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Design Debt: 3 Things that Create it and How to Avoid it

By Shaun Culbertson | June 19, 2017


Design debt is very much about wasted time and money. That’s why we refer to it as debt. And why it’s a good idea to avoid it.

Almost everyone has experienced a design process of some sort. Whether through a marketing plan and a design firm or an interior design solution for your kitchen, design spreads across all mediums. Design is everywhere. Unfortunately, good design is not. There are reasons for that.

Design debt is a buzz term that refers to a flawed design process taking an extensive toll on quality, which declines over the course of the process. Good design involves a methodical process meant to avoid design debt. Many things can create design debt, but here are a few high-level things to watch out for.

  1. Too Many Iterations (Internal and External)

    A lot people like to be a part of the design process. Let’s face it, it is the most fun, or at least most interesting, part of a branding effort or a home remodel. It involves creativity and experimentation, so it makes sense that people want to be involved. But when you have a lot of eyes on a project, you also encounter countless opinions, revisions, iterations, and guessing. These can lead to unnecessary changes and subjective decisions. Speaking factually, only the creative team is technically educated or trained in this category. When you hire a talented interior designer to design your perfect kitchen you don’t want to interfere with their work. After all, that’s why you hired them. Good creative leadership and a strong process with factual results can avoid piling up design debt.

  2. Designers are Their Own Worst Enemy

    Designers start with a blank sheet of paper. They draw elements, sketch variations, add color, edit, and keep going until they’ve latched onto a great concept. Too often, though, they continue to edit and add elements until the design becomes busy, confused, or strays from the objective. Sometimes all these variations can lead to a design that mashes together a bunch of individually-liked components from other design ideas. That guarantees it won’t be a cohesive solution. Stick to this one basic principal and avoid design debt: Designers know they are done with a design not when they are done adding elements to the design but rather when they are done taking elements away from the design. Or this, from Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

  3. Not Understanding the Objective

    Many times, the process is rushed to get to a final design. Mostly this happens because it’s easier for a non-designer to see a design and revise it multiple times as they figure out what problem they’re trying to solve. At the end of the day its likely that the design objective wasn’t clearly defined and communicated. To avoid this kind of confusion, make sure you’re working from a detailed, approved creative brief. This will help everyone, client and designer, stay on the same page, stay out of design debt, and produce a design that really works.

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Shaun Culbertson

Shaun is our Digital Design Director. He directs the design and development of all our digital work and positions the creative in all digital channels. Shaun offers our clients more than fifteen years of digital experience. Extremely detail-oriented and design-focused, Shaun always looks to take the design to the next level. Before arriving at dR, Shaun worked as Senior Art Director at Adcom and Art Director at Rosetta. He has worked on several Fortune 500 brands, including Sherwin-Williams, Marriott International, and Rigid Tools.

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