feedback from the team on the design audit (what works / where are question / what needs to be updated).

b) Identify the biggest redundancies and gaps and strategize how to resolve them within the team.

Current artifact: a couple of tables in numbers, able to auto-generate new type scales based on the font size of a basic paragraph.

Research (a.k.a Talking to people)

2022-12-07 During chats in the team we got more information on the history of design at the lab. Especially the last brand refresh at the end of 2021, which introduced elements and colors for the different programs and thus expanded the visual language.

One thing that keeps coming up is the focus on slides as one of the main medium for presenting the lab to stakeholders, startups and potential partners (a close second is the website), which is why these are the most mature design artifacts the teams uses.

With the lab having almost doubling in head-count over the last 18 months there‘s a lack of awareness for the brand guidelines and CI. One thing, we briefly discussed, was the apparent need for a design on-boarding for new hires.

Context setting

2022-12-05 We kicked-off this project in December 2022. At this point the Media Lab has existed for almost a decade and grew from two people to ~25 at two seperate locations.

During this time, the CI also grew but was never formalized beyond a collection of graphic elements, fonts and powerpoint slides.

As a consequence the consistency and quality of the design output varies wildly. While every colleague produces design work in varying quantitities, the Lab never employed a dedicated designer. Most high-quality work is done by a lead-agency which also created the CI in the first place.

What we‘re trying to do is to grow the existing CI and build a small design system. Meaning, we‘re not trying to define every use-case in a fixed document and then police the team but to create tools they can adopt creatively for their needs. Additionally we want to implement a stewardship process that enables us to periodically check in with the system to optimize, correct or discard elements.

At this point we have a cautious “go!” from the team leads and already did some preliminary research and alignment work (a.k.a. talking to people).

The next steps:

  • Create a design inventory (and overview over the complete output of the team)
  • Let the team give feedback on this inventory (What works well? Where do we need more guidelines? What can be ignored at the moment?)

Both of these steps will hopefully help us define a roadmap for the next months and give us some clarity as to where the biggest problems lie.