One and Done: Using an Iterative Process

There’s a particular process hump that design students inevitably encounter: that of quality. This comes after they have learned particular methods, and they realize that they can make a thing. If the student has been taught critique and self-reflection, they’ll also soon realize that their thing isn’t very good, because it’s the first iteration of the idea. Iteration one is a thinking artifact, not a presentation artifact, and for a new designer, the gulf between thinking and presentation is enormous. In the dialogue between maker and material, iteration one establishes boundaries around a problem space but it doesn’t actually solve the problem. That’s because the level of craftsmanship and finish of the artifact is directly related to the quality of the solution, and for all novice designers, their level of craftsmanship and finish is poor.

This learning moment is inevitable, because it’s a place where method and tacit skill collide. Simply, it’s easy to learn a method, because a method is – by definition – procedural. Just follow the steps, and you’ve applied the method. But tacit skill is neither easy nor procedural; it comes through practice over time.

Once a student has produced iteration one, the best thing they can do next is to produce iteration two. And for most students, this is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. Because producing iteration one was so hard, and took so long, and the results are so obviously bad, the student sees only failure. And they give up.

I think, in my teaching experience, this is a critical fork in the road for learning design. Does the student persevere and practice? Does she “play her scales” or “wax the floor”? Or does she cut and run, internalizing various rationalizations for her poor work? I’ve heard “I’m just not meant to be that kind of designer” more often than I care to count, always at this phase in learning. And I’ve also seen students practice through it, giving up their social life, practically living in the studio, and establishing a sense of confidence both with skill and process.

The separation of method and execution is a learning practice, a pedagogical trick for students to learn both. But in practice, there’s no separation. Methodology integrates with craft-based execution over time to form expertise. Once a student has learned method and learned about execution, the rest relies on their passion to practice. There’s no real way to game this system; expertise comes from practice and experience. And that takes time, personal and professional sacrifice, and a disciplined maturity.

The simple truth is that, for a student that’s gotten to this magical moment in learning, they have only one path towards success: practice.