The Chaotic Waterfall

I’ve been reading snippets from Twitter about different theories of design process lately and it got me curious about whether there’s any theoretical basis for the way I work. Much of what is written applies to digital media and software development, but I always find that it lines up quite neatly with the information design work that I do, whether it be wayfinding or exhibits and interpretation. There’s lots of debate about linear or Waterfall processes versus Chaos or natural cyclic processes. I find all this theorizing interesting, but what really matters to me is how to get from research/brief to final specs in a way that allows the design to develop into the best it can be within the project constraints. Oh yeah, that, and how this process can be predictable enough that I can estimate a project and have a reasonable expectation of meeting my own time budget and paying my expenses.

It’s that last bit that really motivates the process-builders the most, I think. Especially for larger firms, or for small ones that would like to survive and get bigger, there is a certain urgency to create some sort of design process that can guide creative activities. Thus the ascendency of very linear theories, such as the Waterfall model, in which a series of milestones fall like dominos as the project marches relentlessly forward. Linear assumes a very predictable path for projects, and while it might be the key to being most profitable, it seems equally likely to produce a bland flavour of design.

So if linear theories are too constricting, what about the opposite extreme — Chaos models? These strike me as more of a triage system than an actual method, whereby the broad objectives and goals are defined and then their various components are worked on in whatever order seems to make sense in the moment. It sounds very liberating in a sense and probably capable of creating great synergies on teams. Unfortunately, it seems to me to be an almost certain recipe for blowing the time budget on a project.

My own process is a hybrid of the two extremes. Design for me is a business — it’s a business that I love, and if I want to keep doing it, it has to bring me a reasonable financial return. Therefore, I need the structure of a waterfall-type process to identify milestones that serve as thresholds to the next phase of the project. These waterfalls are the points where approvals happen, where we make decisions and we move forward, and they’re crucially important to managing a project. But at the same time, I need the unstructured space to be creative. What happens in between these waterfall points can resemble the Chaos model much more, as ideas and inputs are mixed around and we seek the connections that bubble to the surface. These are the places where the serendipity of strategic intuition is called upon, where the true creativity happens. But design is ultimately about making decisions, and each succeeding waterfall point is where those happen, as the best and most promising ideas pour over the crest of the falls to inform the next pool of creative chaos. Just as water only flows in one direction, the activities of the project need to keep moving down the waterfall steps. It is a sure sign of trouble when we find ourselves being asked to travel against the current into a previous pool.

My design process doesn’t really fit within any formal theory that I know of, but it works for me, and ultimately that’s what matters. How about you, what’s your design process?

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