The Mental Game of the Design Process

by Angie Kim


As I sit here writing this, I’m exhibiting the same mental torture I go through every time I dive into any type of creative work… I am stifled by options. It’s like being at an intersection presented with a million paths, each one leading to different outcomes with its own set of obstacles, rewards, and experiences. I’m paralyzed as I contemplate which path will yield the “perfect” journey: the one most interesting, most efficient, cost effective, and rewarding. I’m hindered not by the fear of failure, but by the deep primal drive to select the optimal direction.


Overwhelmed by choice, procrastination arrives, then enters anxiety and an internal noise that gets louder and louder until pressure (often caused by a looming deadline or self-imposed guilt) builds up, and I finally surrender… “Enough! OK, ok. I’ll start!” And with that, the creative journey commences and I’ve made it through the most difficult step in the design process, which is taking that first step forward — as small or big as it may be.



Whatever the product or service is, there will always be constraints, requirements, and serious things to consider. For now, let’s temporarily set that aside and focus on PLAY. Allow curiosity (often disguised as intuition) to guide your exploration. It may be the first idea that comes to mind or a hunch that gets you excited. Go with what motivates you to move, then let it flow.



I love the creative comforts of working alone: in my corner, favorite tunes in play, completely immersed in making. As wonderful as that can be, it’s vital to venture out of the bubble and MAKE IT VISUAL. Create a mind map, make some prototypes, print and post inspiration. Not only does it provide clarity, but beauty in the process. Whatever the method or medium is, transfer what’s in your head to an open place so you and your team can visually see and discuss together. 



Now that you’ve done your exploration, it’ll be much easier to understand the parameters of the project and the considerations to make, such as “What resources are required, how long will it take to develop, what will it cost, how impactful is it?” Selecting the final direction will be a balance of considerations, and sometimes it may come down to the one that just feels right. A colleague from IDEO said something that really stuck, “There is so much noise in the world, but the strongest ideas have presence – a quiet confidence.”



Now that you’ve chosen a path, work backwards and reverse engineer it into reality. Bite-size phases make it actionable and rewarding for the entire team to align and progress together. The plan should include milestones, deliverables, cost estimates, time durations, division of labor, the overall goal and intention. Outline the whole process, and identify the major risks along the way. And importantly, allow time for exploration at key points since unexpected hurdles are bound to appear.



It can be anxiety-ridden to do, but sharing your work will make it better. Feedback doesn’t have to be a formal meeting or a large user group. It can be a conversation over coffee, or even better, a glass of wine. You can get a lot out of a 30-minute conversation with a few questions in-mind. Whether it’s in front of your team or in front of users, feedback will help gauge if things are on the right track. Plus, you’ll feel more confident about the work when you do have to present to a formal audience.



There’s a point in the design process when you may hit a roadblock. Doubt, exhaustion, vulnerability may appear and distractions divert your motivation. The best way to overcome these icky things is to stay focused on the task at hand, pour yourself into the present moment, and have faith that you’ll get successfully to the next step, and to your goal. 



I’m not talking about dessert at the end of dinner, but that little extra 10% or 20% needed at the very end to make your work SING. Every single body of work benefits from the finishing touch. Most importantly, it will provide a feeling of completion — a personal reward for your creative journey.


About the Author

Angie is a Soft Goods & Industrial Design Consultant specializing in tech enabled wearables. She has helped several startups develop their products from an initial idea into a manufactured good. Angie believes as objects are becoming more synced into our daily lives, it is instrumental for the materials that embody it to feel equally harmonious and beautiful. In 2014, Angie launched AYK LLC, a Fashion brand of handcrafted leather products. Before her entrepreneurial path, she spent 7 years with the renown innovation design firm, IDEO, as one of their lead industrial designers. 


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