Product Design: Inspired or Methodical?

What’s the best way to come up with a new product design? Is it a matter of fusing your expertise and your muse, and intuitively coming up with a great product? Or does it involve a system—one that formalizes the creative process, is repeatable and can be shared with others?

inspired product design lightbulb

Product design inspiration

While there is no right or wrong answer to this, a lot of people have strong opinions about it.

Does Design Process Kill Creativity?

In his article Design Process Kills Creativity/Design Process Creates Creativity, Daniel Stillman, co-founder of the Design Gym, takes a look at these two disparate schools of thought. A proponent of process, Stillman contends that developing a design is all about storytelling—where the idea came from, why it was born and how it ultimately came into being. In fact, Stillman would also argue that even if you didn’t use a process, you can always go back and overlay one on top of how you created your design. The process was there, whether you saw it or not.

Each creator has his or her own way of developing a product design, but without a structure behind the creative process, there may be ‘holes’ in the design that are hard to see. Beautiful design often speaks to its more primitive counterpart—the early-stage development, the false starts and the detail that doesn’t make it to the end product.

Inspired product design: Picasso's Bull

Rough sketch of Picasso’s Bull

Take, for example, Picasso’s Bull. The Bull, which now hangs in the MoMA, is a mere suggestion of a bull. It’s a simple form that, well, feels like a bull. It certainly doesn’t look like one. But somehow, we know what it is. And part of that is because of the intricate sketches—the scaffolding, if you will—that Picasso used to create the piece. In the end, he stripped away the detail and left us with a simple yet awe-inspiring form.

Checks and Balances in the Product Design Process

We hate to say it, but we see bad design all the time. (We see the good stuff, too, but that’s not the point we’re trying to make here.) Process can check a run-away muse that thinks it’s communicating something, only to find out that the creative process was so insular that the end product is only satisfying to the designer. Bad design is perfectly fine, as long as you are only designing (painting, writing, sculpting etc.) for yourself.

But if you are designing to inspire others, a documented process gives you a language, a schedule and a framework so that you can evaluate the product’s worthiness at multiple touch points. And it’s much easier to get a team involved when there is a process to speak to.

On the other hand, if you have a genius inside of you, don’t fight it. Feel free to break all the rules and come up with something that will rock the world. Leonardo da Vinci did. So did Benjamin Franklin. And what about Steve Jobs? Inspiration comes from a lot of mysterious places. Balancing how you manage your product design effort will ultimately be up to you—and how you work best.

Leave a comment. Do you use a design process or do you just ‘wing it’?

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