In Defence of Intuition
As design becomes more methodological and scientific, it is important to acknowledge that the core ability of designers is intuition.
In the last few years, design — especially user-interaction design — has become more methodical. There are methods for all parts of the design process: inspiration, ideation, interpretation, sketching, composition, building, evaluation, prototyping, and implementation. Students like these methods because they are fairly easy to learn and provide confidence; clients like them because they make the design process understandable and accountable. And as design research becomes more recognized in other academic disciplines, designers are adapting to certain practices about writing and thinking about their work to meet the expectations of those communities.
Design, it seems, is not only becoming more methodical but also more scientific. This is not surprising. Design as a discipline has moved from “product beautification” to being a central part of product development. It has incorporated methodologies from human-computer interaction, sociology, and anthropology as well as advertising and management. And with the rise of design thinking, a wider range of professional disciplines are using creative methods.
I don’t want to criticize design methodologies. But against the backdrop of an overly structured design process, it is important to remind our community that there is one fundamental aspect to design that cannot be formalized in a methodology. And that is intuition.
“Intuition” is a difficult term. It is not a subject in design school. It’s nothing you talk about, and many designers get a bit queasy when asked about intuition. It is often associated with impulsive, irrational decisions and aesthetic extravaganza, but that completely misses the point. It also has been the subject of philosophical and psychological study. But its definition varies depending on the discipline and the context. So, I would like to explore what intuition means for design.
Generally speaking, intuition is the ability to reach conclusions and make decisions without conscious reasoning. This is something every professional designer does on a daily basis. We know how to make social, conceptual, and aesthetic decisions based on our intuition. We know how to achieve goals, solve problems, and create effects. We know when something is right.
This sounds quite esoteric, but it’s not. Intuition is an essential and elemental ability of designers. Intuition has a prominent role in nebulous situations. It allows us to act and decide even if we have little information and are dealing with unforeseen events. It enables us to handle ill-defined problems. And as most design projects are — by definition — open, vague, unclear, and sometimes chaotic, intuition plays a prominent role in the process of finding the right design.
If you are working in a very strict operation and not dealing with any unforeseen problems, you don’t need intuition. On the assembly line, you need manual skills and won’t use your intuition that much. But as the setting for design work is quite different from an assembly line, intuition has a much more prominent role.
There are many clichés about intuition, so to better understand what intuition is, I would like to distinguish what intuition is not:
Intuition is not instinct
Instincts are deeply rooted in our biological self. They are behavior patterns that are not learned or acquired but instead are actions carried out in response to a clearly defined stimulus. Instinctive behavior is characteristic in all members of a species.
Decisions based on intuition should not be obscure. … We have to use adequate language that reflects the process and qualities of the decision. A simple “I kind of like it” is not enough.
Design sometimes tries to evoke instinctive behavior through certain visual language. This can be useful for marketing and advertising purposes. But triggering instinctive behavior in the audience has nothing to do with intuition; these are completely different concepts.
Intuition is not irrational
There is a tremendous difference between irrational and non-rational behavior. Irrational is acting against better knowledge while non-rational behavior is — in the worst case — random and chaotic. Intuition can be non-rational, but it is not irrational.
Compared with the natural sciences, the design world does not offer a strict system for evaluating the quality of an outcome. But design is an extremely context-dependent process, so there are a number of possible criteria for assessing the outcome of a design process. Is a design useful? Is it technically feasible? Is it robust? Is it understood and liked by its audience or users? Is it successful on the market? Is it socially, economically, and environmentally responsible? Is the client happy? Does it win awards? And what is the feedback from fellow designers? Depending on the specific design, more criteria can be defined.
Decisions based on intuition should not be obscure. I strongly believe it is important to talk about and evaluate them. For this, we have to use adequate language that reflects the process and qualities of the decision. A simple “I kind of like it” is not enough.
Designers make decisions based on intuition. The decision itself may not be based on a strict rational derivation. But this does not mean that intuitive design is detached from scrutiny. Intuitive design decisions can be discussed, tested, and evaluated.
Intuition is not unscientific
I am in no position to discuss the role of intuition in the sciences. But I do think intuition is underrepresented in epistemology.
The natural sciences have a great conceptual framework and toolkit for testing a hypothesis. The scientific method allows for rigorous testing of new theories. Systematic observation, experiments with reproducible results, and critical peer reviews make it possible to evaluate a new hypothesis.
Albert Einstein famously said that “the really valuable factor is intuition.”
But how do scientists come up with a new hypothesis in the first place? Not every scientific idea is derived from rational arguments and analytical reasoning. There are a lot of examples of scientists who came up with a completely unfounded new theory. Furthermore, a lot of scientific problems are systematic — such as two proven theories that contradict each other. In these controversies, intuition plays a powerful role.
Even in mathematics — the strictest of all sciences — intuition is recognized as a way to solve a problem. In the early twentieth century, Dutch mathematician L.E.J. Brouwer developed a mathematical-philosophical theory called intuitionism. Brouwer believed that intuition and time are fundamental to mathematics and that both cannot be formalized.
Intuition has its role in the sciences, and many scientists understand the importance of intuition. In a conversation with Alexander Moszkowski, Albert Einstein famously said that “the really valuable factor is intuition.” And René Descartes noted, “The two operations of our understanding, intuition and deduction, on which alone we have said we must rely in the acquisition of knowledge.”
Intuition is not intuitive
I am always a bit skeptical when someone describes an interface as being “intuitive.” Intuition is a purely human quality; an object or a system simply cannot be intuitive. The sentence “this software can be used intuitively” actually means that a piece of software can be understood and used by someone based on their intuition. Human beings — not software — are intuitive.
But does intuition help us to understand and use software interfaces? This is a surprisingly tricky question. As mentioned before, intuition is helpful when you are dealing with an unclear situation, are encountering something unforeseen, or are handling an ill-defined problem. So, consequently, you only need intuition if you are dealing with a bad interface. Good interfaces are those where you don’t actually need intuition in order to complete a task.
That may sound a bit surprising. But if a software interface is used effortlessly, it is simply because it is predictable, clearly defined, and based on interactions we have learned before. We don’t need intuition to use a book. We might need intuition in order to understand and interpret the text, but the handling of a regular book does not require intuition.
In reality, however, software systems are extremely complex, and even good user interface designers cannot anticipate every possible condition. So users are dealing with unforeseen events and unpredictable situations and dialogues. In these cases, intuition can help the users to solve the problem. And good interface design can support the users in training their intuition. But I am sure this is not what is meant with the label “intuitive software.”
Designing a usable, understandable, elegant, efficient, and delightful software interface requires intuition. Using it should not.
Intuition is not talent — it can be taught
I strongly oppose the notion that intuition is a nature-given characteristic that some people are born with. Everyone has a disposition for intuition. And, most importantly, intuition can be trained, honed, and cultivated. This training is an important part of design education. Students are confronted with ill-formed briefings, create designs, and then get feedback on their process.
More importantly, intuition is not limited to the design world. Most jobs that require some sort of decision-making involve intuition. Doctors, politicians, teachers — they all have their own domain-specific intuition. Some jobs require a higher degree of intuition than others, and I believe education should reflect this.
But as most teaching is based on the instruction of systematic knowledge, this can be quite a challenge. How can you teach something if there is no right and wrong — only good or poor solutions? And, as a teacher, how can you convey feedback in a way that is not superficial and opinionated?
We should give intuition the recognition it deserves and bring it back to the center of the design process.
I suggest taking a look a how singing is taught on a professional level. It is really amazing to observe professional opera singers teaching young, aspiring talents. It is intriguing how experienced singers use verbal analogies as well as physical gestures to describe musical concept and ideas. This way, teachers are able to reflect on both artistic expression and technique.
To reiterate a point made at the start, intuition can be trained, criticized, and developed. As a design educator, I feel very passionately about this, and in design education, we need to be more aware of teaching intuition. This part of design education is very similar to teaching fine arts and music. As a teacher, you need to work very closely with your students and give them direct feedback on their work. Furthermore, you have to develop an appropriate language that reflects the subtleties of our discipline. Just like in art and in music, words have their own meaning and domain-specific context: strong, cold, balanced, discreet, contrast, noise, power, clarity, order, chaos, guidance, support, attention, and many more can be used to describe intuitive concepts that go beyond the direct meaning of each word. We need to cultivate this language and foster a practice of teaching intuition.
Intuition is imperative in design, and we should give intuition the recognition it deserves and bring it back to the center of the design process as well as design education. Mainstream interaction design has tended to formalize the design process, which is not surprising as it becomes more industry oriented and requiring concrete outcomes. It’s even understandable since interaction design is becoming key to the success of a product.
But we should be mindful of the fact that not everything can be formalized. Our greatest capital truly is intuition — the ability to make creative, intelligent, and successful decisions in complicated circumstances. And while intuition does not necessarily lead to good design, good design is always based on intuition.