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Why don’t architects and print designers use agile?

If you work in digital technology, in an Agile environment, you have probably heard the following statement: “Why do we need Agile? People don’t use Agile to design buildings, or cars, or airplanes?” And from the design team; “print designers don’t use Agile” or some variant of the “It’s not done this way” refrain. “Shouldn’t we follow established design paradigms (read: waterfall methods)?”

This statement is usually made by designers (as opposed to developers), and usually by those who are earlier on the “agile continuum”. And it’s a fair question, which I have heard myself ask a few times in the past – the truth is that we DON’T design cars or airplanes or large buildings this way. And traditional print design has never worked this way. But why is that?

In my view there are a few reasons, mainly around the unique nature of digital software development, but I will get to that in a second.

Firstly, let me say that I for one am GLAD that there is a more separated process for more traditional types of design and creation. Can you imagine what an agile condominium would look like? Or how non-functional it could potentially be? Well, actually, that’s easy, just picture the shanty towns outside of major cities in the third world, like the one in Caracas pictured above. These are buildings that are constructed cheaply, quickly and to minimal viable requirements, but they don’t exactly meet all of our needs as people, do they? All of them are built with the needs of the one building in mind, iteratively, one on top of the other. The problem is there is no consideration of a) the larger needs of the community and b) the less direct needs of human beings in relation to their environment (this wouldn’t be a great place to live, I’m guessing). So it lacks consideration of the whole that is composed by all of the parts, and it loses some softer aesthetic aspects of quality and engagement.

I suppose this is what a lot of towns and cities looked like before we discovered that we need architects, and city planners and yes even politicians to guide the development and ensure that we create something that meets everyone’s needs and is safe, clean and efficient. And what’s more, something that encompasses a larger view and a longer life than the mere needs of today. In the beginning, I imagine that everyone built their buildings using the “shantytown method” of trial and error and experimentation, but as the science and art of building matured over centuries, there evolved a caste of designers (architects) and a caste of builders (construction workers). It was the designers job to decide how the building would look in the larger sense – how spaces would be designed to accommodate various uses, for example, or how a cathedral facade might show a particular scene from the bible – and the builders job to realize these plans with the greatest efficiency and quality possible, while adhering strictly to the design set forth before they start. No one expected (or allowed) the builders to posit possible alternatives while laying bricks or painting the walls. Both castes had their established skills and areas of expertise, and the two did not truly collaborate very often.

But it took a long time to get to this point. Many centuries of building things poorly and learning from our mistakes have lead to some fairly inviolable guiding principles in architecture and engineering. These guiding principles form a shorthand of conventions that are employed to design and build structures that are at once reliably safe and usable (because they employ tried and tested techniques that are known to work). For example, architects and engineers don’t need to debate the merits of using a post and lintel construction to make a doorway. Every doorway in the world is either a post and lintel or an arch, because those are the basic conventions that have been proven to work over the centuries, and that provide the best balance of cost and function.

This pattern is similar in other, more traditional forms of design, as well. For example, print designers do not commonly create custom typefaces for their clients, as the process is costly and complex and is frankly more than most clients are looking for. Instead, designers choose from a finite (albeit HUGE) set of fonts that could be used. Similarly, printing processes are not commonly changed as part of a design project – print designers generally adhere to the paradigms of print methods that exist in the industry at large. Of course, there are probably exceptions, but I haven’t met any.

So it seems that the older a form of design is, the more conventions and standard procedures there will be. This is logical as they have had more time to go through trial and error. It follows then that in the digital sphere, which is by any reckoning a fairly new and non-traditional discipline of design, we as designers would have many fewer reliable conventions of “best practices” that apply universally. Also, the space of digital creativity is much broader and less defined. There is no law of gravity in the digital space, for example, so we don’t need to worry about weight loads and people being crushed by falling buildings. We, as a society and as human beings, are just beginning to come to grips with the possibilities in the digital world. This means then that we need to discuss the relative merits of the details more closely, and there is much more room (in fact a much greater necessity) for experimentation and real iteration.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, it costs much less to experiment digitally than it does to do so in the real world. Bits are cheap (almost free) and the real world waste involved in digital experimentation is relatively low. Of course, time will be lost in iteration, but when you are learning from it, there is truly no wasted time. I have often said, iteration (agile development) won’t necessarily get you to the finish line faster, but you will get to a good result faster. By adhering to iterative principles (build -> measure -> learn in the Lean paradigm), you will get actionable intelligence and be able to make changes that have a more positive impact on the design (and the product) in a shorter amount of time. In fact, when we are dealing with an area of design so new and open to interpretation and discussion, and that functions on such miniscule budgets in terms of dollars and time, the idea that we can plan and design everything up front is bound to fail.

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