Sunday, October 28, 2012

Design's expansion into the 'Invisible'

Recently an excellent article by Tom Fisher, the Dean of the School of Design at the U. Minnesota, titled Design's Invisible Century, provided an exceptional frame for understanding the evolving nature of design. The article makes a contrast with science's 'invisible' century, the 20th Century, when scientist thought they had 'seen' everything and suddenly the sciences of the 'unseen' realms of physics, chemistry, and psychology et. al. exploded into 'view' resulting in a scientific renaissance. The case is made in the article that design is now facing the same sort of renaissance in the 21st Century, in the realms of the 'invisible', as did science in the last century.

Most formalized design fields are defined by their domains of 'visibility' but design is expanding into more 'invisible' domains. An example is design's expansion into other professions such as management. A seminal conference was hosted at Case Western's business school titled 'Managing as Designing' which resulted in the publication of a book by the same name published by Stanford University Press. Another example is the Rotman School of Business in the U. Toronto, which has made a serious commitment to design. Around the world there are university programs combining business and design in the planning or implementation stages.

Design is moving into the domains of public policy, business and military strategy, and other 'invisible' domains of human activity. New forms of designing and new types of designers are emerging as well. Some designers from the 'visible' traditions of design are forming up to 'design behavior' or other interventions into 'unseen' worlds but that of course is dangerous without them making changes in their design practices and character. Ones that are a better fit for the task of making the 'invisible' 'visible'.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Design, Wicked Problems & Throwness

Horst Rittel is one of the seminal residents in my 'Berkeley Bubble'. Recently a friend and colleague sent me an article about ‘double-wickedproblems’. I have become ever more aware of the increasing number of references to ‘wicked problems’ in all forms of media that seem to have missed Rittel’s deeper insights. This brought up the concern I have about the use and miss-use of the term ‘wicked problem’. The term ‘wicked problem’, first introduced by Rittel in West Churchman’s seminars at Berkeley, was in reference to his conceptualization of the impossible challenge of dealing with significant social issues using traditional, rational, ‘problem solving’ methods.

In most cases what are miss-diangnosed as ‘wicked problems’ are actually complex or complicated problems that can be simplified or broken into smaller 'tame' problems allowing for a straight forward 'problem solving' approach to be taken. This approach is believed by many to be capable of developing solutions that, in the aggregate, successfully deal with the 'wickedness' of the problems initially attacked. If they were really 'wicked problems' this would not be the case. The problem is (pun intended) that ‘wicked problems’ are not ‘problems’. ‘Wicked problems’ are the result of ‘appearances’ when complex realities are looked at through a ‘problem solving’ lens. Other lenses—other approaches—render a different set of 'appearances'.

Heidegger’s term for the complex reality of existence is ‘throwness’:

Heidegger captures his own version of Rich’s insight by unpacking the word
geworfenheit (werf _ to throw, geworfenheit _ being thrown), which has been
translated as “thrownness.” Heidegger treats being-in-the-world—Rich’s taking
“everything on at once”—as “the prereflective experience of being thrown
into a situation of acting without the opportunity or need to disengage and
function as detached observers” (Winograd and Flores quoted in Weick; Designing forThrowness).

When confronting this complex reality—i.e. ‘throwness’—of the world’s most challenging issues with strategies based on rational ‘problem solving’ the ‘wicked’ nature of the issues make their ‘appearance’, which leads to a paralysis of reasoned action. Horst Rittel avoided the paralyzing attributes of ‘wicked problems’ by taking a political stance towards these issues using a formalized process for managing argumentation—IBIS (issue based information system)—thus resolving any 'wickedness'.

Other stances including aesthetics, morality, and spirituality can and have been used by others to deal with 'throwness'.

My own strategy for dealing with ‘throwness’ has been drawn from a 'design' stance. Erik Stolterman and I have presented some of the foundations and fundamentals of this stance in our book The Design Way. A 'design' stance provides a very different kind of ‘appearance’ when confronting ‘throwness’. An ‘appearance’ that provides frameworks for action rather than paralysis.

How different stances lead to different ‘appearances’ can be seen using the example of how our solar system ‘appears’ from a geocentric—earth centered—point-of-view versus a heliocentric—sun centered—point-of-view.

geocentric viewpoint

heliocentric viewpoint 

The ‘appearance’ of the solar system is much more complex, convoluted and irregular when viewed from a geocentric viewpoint than when viewed from a heliocentric viewpoint. In the same way, complex issues nested in complex realities—i.e. 'throwness'—‘appear’ dramatically different when viewed through different lenses—for instance a ‘problem solving’ stance versus a 'design' stance. The habit of labeling and viewing nearly every challenge in life as a ‘problem’ has obscured the other possible ‘appearances’ of  ‘throwness’ and has consequently inhibited wise actions on our parts. 'Wicked problems' can be dissolved using a 'design' stance allowing for the possibility of wise actions.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Systems Thinking and Design Thinking Seminar

I recently returned from a very successful seminar hosted by the Systems Oriented Design program in the School of Architecture and Design (AHO), Oslo, Norway. The seminar drew together the authors of  chapters to be published in a proposed book edited by Birger Sevaldson (focused on the relationship between systems and design) plus faculty and graduates students at AHO. The hope was that this seminar would be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue among scholars, practitioners and students from around the world on the relationship between systems thinking and design thinking.