It is useful to distinguish between design outputs and design outcomes when researching or practicing design. They can be seen in terms of a sequence in which design activity results in a design output (a design) that can be made into a real world product (actualised design) with real world consequences (design outcomes).
Design outputs and design outcomes are different. They are different concepts and have different roles, properties and purposes. To make useful and valid theory about design activity, it seems to be important to distinguish between them.
In design research, design outcomes are more often a better focus of design theory, especially in relation to design activity.
The relationships are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Design activity results in real world consequences (design outcomes)
Design outputs and design outcomes have often been conflated. The following sections distinguish between them..
Design output: is the immediate result of design activity. They are the documents and files that describe a design sufficiently that someone else can manufacture or actualise it exactly as intended.
Design output is typically virtual and usually consists of computer files, drawings, instructions and specifications that are signed off by designers and handed over to sponsors at the end of a design project (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Design Output
An actualised product: is the real world product, system, service, process, or organisation that is created using the instructions provided by designers via the design output.
Actualised product: Volkswagen Golf car
Design output: Drawings, computer files and specifications for manufacturing a Volkswagen Golf car
Actualised product: Harry Potter book available to purchase in a shop
Design output: Drawings, computer files and specifications for printing Harry Potter book
Actualised product: Health promotion posters pinned to walls on doctor’s waiting rooms
Design output: Drawings, computer files and specifications for printing health promotion posters.
It is real world cars, posters, books, mobile/cell phones, etc. that are the actualised products we buy and use. The design output for each is the instructions for making or actualising them.
Figure 3: Actualised product as distinct from design output
A key, and often overlooked, aspect of design output and actualised product is they are constant in terms of time. For example, all actualised products that result from the particular design output that describes how to manufacture a particular car, book cover or typeface are intended to be the same regardless of when they are produced. In fact, a sign of the quality of a design process is that the actualised products that result from the design output are as identical as possible.
Design outcomes: the consequences of the use in the world of products, systems, services, processes organisations and the like created using the instructions of design output.
Typical design outcomes that are the consequences of actualised designs used in the world are:
- Social outcomes and impacts
- Environmental outcomes
- Economic outcomes
In addition, are many other continuously-changing consequences that affect individual stakeholders, stakeholder groups and others.
Figure 4: Design OUTCOMES
A key issue is design outcomes are multiple and dynamic. That is they are changing over time and not constant. This is an important issue and requires different design methods and techniques than are typically used in design or taught to designers.
In contrast, a design output (design) is a single and static entity.
Design OUTCOMES are multiple and dynamically-changing and result from a design OUTPUT (design) that is single and static.
Design Sponsors and Design Outcomes
Sponsors, in the sense used by John Chris Jones, are the person or organisation that commissions and funds a design project. In the systems thinking sense, design sponsors are the owners of the design activity, as it is they that can decide to turn the design activity off.
Design sponsors have a particular relationship with design outcomes with two aspects:
- Design sponsors are primarily interested in DESIGN OUTCOMES
- Design sponsors regard as irrelevant the actual design (design output) that is created by the design team except in terms of how it results in particular DESIGN OUTCOMES.
To date, however, design practice and design research in many design fields has not paid significant attention to focusing on assessing design activity on design outcomes. Instead, the focus has been on design outputs, the detail of the design. This has in effect forced design sponsors regardless of their primary interest in DESIGN OUTCOMES to interpret the value of a design through the lens of design output.
Design Stakeholders and Design Outcomes
Design stakeholders are those present and future individuals and groups that have a direct or indirect interest in the effects of a design project on themselves.
Like design sponsors, stakeholders have a particular relationship with design outcomes, which has two aspects:
- Design stakeholders are primarily interested in DESIGN OUTCOMES.
- Design stakeholders regard as irrelevant the actual design (design output) that is created by the design team except in terms of how it results in particular DESIGN OUTCOMES.
Again, design practice and design research in many design fields have not paid significant attention to focusing on assessing design activity on design outcomes. Instead, the focus of designers and design researchers has been primarily on design outputs, the detail of the design. This has in effect forced design stakeholders regardless of their primary interest in DESIGN OUTCOMES to interpret the value of a design through the lens of design output.
This latter can be seen in many standard design processes for consultation with stakeholders. It occurs when, for example, stakeholders are presented with a choice of designs and asked which of them they would prefer – leaving the stakeholders to work out the likely design outcomes and consequences on themselves.
A more appropriate design approach would be to foreground DESIGN OUTCOMES and leave the details of designs out of the picture and the discussion. Stakeholders could then be given dynamic representations of the changes in design outcomes made possible by potential designs and then asked which design outcomes they would prefer. At that point, the role of the designers is to identify the details of a design that will fulfil those dynamic design outcomes.
Increasingly, the inconsistency involving the lack of attention to DESIGN OUTCOMES in design practice and design research is emerging, and the associated internal contradiction of the design practice and design research is beginning to be addressed. Evidence can be seen in Architecture (e.g. post-evaluation surveys), in medical process design (evidence-based procedure evaluations) and design projects that have significant social, environmental and economic consequences.
The shift can also be seen in areas of design contributing to advertising and marketing where the design outcomes, the consequences or benefits of a design is more important than the design itself.
Implications for Design Outcomes
The implications are the need for methods of predicting design outcomes, the dynamically-changing social, environmental, economic and other outcomes resulting from the details of a design.
Currently, this area of design methods and research is not sufficiently well addressed or taught. This is evidenced by the ways that as a matter of course design output details are pushed as a substitute for design outcome predictions.
Some areas of design have made advances in this area. Such methods rely on developing dynamic models of design outcomes and relating them to the parametric representation of conceptual designs.
This essay has described the differences between a design output and the design outcomes that are consequent on that particular design output.
It has outlined the importance of focusing on design outcomes, and how design outcomes are the primary interest of design sponsors and stakeholders. In addition, it has indicated that for sponsors and stakeholders, the design itself (as described in the design output) is increasingly irrelevant.
It has indicated that refocusing design practices and research onto design outcomes will likely require increased attention to dynamic modelling of design outcomes and increased conscious use of parametrization in concept designs to enable the prediction of changes in design outcomes with design changes.
© Terence Love 2014