Short and long-term thinking in design: here’s why you need both

The long and short of design is they are not the same thing.

Long and short term thinking are twin pillars in any successful venture. Whether a design strategy or running a business, they are interconnected and interdependent. However, the pressure to drop long term thinking is immense. As Ryan Beck and Amit Seru have pointed out, in the business world “executives may be increasingly unable, not just unwilling, to pursue long-term value-creating activities like investing in research or training for their employees.” similarly, in the design field we often feel immense pressure to deliver in short, quick bursts instead of making space for a longer approach.

The truth is we need both types of design.

Long design is what we think of as a “traditional” process: brainstorming, blue skies, driven by both research and intuition. In long design a wide creative net is cast, you never know what innovative idea might get pulled in. Long design results in the design patterns that will guide and inform the display of products for years to come. 

Long design results in the design patterns that will guide and inform the display of products for years to come.

It is mostly waterfall in nature: research comes before design, and refinement before implementation. There may be plenty of iteration within each of those steps but it is essentially experienced as a waterfall. And that’s OK. As unpopular as the term waterfall is at the moment, designers intuitively know that waterfall has it’s place; long design is where it belongs.

Short design iterates on and implements the design patterns established for the organization during long design. Short design happens in short bursts, fully integrated into the larger team’s development process, and is an integral part of producing polished incremental deliverables.

Short design iterates on and implements the design patterns established for the organization.

The design patterns resulting from long design will guide visuals and branding during the sprint cycles. Without the strong design patterns in place developed during long design, UI/UX cannot maintain the rapid pace of a development sprint.

Below is a sample organization of design and development effort and their respective deliverables across sprint cycles.

Long design can be compared to producing a product vision prior to kicking off sprint cycles. The agile process in itself doesnt produce a vision, but depends on it for generating value in each sprint. However, the long design process takes much longer than creating a vision, usually at least six months.

In brief, design is not just one thing. There are two distinct types of design and they have different production arcs, uses, and timelines. This framework can help product teams apply each process where it belongs and not try to fit a square peg in a round hole

Sources

  1. Beck, Ryan, and Seru, Amit. “Short-Term Thinking Is Poisoning American Business.” The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/12/21/opinion/sunday/capitalism-sanders-warren.html.
  2. Gasparin, Marta, et al. “Slow design‐driven innovation: A response to our future in the Anthropocene epoch” Wiley Online Library, 26 Oct. 2020, https://doi.org/10.1111/caim.12406