Understanding Design as a Science
Updated: Mar 21
Design lives at the intersection of art and science. While popular perception defines it as the creation and applications of aesthetics, design is much more than artistic expression. Similar to mathematics and the sciences, design is firmly rooted in problem solving. Just as mathematicians use formulas to solve problems, and scientists use the scientific method to further understand our universe; designers turn to the design process to develop solutions.
The Scientific Method vs The Design Process
Science aims to better understand the world and universe around us. In order to further our understanding, scientists use a process called the scientific method. In this process experiments are developed and tested in an effort to explain naturally occurring phenomena.
On the other hand, design aims to better the world and universe around us. Whether it be alleviating a pain, improving an experience, or ultimately saving time, design aims to make life easier for livings things, more commonly referred to as users. To solve these users' issues, designers leverage a universal methodology similar to scientists called the design process. Though these five step exercises of thought are very different, they actually share similar core procedures.
The first phase of any problem solving process is identifying the problem to solve. In science, this is called 'posing a question'. In the scientific method, an observation is made in nature and a question is then posed as to why said observation occurred. In design this identification process is called 'defining a problem'. Designers observe and analyze human interactions and experiences to better understand the key issues to solve and identify opportunities for innovation.
Following the scientific method; once a question has been posed, a theory for its existence is then laid out. This is commonly known as a hypothesis. Designers also propose hypotheses and then go a step further to present potential solutions to the problem they are approaching. These concepts can range from simple solutions to wild ideas that have the potential to disrupt the current market space.
The third step shared between the scientific method and the design process is that of creation. In the scientific method, scientists create or formulate a scenario in a controlled environment which will prove or disprove their hypothesis upon testing. In Design, mock-ups and prototypes of proposed product ideas are used to test feasibility and user acceptance/preference. Whether it is an exploration of manufacturing methods, ergonomics, or simply the appeal of aesthetics, prototyping helps designers validate decisions and narrow in on a singular, optimized solution.
Once a test or solution has been created, a key difference between the design process and the scientific method emerges. This difference is shown by recording test results. In testing product solutions, not all results and findings are black and white. Whereas scientific data is always quantitative, finds in the design process also have a qualitative element. Drop tests and other physical measurements of a product's performance can be measured in a lab but user perceptions rely on feelings and emotions -things lacking standard metrics of measurement but critical in assessing the perception of value, ease of use, and desirability of a design. This is where focus groups, field studies, and surveys become useful tools for designers to validate the product solution.
Having observed, noted, and analyzed results in the scientific method, a conclusion is then written. This conclusion is a determination stating why the experiment was successful or unsuccessful based on observations made during or after the experiment. Designers use this same logic when deciding whether or not to implement a tested product solution. Based on observations of users' interactions and perceptions of a proposed product, designers must decide whether or not a product is ready for market or if additional development is needed.
The biggest and perhaps most obvious common trait that the scientific method and the design process share is that they are inherently iterative. If an experiment fails to prove a hypothesis, scientists devise new tests for their theories and follow the methodology once more. By the same token, when testing or feedback suggests that a product solution does not completely solve a user need, designers turn back to their process to develop better solutions.
While you won't find designers wearing white lab coats or working in sterile labs, you will find them discovering opportunities, theorizing solutions, creating testable mock-ups, observing results, and solving problems much like scientists. So the next time you think of design as an art, understand it is very much equally a science!