Posted by: bbannan | March 2, 2009

Are There Rules to Design? – Eric

In the introduction to his book How Designers Think: The Design Process Demystified, Bryan Lawson asks the question “what is design?”

To answer this question, he contrasts two “types” of designers – architects and fashion designers. One might be tempted to say the engineer’s process has less elements of “design”, as he or she follows a mechanical, systematic series of rules and formulas (Lawson gives the example of calculating the dimensions of a beam required to bear a certain load). On the other hand, the fashion designer’s process seems more unbridled and unpredictable. But Lawson points out that these are both “caricatures” of reality: good engineering requires imagination and creativity in its application, and fashion design will probably not succeed without some technical knowledge of body proportions and colors, among others.

Lawson also points out that, while some design professionally, everyone designs on a daily basis. You design your own appearance every morning (unless your mom still dresses you, I suppose. . .). Even within this simple decision, there is creativity mixed with the adherence to certain formulas and conventions.

Therefore, design is not simply a matter of creativity – moreover, good design requires planning and knowledge of the parameters you are working in. Nothing embodies this quite like Instructional Design. As we know, knowledge of parameters and good design require careful, and accurate, research, but it is the ability to use this knowledge creatively that separates good instructional design from excellent instructional design.

How important do you think research or creativity is to instructional design? Is one more important than the other? What effect can a balanced, or imbalanced, approach to design have on the end product?



  1. Eric, I think it depends on your definition of creativity. I think someone can be too creative in designing something and create a beautiful product that no one can use. If it’s all about research and no creativity then it could also end up being a useless resource. I think you do have to have a balance between research and creativity. I don’t think that is always recongnized in both the corporate world and in education. Someone decides they need something and just want it built. They may not think there is any need for research as they have already decided what they want. However, based on our readings, discussions, and experience in our classes we know that they both play a vital role in making a strong design.

  2. Just based on this brief synopsis of the book, I don’t see where the role of research comes in to play. To me it seems more like a creativity vs. technical knowledge debate, and I think they are both equally important.

    I had a professor once say, “If you know the rules, you can break the rules.” If you know the basic principles and guidelines for what encompasses good design (the technical knowledge), you can then use your creativity and consciously break the rules when appropriate to create an effective design. In that way, you always have a reasoning behind your design decisions. The technical knowledge and creativity go hand-in-hand.

  3. Research or Creativity are both very important to design.Designers must always strife to maintain a balance between the two, taking cognizant of the purpose and objective of the design endeavor.I will posit a holistic approach to design. The need for the preservation of design knowledge and reasoning, the so called wh-? questions, within the process are considered along with various models of the design process.It is the role of the designer to bring all loose end together rather than being bog down by the either too much research or creativity. There must be a balance.

  4. From your post and others’ replies, I see three mental perspectives for instructional designers: creator, technician/analyst, or researcher/observer. In some ways, this seems like a choice between right brain, left brain, and neutral observer with creative and analytical thinking suppressed for the moment. Some of you said a balance was needed, but if a designer’s perspectives do match these mental states, it’s been my experience that at any one time, one state dominates and precludes the others.

    Ultimately, instructional designers create. Sometimes their work is elegant, efficient and inspiring; and sometimes it’s more pedantic. Years ago, when I studied theatre, I was taught that my own creativity could be encouraged and developed by experimentation with feedback, interaction with others, and exposure to the work of creative wizards.

    After reading your posts here, I see parallels between instructional design and my theatre studies. In theatre, audience feedback is your reality: accept it neutrally, and absorb it fully. Experimentation and interaction with others are creative: allow your right brain to make random connections, and as Savita says, break the rules sometimes. Exposure to creative wizards gives you technical knowledge: let your left brain analyze and remember the rules, so you’ve got more available to connect mentally.

    In theatre, you rehearse. There are separate times for technical analysis of the script, creative experimentation, and neutral observation and reflection. With instructional design, we do iterative cycles of development: create, observe, and analyze.

    Years before I started studying instructional design, I fell into a pattern as a teacher: analyze the needs, create a lesson, and observe the results; then repeat. I found that each task demanded its own mindset, and one mindset interfered with the other two. There never was enough time for analysis or creation, and after 19 years, there still isn’t. I found I got most of my lesson ideas in the summers, or during other breaks, when I could step back from my own linear-thinking analytical left brain, and neutral observer mindsets.

    If these thoughts seem unconnected, this may sum it up. Instructional design must be based on neutral observation of reality. It is both creative and analytical. There are rules, but each design should be original. A balance is needed, but since it may be difficult for one person to simultaneously observe, analyze, and create, separate times should be allowed for each process. At least, this is what I’ve found to be true for myself.

  5. How important do you think research or creativity is to instructional design?

    I believe there has to be a balance between research and creativity. Where research is beneficial for coming up with solid, research based ideas, numbers and words do not create that elegant, creative look. To me there has to be some kind of creative element that hooks someone. If you see plan black and white text on a screen or paper, people would probably tend to shy away from it. Put some color, pictures, or introduce in a unique way are ways that catch a users eye and may interest them in the product.

    Is one more important than the other?
    What effect can a balanced, or imbalanced, approach to design have on the end product?

    It depends on the product. It could be that the client wants the product to be research based, which would would probably lean towards 75(R)-25(C). Another client might want the product or instructional element to be completely out of the box, so you may lean towards 75(C)-25(R) or more. If the element requires neither then it is up to the ID team to decide what they want to do. 50-50 might be a safe bet.

    A balance or imbalance could effect the product at two levels: A) the user and B) the instructor. Obviously we are focused on getting instruction across to the user in the best way possible. Depending on the balance you may be on target or way off the mark to whether or not the user understands the material. Same could work for the instructor. If a team thought way outside of the box and the instructor doesn’t understand how to teach the material, then that creative element may not have been worth the effort.

    Again…It all depends.

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