Presence in the Process: The Hidden Key of Design

Perhaps it's not terribly sexy, but one of the things that makes a really great designer is decision-making. A series of good decisions throughout the design process make the difference between something half-baked, and something game-changing.

How do we make game-changing decisions? 

First, let's define what I'm referring to here. More than a "yes", or a "no" in a meeting, a decision is something that occurs as a result of a group of people trusting one-another, working with one-another towards a shared goal or purpose.

A great decision isn't always entirely rational. Sometimes it can even be hard to justify. A really good decision is based on experience, and requires awareness of the whole of the ecosystem we're designing in and our level of presence within it.

What do we mean by the term ‘presence' as relates to design? 

Why do we believe that presence is hugely relevant to businesses right now? 

Otto Scharmer is a big influence of mine, and has written at length about presence and change in organisations. In his work Presence, Otto Scharmer and others explain that as technological development quickens, products, companies and industries form, configure and lock in to ways of working and being. These serve to allow repetition, efficiency and scale, all of which are necessary for any large company.

But there is a cost. Challenges come at times of change or growth, where we come to realise that few things that are human are predictable or repetitive. Conversely, systems and processes that support a certain way of working reduce what is possible, leading those that work in them to be stuck in ways of seeing and acting.

Presence and the system

The challenge of presence is to broaden our awareness: to see beyond what we currently know. First, we have to become aware of the system; the water in which we swim. Then we might learn about how it influences us and our decision making. Finally, we expand our awareness to other possibilities.

Somewhat ironically, in the current practice of design there is a great emphasis on learning techniques and processes; ways of doing design. These are important and help us to learn, communicate and ultimately become designers. 

What they don’t do, and will never do, is make great design decisions. Great decisions occur as the total of who we are and what we bring to a group or decision-making process. There's a balance between running the processes required to support and facilitate design, and our awareness and presence as designers—who we are, how we're showing up, and what the best way forward is for the whole group.

When we design, we're always dealing with complex systems. What differentiates great design from good design isn't what we do, it's who we are and how we work with those systems. And the first step of working with a system is to become aware of it.

Written by Jon Osborne, Senior Strategic Designer


Jon Osborne is a senior strategic designer and facilitator at Huddle. Drawing on a background in the built environment, he helps leadership teams pioneer resilient innovation initiatives based on solid research and fresh thinking. Jon also previously built and led a human-centred design practice at Arup.


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