I’m a fan of “just enough” process, which is part of why I love the elegant simplicity of Buzzfeed’s Design Loop:

buzzfeed design loop
Buzzfeed’s “Design Loop”

This is a well-established way of thinking about what good design process looks like at the micro level. Lots of design and product orgs converge on a circular process that feeds back into the next iteration of the loop. As a designer I like the loop for that exact reason: it de-linearizes our process, placing the emphasis on continuous learning rather than arriving at a final destination.

Since they initially shared it in 2016, Buzzfeed’s design loop has helped me so much that I’ve fully internalized it. But last week when I went back to re-read the article, I noticed that Buzzfeed’s loop resembles another loop I’m fond of:

heros journey
Joseph Campbell’s diagram of the hero’s journey

For those who know Joseph Campbell’s work on mythology, please excuse a couple paragraphs of crude explanation. First, a description from the man himself:

“The basic motif of the hero journey [is] leaving one condition, finding the source of life to bring you forth in a richer or more mature or other condition.“

Campbell identified the hero’s journey as a common template across all mythological traditions. It’s an archetype that helps illuminate a path for humanity to follow when faced with inevitable challenges. Following the path of the hero’s journey transforms our fear into a state of heightened connectedness and fullness of potential.

For Campbell, the transformation happens when the hero crosses the threshold of adventure, venturing deep into the unknown, slaying beasts and uncovering new knowledge or powers that they then share with the world by crossing back over the threshold and giving their “boon” back to their community.

While designers aren’t heroes, design process done well does look a lot like Campbell’s illumination of the hero myth. I believe the “threshold” for designers is the place where we step beyond our current knowledge, assumptions, and abilities to synthesize and make something new in the world. (Ideally you’re searching for a solution to a problem worth solving. If not, consider going in search of a better “call to adventure.“)

It’s past this threshold where the hard, messy work of a designer lives: conducting research, sifting through quantitative data, sketching dozens of solutions and discarding them, hitting dead ends and starting again. It’s all the stuff wrapped up in the “Synthesize” and “Make” phases of the Buzzfeed loop. Done with diligence and fidelity, this hard and messy work yields the “boon”–the secret knowledge or spark of fire that we can turn into the gift of a problem well-solved.

It’s at this point in the mythological journey that we cross back over the threshold and return to the “ordinary world” with our boon (Prometheus bringing the stolen fire back to men, Jason with the Golden Fleece).

In the Buzzfeed loop, this is where we “Communicate.” This can take different forms: reviewing a design with PMs and engineers, bringing your work to design critique, or testing a prototype with customers. You’ve got to bring your hard-won gift back to the community and share it for your journey to be complete.