Planning in the Design Process

For those of you interested in design (architectural and otherwise), I recommend the 99% Invisible podcast produced by PRX in San Francisco. It has the noble goal of attempting to convey unique interpretations and criticism of design through a strictly aural medium. Like I do with anything I’m at least a little bit interested in, I went back and listened to the entire catalog. I thought one of the first episodes was particularly interesting.

This episode is called 99% Undesigned, and summarizes some of the problems with the way that we produce and use oil. Basically, everything that uses refined oil products like our cars and boats, is designed around the fallacy of oil being plentiful and cheap. Obviously, we know today that oil is a non-renewable resource and that our consumption threatens to outpace supply in the relatively near future. However, the poorly designed pieces at the end of this chain have caused the entire system to become tangled and resistant to change. Ignoring the environmental ramifications for a moment, I think this highlights an important aspect of the design process: planning.

I’m going to grossly simplify the arc of the design process here: good design starts as a simple idea, and concludes in a beautifully simple solution. However, along the way, there are ridiculously complicated solutions that are (hopefully) discarded in the search for one that makes sense. Fitting everything you want into a given space, and making sure things that need to be next to each other are close, and things that need to be separate are far away makes for lots of bad solutions (even if you’re a good architect). Doing iteration after iteration is the only way to get through these bad solutions and find great ones. The best way to focus these iterations is through proper planning, which allows you to recognize the parts of the system or design that are most important. Highlighting the most important parts of a design and making sure they work flawlessly trickles down and informs other parts of the design too, resulting in a well thought out, coherent, elegant solution. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

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