For some of us, iteration has a bad name. We may think that returning to a problem multiple times, re-visiting it, coming back to it and thinking it through yet again, is a waste of time and energy. Couldn’t we just move forward, or settle everything on one go through? Why all this cycling back, and reconsidering what we’ve already discussed, and made plans for. Why can’t we just do it?
True, not every instance of iteration is helpful. Sometimes iteration can be a sign that we’re in a muddle or lack clarity in our goals. Yet in many cases iteration is precisely what is needed. By realizing the broad – and deep – values of iteration and re-play, we can give our creative problem solving a great deal of “whoosh.” And often some whoosh is just what we need.
Benefits of iteration
Research suggests that iteration may be beneficial – and even necessary – for the success of a creative project in situations where the project we are embarking on is unfamiliar, poorly defined, or complex.
Iteration in these sorts of situations, when we don’t initially really know what the constraints, limits, or opportunities for a project are, can allow us to gradually learn more about both the problem and possible solutions. We can integrate what we learn from earlier plays through with our later insights, leading us to a more creative, and creatively interconnected, outcome.
Staying open to re-plays may also enable us to more flexibly and effectively deal with a changing context. Having a clear understanding of our goals for each iteration also may make the process especially productive.
What’s your mental picture of iteration?
How do you think of the process of iteration? Although re-playing can seem quite straightforward, we can have quite different underlying pictures or mental images of what iteration is. And the mental images we are using may shape both what we expect of the process, and why we may become frustrated with it.
Let’s take a look at five different ways of picturing iteration. The five mental pictures are based on a detailed and systematic analysis of the ways “iteration” is really used, and talked about, by people working in design and development. As the researchers in the study remind us, “Iteration is a fact of life in any project” (p. 153).
Given it’s unavoidable, it’s best for us to understand that we can have different mental pictures of what iteration is and what it’s meant to do. The researchers identified five different mental pictures we might have. I have elaborated their pictures with verbal analogies.
Depending on the creative circumstances, any one or more of these pictures may fit best. And it may be that the best-fitting picture itself changes as a creative endeavor moves forward, getting closer to completion.
Picture 1 – The Home Cook. Imagine a home cook, trying to decide what’s possible for a tasty meal using only the ingredients already on hand in the pantry and refrigerator. Here he explores many possible ideas, going back-and-forth, forward-and-back, narrowing in as he gathers greater knowledge of what’s actually on hand, and this guides his various ideas of what delicious options there might be. There could be lots of variation in what comes to mind, and where he ends up may not be anywhere close to where he started. This form of iteration is exploration, or “iterating around problem and solution while elaborating them concurrently” (p. 167).
Picture 2 – The Crime Detective. Bring to mind a detective as she conjures up different possibilities at a crime scene. Here she looks for clues, successively drilling down from broad and vague possibilities into the specifics of just where, when, and how the crime may have taken place. Once she has arrived at a strong initial hypothesis, she tries to fill in any missing pieces to test it and home in on what really happened in full detail. This form of iteration is concretization, or “revisiting elements of the design while increasing their levels of definition, ensuring consistency” (p. 167).
Picture 3 – The Digital Photographer. Envision a photographer working on a photograph of a desert landscape for an exhibition. The scene is set, but in her computer graphics editor she can slightly adjust the color, nudge the contrast, and tweak the exposure, each time getting closer and closer to a setting of parameters that is just right for her aesthetic aims. By the time she is finished, it is not that she has arrived at a completely new photograph; it is, though, a meaningfully different work. This form of iteration is convergence, or “point-by-point improvement of parameters and details, at a fixed level of definition” (p. 167).
Picture 4 – The Interior Decorator. Imagine an interior decorator, who has already decided on what the largest pieces of furniture are for a particular room, and where they should go, but is rearranging the smaller accents and decor, trying this, trying that, making minor tugs and refining tweaks after the central decisions have been made. There is nothing amiss with the primary design, but the adjustments improve secondary aspects such as reducing the cost of the redesigned room. This form of iteration is refinement, or “adjusting, improving, perfecting once primary objectives are met” (p. 167).
Picture 5 – The Long-Distance Runner. To your mind’s eye, bring a resolute long-distance runner, counting down the miles. Here, the runner is gradually increasing the information she has gained, first along one part of the route, then another part, then the next, until the run is complete. This form of iteration is incremental completion, or “repeating a task on different information to incrementally arrive at a goal” (p. 167).
Which “picture” of iteration we’re working with has implications for how we expect the process to unfold. And it may be that the picture of play/re-play/re-play that we have itself needs to change, as we move forward on a creative or change-making endeavor.
For Picture 1 – the home cook – it may be that any single suggested idea is quite different from the prior proposed idea, so it can feel as though there’s no progress being made, or that the progress is chaotic and unpredictable at best. But if we stick with it, a delightful meal may soon be on offer! For some of the other pictures it can seem that the iterations leave little room for surprise or newness. But not all forms of surprise are welcome. And sometimes even quite subtle adjustments or refinements make a big positive difference.
Wynn, D. C., & Eckert, C. M. (2017). Perspectives on iteration in design and development.Research in Engineering Design, 28, 153–184.