We, and many others, have experienced challenges of design, namely that designers deal with fast-changing and overwhelmingly rich reality, undetermined requirements, difficult social conditions, lack of information, limited resources, and time restrictions. Every designer is faced and challenged by these circumstances. Design activities are characterized by messy, dynamic, highly interdependent and mostly unpredictable interactions among design situations, design outcomes, and design resources1. Design situations, design outcomes and design resources are complex structures that are not independent of each other. They are continuously changing, in significant part due to forces that are beyond designers’ control. Constant change and unpredictability are natural characteristics of any design activity.

At this site, we explore the dynamics of design activities and the complexity that these dynamics bring. The main contribution of this site is a structured description of design dynamics through patterns of dynamics. These patterns of dynamics illustrate different ways of how designers deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity when they attempt to change the world. We also believe that these patterns are universal to all design disciplines. Design disciplines may differ in situations they address, the outcomes they create and the resources they use. But the way how people deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity when designing is cross-disciplinary.

In our discussions, we address design in a broader sense, in line with the Herbert Simon’s (1996) definition of design as “courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” Due to our backgrounds and interests, we limit our overview and examples, to some degree, to discussions about complexity in software design and interaction design. In particular, we are biased towards those contributions that base their claims in observations of design practice (e.g., Brooks 1995; Glass 2006). However, we also provide connections to more general design theory (e.g., Schon 1983; Lawson 2005; Simon 1996).

A. Analyzing Design Dynamics: A Simple Model

Our main goal is to provide a novel view on why it is challenging to analyze, understand or explain the design process and design activities.

To structure our discussion, we adopt a simple model. This model provides a structure for analyzing dynamics of design activities as a consequence of interactions among design situations, design outcomes and design resources. Our analytic model views the dynamics of design activities as originating from designers’ efforts to:

  • understand and manage design situations (design problems),
  • create design outcomes (design solutions), and
  • understand and adequately use design resources (tools, knowledge, methodologies, procedures, and organizational structures supporting designers during a design activity).

We use our analytic model to structure the description of the patterns of dynamics among design situations, outcomes, and resources.

Our analytic model for design dynamics: Design situations, design outcomes, design resources and relations among them.

It is important to remember that the elements in our model are abstract analytical concepts. In reality, these components are not entirely separated. Nevertheless, the concepts of design situations, outcomes and resources are regularly used in design literature. We believe that they are useful concepts to structure our discussions.

B. Why This Site?

With this site, we want to describe and provide a structured definition of the dynamics of design activities. We believe that a more formal overview can help researchers and practitioners to understand better some of the experiences designers are going through while designing. We also think that in the education of designers it is useful to picture design dynamics, and resulting complexity, as an essential part of design activities. Such design complexity has to be accepted and dealt with rather than treated as a problem to avoid. We believe that a more structured understanding of design dynamics can facilitate such education.

Lots of previous work has addressed individual elements of design activities, such as inherent complexity of design outcomes or systems (e.g., Simon 1996, Booch 2008, Mens 2012), or design tools. However, complex and dynamic interdependencies of elements of design activities have received relatively little attention. With this site, we focus on these interdependencies. We believe that they are primary sources of complexity characteristic for design activities. In other words, while design situations, outcomes, and resources are themselves complex structures, what makes a design activity additionally and characteristically complex are interactions among these structures. Such interactions challenge designers’ ability to deal with complexity as the structures are unstable and subject to unpredictable change.

Our ambition is to provide a novel and more structured view of design dynamics. However, we do not aim at introducing a new theory about design, nor are the topics we discuss entirely new (e.g., Stolterman 2008). Instead, we are re-examining existing work on design from a new and partially different point of view. We are also bringing together some related but previously unconnected pieces of literature. We have found similarities in the works of authors from different domains. But we have also noticed that most authors do not reference authors outside of their field of study. We believe that there is a value in connecting the contributions from different areas. By creating such connections, we hope to create a helpful overview for design practitioners and researchers interested to further study this subject.

The motivation for our work builds on the ideal sketched by Herbert Simon (1996) in The Sciences of the Artificial. Simon argued that all design disciplines are fundamentally similar, and that design professionals from diverse disciplines should be able to carry on mutually rewarding conversations about the content of each other’s professional work (page 137). Another source of inspiration for our work comes from Fred Brooks (2010), who similarly noted that design processes in different media are strikingly alike. Reflecting on his experiences in designing in five media (computer architecture, software, houses, books, and organizations), Brooks elaborated that the mental processes, the human interactions, the iterations, the constraints, the labor - all have significant similarities (page xii). Patters on design dynamics are our attempt to support these views and create a cross-disciplinary overview of the dynamics of design processes.

C. Who Should Read This Articles?

Our site is intended to be readable and useful for anyone who designs or is interested in design in a broader sense. That includes all types of designers and architects, but also other people that do not have such titles but are creating an intentional change in our unpredictable world (Nelson & Stolterman 2012).

We think that our site can help design researchers and students, as it makes a structured summary of and creates connections among diverse design disciplines.

We also think that patterns of design activities do have a practical value. The patterns can be used both as an analytic tool and as a management tool. As an analytic tool, patterns provide a structure and vocabulary to describe and communicate what is going on in design activities. Having a common structure and vocabulary also enables comparison and correlation of different design activities. As a management tool, our patterns offer hints on when, why and how to stimulate desired (or prevent undesired) dynamics in design activities.

D. The Structure of the Site

The rest of this site is organized as follows.

In Part II, we describe patterns of dynamics in detail. We argue that the dynamics of design activities are emerging from elaborate and not entirely known interactions among the elements of design activities. With examples, we illustrate that dynamics between design situations, design outcomes and design resources are diverse and bidirectional.

In Part III, we discuss sources of interactions among the elements of design activities. We address the moving target problem, learning, creativity, tacit knowledge, social dynamics, as well as the lack of robust theories and underlying principles. Here we also discuss how are these aspects related to the patterns of dynamics.

We conclude the site with a discussion.

E. Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Mathias Funk and students of the TU/e master course “Beautiful Data: Designing InfoProducts” for providing useful feedback during the lecture based on the early draft of material at this site. Mathias Funk also proposed the name for the “Pandora’s Box” pattern.

F. About the Cyclone Cover

The cover shows an Hurricane Florence, seen from the International Space Station, in the Atlantic in September 2018. We selected this image as it symbolizes the central concept of this site - the dynamics of design activities. A cyclone is a complex, dynamic, and partially unpredictable phenomenon. Still, as with design dynamics, it is not an entirely chaotic phenomenon, as some patterns are visible. Credit: NASA.


  1. We use terms design situations / design outcomes instead of design problems / design solutions because we do not view design as a simple problem-solving activity. We define a design resource in a broader sense, as tools, knowledge, processes, and organizational structures designers rely on during design activities.