/// Publication

Designing means not ends

Humanity has a good idea of what a sustainable future looks like, but struggles to get there.

There is no recipe to address complex environmental problems. There are no playbooks to roll back the effects of climate change, to protect urban areas from flooding or to improve biodiversity. Despite having access to innovative solutions, we’re often bogged down by bureaucracy, overwhelmed by change, halted by available resources or lost in complexity. Humanity has a good idea of what a sustainable future looks like, but struggles to get there. Process design can help.

Process design offers concepts, methods and tools to support designers and non-designers take an inclusive approach to address complex problems.


Until recently, design was considered a craft resulting in products or services. Design has been treated as an end, rather than a means, and the design process has been seen as the mysterious art of the designer.


Yet the process of designing can be a vital aid to manage complex or wicked problems, to explore ideas and to open dialogue. Process design offers an inclusive and iterative approach that guides teams or groups of actors to move from analysis and research to ideation and designing to reach meaningful outcomes.


Dealing with complexity means entering into the unknown. Just like an explorer embarking on a new journey, one should depart prepared with the right equipment. This guide has been written to equip practitioners, design teams and project managers with basic process management skills to help become more confident in thinking about both the means and ends of a project.


We developed this guide within the five year Connecting Nature project, supported by the European Commission through Horizon 2020 funding and focused on the practice of Nature-Based Solutions. However it is perfectly applicable to almost any place-based or community oriented problem.

Project: Connecting Nature

Funding: European Commission Horizon 2020

Year: 2017-2022

Partners included: University College Dublin, DRIFT, ICLEI Europe, University of East London, City of Genk, City of Glasgow, City of Poznan, City of A Coruña, ProMalaga (Malaga), City of Burgas, SERDA (Canton of Sarajevo), ANEL (metropolitan area of Nicosia), City of Ioannina, Pavlos Melas (Thessaloniki), University of A Coruña, City of Burgas, Bioazul, Climate Alliance, Helix Pflanzen

Overall budget: € 11 400 000

Location: Europe/ Global


Team: Adrian Hill, Hanne Van Reusel, Julia Rocha, Laurens Van der Cruyssen

Sector: Ecosystems, public space & community, production

Services: Vision, process management

The structure of the guide

The guide provides an introduction to the concept of designing processes (Chapter 1). It presents a case study, the Stiemer Valley in the City of Genk (Belgium), a project focused on embedding Nature-Based Solutions to revitalise a forgotten polluted creek (Chapter 2). The guide introduces a methodology based on the ‘Double Diamond’ process, to provide structure to the process (Chapter 3). It then applies the process to what has happened in Genk, showcasing examples of concrete actions along the six main steps (Chapter 4). Collaboration and engagement do not happen naturally, so we consider conditions for this to happen (Chapter 5). The end of the guide presents a small collection of ten practical tools, ones we think can help anyone to get started (Chapter 6), and we also consider some tips for putting ideas into action (Chapter 7).

Why means justify ends

The guide commits a short section to understanding the DNA of a problem and problem solving. We dust off a few established concepts and introduce a few of our own. For example, it can be useful to gauge the complexity of a problem. The Stacey Matrix offers a very useful, albeit imperfect, discussion tool to establish how a problem is perceived. We present the Edward De Bono’s classic six hats process, that can help to ensure that mindsets help see a problem from different angles. We present the different between stakeholders and end-users, which in many projects can appear self evident but is general poorly explored. We also present an adapted version of the ‘Participation Ladder’ to explain the connection between power and decision-making.


The process of process design

Process design is about the means enabling the ends. Projects, no matter how complex and messy, often follow a similar process of opening (diverging), exploring (emerging) and closing (converging). We have used the ‘Double Diamond’ process, a design methodology that was presented by the UK design council in 2004 and since has been applied readily within the fields or services and human-centred design. The process in the guide is the result of years of practice, translating the double diamond to a simple and easily explainable six steps.


This six step process we use within out team, to align partners and also to communicate with clients or external stakeholders. In many cases, the client or project already has a structure in place. In such cases, to avoid complicating what may already be a complex process, we keep the six steps as an internal process.

Every problem is a nail...

…if the only tool you have is a hammer. There are a vast range of design tools that are very helpful to support design processes. We have included ten examples of tools we consider useful, but these are far from an exhaustive list. It is important that practitioners know the opportunities and limits of thinking tools as they can be very quickly become redundant (read about the Pentahelix tool). In Osmos we have a collection of some 30 odd tools, our go-to tools which are regularly being updated and adapted.

Do I need to be a designer to design processes?

There is a myth that only trained designers are able to deal with design. In some cases this is true – a bridge should be in the hands or a certified engineer and not a lawyer. However, design is a human quality – everyone is making decisions and judgements on a daily basis. We have a natural capacity to structure our reflections and plan ahead, qualities characteristic of the human mind. Therefore, we consider that process design should not be the exclusive domain of the trained designer. Rather, it is a framework for dialogue between actors involved with addressing complex problems.


Further reading

Keep updated with Osmos!

We’ll send you a very occasional update of what we’re doing and thinking about.