"Gut" and Design

One thing that I have found that I have with respect to product development is “gut”. Another word would be “instinct”.

The flip side to this “skill” is the idea that I am not particularly good at conveying WHY that gut is right. Short of telling people “trust me”…I struggle with this.

It seems that after relatively little examination, I can see a path to what is the “right” configuration. Or whether or not a feature or item “belongs” on a product. Often this isn’t proven out until time passes. Usually a significant amount of time.

Any thoughts as to how you may convey these “gut” feelings to clients/managers? The toughest part of this is the amount of time that is required to flesh out these instincts. Most people aren’t patient enough (me?) or willing to pay for the time to prove out a gut feeling. Especially if it isn’t en vogue, or even harder, goes against what is common practice

Depends. How much risk are you willing to take? How much risk is the manager/client willing to take?

What will be the cost if your gut is wrong and what will be the reward if your gut is right. Leaving it to “Because I sez so.” has led to collosal failures and stunning victories, even with the most talented minds. No decision is either 100% or 0% quantitative. The best you can do is make an informed decision based on the knowledge available.

On the other hand, if I may paraphrase, Sometimes you just gotta say, “What the fcuk, make your move.”

I have the same “gift”. Mine is mostly in the design aspects of the product (materials, textures, graphics, color, form, etc). I think it isn’t really a gift, but rather the result of analyzing everything that I see. I would guess that I spend 30 hours a month on looking at trends. Therefore, I see things that a civilian would miss.

The time involved is why it is hard to explain. The reason I think trend x is the next must-have is because of a chair I saw at a show last year, mixed with a computer that came out 6 months ago and a concept car that has been dragged around to shows this year. But, it’s not exactly that, but that + something else. That’s why it is so hard to describe. So often, people have told me, “but we aren’t making an ______, we’re making a _____”. A lot of naval gazing out there.

In terms of marketing/long term strategy, I think I do sometimes see things because of the designer perspective. I’ve been paying attention of business that sell all kinds of consumer products for 17 years. I’ve read all kinds of books, worked at a few, talked to a lot of business owners, designers, suppliers. It all adds up to a few trends that businesses go through. I usually have an easier time explaining these reasons, because I’ve had them explained to me.

Lastly, I always try to view these times as a challenge in communication. I know what I need to do, now I need to convince my client. Try to put yourself in their shoes. They have spent their lives engineering product or selling product and know those aspects as well as we know the design angle. We need to show them why our design solution works better or is more desirable.

I think most good designers know “the right one” from the first page or two of sketching, assuming you’ve done your due diligence in research and usability, etc. We’re supposed to be good at the non-tangible stuff and get it right earlier rather than later.

I’ve found that you have to just trust your own process, that the client has bought into, that the best, “right” one will continue to be pushed forward and improved. It doesn’t seem like you’re trying to shortcut the process by chasing the right one earlier than necessary. Maybe the client is leaning towards one solution you’ve presented that isn’t the one you know is better. Then it’s time to refer back to your insights and findings and prove that your preferred concept is the better solution.

gut, or intuition, is just all those years of experience informing your eye and your decision making process. While it might seem like you got there faster, really it took you 10+ years to develop the skill, experience, and sensitivity needed to get to that solution rapidly, and that has an immense amount of value. It is about the solution, not the hours in the seat. I typically explain it like that.

I was just thinking the same thing as Michael posted above.

Whilst there is no denying that some people will have a natural talent, I would also agree that experience is one of the main contributing factors to “gut instinct”. All that input over the years goes in there, mixes around, and then comes out at arbitrary moments through different instincts and feelings - so if you’re seeing the path to a successful configuration, or instinctively have a strong feeling about whether a feature belongs on a product, that could be the result of a whole range of cumulative experiences you’ve had.

Therefore conveying those feelings to clients/managers is probably easiest done by sourcing past cases or experiences, and offering them up as justification for your instinct.

I’m very lucky (or not?!) to be working with a bunch of senior designers who have built their entire business on their “gut feelings”, and they don’t deny it - they also don’t deny that they started out making lots of mistakes to get where they are now, and that they’ve been very lucky. It’s a valuable experience to be seeing their process, but part of the problem is you don’t see their process because it’s all internal. In order to explain their decisions to me however, they will always offer up past cases as explanation for their decisions.

This is something i’ve thought about a lot lately, cool that you brought it up!

But speaking about you guys with a long track record, I like to call it routine/experience. (sounds better in swedish tbh)

I think the mistakes inform your instincts more than the successes in the end… though success are nice!

on a related topic:

One thing which my company is currently pondering: Should it value and cultivate the development of “gut instinct”? Or should it devalue instinct in favour of an approach where every decision is backed up by intensive reasoning? Kind of like leaving a paper-trail of reasoning behind every decision, so the successful ones can be reused. What do you guys think? (let me know if this is off topic, and I’ll start a new thread)


Successes due to gut instinct are great supporters of innovative confidence, but failures due to gut instinct are especially painful because responsibility can only be assumed by people (e.g. “My instinct was wrong”), not reasoning (e.g. “Our reasoning and research was flawed”). In the end though, as with all things, there is so much more to learn from failure. :smiley:

I’ve taken credit for some glorious failures, with pride. They have almost always lead to something great… not right away, but eventually :wink: Reason does not mitigate risk in my experience, but it does tend to eliminate real success.

Check out this article with Alberto Alessi on failure:

“Has your latest project bombed? Have the past six months been a fast journey down a blind alley? There’s only one thing for you to do, says Alberto Alessi, manufacturing maestro and the godfather of Italian product design: Revel in your glorious failures. Dance on the borderline between success and disaster. Because that’s where your next big breakthrough will come from.”

Glorifying failure is certainly the key! It’s a shame that that is generally a difficult concept to grasp in the Japanese cultural context.

This discussion and many of the comments here are really making me think of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford.

It speaks of the value of hands on trades and craft and the skill and mastery that is built only after putting in the time.
This includes the gut feelings of veteran firefighters who just felt like they had to get out of building now, only to watch it crumble seconds later. He also speaks of the many attempts of industry to eliminate these skills with more process.
It’s definitely a worthwhile book to spend some time with.

I think there are blind risks and calculated risks. Every time a company hires an outside firm to solve their problems, that company’s internal project manager must be able to defend the choices the outside development group makes. If the outside development group cannot articulate the reasoning for their choices, how can the internal project manager know whether to trust those recommendations? I don’t think designers are exempt from standards of proof. Millions of dollars are riding on their choices, and clients expect more than a gut feeling. Consider it part of what the client pays for. You do the creative work, but you also do that work that backs up the creative work and turns your recommendations from blind risk to calculated risk. Personally, I am not satisfied with my own work until I can clearly say why I made a choice.

I don’t think anyone is advocating not explaining their judgements. The way I read it I think there is an emphasis on these highly structured rigid processes out there due to some of the ways that design thinking has educated non designers about how we work, when often the best ideas are more of an insight based on a spark that is then explained and given structure after.

This is at the heart of the problem I have with all this…time & money. Our industry (especially tech) runs at such a pace the timelines are constantly being pushed, decisions being made tend to be snap, and the desire to examine a problem enough to “prove it” is often defined as too time consumining and/or costly.

So, it’s a conundrum…your gut it a necessary tool, but if your gut tells you something new, or seemingly risky because it needs to be proved, it tends to be overlooked.

This is at the heart of the problem I have with all this…time & money. Our industry (especially tech) runs at such a pace the timelines are constantly being pushed, decisions being made tend to be snap, and the desire to examine a problem enough to “prove it” is often defined as too time consumining and/or costly.

Sounds like an opportunity to craft a better sales message. Reposition what designers do in the context of today’s PD cycle.

Oh, this is all about how to constantly tweak the message. It never changes. Arguably, that is all IDEO has really done with Design Thinking. It is a sales pitch that promotes an ideology/methodology. They’ve managed to capture the idea that the process requires depth of resources to properly collect information, properly distill it, and then present it in a manner that allows for decisions to be made in a way that appeals to the logical/risk averse business environment.

It equates to time, and money. My read is that a significant amount of those employing designers or design consultancies are not prepared to pay in either time nor money to get the depth required to formulate the story behind the “gut”. Especially if they have a vision of what the product is “supposed to be” in their heads.

In reply to the first post, I’d say spend time to analyse and understand yourself and your process better. I understand the gut feeling as experience, and like yo says, it will have taken years to develop, but if you can be more concious about these feelings and better explain them to a client then that will be beneficial to everyone.

yo - meant to respond to you earlier. Got sucked into Keyshot (transluscents are a great rabbit-hole-like feature).

I think within the community, designers mostly get the intuitive+analytical synergy of design process/design thinking etc. But outside the community, it can be a tough sell - akin to saying “let’s hold hands and walk on the beach and wait for the inspiration of a beautiful sunset” - hence the importance of presenting a process, or documentation, or some sort of analytic framework for decision-making to our clients. Gut exists, some folks’ experience makes them a pretty good judge of the future, but knowing whose gut to trust can be risky. The most important part of design is getting it outside the design community.