An Iterative Model of Designing

If you have an interest in design education, then you’re likely to have already read the Department for Education’s Design and Technology Draft GCSE Subject Consultations. Responses are due by 20 November.  I read through the document and was initially left feeling quite comfortable, rather unchallenged, in fact I thought I quite liked it in places.  Most odd!  I’ve grown accustomed to finding recent government publications related to design and/or designing somewhat disturbing.  And then I started to have a closer look. This is what it says in the Introduction:

‘2. GCSE specifications in design and technology should encourage students to understand and apply the iterative design process that can be summarised as explore, create and evaluate.’

Is this some kind of new orthodoxy emerging … ‘the iterative design process’? Why could it not have said ‘iterative design processes’ or an ‘iterative approach to designing’? Design and Technology education has been struggling for a generation to shed the problems created by adherence to ‘the design process’ … an assessment model that ended up as the tail wagging the dog.  Could this be a more sophisticated repetition of the mistakes of the past in the making? Or just my paranoia? (I spent many hours of my career at Loughborough University trying to persuade students not to refer to ‘a’ or ‘the’ design process, but instead refer to ‘designing’  or ‘design processes’, but I fear the tide was against me).

Well in the light of my doubts both about my own certainties and the government’s intentions, I thought it was time to re-examine my position.

Ken Baynes discusses design as an iterative process in his book Design: Models of Change (2013, pp 77-79). He begins by noting that it is not a new idea.

‘In the 1970s, the divergent/convergent dilemma was partly resolved by the insight that design activity was an ‘iterative’ process. That is to say it repeated an apparently similar set of cognitive processes all through the design work. Put simply, designers proceed rather like TV camera operators, taking a long-shot of the whole project then moving to a close-up or three quarter view before returning to a long shot. They do this many times during the development of a design. There was clearly a coherent interaction between the close ups and the long shots, the dynamic between them ensuring that the parts and the whole of a design developed in harmony. Where teams of designers were involved the long-shot/close-up roles might be institutionalized and shared between different groups. The larger the project, the more likely this was to be the case. (Baynes, 2013, p77)

He shows the general form of an iterative design model and then a sketch of the feedback loops in a large-scale architectural design project as shown below:

Fig 0


Fig 1

… and writes as follows:

‘I made this sketch as a result of working on a King’s Fund publication about the design work involved in the then-new Greenwich District Hospital. The sequence of feedback loops are taken from a much more complex series of design decisions each with its own model to aid resolution. However, they were re­vealing at the time because they demonstrated the close relationship between modelling and decision-making in a major interdisciplinary design project.’ (Baynes, 2013, p78)

Unsurprisingly these ideas have continued to be discussed and developed, and particularly in the context of the emerging context of ‘design thinking’ eg in Tim Brown’s book Change by Design (Harper Collins, 2009).

‘The reason for the iterative, nonlinear nature of the journey is not that design thinkers are disorganized or undisciplined, but that design thinking is fundamentally an exploratory process; done right, it will invariably make unexpected discoveries along the way, and it would be foolish not to find out where they lead…

The risk of such an iterative approach is that it appears to extend the time it takes to get an idea to market, but that is often a shortsighted approach. To the contrary, a team that understands what is happening will not feel bound to take the next logical step along an ultimately unproductive path …

 Insofar as it is open-ended, open-minded, and iterative, a process fed by design thinking will feel chaotic to those experiencing it for the first time … (Brown, 2009:16-17)

These snippets are out of context of course, but they give an idea of what Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO) had in mind when using the term ‘iterative’ Is this what the government has in mind? I do hope so.

In 2004 Hugh Dubberly published his collection of over 100 descriptions of design and development processes from architecture, industrial design, mechanical engineering, quality management, and software development and published them in an ebook. It can be downloaded from ( The diverse nature and range of the descriptions of designing indicate why I  always had a poor reaction to the use of the terms  ‘a’ or ‘the’ design process.  Designing is a very complex human capability to describe.  All these 100+ models of designing show something of the reality, and with the recent emergence of ‘design thinking, the task of modelling designing is becoming increasingly difficult.  The summary offered by the DfE of ‘… explore, create and evaluate’ might cover it, but it’s only a step or two away from the ‘next linear model’.

I would prefer a more generic description of the type offered by Ken Baynes – ‘design idea’, ‘model’, ‘result’, but if that were considered too general,  perhaps a number of descriptions could be offered eg the Stanford model based around the 5 concepts of ‘empathize’, ‘define’, ‘ideate’, ‘prototype’ and ‘test’. (Joey Aquino offers a free crash course on the first step of the Stanford model ‘empathize’ here.) Or perhaps the 3 terms that Tim Brown’s uses: ‘inspiration’, ‘ideation’ and ‘implementation’. Is it really helpful to provide just one summary of what is meant by iterative design processes? Or does that risk a re-run of the ‘linear model orthodoxy’ that has been like a ball and chain on the feet of progress in design and technology education since the National Curriculum was introduced?

One of the questions that the Design and Technology Association would like responses to is:

… Do you agree with the emphasis placed on ‘… an iterative design process that can be summarised as explore, create and evaluate’?

(Design and Technology Association, Question 8, (

I would agree without hesitation if I was sure it referred to the kind of creative model that underpins the design thinking movement. As noted above Tim Brown uses the terms ‘inspiration’, ‘ideation’ and ‘implementation’ to describe the innovation spaces and in introducing them says:

‘In contrast to the champions of scientific management at the beginning of the last century, design thinkers know that there is no “one best way” to move through the process. There are useful starting points and helpful landmarks along the way, but the continuum of innovation is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps’ (Brown, 2009:16)

Are ‘explore, create and evaluate’ being presented as a series of overlapping innovation spaces or a sequence of orderly steps?

  • LDP published Design Education: A Vision for the Future in April 2013 and sample pages can be found here. It presents some fundamental positions that should underpin the development of design education in the 21st century.
  • Ken Baynes’ book Design: Models of Change was published in May 2013. It considers both the nature of designing and models of designing.  Sample pages can be found here.
  • The NSEAD have recently published A Manifesto for Art, Craft and Design Education (2014) which can be downloaded here.

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