Mindsets of Public Design Bureau: Iteration

Illustration by Alice Lee. Learn more about our illustrators.

Mindsets of Public Design Bureau: Iteration

What’s the mindset
Iteration is the approach of learning through making, and ongoing improvement along the way. It is the mindset that allows us to accept that it’s not realistic to figure everything out perfectly the first time, and that feedback and refinement are critical to getting to the best outcome. Getting to the end result may not be a linear path, but by embracing iteration we can learn and build as we go so new information and changes feel like manageable, small pivots rather than throwing us off course. 

Why it’s important
Iteration helps us take the small steps to get started. We don’t have to know everything to begin, and knowing that we’ll be making intentional and thoughtful changes along the way lowers the pressure and opens more opportunities for feedback that can prompt refinement. As we said when we wrote about Embracing (Small) Failure, critique and feedback are at the heart of an iterative approach. When we’ve accepted that we can benefit from failure, iteration comes naturally. We’re able to authentically incorporate feedback if we know we’ll be changing our ideas, positions, and direction based on what we learn. 

We’re also able to get to better (however you’re defining better) ideas by encouraging more exploration and supporting people to let go of an idea if it’s not working. When we’re using an iterative approach to solving problems, we open up opportunities that we may not have considered otherwise. Sticking too closely to the original idea, without some iterative trial and error, leaves many branches unexplored.  

Embracing iteration in the real world
Annemarie: “I’ve always loved risotto and I’ll often order it at restaurants, marveling at the creamy deliciousness. My grandmother would be quick to remind me how cheap it would be to make a huge pot full for myself, but for a long time I just didn’t believe I could actually do it. How could I possibly make a risotto as delicious? My worry that I would be disappointed by not making a perfect pot kept me from even trying, and left risotto as a rare restaurant treat. But a friend finally convinced me to just give it a try – sharing that a good risotto is less about a specific recipe or expert technique and more about trying different combinations over time to match your taste. Since then I’ve made many pots, all of them a bit different than the last – trying out ingredients and stirring techniques and enjoying delicious iterations along the way.”      

Embracing iteration in design
While prototyping is the most obvious place where iteration shows up in design, we use this mindset across the whole process and in the outputs of our efforts. For example, when we’re leading recruiting for design research or community engagement, we think intentionally about who’s participating in our sessions as we go in order to notice who we’re reaching and who we aren’t. If our current efforts are missing a group or category of people (such as a demographic category or a perspective), we change our recruiting approach or engagement methods to help bring them  into the conversation. 

Even in the process of synthesis, we use an iterative approach to figure out how we will explain what we’ve learned. Dozens of written statements and visual frameworks might be on the wall to explain our data (…and dozens of earlier drafts might be on post-its on the floor nearby). We’ll continue to test these with our partners and ourselves before bringing a refined set forward to point toward opportunities for change.  

How we cultivate iteration
Iteration requires time, patience, and space for feedback. Consider these actions to help iteration flourish in your work: 

  • Plan enough time for iteration. You need time for things to percolate and time to get feedback from others. Build this time into the schedule, so you’re not rushing against a deadline to get your best ideas refined. 
  • Start with low-fidelity ideas for feedback. Get feedback well before everything is fully baked. Even showing a simple sketch or brief outline will help start the process, and will make you feel more comfortable gathering critical feedback (which is almost always the most helpful!). 
  • Be patient. Sometimes Liz loses patience with iteration; after 2 or 3 rounds, she’s ready to commit to ‘good enough’. Iteration takes patience, but sticking with it leads to better ideas. Feel free to take a break, recharge your patience, and come back with a fresh mind to a challenge. 
  • Embrace (small) failures. The suggestions we made about embracing (small) failure are also really helpful for taking an iterative approach: be sure you’re intentionally testing, piloting, and celebrating! 

How do you practice iteration? Tell us how you use this mindset in the comments below, or send us a note at hello@publicdesignbureau.com.

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