Often we see designers with a sketch pad, quickly scribbling shapes and ideas. Though my design process sometimes does start that way, my more calculated and less intuitive designs start with two lists: must-haves and desires.
An example of a must-have might be “to allow four people to eat a meal together”, and a desire might be “to be easy to clean”. Once those lists are well-established, I review them for accuracy and ensure that everything on the must-have list is indeed a must-have (and not a desire), and vice-versa.
After that, I sometimes create a list of knowns, such as “a table is the traditional piece of furniture to eat meals at”, “surface height is dependent on the height of the seat, if used)” or “typically, 24 inches of space is required per diner”. I also create a list of assumptions such as “flat surfaces are necessary to hold dinnerware”.
Then, one by one, I carefully validate the “knowns” and challenge the “assumptions”, looking for any possible loopholes or ways to disprove it without regard for practicality, convention, or any other reason.
I find that by creating a solid definition of what I am trying to achieve, I am able to better understand the true purpose of what I am doing. It gives me a clearer vision of what is absolutely required without being tied to conventional form. This allows me to identify the minimum requirements, then search for ways to meet them – new and old, novel and time-tested.
Then, I can start sketching.
(See Wireframe Cabinet for an example of an item designed with this process.)