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Building Out Ideas

Now that you have your design ideas generated and your constraints mapped, start thinking about what those design ideas might look like in the real world. This is your first step towards making expressions of your design concepts. When we say design expressions, we mean the physical manifestations of your design concepts: the product, service, or system that embodies your concept and brings it into a form that participants can use. To take this first step, designers use collections of images, sounds, and materials called references. References are the bridge between the design concept and the design expression.

Using References: Exploring Features and Form

In the Design Phase Concept Guide's Envisioning Ideas section, we talk about references as means by which to talk about the emotions and/or general direction the design seeks to evoke. In addition to this function, references can also be used to help the team understand greater specifics of the team members' ideas and communicate those ideas to stakeholders. In this way, references do double duty: emotional references can show how a design concept revolves around giving people a sense of community, for example, while in this section, we show how references can also be used to forward the team towards a first design expression, also known as a low fidelity prototype.

Because design teams evolve or create new products, services, or systems, there's no exact photo or sketch or recording of it that exists. For this reason, it’s essential to develop a collection of references that are like the product, service, or system you’re envisioning in order to express all your thoughts on how a design might look, feel, and function. The purpose of using references, whether drawn, photographed, recorded, et cetera, is to meet four primary goals:

  • To explore nuances in a proposal, system, or idea.
  • To understand those nuances.
  • To clarify those nuances, especially if they act within a complex system.
  • To communicate the steps above to others who may or may not be present in design meetings.

References help design teams show each other and their stakeholders their ideas. By accompanying these collections of references with words, whether written or verbal, the team can more easily understand what it collectively is thinking or what an individual teammate is thinking, keep a record of that thinking, and edit the idea.

When to Use References

Design team members can use references to aid in communication with their teammates at any point in the design process. However, since references inform the direction of an idea's designed form, and not the details of that form itself, they are most frequently used early in the process of making a prototype design solution.