What is a design framework anyway?

Josh Meyers
3 min readFeb 4, 2022

Design frameworks are essentially a method for organizing information and ideas with a particular goal or goals in mind. Most frameworks can be visualized which helps ground information and ideas in the real world.

In this article we will…

  • Dissect the anatomy of design frameworks
  • Identify the pitfalls of design frameworks
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

The anatomy of a design framework

Design frameworks are often composed of four stages. These stages are information-based methods for gathering and utilizing information.

Most frameworks take an iterative approach to problem solving, but the actual activities vary greatly from framework to framework. Realistically, activities usually vary greatly from project to project.

The four stages are…

  • Defining problems
  • Information gathering
  • Evaluating design options
  • Deciding what to test or develop

Each stage defines a specific phase in the information lifecycle. As designers, our solutions are only as good as our understanding of the problem. However, our understanding of the problem is only as good as our information about the problem.

Defining problems

Defining problems is the heart of a coherent design framework. Understanding the problem informs our mental map of needs, goals, and missing information.

Essentially, defining problems outlines a design team’s sandbox and sets up information gathering.

Information gathering

Information gathering is THE pivotal moment, where all possible solutions hinge on having enough of the right information. Note, this stage is incredibly vulnerable to bias and incomplete information.

Information gathering methods should vary based on the defined problem, but it is essential to confront bias, information constraints, and assumptions in this phase.

Evaluating design options

Evaluating design options puts legs to information. This is the time to evaluate and hypothesize about what could and what should be done.

Often times, some form of divergent and convergent thinking takes place in order to consider as many solutions as possible before narrowing down the options based on the defined problem and accompanying goals.

Deciding what to test or develop

Deciding what to test or develop is the design team’s opportunity to check their design options against the real world. Often some kind of field testing is required to assess the efficacy of a design and gather feedback for the next round of design.

All in all, the difference between a good design and the right design is how it performs in the real world, under real conditions. Since the world is typically more complex than the considerations of the design, testing is the only way to validate design decisions.

Pitfalls of design frameworks

The primary downfall of design frames is usually the team behind it. More often than not, the blanket of best practices and frameworks make designers too comfortable with their own work and they begin to rely too heavily on an inherently blind system.

Remember, design frameworks are about structuring, organizing, and visualizing information toward a specified outcome.

This means that design frameworks do not typically act as guardrails for design issues. Unless there is a specified activity to identify personal and team bias, or a host of other misgivings, then using a design framework will simply funnel you to a solution as biased as the information you put into it.

Thus, it is important to consider all possible blind spots and limitations of information. Use a framework to structure, organize, and visualize information, but never get too comfortable. Always be vigilant and apply checks and balances if possible.

A few common traps that sneak their way into a design framework include…

  • Cognitive biases — team and personal
  • Mismatched mental maps of information and goals
  • Underrepresented stakeholder and community voices
  • Limited access to the right information
  • Time constraints
  • Unclear or undefined problems and goals

To conclude

A design framework is an incredibly powerful tool that keeps people and teams organized. However, left to its own devices, a design framework is only as good as the information that goes into it and the design team that uses it.

Regardless of popularity, approach your preferred design frameworks with a healthy dose of scrutiny and care in order to keep your solutions consistent and adjusted for possible biases or shortcomings in your information.

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