The structured design process
Creativity seems to be this all or nothing thing; it’s either there, or it isn’t.
We wait until a spark lights up our brain and the ideas whirl around, then pick something to our liking. When inspiration hits, it's almost like magic. Especially when it’s used to create art and crafts, when we create beautiful things from our colorful minds. There’s no real structure there, no to-do list to follow. But how do you come up with ideas that fit your project?
As a student mechanical engineering, creating and generating ideas is part of task of problem-solving. The design of products is often taught as a structured design process. While most engineers will use their creativity freely, as most artists would, to come up with most solutions, there is certainly merit in the idea of a structured process. By following a few steps, you may think of certain ideas you otherwise wouldn't have thought of.
So when could you use this process?
- when you have an initial idea in mind, and want to further explore possible options.
- When you want to generate lots of ideas for a possible project.
Expect to come up with a lot of ‘idea snippets’, as I like to call them; small parts that can be used in a later project, and could be stored in a ‘creativity journal’ or ‘project book’. (Expect a post about this soon!)
The design process looks like this:
What is your starting point? Let's say you want to design a handbag from scratch.
What exactly is your ‘problem’? “I need an idea for a bag design,” isn’t going to give you any clarity on what you need.
Instead, it’s important to break your main ‘problem’ into smaller sub-problems. Breaking the problem down is usually done in terms of functions. What does it need to do? Or what should it be capable of? Think of the needed functions in broad terms.
Let's give an example: you want to be able to open and close the bag. Then your function is 'open/close' instead of 'it should have a zipper'.
By defining functions this way, you’ll be able to generate a lot more ideas in the following steps.
Continuing with our bag example:
- It should be big enough to fit your phone, wallet, a book
- open/closing mechanism
- ease of carrying
- handle should be able to handle the weight
In this stage, it helps to look at similar items. Take a few of your purses or handbags, and look at each individual feature; what is it used for? Why is it on there? Then look if you need that
function for your own bag, and list it. You can even turn this into a little game with friends or kids!
Most stuff will be straight-forward, but occasionally you’ll come across something that you don’t really know the function of. Google is your friend there!
Ever wondered about the mini-pocket on your jeans, for example? They used to be for pocket watches, and are still added as a style feature, even though no one really carries a pocket watch anymore.
Quantify and Research: define your requirement list
In this step, you actually do the ‘research’ to find numbers for your requirements. The bag should fit your wallet, phone and a book.
Now it’s time to give actual measurable values to this. You can grab the items and measure around them, for example, or look up the size of your notebook online. You should add numbers to requirements, where you can. Numbers are a lot more straightforward when comparing options later. And it forces you to think of limitations: if your bag needs to fit a certain book, and you set that size as a limitation, then that automatically means larger books won’t fit.
Generate solutions to sub-problems:
If all goes well, you have generated quite a list of requirements in the previous step. Now it's time to come up with solutions. For each requirement, you try to think of as many ideas as you can as how to solve them. It can help to sort the requirements into categories first, like size and material.
Now for the fun part! Brainstorm and go wild! There is no wrong or right at this stage, so it's fine to be goofy! Turn it into a game and see if you can get to at least 5 solutions per
By thinking of each function or requirement separately, it’s easier to start thinking outside the box.
Say you need a ‘desk’, and find the requirements are:
- a flat surface (LxW meter)
- something that holds the surface up (height X meter)
- storage space (x cubic meter)
Instead of looking at just desks, you would probably come up with a flat plane of wood, glass or metal, which is staying at a certain height using either legs, or
could be suspended on hooks or wires. Storage could be integrated or separate.
If you combine varieties, that gives you several options to work with.
Back to our handbag:
Some solutions would include:
- how to close => button, zipper, fold over flap, Velcro, toggle, duct tape…
- sturdy (as material choice) => leather, canvas, tarpaulin…
Continue creating various solutions to the sub-problems/requirements. A possibility is to draw these out in a table, thus creating a Morphological analysis. (A method developed by Fritz Zwicky)
The method, in engineering, is used to create and arrange solutions to functions, and easily combine them. By drawing instead of writing, you are forcing your brain to think creatively.
Don’t worry about quality of drawings here, doodle and scribble to your hearts content!
It's OK to write a few words to clarify, but don't be tempted to write only. It’s all about getting your ideas visualized.
I've drawn one morphological analysis diagram below:
Combine to create concept: pick the most promising solutions
In this step, you can pick the most promising combinations. You can easily create several concepts by drawing lines in the morphological diagram to connect part-solutions. You basically select a solution for each function, and connect these by a zigzag line, as shown above.
Some options usually drop out quickly because they’re either unrealistic, or too expensive, or don’t fit other requirements. You can cross these out, or just leave them. If
you've found some really nice solutions, but you can't use them for your current project, feel free to save these 'idea snippets' in your Creativity/Project book for later use or inspiration.
[A post on this will follow soon!] You can of course save the whole morphological diagram as well.
In short, in this step you’re converging from a big number of ideas to a handful of concepts. A common number of concepts is around 3 to 4.
Compare remaining concepts and pick 1.
From the handful of concepts you’ve created, you then pick 1. If decision-making is hard, you can make a list of pros and cons, like cost, safety, ease of manufacturing or even
'material-stash'-availability. A good way to compare pros and cons is to give a ratings (1-5) and weighing factor for each theme, and apply these to each concept.
A weighing factor is used when you think a certain option is more important than the other. Say, cost is more important to you than the ease of manufacturing, then you can multiply the ratings for cost with a certain factor, say 2.
At the end of the rating, you add up all points for each concept, and pick the one with the most points.
Create improved final concept
In the last step, you’ve chosen a concept. Now try to improve this concept to create a ‘prototype’. Say concept 2 comes out as the ‘winner’ in your pro-cons check, but you like the pocket you added on concept 1 better. You now get to create a final concept/ prototype, that includes the best of both.
Check with initial demands/confirm final solution
The ‘last step’, is to verify that this prototype or final concept actually does check with your initial requirements/demands.
While this step may seem redundant, it is actually quite important to check back on the requirements. Sometimes changing one option has an effect on another, and suddenly another requirement doesn’t pass the test, anymore. So don’t skip it! ;)
Make it! :)
When you're happy with your final concept, you are done! Get ready for creating!
You can reuse the process files, if you make a similar project in the future, or just restart when your start something different.
In the whole process, it can happen that you need to go back a step to edit or refine, before you go forwards again. You may find out that you forgot a requirement, or that you
came up with a better solution for a previous step. Feel free to go back, and add this in. The design process is merely meant as a guideline to create solutions and get you to think ‘outside the
As mentioned before, sometimes you end up with a concept, but other ideas were really interesting as well. I advise you to put these ‘idea snippets’ into a creativity journal/ project book for later reference.
It’s of course not necessary to follow this design process, but you might find you like it for larger projects, especially if you want to create something from scratch. If you find yourself making similar items, you can actually reuse the process (especially the morphological diagram) to create various different designs.
You can actually use the diagram for images as well; say you want to design a logo; instead of drawing in functions, you can put in parts of the logos design: colors, fonts, dots/graphics etc. Just go crazy wild there and remember to have fun!
Any Questions? Feel free to ask!