Sunday, July 12, 2015

It is Rocket Science!



As a scholar practitioner advising people in businesses, governmental agencies and even universities, it is too often the case that the refrain: “this is too abstract”, “this is too academic”, “this is too complicated”, “this is too hard”…is heard when the reality of what is required to actually change complex systems by design begins to sink in. The implied judgment is that 'thinking' gets in the way of practical 'doing' and doing should be simple and easy—i.e. ‘keep it simple stupid’. People want to claim the competencies of change agents but they hope to gain that competence through ‘edutainment’ or by learning the ‘tricks of the trade” or some other minimally demanding means.



The famous pragmatic nature of Americans has led to the rise and nurture of prideful anti-intellectualism, which has reinforced the historic split between thinking and doing inherited from centuries of Western tradition. However the best designers have learned how to reintegrate thinking and acting—to be aware of why they do what they do and how best to do what they want done for those they wish to serve. They have learned that it is indeed ‘rocket science’ and avoiding the commitment and investment of time and energy required to become a true master of the craft does not work.

Even science has not escaped the common belief that significant new ideas can occur almost magically—that great science occurs through sudden painless insights. The truth is that significant scientific breakthroughs occur over extended periods of preparation and commitment. Good science is the result of hard work over extended periods of time.

The same is true of creative insights associated with design. Ah ha breakthrough insights come after long periods of intense commitment skillfully guided through immersive and divergent exploration of a focused question of intention. Good designing takes hard work over extended periods of time. Learning to be a good designer takes hard work and commitment over time—whether as a professional or a student.

The real world is complex, unpredictable and dangerous. Acting as if things were simple, straightforward and easy to deal with does not mean that the world will obligingly change to accommodate those beliefs. The desire or necessity to change reality requires a set of skills, a mind set and a depth of knowledge that can match the challenge. Failure to meet the challenge can have serious consequences or, at minimum, result in a swarm of irritating compromises.


Change can be triggered by impulsive, impatient or simplistic actions but there is more to the challenge of change than simply causing change. Change can occur by accident or necessity. Change can occur as a result of actions that are neither skillful nor prudent. However, desired change with concomitant desired outcomes demands thoughtfulness, skill, and prudence in order to be successfully realized. The level of competence required is not easily or quickly achieved. It is rocket science. Learning how to become a design 'rocket scientist' is the intension of The Design Flight School and The Advanced Design Institute.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

What's a Horse?




The design process is a learning process. Learning is the result of inquiry and experience. There are many designs of inquiry created for different purposes with different expected outcomes. Among them, design inquiry is a composite form of inquiry that includes scientific inquiry which, is necessary but not sufficient for adequate design inquiry. Scientific inquiry—research—is designed to determine what can be accepted as true and real. However, even the determination of what is true and real is more involved than objective forms of inquiry, such as the scientific method, would imply. Describing and explaining things as true and real is much more complex and challenging than many design academics and professionals appreciate. That is a problem in todays complex world.


Designers need to know what is real and what is true about the real-world design situations they are thrown into. Inquiry into the nature of things and events has been approached in two different ways traditionally—the Western tradition and the Eastern tradition. In the normative domains of design education and design practice, the Western tradition has dominated so far. However the Eastern tradition is becoming more influential—for example disguised as systems thinking. Systems science—a form of systems thinking—is an example of the Eastern tradition influencing the dominant Western tradition of disciplined inquiry—i.e. objective, rational and reductive. However even systems science does not sweep in the rich complexity of approaches to inquiry that make up a more prudent form of design inquiry—i.e. inquiry for wise action.

To explain these approaches to inquiry—learning about what is true and real in the world—I will use the example of explaining and describing a horse. I was raised in the American West around horses. I know a little, but not everything by any stretch of the imagination, about horses. I have had the opportunity to ask often "what is a horse?" without ever coming up with a final, comprehensive answer. If I had to describe and explain to someone who had never been around or even seen horses what a horse was, I would use traditional approaches to inquiry—Western and Eastern—augmented with some nontraditional approaches. I will demonstrate what these are in greater detail in future posts.





Monday, June 15, 2015

Design Inquiry: Metaphors and Images

Design inquiry is distinct from other forms of inquiry in that it is ‘inquiry for action’—not merely description, explanation, prediction,  or control. At the beginning of design inquiry it is essential to make a reality check—an ‘assessment’—of the situation at hand. What constitutes the nature of the reality that designers find themselves in when they begin designing?



This assessment is too often framed as a process of ‘analysis’. When someone is directed to learn more about a situation, an organization, a person, an event or anything in the real world, the assumption is made immediately that what is needed is an ‘analysis’. Analysis is a process of breaking something into its constituent elements, which allows for a certain level of understanding and people excel at this. However, it has become clear that in order to really understand something it is important to know how the constituent elements interact as a whole—a ‘synthesis’—as well.

It turns out that it is difficult to give a name to a synthesis of elements unless it is merely a functional assembly that can be understood by what it does. For example when making an assessment of an organization everyone—student or professional—has difficulty saying what the nature, character or essence of the organization as a whole is when all the departments, divisions, staff and behaviors are taken together. Usually metaphors or analogies are used to convey what the organization as a whole is like because we don’t know how to do that directly.

A recent article in Aeon makes the case that we design metaphors to help us see things differently using words. But, when something is too full or rich for words we use images if we have the skills to do so.  Unfortunately the use of images to see and understand the essential nature of a thing—encountered or created—is not as common as is the use of words. Nor is creating or reading images very well understood except for the truncated versions found in the world of computers.


It is even more difficult to convey the nature of a whole thing when designing it—when elements are linked and connected together intentionally in such a way as to create desired synergies and emergent qualities—not merely functional assemblies—in particular or ultimate particular designs. The use of images to convey the nature of what has been created is necessary. The use of images to help us understand the value of what has been created is essential.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

critique and comments on The Design Way

Found this great critique of The Design Way as well as some thoughtful comments on a presentation I made at Stanford University. Nice to see what someone else thinks I said. This blog also has some thoughtful comments on C. West Churchman and other systems ideas. Worth a look.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Design of Fire

Humans did not discover fire—they designed it. The wheel was not something our ancestors merely stumbled over in a stroke of good luck; it, too, was designed. The habit of labeling significant human achievements as ‘discoveries’, rather than ‘designs’, dis­closes a critical bias in our Western tradition where observation dominates imagination.
The Design Way, Nelson & Stolterman, pg. 11

There is still a wide chasm between what people believe about the genesis of the ‘real’ world and people who make ‘real’ things—i.e. designers.  It is still generally accepted and promoted that traditional design fields delimit the reach and grasp of human making. It is also true that 'invention' is commonly used to describe the means by which things are created while 'discover' is still used to define human agency in the real world more often than not.


But there seems to be movement, maybe even progress, towards grasping a fuller appreciation of the deep and profound effect of human agency on the creation of the real world—i.e. design. A recent article in Aeon on the evolving human relationship with fire points to a first step away from ‘discovering’ towards ‘making’ as the instrumental approach that causes the real world to be what it is unnaturally. Is this a first step on a path that can lead eventually to the ‘discovery’ of ‘design’?


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ethics and Design

A recent article in Fast Company, titled “Stanford’s Most Popular Class...”, dealt with a class titled ‘Designing Your Life’.  The first time I was introduced to the idea that one could 'design' their life was when I was a graduate student at Berkeley. Over the years, My friend and mentor C. West Churchman—a polymath Professor at UC Berkeley—had written and lectured on the concept of the ‘Design of a Life’ with a focus on questions of ethics in whole systems. He was very concerned with the ethical behavior of individuals within business, governmental and institutional organizations as they ‘designed’ or planned interventions in complex social systems. Ethics was at the center of designing behavior from West’s perspective.


West Churchman and Harold Nelson, Mill Valley, CA (1990's)

Reading further in the Fast Company article on Stanford’s class, Bill Burnett—the Executive Director of Stanford’s design program—is quoted as saying:

… "Design doesn’t speak to ethics and spirituality and all those things, but they work within its frameworks. Our only bias is, hey, we can make the future better." "


Given that Stanford’s design interest (e.g. commodified ‘design thinking’ etc.) has a strong focus on mercantile interests this is the sort of design axiom you would not be surprised to see coming from within the University. However, statements like this cannot go unchallenged given their implied foundational character and potential influence on future design praxis and practitioners. The power invested in getting to ‘frame and name’ design inquiry and practice is too consequential to not be confronted when so far off the mark.


Design is a ‘service’ meaning that it is focused on human relationships. Human relationships are grounded in ethical protocols and “all those things” in the case of good professional designing.  Designers are not just ‘hired guns’ making stuff better. Designers are part of a complex interrelationship of clients, stakeholders, and design agents integrating values, aesthetics, spirituality, and facts  to formulate desirable futures. Where can future designers go to prepare to become responsible and accountable design professionals?