Designing in Circles

Designers— or more accurately, strategists who use design—often fit processes into cycles. While the creative process can take several forms, nearly every model of the design cycle is a circle. Here are a few images I’ve encountered in my career and on the internet that communicate the design process.

Conceptually, a circular model is very attractive. Take the Design Thinking cycle, which has received massive support in the design community since it’s inception. The first phase of the cycle, Understand, starts at the 12 o’clock position (0°), where teams empathize with users and definite major problems. The next phase, Explore, starts about a third of the way (120°). Here, the team comes up with ideas and builds several low-cost solutions. The final phase, Materialize, which starts two-thirds of the way (240°), prompts teams to test their solutions and implement ones that resonated most with users. In the end, the team ends up back where they started (360°) to continue with the next iteration of design. Since tasks repeat, processes succeed efficiently from one to the next and tools are reapplied in subsequent cycles.

In practice, creative processes do not follow such a smooth course, including the Design Thinking cycle. A picture of the design cycle looks more like a three-second scribble—chaotic and unplanned.

Circles grossly misrepresent the actual way product teams function. When multiple projects are running, strategists need to backtrack, especially if all the information isn’t yet known. Steps in the circular model, such as user interviews and prototyping, are often skipped due to tight schedules and impatient stakeholders. When teams follow sequential processes, new discoveries never make it to the next stage and are repeatedly ignored in the next iteration.

In the Design Thinking cycle, teams are discouraged to test their product before empathizing with users since it breaks the model’s circular flow. Indeed, findings from testing do not need to be built, but can serve as jumping off points to create ideas, bypassing the Understand phase altogether. Arguably, most of the product’s findings come from prototyping because users can test tangible solutions, yet prototyped ideas sometimes are made with very little definition in place; they’re simply meant to verify or disprove a very small set of assumptions, without the need for painstaking process. Rarely do designers follow the full circle in the clean, uninterrupted way modeled in textbooks—or design thinking articles.

Evaluate-Generate Cycle

The creative process in the workplace is perplexing enough, especially with these circle-things floating around everywhere. For the design newb and expert practitioner, I’ve created the Evaluate-Generate cycle, a new model to communicate the design process in a product team.

Broadly, the EG cycle assigns each design activity in your team’s toolkit to a pedal on the rose. Dual categories, Evaluate and Generate, simplify product strategy at any point in the idea or build stage. In special cases, a pedal can be assigned to multiple categories.

To begin, designers or strategists sit in the middle of a familiar or known set of design activities, wondering which direction to take the product or feature. In particular, teams strive to make the product more valuable to users, which requires generating new ideas for product problems or evaluating solutions. In my experience, teams often require incoming designers to “fix” the product or an existing feature. To inform product development immediately, a strategist moves clockwise along the edge of an Evaluate pedal. Once that activity is completed, the strategist returns to the center where they either build their ideas into the product or carry their new discoveries to the next activity. The flexibility of the model allows teams to find an ideal balance between generative and evaluative activities. Because the model can accommodate several pedals, teams are encouraged to include more activities as design becomes a greater part of the development process.

At first glance, a strategist familiar with design thinking or similar process feels restrained by the condition that an activity belongs in the Generate or Evaluate category— inclusive OR, of course. Considering the tendency of designers (and algebraists) to create minimal forms, I prefer a convenient duality based on the activity’s singular outcome rather than dwelling on specific differences.  Notwithstanding, the model’s greatest advantage is its flexibility, therefore teams can freely extend their set of activity categories.

ROSE FUNCTION

Let’s nerd about math for a minute…. The rose figure is a function plotted on the polar-coordinate plane of the form r=asin(kθ) or r=acos(kθ) where k is non-zero and a > 0. The value of a determines the size of pedals and k the number of pedals. If k is odd, then the values of sin and cos don’t repeat so the number of pedals is 2k. If k is even, then the values of sin and cos repeat so the number of pedals is k. The EG cycle above is represented by the function sin(4θ).

r = sin(4θ) on polar coordinate plane. Thanks Desmos.

If we assign some aspect of design to each of the variables, it’s clear that θ represents the direction taken after completing an activity. When we fix the value of a to 1, we can interpret r as the progress made during the current activity. Unfortunately, our interpretation falls short if we interpret k to be the number of design activities available. This would imply that the number parity (whether its odd or even) of activities should bear some meaning, which isn’t true. Any suggestions to resolve the gap are welcome.

Next Steps

The traditional circular model of design is a convenient representation of process, yet it’s rigid structure mischaracterizes the nonlinear nature of product decision making. The new Evaluate-Generate cycle fixes these shortcomings by considering the various directions teams take during their product development process. Teams apply the outcome of each generate or evaluate activity in order to continually inform product development. The model’s inherent flexibility accommodates more activities or categories as the team’s design practice matures. Stop running around in circles trying to explain your creative process. It’s best to take a second and smell the roses. 

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