Design is full of wonderful ideas and rich, if obtuse, language. Here’s a cheat sheet for what designers mean when they say:
Abductive reasoning An approach to problem-solving and creative thinking that looks beyond what is and speculates on what could be.
Affordance Refers to the fundamental properties of a thing “that determine just how the thing could possibly be used,” writes author Donald Norman. An object’s affordance suggests or invites interacting with it a certain way; a chair affords sitting, while a bowling ball affords a three-finger grip.
Biomimicry is “the study of natural design in order to extract lessons and principles that can be applied to man-made design,” per author Janine Benyus.
The butt brush effect Paco Underhill, a specialist in observing behavior in stores, discovered that if a shopper was brushed from behind by someone passing down the aisle, often the shopper would put down whatever he/she was looking at and abandon that location. Underhill’s observation led to store redesigns that incorporate wider aisles.
CAD monkey A term used by Cameron Sinclair (and others) to describe a designer stuck behind a computer screen using computer-assisted design.
Chunking The technique of separating information into “chunks” of conceptually-related content and arranging those chunks by giving precedence to critical information while deemphasizing what’s less important.
Compelling Experience Framework An attempt by the innovation consultancy Doblin Inc. to deconstruct a human consumer experience into a clearly defined set of stages: Attraction; Entry; Engagement; Exit; Extension.
Constraints The term can refer to restrictions or barriers that designers themselves build in to devices or systems to prevent people from doing the wrong thing (such as a door that only opens toward you and keeps you from blindsiding people on the other side). But constraints is also used more broadly to refer to the parameters, restrictions, and requirements inherent in a particular design challenge.
Cradle-to-cradle A term popularized by the sustainable design guru William McDonough, who maintains that designers up till now have been making objects destined for the “grave”—meaning a landfill or incinerator—when they could and should be designing things that return to the cradle, reborn in new forms.
Deep dive Refers to designers’ use of extensive, in-depth research, often done in the research subjects’ natural habitat rather than in an interview room or focus-group setting. Designers doing a deep dive may temporarily move into people’s homes, eat meals with the family, and “shadow” people on daily rounds of shopping, work, or errands, for days or weeks at a time.
Design thinking A process that endeavors to solve problems and create new possibilities, generally by relying on empathic research (studying people to try to figure out what they need) combined with creative experimentation and extensive prototyping and refinement—all aimed at the goal of producing better, more useful objects, experiences, services, and systems.
Dinosaur baby A term coined by IDEO designer Paul Bennett to describe a quirky and idiosyncratic design creation that is destined to be loved only by its creator.
Distributed possibility Per Bruce Mau, this refers to today’s widespread dissemination of design tools, useful knowledge, and expanded capabilities. Solo designers can go online and learn about a problem, find out what has and hasn’t been tried, download technical data, connect with experts, seek out collaborative partners, and show off prototypes on YouTube.
Emergence The way simple organisms and communities grow and evolve over time, often in complex, unexpected ways. The nature of emergence is such that it cannot be fully controlled or designed, but it is possible to arrange and design conditions that encourage it.
Empathic research Observational research that focuses on studying people to try to uncover and understand their latent needs and wants.
Empathy tools Aids and tools to help researchers and designers empathize with the people they are designing for. For example, designers creating products for arthritics or people with impaired vision may wear heavy gloves or fogged eyeglasses as empathy tools during the design process.
Ephemeralization A term coined by Buckminster Fuller, who believed that ongoing advances in technology, if properly harnessed and utilized, could provide the opportunity for designers to “do more with less”—to achieve more functionality and affordability in designs, while using less energy, less materials, and generating less waste.
Experience design The practice of trying to orchestrate all the variables likely to inform the overall experience of using a product or service. In moving from designing objects to designing experiences, designers “must step back and envision a long sequence of events someone goes through as they interact with your design,” explains Smart Design’s Tom Dair.
Exploratory sketching Designers sometimes use the process of sketching not just to depict and share ideas, but also to find them. Designer Milton Glaser describes the process as “a conversation between the hand and the brain [that] results in the development of an idea.”
Extreme users People who are either extremely familiar with or completely unfamiliar with the type of product or service being designed. For a toothbrush designer, an extreme user could be someone who brushes obsessively or someone who is toothless. The former will tend to find creative new ways to use existing products, while the latter is apt to make mistakes during use; either one is instructive to a designer.
Featuritis A condition that results when designers try to cram too many features or functions into a device, making it overcomplicated and inadvertently making it harder to use. The phenomenon is also referred to as “feature creep.”
Fibonacci spiral An organizing principle of nature. As certain organisms in nature emerge, such as sunflower heads, pinecones, and snail shells, they follow an efficient spiral growth pattern that has the same structural properties at any scale. This pattern corresponds to a mathematical formula known as the Fibonacci sequence in which each number is the sum of the preceding two numbers.
Forgiveness Per the book Universal Principles of Design, forgiveness in design “helps prevent errors before they occur, and minimizes the negative consequences of errors when they do occur.” For example, in designing a laptop for children, Yves Behar had to expect that kids would push the wrong buttons and might even occasionally drop the computer on the ground—so the design had to anticipate and “forgive” such actions.
Fracture critical A term that describes systems and objects that were not built to withstand a single part failure—such as when a weak gusset leads to a bridge collapse or one failed bank sends a financial system into chaos. The term comes from Thomas Fisher, who heads up the University of Minnesota design program.
Framing A technique used by designers to establish the parameters of a situation or problem and also to emphasize what’s most important while clarifying the desired objectives. In effect, the frame becomes the agreed-upon “box that you will be working in as you try to solve a problem,” says Ziba Design’s Steve McCallion. In a separate context, designers (and other communicators) also use framing to manipulate the way information is presented to an audience, by highlighting some information and downplaying other information.
Heuristic bias A trained way of doing things, in which we tend to repeat the same learned behavior without thinking about it. Designers take into account the heuristic biases of others when designing, and at the same time designers may also take pains to overcome their own heuristic biases (the techniques and approaches they’ve used many times before), so that they can explore new ways of thinking and creating.
Immersion “A state of mental focus so intense that awareness of the ‘real’ world is lost,” according to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Generally, a person who is immersed in an experience also loses track of time. Experience designers trying to create an immersive environment (such as at Umpqua Bank) must achieve a delicate balance of providing a sense of comfort and relaxation along with challenge and stimulation.
Innovation gap The widening chasm between the knowledge of how to make things as compared to the knowledge of how people live and what they actually want/need. According to the Institute of Design’s Patrick Whitney, this has led to a situation in the business world in which companies know how to make anything—but have no idea what they should make.
Integrative thinking Refers to “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at once, and then reach a synthesis that contains elements of both ideas but improves on each,” according to Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management.
Iteration In design, and particularly in complex design, success is likely to arrive in stages, via a series of experiments or iterations. The “design thinking” model of problem-solving involves creating many iterations, in rapid succession, so that the designer can learn from doing and from feedback at each stage.
Lateral thinking A term coined by educator Edward De Bono regarding the solution of problems through an indirect and non-linear approach. Designers intent on finding fresh solutions and ideas may try to “think laterally”—sometimes by intentionally pursuing random thoughts and forging illogical mental connections—in an effort to veer off the path of familiar thoughts.
Laws of simplicity According to John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design and author of The Laws of Simplicity, there are ten principles that can help in designing for simplicity, the most important being: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”
Mapping In terms of product design, mapping refers to the intuitive relationship between controls and their effects; if you turn a wheel left and the car moves left, that’s an example of good mapping. Used in another sense, design researchers employ mapping to track and chart the way people think and act in given situations. For example, IDEO uses behavioral mapping to create intricate diagrams showing patterns of physical movement among people being studied.
Mass-to-Information ratio Designers often face the challenge of having to present a maximum amount of useful information about an object without increasing the “mass” (the size of the object, the amount of space for labels and instructions, etc.), according to the designer Brian Collins. Referring to Deborah Adler’s redesigned prescription bottles, he notes that, “Without changing the bottle’s mass much, she managed to put in ten times as much information—she completely shifted the [mass-to-information] ratio.”
Personas Fictitious characters created to represent the different types of people that might be expected to use a designed product, service, or space; personas help designers to remain focused on the needs of the end user when making design choices and decisions.
Prototyping The process of sketching, building, or in some way producing a series of rough, unfinished versions of a design. Prototyping is important because it enables designers to learn as they build, based on testing and feedback.
Satisficing Settling for what is good enough instead of pushing on toward an optimal design solution that might be too difficult or costly to achieve.
Shadowing A research step that involves closely following people in their daily lives and routines for research and design insights. In China, Nokia’s researchers shadowed users in dark apartment hallways—and saw that people were using their cell phone screens to illuminate their way down the hall. The next generation of phones for China was designed with a flashlight feature.
Slow design An offshoot of other “slow” movements, this is a trend toward designing in a more thoughtful way that takes into account factors such as the effect of design on the environment and on local communities. The term also refers to designed objects and experiences that invite contemplation, “mindfulness,” and sharing.
Smart recombinations Designer and author John Thackara has used this term to refer to mental connections that are actually problem-solving insights. A smart recombination connects existing ideas and possibilities that would seem to be unrelated, resulting in a new idea.
T-shaped people Refers to people who have a deep interest and expertise in one skill—that’s the vertical base of the T—but who also, over the course of their careers, continue to branch out into many different areas of knowledge. IDEO’s Tim Brown maintains that the best designers are T-shaped people, and that, ideally, as they evolve, both the base and the top of the T should keep growing together.
Thinkering A blend of thinking and tinkering, this refers to a process in which working with physical (and sometimes virtual) objects can serve to stimulate productive inquiry, learning, and new ideas. The phenomenon of thinkering is currently being studied by IIT’s Institute for Design (which has begun to experiment with creating “thinkering spaces” in libraries). The term’s origins are unclear, but one early appearance was in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient where it was used to suggest “collecting a thought as one tinkers with a half-completed bicycle.”
Three Gears of Design According to Heather Fraser of the Rotman School of Management, observational research to try to better understand user needs is the first gear in what she calls the Three Gears of Design for business. The second gear takes those observations accumulated in that first phase and uses them as the basis for creating sketches and prototypes of new ideas and innovations. The third gear involves redesigning a company’s system of activities (the way it operates) in order to realize and optimize the possibilities that emerge from those first two gears of the design process.
Touch points Refers to all the various points of contact between a brand and consumers—packaging, advertising, in-store experience, telephone product support, etc. To design a cohesive experience, all the touch points should be integrated.
Transformation design An attempt to completely reinvent existing structures, systems, and organizations by applying principles of design. In the business sector, for example, transformation design can be used to cohesively change many aspects of a company to meet demands for more openness, innovation, transparency, sustainability, consistency, and corporate responsibility. Bruce Mau uses the term “massive change” to refer to this kind of cultural/organizational transformation.
Transformational metaphor Wherein a company might begin to think of itself as something very different, which, in turn, would change the way it behaves (for example, a bank might begin to model itself after a boutique hotel). In his 1998 manifesto, Bruce Mau declared that every product, every service, every brand “has the ability to stand for something else.” When a company takes this approach, it can have a liberating effect by opening up new possibilities and offering fresh ways to present itself to the public.
Unfocus group To try to move beyond the rigidity of question-and-answer focus groups, IDEO researchers began to conduct “unfocus groups” in which participants were encouraged to tell stories, draw pictures, and assemble collages—all designed to elicit contributions from the whole group and release inhibitions. Meanwhile, snippets of side conversations between group members were recorded, to get a sense of what people were really thinking.
Universal design A form of design that aims to achieve accessibility for all end users, including those who may be aging, have disabilities, or have other special needs. To succeed, this type of design must be flexible, simple, intuitive, perceptible (easily understood), and forgiving, according to the Center for Universal Design.
Wayfinding Refers to the process by which people attempt to navigate through an experience or a physical space relying on available cues and information as a guide. Designers may try to present and arrange that information in a manner that leads people along a desired path.
Wicked problems Multi-faceted and complex problems whose incomplete or contradictory nature is such that each attempted solution often seems to create a new problem.