‘Efficient Design’ ideas go beyond , , and . They are holistic. Embrace them as of your Design Thinking.

Think beyond process, products, and users as a .

Let’s start with understanding much talked about ‘Design Thinking’. We need to understand its origins, evolution and its value first.

Design Science revolution has blossomed

The old outlook that saw designer as just a visual design creator is no longer true. There was a shift in mindset that saw designer as a problem solver. This idea developed in the 1950s and 1960s within the context of architecture, engineering, and industrial design. Designers tried to mix science in the art of design. As Buckminster Fuller puts it — ‘design science revolution’, based on science, technology, and rationalism, to overcome the human and environmental problems.

The close relationship between design and computers was envisioned by pioneers like Herbert A Simon, a Nobel laureate when he mentioned design as a science or way of thinking in his 1969 book, Science of the Artificial. He spoke about rapid prototyping and testing through observation etc that we so closely embrace now in our UX process. It would be an illusion to think that Design thinking originated at IDEO or because of Tim Brown. IDEO should definitely get the credit for bringing Design Thinking to the mainstream and developing a process that inspires us.

Designers should constantly expand their skills and upgrade

While problem-solving as an expertise is a must in any designer’s resume, it is not that easy practice by a solo designer. The design problems have become more ‘wicked’ as Horst Rittel, a design theorist once put it. Today as technology, competition, and user needs have become complex, the challenges for designers too have grown. Sometimes these multidimensional design requirements are in the tall order expected by clients from a designer. While a designer is expected to be a T shaped designer, he cannot be an expert in all aspects of design. This is why a team-based collaborative approach to design bringing all required skill sets around a table is important. At the same time, new efficiencies are expected from the designer to be relevant. Designers should constantly expand their skills and upgrade. This is part of the efficient design idea, they need to embrace. There are no shortcuts to this.

UX design diagram by Dan Saffer

Design thinking for corporations to become efficient

Designers can be the ambassadors of change in the traditional corporations. Due to the education system that emphasizes on dominant logic more than creativity, people have an analytical mindset of managing value. Many corporations operate with this mindset and thus get disrupted by changing trends and consumer values making their products and services obsolete. Design thinking can create value and respond to market changes via innovation in a timely manner. As an ambassador for change, design leadership in corporations must be strong enough to advocate for design thinking, build capacity to design and create a culture of design in the organization.

There is a reason why innovation is better within startups. Large corporations suffer from their own weight and inefficient culture accumulated over time. Leadership in large corporations will see an increase in output and quality of performance following some of the ideas outlined in this article series on ‘Efficient Design’.

In order for Design Thinking to be a part of your organization, the leadership must allow for an ability to fail and have a budget for it. Hire people with diversified skills and not just the skill for a narrow requirement in a job. Provide a variety of tools and processes for the employee to experiment with and find his own efficient method. Encourage collaboration in the company culture. Create a culture of co-creation workshops to solve problems together. Break barriers of hierarchy and allow better interactions between leadership, managers and junior associates. Large corporations are driven by quarterly results. This is a barrier in my opinion for innovation and achieving efficiencies. Employees should not be constantly in a firefighting mode from one crisis to another. This makes employees immune to innovation and they only will build ‘safe’ solutions. The hire-and-fire culture that many organizations have is bad for creativity. When there is no job security, an employee will work towards ‘safe’ solutions and be saving his job. This could be a reason why innovative designers tend to work as consultants and freelancers instead of full-time employees. This freedom helps them free themselves from the politics and hierarchies of an organization so that they can focus on what they do best. But it does not have to be that way.

The concept of logical creativity

The traditional style of value creation by designers was ambiguous and unpredictable. This used to be a barrier for them be embedded deeply in the organizational processes. With new design tools and processes that make evaluation and planning of both logic and abstract easy, designers are in a better place to advocate for their seat at the table. Embracing Design Thinking in a traditional organization is not that difficult once you realize that creativity is an ability to make sense of a new logic. A word of caution here for designers is to know that a defined standardized process could lead to predictable and less creative outcomes. There is a need for agility in design thinking and be willing to adapt to every step of the process. This thinking has also been described as ‘abductive’ thinking (challenge notions, constraints, imagining what could be possible, filtering, pruning data, and forward-thinking) and is in contrast with the traditional ‘inductive’ thinking (observing current facts) and ‘deductive’ thinking (analyzing past evidence). This abductive thinking also brings efficiency in the process.

The hype and illusion of Design Thinking

Design thinking is not a linear methodical process. Make it efficient.

Since Design Thinking is such a buzzword these days, everyone is trying to find ways to incorporate it. Companies are organizing one-day workshops to become familiar and do some creative exercises. It is recommended to first go through some learning experience or educational course that gives a deeper understanding of these Design Thinking concepts before implementing an organizational process. Without much experience and education, people sometimes consider Design Thinking only as a methodical and scientific problem-solving process. Designers should learn by doing and not via practicing Design Thinking through a theory. These days if you look around UX and design is loosely used and difficult for hiring managers to distinguish between a visual designer, experience designer, design strategist and someone who is all of these. Such talented T shaped designers are rare.

Be flexible to be efficient

As long as designer defines his steps, uses tools to find a solution, a desired and predictable solution will be found. This seems to be an easy and straightforward method. But it is one size fits all method that is not flexible and does not drive innovation. There are no ‘what ifs’ and ‘questioning’ in each step during the process. Designers should be starting by observation instead of starting with a problem. It helps to understand the user needs, context and a deeper understanding of the problem.

As Mauro Porcini, Chief Design Officer or Pepsi puts it —

“Design is more than the aesthetics and artifacts associated with products; it’s a strategic function that focuses on what people want and need and dream of, then crafts experiences across the full brand ecosystem that are meaningful and relevant for customers.”

Be inclusive and humble to be efficient

Design thinking is also not unique to just designers. Designers are also not some mystical and magical creatures with a magic wand that puts them on a pedestal above others. There is no place for any ego for a designer. Actually, humility helps a designer become a better designer. Such designer will be receptive to new ideas and can soak more information with an open mind.

Everyone is a designer. I experienced it while conducting co-creation workshops with team members who were sometimes unrelated to the product, department and the discipline of design. I got fresh perspectives and new ideas that were difficult in a linear way of thinking.

Don Norman too puts it in his core77.com article

But note that we have had breakthrough ideas and creative thinking throughout recorded history, long before designers entered the scene. When we examine the process in detail, what is being labeled as “design thinking” is what creative people in all disciplines have always done. Breakthroughs in all fields — science and engineering, literature and art, music and history, law and medicine — all come about when people find fresh insights, new points of view and propagate them. There is no shortage of creative people in this world, people with great ideas that defy conventional wisdom. These people do not need to claim they have special modes of thinking, they just do what comes naturally to them: break the rules, go outside the existing paradigms, and think afresh. Yes, designers can be creative, but the point is that they are hardly unique.

Design process is not a straight line

Damien Newman 2006

Design process is not one formula that can be applied to any problem. It is a complex web of information and problems that designer should entangle and find that ‘needle in a haystack’ solution. Solutions can evolve from any part of the process. Design process is iterative and there are no fixed rules to follow.

Being efficient is learning how to be agile, break rules, create new ones and still find innovative solutions at the end of it.

When designers challenge even their own process and ask ‘Why not’ and seek answers with a rationale, the process becomes right for the problem. They should use data to predict/create ideas and not just validate their assumptions. During the research phase, one of the mistakes people make is asking users what they want and then make conclusions based on their stated solutions. Users can tell their problems and experiences but doing what users want does not always lead to innovation. While innovating sometimes we forget that we cannot benchmark the idea against what is out there. By benchmarking, we may end up creating a me-too product. While following our process we sometimes forget that we are innovating and not optimizing. Another common error we as designers tend to so is in the process of trying to find quick solutions we tend to define the problem only partially, and then create a partial solution and fewer options, hoping that in future versions or iterations we will figure it out. Sometimes this is driven by tight budgets and timelines. This is where designers need to embrace ‘Efficient Design’ explained in the previous articles in this series.

Efficient design fits the agile world

There is a point of view that the long UX process does not really fit in the agile world. Design process cannot be mathematically translated into code (expected output) and linear thinking. It is not always possible to find a solution to various kinds of problems in a limited and defined amount of time. Sprints that try to economize, could cut down time needed for design thinking workshops, user research, market research etc. This handicapped design process leads to design teams delivering features but not necessarily good user experiences. Shorter sprint cycles are a reality today and there is a demand to produce results in the shortest amount of time. Being ‘Efficient’ with tools and techniques could help a designer adapt to this environment. However there is a need for designers, to be honest, assess and recommend a reasonable timeline and process that does not cut corners.

Efficient design is not quick, cheap and functional

The pitfall for designers in continuously iterating and experimenting is not to fall into the loop of making these changes to impress the client by producing a volume of work. These iterations must be in small increments based on the genuine needs of the project. If there is a need to change the design direction and pivot it must be done consciously by the designer. The other possible way in which Efficient design principles can be misunderstood is by thinking that Efficient design is ‘cheap’. The aim is not to create anything that is ‘cheap’ and companies should not be hiring designers for the sole purpose of saving costs and producing something ‘quick, cheap and functional’. The goal of quick, cheap and functional goes against the efficient design principles. Efficient design is all about finding the best strategy (in terms of cost, time, tools, people and process) to come up with the best possible solution to a problem.

Efficient design is a smart choice

The user will always be and continue to be at the heart of all innovation and communication. This is never going to change. Products and services designed that are new are fresh, socially relevant, emotionally attractive with a sound business potential will always succeed. Each assignment a designer undertakes is different so the design process will never be the same every time. At the same time just because we can adopt new approaches, does not mean we should. As designers, we should be using the right methodology for the right project. Our desire to adopt new approaches sometimes ignores logic. We risk losing sight of a required number of steps or quantitative work. For example, ignoring the research phase in the UX process that is very common in a low budget UX project.

In the efficient design model, the important thing is not to get caught up in a cyclical loop one after another in a rigid order. The conventional way of doing things is not always best. We should be open to challenging traditional methods in favor of new innovative approaches.

As Master Yoda once said “you must unlearn what you have learned”, and this is true if we want to be efficient and innovative. This is the path to self-improvement.

Efficient Design is working with ease by starting somewhere and learning more and more as you proceed, changing and innovating design process along the way depending on time constraints, system maturity, type of product or service being designed.

Efficient design philosophy creates better products

Products that adopt the principles of Efficient Design will also likely save time and effort of users making products more usable. These products and experiences will be frictionless, intuitive, tailored and further reduce the number of steps for a user using the developments in the field of AI and algorithms to their advantage taking the current ‘anticipatory design’ principles to a new level of efficiency. This is a detail-oriented approach to design that also takes into consideration all micro-interactions that are often overlooked. Taking care of users at a micro level and anticipating their needs increases user engagement to create trust and transparency in users minds and hearts, traits that will make designs more human in the future.

Efficient design is Karma Yoga

Thousands of years ago this idea did exist as a way of life. The book of Yoga, Bhagavad Gita says in chapter 2 “Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam” — Yoga is excellence at work. One can achieve it through the integration of body mind and soul. This holistic approach to doing work with devotion and without attachment i.e. without becoming a workaholic leads to excellence in one’s actions. A detached attitude enhances its values and improves the concentration and skill of the doer. Any work becomes valuable if it is carried out with full concentration, dedication, and abilities. A design process where the designer is immersed in the job will be fully observant, think more and will have a deeper understanding. On the contrary, a designer who is in it only for his salary will lack the foresight. Such excellence in work through Karma Yoga will then lead to joy and innovation.


‘Staying the course’ with design thinking and innovating requires courage. Designers should be risk-takers. Efficient Design works at the deep system level beyond the product, customer experience or service level overhauling and reimagining everything.

‘Efficient Design’ is still evolving and will make Design Thinking richer and deeper. Efficient design goes beyond the typical linear problem solution way of thinking. Design Thinking at present seems to be caught up in an illusion, hype, and fad. Though it is exceeding expectations when done right, it needs a rethink on how it can have higher adoption rates, respect and be holistic. It needs to go beyond the material and look into subtle aspects of intuition and consciousness. Design is basically connecting the dots. When a designer is able to connect the dots of what he sees outside and connects with his intuition, innovation is born. I have touched upon these in the previous parts of this series a bit. More will be published in the future and in my speaking engagements about this.

A word of advice

A word of advice to designer friends: Do not design with the goal of winning awards, be better than someone, or with just money as an incentive in mind. Falling into a crazy rat race like everyone else will only put a lot of stress and burn you out soon. Life experience is much bigger and important. Make your personal life efficient too by living this experience joyfully. It will make your professional work richer. You will focus better on your design projects when there are fewer worries in your personal life.

Our main competitor should be our own self and we should constantly expand and realize our tremendous possibilities. Design career is a long journey of learning and creating along the way. There are no masters. Everyone is a student of this ever-evolving craft. If the goal is to be a good student throughout the career, there will not be any pressure to be a master of this craft. Efficient design is this holistic design process that integrates the outside and the inside of the designer to create a rich soil where new ideas can germinate and blossom.

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