On Design Thinking

Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu
5 min readFeb 8, 2022

I’ve been re-reading Daniel Cook’s article on Design Testing lately, specifically this bit:

Cowboy Designers: Copy cats with a hip attitude
[…] They shoot from the hip when it comes to decisions, relying on their own finely tuned sense of ‘fun’ to design systems and create requirement docs. This sense of ‘fun’ is typically built up after internalizing the gameplay of dozens of similar game titles.

Such expertise works well when you create a clone or focus on the later layers of the game design where you can’t do much damage. Adding the 101st ‘designer inspired’ Pokemon is about as risk-free as adding the 100th one. Subtle, oh so well crafted variations on existing themes are the bread and butter of a cowboy designer. The ‘I could build it better’ syndrome that drives many game designers is not only a contributing factor to the stagnation of innovation but is actively encouraged by most game publishers as a means of reducing risk.”

You can read more about this here:


Cook then proceeds towards explaining the risks of this approach and comes up with a solution that justifies the title of his article.

While this conclusion is interesting, what strikes me is how accurate this articulation frames my experience so far, specifically concerning projects and people I have worked on.

We all tend to become cowboy designers the more experienced we become, perhaps out of pure commodity. It’s easier to lean into your cosy, safe know-how experience rather than embracing a risky, thought-provoking approach to design that might contradict what we know.

So the question becomes: How do your articulate a method for a design that does not lean into a previous experience?

How do you take a problem, break it down and manifest a solution that is not a cliche rooted in a previous experience?

If I had to reflect on my process, I would have to say that I try to add as little experience as possible.

Perhaps letting the process reveal itself gradually instead of leaning into a set of clear, rigid intentions.

For example:

Vishniac, Berlin Alexanderplatz, 1928. (Pinterest — Thomas Verner)

This is a photo that jumped at me on Pinterest. The brutalist architecture and the general ambience stimulated my curiosity.

I have a love affair with Dioramas and depictions of street life. I feel like these kinds of snapshots encapsulate figments of world-building. The trams, the cars, the people on bicycles, the commute, the busy crowds, the architecture, the street signs all contextualize a world that draws you in and makes you wonder:

  • How would this look, feel, play if reconstructed with modern technology?
Uppsala 2021

So as long the curiosity for reconstructing these vibes can drive the creative process, there is a chance that moving from a blank slate towards a very complex starting point is possible without having to rely on previous design experience.

All you need to do is look for things that excite you and try to find a way to bring these snapshots into a more palpable creative environment.

One thing that excites me to the extremes every time I watch it is Ian Huberts talk on Wold Building in Blender.

Obviously, Ian’s approach is gung ho and chaotic, catered for quick scene creation for movies, but it speaks to me through the fantasy of perfect, unhindered creation flow.

There could be many being said about perhaps the tools used and the medium being replicated on the screen (blender, city building, etc.), but there is an undeniable appeal to such a hint of a method.

Perhaps the lack of method, the chaos of jerry-rigging together an experience that can be sold and bought without being disputed is what tickles my fancy.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, 2022. Google Maps

So I go on google maps, and I look at Berlin Alexanderplatz, and I really look.

A couple of years ago, I remembered some crafty data miners who stumbled upon a blackout map of berlin in Mafia 3.

Lincoln hovering over a dreamscape of a virtual city that will never be. A ghost place that was not to be.

At this point, I am itching to start designing. To start defining, constructing and iterating on tropes, regardless of what the context is, this is where I need to restrain myself, to put myself out of my experience.

Specifically because I am looking, but I am not seeing. Designing at this stage would not make the space any favours.

If we plan on capturing the spirit of the place, the Genius Loci, looking is not enough. We need to understand what we are seeing. We need to list it; we need to look in-depth at what these elements are, what function they serve, what history their drive, and the world logic behind them.

If there is a rule that needs to be respected here, in most cases, it is:

  • If you are struggling to justify it, it’s probably not going to work, so don’t bother. Focus on the obvious things.
  • If you don’t think it’s interesting, it probably isn’t, so don’t bother.

By defining an inventory of spaces, utilities, historical tropes, etc., a deeper, more concise vision of the world, you are building starts to crystallize. If documented properly, it becomes context, and if you have read my blog for a long time, you will know that context is king.

In professional environments, this translates into a master feature list that holds all the world-building data and subsequently translates into design recipes that the LD or LA team can transmute into game spaces inside the world, thus giving it both depth and width.

So if we take a step back, perhaps this is where experience comes into play. The know-how is tied to the planning phase. The glue that keeps everything together when nothing exists yet.

And then we start building, grey blocking, illustrating, looking for tropes, making and transforming the space.



Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu

As a level designer I am not a creator, I am a facilitator. Senior Open World Designer. #Leveldesign #Open World #Design @notimetoulose.