Many designers are known to be nuts about the tools they use — does it make sense? Is is better to stick to one set or be a tool butterfly jumping from one to another?
I love design tools. It’s not that I am looking for them all the time. But if a new tool pops up, I will definitely try it out. If it doesn’t pop up by itself, I sometimes even design them myself. Assembling design tools is for me like buying groceries to prepare a dinner. What I find in the store inspires me to figure out what to cook.
This is one way of acting. There is also another — choosing the tested and proven selection of tools and sticking to it. Finding the optimal process and following it time after time.
A disclaimer: I am not trying to discard any of the two approaches. I just got curious what is means to choose one of them. It’s a matter of curiosity not judgement.
Ok, let me get back to thinking in terms of the second approach. You might think that The Business Model Canvas (which is a powerful tool in itself) is the best way to approach considering a new business model. Or that using trends (again a great tool for many contexts) is the one correct manner to think about the future. I’ve never felt comfortable thinking that and decided to get to the roots of this discomfort.
Certainly, having a singular tested and proven tool or approach makes a lot of sense from two perspectives: expertise and predictability. If you keep on applying your selected set over and over again, you become the expert on them. You know what to expect. You saw in work in dozens or hundreds of situations and are able to reshape it and steer it towards the desired outcome. You have a ton of examples to show why and how it delivers on the promise. It is also easier to present such a set to a potential client and convince her to give it a try.
While there is a lot of examples why such an stance makes total sense (think of the popularity of Design Thinking today), there is a hidden risk to it. It is like having a hammer in your hands. Wherever you look, you see the nails. Having this one set of tools might lead to complacency. To reverting to the default way of thinking no matter what the situation at hand is. It can make you blind to both the context and the alternative paths to the solution.
If we talk brain function here: to keep on using the same set of tools becomes the domain of the limbic system. You carve a way of acting into it and make it into a habit, into a default behaviour. It can (doesn’t have to but can) lead to the activation of cognitive biases, especially the availability and anchoring bias. It can become too prescriptive. Like cooking the exact same dinner day in day out.
The butterfly approach
This way of acting means choosing the tools after recognizing what the problem at hand is. You collect the data, look at it and then make your selection to fit it. Pretty ambiguous and uncertain on both your side and your potential client’s. What do you promise? I will listen to your problem and then help you solve it but I won’t tell yo how because I don’t know it yet myself… Not very convincing, heh? Yet , it does make quite a lot of sense for two reasons.
Firstly, the tools we have and use impact our cognitive abilities. It’s the hammer all over again. If you have a hammer (or even a Swiss Army knife) you will default to what you have and what you know. If you are willing to experiment with other tools or create your own, you need to consider the potential alternative outcomes. This is the way our civilization developed. An interesting fact: have you ever realized that before the clay tablets were made, it was cognitively impossible for us (the humanity) to imagine and use abstract numbers (like zero)? New tools expand our way of thinking and make us act in an innovative and inventive manner.
Secondly, when we stay open to redefining our process and our tooling over and over again, we simply have to activate our prefrontal cortex to actively envision the potential consequences on our actions. It is a way to keep on provoking our System 2 Thinking to, well, think. The other advantages of activating your prefrontal cortex is that you listen actively and take the context at hand into account.
But there is also dark side to this approach (as usual). Constantly considering new tools and new approaches is immensely tiring. It may sometimes feel like reinventing the wheel all over again. It causes a lot of energy and let’s be honest — the approach you choose it a little bit of a bet, right? There is also a risk of becoming too adventurous and using tools without considering their actual value and potential to solve the problem.
So, what’s the answer? Is one approach better than the other? I will be boring again saying that it might be worthwhile to consider a middle approach. To take the best from both worlds. To consider the outcome but at the same time to stay flexible with the approach. I will use the dinner metaphor once again. Imagine yourself shopping for cooking a meal for your friends. You might see it as a bit too risky to prepare every single dish that you’ve never tried before. But having one experimental plate might sound about right.
The same can happen to the way you work with your creative tools. You can have a fairly stable process to follow but keep on testing its “ingredients” figuring out new ways to approach the steps in the process itself. In such a way you can combine the best of both worlds: to have a framework to fall back on if things go sideways and to keep your curiosity and the spirit of experimentation alive to push yourself to think broader and to reinvent your creative self.