Iterative design; a process that we always (should) have used? This is what happens when you compromise quality for time management

Paul Woodward
9th July 2018 at 10:44

Iterative design seems to be the buzzword of the moment, making its way into the new syllabi at GCSE and A level and being adopted even earlier in the education process from as early as key stage 2…but what is this new and innovative approach to design?

Well, first, it’s neither new nor innovative. It’s the process most designers of ‘products’ have taken for granted for years – but that’s because it’s likely that the design and manufacture of a ‘product’ is what they are doing for a living. Many others, including the employees of the company, are dependent on the success of these designed products so it’s important that they are fit for purpose and ready for the market. For this to happen these products may go through months or years of development and, as part of that process, various prototypes or working models are produced. An iteration is simply another word for a version.

"Iterative design is a design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analysing, and refining a product or process. Based on the results of testing the most recent iteration of a design, changes and refinements are made."

For a student to experience this iterative process, they must make more than one version of their design, or should I say, ‘realise an idea to produce an outcome’. Great, just what budding young designers need, but there is one small problem. Young designers have limited experience of designing and realising an idea as a prototype and even less experience of managing this experience within a limited timeframe.

Even for an experienced designer, 30-40 hours to realise several iterations of a design is quite a big ask and that’s compounded by a fixed period in which to work on the design of the product under the scrutiny of the design manager…or the supervising teacher, in this case. I know as I have done it for a living and, to see just how a student might fare, I have also tried to undertake this Non-Exam Assessment (NEA) in a 35-hour timeframe. I managed it – but only just, and that’s with years of experience of designing and teaching this subject. I should also add that the ‘iterations’ I realised were quite simplistic, with some of them being CAD or cardboard models and mockups. I managed two working prototypes, but they were derived from the same set of 3D models and CNC files. Any more would have been impossible in the time available.

Here is where rapid prototyping is likely to save the day (more of that in another blog). What is clear is that this time limit will reduce the time available to ‘craft’ an outcome and finish the whole thing to a high standard without compromising on the quality of the concept or the level of demand.

The old syllabi always seemed to result in ‘unfinished products’ where you made an outcome, tested and evaluated it but never got to put into practice the modifications suggested by the end; often a combination of running out of time and out of interest in the summer term.

However, trying to experience the new syllabi left me feeling unsatisfied – like I had made a start on designing a product with real commercial potential, but the time limits and apathy at having so little of the marks awarded to my efforts in making this a quality product stopped me from fully realising its potential. Maybe that’s what AS level is for but, given it’s a new set of contexts to explore, its likely to be consigned to the store cupboard in much the same way the unfinished ‘products’ of yesteryear were left behind when their creators abandoned them. The difference this time being that centres will struggle to have ‘pretty, colourful products’ to put on display the next year and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect D&T rooms to be decorated predominantly with ‘ugly prototypes’ that scream potential but don’t always get the chance to realise it.

So, iterative design is not a new process at all; it’s always been there as part of the design process in the real world but its potential has always been limited by the time allowed or ignored owing to a more linear approach to the course of study. What we have with the new syllabi is the requirement to explore this iterative approach but the combination of increasing the amount of designs that need to be realised with a limited time in which to do so will make it very difficult for teachers to fully experience what is essentially an important part of the design process. More of this in another blog but, for now, it will be very interesting to see just how many ‘iterations’ we see in the first batch of NEA’s next year.


Paul has taught and led Design and Technology in a variety of schools as well as working as a musician, artist, freelance designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant. He is currently the Head of Creative Arts at a large independent school in the North of England.