Waterfall design isn’t dead, just having an identity crisis.

There is a place where waterfall design belongs; it’s home is in long design.

Design projects come in two major flavors: Long and short. Long design is for discovering and establishing new visual patterns. Short design is for iterating on and applying those patterns.

Design projects like branding and identity, or visual framework development, fall under long design. These projects follow a logical process (refinement before rollout, for example) and will almost inevitably take longer than a sprint cycle. A branding project, for example, commonly takes six months or longer. Long design does not fit into the arc of short, iterative sprint cycles—and we shouldn’t try to make it.

Long Design does not fit into the arc of short, iterative sprint cycles

In short design, on the other hand, progress is made in short, rapid bursts as an integral part of a team’s agile development cycle. Further steps can be taken to fully integrate design and development with no-handoff and speak the same language from the start. During short design a team will iterate and incrementally build on the underlying patterns already established during long design.

Long design waterfall diagram

So if you are a UI/UX member of a development team, and often feel like you have to choose between speed and quality, or that your to-do list is completely decoupled from the larger team’s sprint cycles, it’s time to ask whether you are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Or a fishing rod into a pencil case. Or your post-quarantine self into your pre-quarantine clothes. Because long design does not fit into a short design arc, but lays the foundation for it.

If long design hasn’t taken place then short design will never be able to keep up.

If long design hasn’t taken place then short design will never be able to keep up with the rapid demands of the sprint cycle. There are too many decisions yet to be made. They can’t be made on the fly and expect strong results.

Long design does the hard work of discovering the vision and establishing the UI patterns that will be the foundation of the rapid iteration work to follow. It takes time, mistakes and misses, and serendipitous discovery. And it’s a waterfall.