Design by Post-it

Contemplation beyond sticky notes

Paul Epp

I was recently a guest critic at a student presentation at a design university. It was very slick, with excellent graphics. As it scrolled along, I felt sure that I was seeing the results of what I call Design-by-Post-It-Notes. And, sure enough, the presentation eventually showed some evidence of process and there was the picture of the Post-its on the wall.

What made me think that I was viewing the results of this kind of process was a certain kind of glibness to the solutions that were being presented. This evaluation sounds unkind, but I think I have a point to make.

There has been a proliferation of the use of the term Design Thinking. It originated in design academia and professional design consultancies. And now it has found its way into management courses and business schools, business media and even popular consciousness.

A process is described that consists of identifying a problem, and then brainstorming, which is a very public and competitive process of expressing ideas and capturing these on Post-it Notes that are then put up on a board, organized, grouped and regrouped and arrayed in columns. In this process, this is the heavy lifting. Post-Post-Its, the ideas are evaluated, some are chosen for further development, they are prototyped and thereby the world is saved.

This is a popular activity and is excellent in generating a lot of ideas in a hurry. By its very nature, the ideas are spontaneous and maybe even as superficial as the process. One idea suggestion leads to another and the wall is soon well posted. Fortunately, it’s almost certain that there are a few ideas that are worth further consideration.

My view is that this process yields a certain type of result, just as another process will yield different results. It’s been proven to be valuable and certainly ought to remain in our arsenal of design creativity tools. But is it always adequate? I think not.

I tend to hear the term brainstorm as another way of saying migraine. I don’t want a storm in my brain. I want peace and quiet, conductive to reflection and consideration. This comment will reveal my introverted nature, and so be it. A lot of designers are introverted and although it’s certainly not a prerequisite for the job, it can have its utility along with its drawbacks. Another way of describing this is that a brainstorm is fast and shallow.

A private and reflective process has a better chance of being deeper even if its slower. And deep is good. A lot of the problems that we designers consider are complex and difficult. There is a good argument for preparing our minds to do their subliminal work that moves us towards that elusive and critically valuable eureka moment. That will only happen if we have been considering a problem for an extended period of time and are adequately prepared to spot a solution if our good fortune presents it. We need to twist and turn a problem around, looking at it from many sides and then looking again. And probably again.

My eventual critique of the student’s presentation was based on the type of solutions that were being offered. As attractive as they were, and valuable, there was to me a conspicuous absence of the solutions that are likely only to arise from slow, private and deeper consideration. We need both.

My biggest concern with our currently popular design methodology is not that it isn’t a good tool. It is. But it’s not the only one we ought to be using. It is seductively attractive, with its speed and opportunities for showing off. It produces quantities quickly and this can (mis)lead us to a premature satisfaction that an issue has been comprehensively considered. It has become the default and its assumed that it’s the correct way to work. It’s the new orthodoxy and it has led people to conclude that design is easy and fast. But it’s not.

I actually enjoy brainstorming sessions. They can be exhilarating and deeply worthwhile in their sharing of ideas and perspectives and they are usefully stimulating. They are a way of preparing us designers for another round of idea generation, the one that takes a lot more time and doesn’t respond well to speed and public exposure. Let’s not be distracted.

Paul Epp is a professor emeritus at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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