Cyclic and Linear Thinking

(or why waterfall process doesn’t really work for design)



oming back from the Euro IA Conference, where I had perfect conditions to reflect on what is really designing for the web, a lasting intuition I had for several months could really manifest itself. As I was listening to my Information Architects colleagues talking about their experiences on designing interfaces, it became clear to me: we are trained to think in a linear way, but it’s not natural. Our natural way of thinking is cyclic.
As I was preparing my talk before the EuroIA Conference on the benefits of integrating the Natural Planning Model (from David Allen’s GTD productivity method) into Information Architecture and User Interface design, it became obvious that we must often remind ourselves that Design is a practice, not a process. The work life is sometimes so dense and complicated (multiple projects, multiple contacts, multiple cultures…) that companies and experts had to come up with some normalized procedures in order to give a bit of order to the chaos. The problem is that we often think that our work consists in mastering the procedures more than the practice itself. We even think that our work IS the procedure. And since most of procedures are linear, most of the time we think in a linear way.

Power Point is probably one of the worst contributions to the modern human mind of the last fifty years.

About PPT, you can also read "PowerPoint, c'est du cinéma"

Let me give you an example. In marketing agencies, the national sport is to generate presentations using Microsoft Power Point. Marketers and account managers make Power Point presentations all the time to explain strategies and tactics to their clients. Power Point is based on a linear system: one slide after the other, you have to drive other people minds into a step-by-step thinking process. In result, it creates a very narrow view of the subject, with an introduction, a development and a conclusion. But strategies are never linear (or it’s not a strategy). Why presenting a strategy should be linear though? In this matter, the linear approach of Power Point is one of the worst contributions to the modern human mind.

As we all have experienced it in building projects, during the phase designers call brainstorming (or as one prefers, Ideating) nothing is linear. It’s chaos — hopefully driven chaos. Ideas are generated in an almost random way. They come and go quickly, resonate in multiple directions, bumping on each others, creating movement and turbulence. This apparent chaos generates large and small cyclic waves of thinking: by iterating multiples times on concepts, organization can progressively be generated. Ideas are cyclically reviewed multiple times until they finally make sense. This chaos seems to be accepted as an exception in the over-regulated context of projects.

We’re just not linear beings. We are cyclic beings.

But if we look around for a moment, everything is the nature is cyclic, not even mentioning the movement of the Earth itself… everything we do is also cyclic: building, sleeping, procreating, eating (should I also mention bowel movements…?) When we have a discussion with friends, the flow of the ideas is never linear, it’s always something way more complex than a line. There is no introduction, no development and rarely a conclusion. The perception that things are linear is an illusion that leads us to aberrations, like good or bad, right or wrong, past or future, mind vs. body, here or there… Even in quantum physics, the notion of “here and now” is not linear. We’re just not linear beings. We are cyclic beings.

At work, linear procedures seem heavy, rigid. They are complicated to managed and often boring. They are never adaptative, and in consequence they feel often outdated.
On the other hand, cyclic practices are exciting, inspiring. They are of course subject to change, and create unexpected solutions. They are flexible and evolutive. In the practice of design, as we progress in a project, we should consider that what we have done before is subject to change. This is one of the great things the “Getting Things Done” practice can bring: a fluid approach to things, a flexible way to design, a place where things are not right or wrong, but simply subject to change.

Original sketch by Katiekills on Flickr:

Add a New Comment


All Thinking

Why designers should seek chaos and complexity first
E verybody seem to agree on the fact that the World is complex and is getting even more complex...

UX Storytellers, the Book
I had the pleasure to participate in this great project leaded by Jan Jursa, our fellow UX Designer...

Build Your Business Around Your Customers (not the other way around)
T he classical attitude of most companies is to see their own brand culture as a Sacred Graal, a...

Cyclic and Linear Thinking
(or why waterfall process doesn’t really work for design) C oming back from the Euro IA...

Natural Planning: a practical approach to enhance productivity in UX Design
U sually, when one starts talking productivity, the crowd of designers slowly moves away. “Let’s...

Creativity is 20% inspiration + 80% practice
W e're trained to think that creativity is something given to few of us, at birth. It is commonly...

Articles en français

Les 5 dimensions du design
Pourquoi le design d’interfaces web appartient au design d'objet (et non au design graphique) D ...

La planification naturelle : une approche pratique pour accroître la productivité en design
E n général, lorsqu'on aborde la question de la productivité, la foule des designers s'éloigne à...

Pourquoi les designers doivent rechercher d’abord le chaos et la complexité
T out le monde semble s'accorder sur le fait que le monde est complexe et qu'il a tendance à se...

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License