The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Design Compromise

– December 9th, 2011 –

My friend Andy Rutledge runs a weekly video podcast called The Design Pro Show in which he talks through his take — as a ‘Design Professional’ (in quotes because it’s a thing) — on a number of subjects; from ‘Process’, to the latest show yesterday ‘On Compromise’.

Yesterday Andy asked for thoughts over Twitter:

Where in your work have you found benefits in compromise?

As you’d expect, opinion was polarised. Andy Budd perhaps encapsulated how I feel:

If you compromise on nothing, you’re a dictator. A lack of compromise weakens the chance of discovering that you could actually be wrong.

And Oliver Reichenstein today:

Web design is engineering. Engineering is all about making the right compromises. Case closed.

My thoughts are this: design is an exercise in considered compromise.

Firstly, let me define what I mean by compromise. I mean reaching a mutually agreeable decision based on subjective demands, conditions or variables otherwise unaccounted for.

The type of design I do is, ultimately, about people. Designing websites for people means you need to try and understand how they will behave on the website you’re designing, and people are complicated things. Commercial design means doing work for money. Stakeholders are also people (yes, they are), and are subject to the same complicated thought processes as the rest of us with the added commercial complexity of generally knowing their business (and sometimes their audience) better than you do.

Throughout a design process a myriad of potential conditions may present data that results in a compromise; a point in time where you need to course-correct to take into account new information. My understanding is that a designer will take this information and steer the ship whilst still producing an optimum solution. This is through no fault of the designer or the process. New information can surface at any time throughout a process; for example, user interviewing or usability testing may bring to light information that fundamentally changes an approach. This has happened to me on numerous occasions.

If you’re unable, or unwilling, to take on-board this new data — to course-correct — to compromise what you thought was the right thing, this is will result in a compromise to the design solution. Because you’re ignoring critical information. Your desire to not compromise will actually compromise the end-result. Ironically.

Someone who knew a lot about uncompromising systems was Bruce Lee. As you may know, Bruce Lee was an martial artist film star in the 60s and 70s. He was also a philosophy major and had a deep interest in understanding the physiological and psychological effects of combat. He had a deep interest in challenging the traditional martial arts styles of the time: Shotokan Karate, Taekwondo, Judo etc. despite training in a traditional style himself: Wing Chun. His problem was they are not grounded in reality. They exist as a system devoid of adapting to external data. This, of course, can be particular damaging when faced with an opponent. You rely on the system to provide you with the right tools, rather than adapting and accepting the fluid dynamics of a combat situation.

Design is like this.

Adhering to an inflexible system, that is incapable of reacting to new external data, or the fluid dynamics of a complicated project, generally results in failure. This is why methodologies such as Agile exist: they are designed to effectively accommodate change.

My experience in design is that there’s a lot of grey. Nothing is ever cut and dry. People are complicated. Perception and behaviour is difficult to account for, and using a design process that welcomes new data, can course-correct effectively, is a process every designer should be working to create.

Filed in: design.

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