Archive for November, 2009

Three Cultures

Note: What follows is a ramble reflecting the eroding memory and personal views of its author more than an historically accurate recounting of the people and events mentioned.

Last weekend I spent two days in Torquay, Australia amongst designers, educators, and a general cohort of smart people on the invitation of Ken Friedman, Dean of the Design Faculty at Swinburne University of Technology. The theme for the weekend was “design thinking,” a term which I have a lot of misgivings about. Nevertheless, the tone and content of the conversation was refreshing. Upon returning from Torquay I twittered:

having spent the wknd at a “design thinking” cnfrnce I have to say that architects have their shit figured out compared to “designers”. hrmm

Rightfully, Matt Jones and Chad Carpenter called me out on this comment that is ill-suited to a tweet-length post. Perhaps I can put a little meat on those bones. We were asked to consider three man questions through a series of roundtable discussions (remembered as best I can):

What is the specificity of design in design thinking?

What are current and future successful applications of design thinking?

What are the skills that we need to educate design thinkers?

As soon as the conversation began there was already disagreement about the relevance of “design thinking” as a term and further confusion about whether the focus should be on designers or “design” more broadly.

The group fell into two loose camps: slightly more than half seemed intent on “design thinking” being something that is equally relevant to all people whether they’re design practitioners or not. The other camp was more concerned with the ways in which design education, and to a lesser extent practice, needs to change to take advantage of the opportunities now existing as, in the words of MP Ranjan, the scientific era reaches a stage of diminishing returns.

Nerds Unboxing 3/3

Listening to what was generally an older crowd talk about the need to change design education made me feel very fortunate for two reasons. From the sound of their conversation, they had a much more rigid design education than I did. I heard tales of ruthlessly focused Bauhaus masters who only cared about form and composition with little concern for anything beyond the craft-based skills of a guild master. Fair enough: that’s not the sort of education I would wish upon anyone in any discipline.

Personally, I was lucky enough to go to a pretty good design school that excels at being cross-disciplinary in both formal and informal ways. The RISD community is extremely integrated by social fact. Situated in the middle of Providence, RI with relatively cramped facilities, the school yields a remarkably interdisciplinary atmosphere. Soft factors are important too. As one of my first professors put it, “find yourself a girlfriend in the jewelry department and you will always have the best models.” While I never did date a goldsmith, I certainly did benefit from sharing courses with people from just about every department in the school - later making occasional use of their shop facilities or sharing beers.

Neither my undergrad or graduate education involved what I would call “a lot” of teamwork, but there were definitely times when it was encouraged or necessary. It came up at Torquay that teamwork, and especially the ability to effectively collaborate across disciplines, is a necessary addition to design curriculums. While I can agree that more teamwork would be useful, it seemed to me that the tone of the conversation was a little behind the on-the-ground reality. Or perhaps my view is disproportionately framed by recent visits to leading design schools such as the RSA. This is also an area where the nature of the design work plays a determining role: the scale of architectural projects tends to include enough work that teams are a necessity more than an option. From what I see coming out of departments like Design Interactions this is also the case in more advanced conversations around product design.

There was a lot of discussion around the place of the designer in larger teams. Does the designer need to continue importing skills from social sciences and other disciplines or should they be more prepared to “know when they don’t know and be ready to look for help?” The latter happens to be where my personal opinion lays, and it’s something that I again feel privileged to have had some exposure to already through my education as an architect.

In the worst Randian cliché the architect is an ego monger hell bent on manifesting their vision in the world. If we look around with fresh eyes, particularly at younger practitioners, this perspective is increasingly an endangered species. In small and necessary ways, architects cooperate with more trades than ever in the form of an increasingly wide array of consultancies ranging from structural engineering to audio/visual systems. But so too are interests spreading as architects seek collaborations with computer scientists, behavioral experts, philosophers, economists, and others. And in some cases vice versa.

For Matt and Chad, this is what spurred my wine-fueled twitter above. After listening to educators lament how their industrial design students only work at one scale it seems like architecture has a built-in advantage. But again, it depends on the specifics of your education. Even at the best schools it seems that there’s still room to improve the collaboration models. Persnickety things like individual evaluation requirements got in the way of many official, graded collaborations at the GSD. That’s seems like a poor reason to restrict collaborative projects, or at the very least an unnecessary complication.

In Torquay there were many calls for designers to deal with problems that are more complex as practice for the nature of today’s real world challenges. This, too, seems like an area where architectural education has a natural advantage. As a matter of basic fact, architectural problems operate at a scale large enough that they require the coordination and resolution of multiple systems. That the full complement of potential issues contained within a building is so vast provides an essential motivation for architects to develop their work systemically - as a logical system of relationships between components in various levels of definition.

I’m speculating here that what makes design tasks at the urban and architectural scale unique is that they begin to incorporate systems with widely divergent, even opposed, systems of order. To use a mundane example, if followed to their own logical conclusion the structural, the HVAC, cultural, and the formal systems of a building would all yield uncooperative exquisite beauties. Architecture is in the business of making careful monsters through the preferencing of one system over another at critical junctures such that these independent but necessary components may be integrated into a single material whole. (Dear interaction designers: we’re still a long way from changing the stylesheet on a building, let alone outputting it as a multiple different flavors of XML that you can live in.)

Because it’s virtually impossible to scrutinize every minute aspect of a building proposal, the architectural critique is an analytical act set up to illuminate the high level structures that orchestrate local decision making. Discussions about how a stair is disposed or why an elevation has taken on a certain characteristic are w
ays to test the rigor of the system that a student has established for themselves. Material evidence is always linked to the analytical frame that motivated it – that made it be just so – and thus the project is nothing without an analytical feedback loop.

It also seems important to note that at its best the overarching tone of (most) architectural conversations is one of plausibility rather than possibility. Perhaps I’m being a tad conservative here, but the fact that architectural projects have a lurking liability to the inescapable real world of structures, construction, and inhabitation is a useful starting point for holding the work to a high level of rigor. Admittedly, this is a requirement that many architectural educators choose to leave out of the equation.

But this gets at an important question about the nature of education. How can we effectively approach levels of “real world” rigor? In Torquay I heard a number of people express a desire to “educate students through real world projects” and while this is a noble goal it’s a difficult one to scale up. There aren’t that many “real world projects” out there for students to take on. So the question is how we hold ourselves to high levels of rigor despite still operating in a realm of exploration?

Asked another way, what makes an architectural proposal more meaningful/valuable/useful than a sketch from a Hollywood set designer? As someone who is highly invested in designing projects proceeding from a strong base of research, it to me seems like there’s a difference between speculation and proposition. If you’re going to propose, you have to be ready for someone to say yes. A rigorous process is about preparing for that eventual yes. By no means is this something that architectural education has all figured out, but from the conversation in Torquay it seems like a disproportionate number of industrial and graphic designers are still struggling to move beyond questions of style and form. I was surprised by this.

Everything I’ve written above is probably naive to the point of being chauvinistic (way to play to the Randian stereotype, eh?) but I’m genuinely interested in hearing from people who have a differing opinion. What other sorts of design problems have the essential complexity of design at an architectural or urban scale? It strikes me that the recent and developing interest in service design is not only a recognition of the importance of the intangible (which I’ll get to below) but also a desire to operate on a larger scale out of recognition that engagement with more than one system at a time is fundamentally more challenging and more natural. It seems like we could talk about the disciplines of design as having scales which they center on, but that no practice should ever be locked away in a single scale. Cue Saarinen. The same should be said for the socio-econ-cultural-environmental context. Designers (should) trade in things in the Latouring sense, rather than objects. Our projects fundamentally exist within a spectrum of scales and contexts. If there was one crystalized message from Torquay it’s that all design professions need to be more agile in working between these myriad scale & context dispositions.

Thinking, Doing, and Professional Practice

The reason I went to Torquay uneasy about “design thinking” is because it shortsightedly favors half of design. Design is not the most sophisticated way of thinking. Nor, for that matter, is design a more sophisticated way of making than, say, fine art. Only at the intersection of thinking and making does design become a meaningful act. What I’ve been puzzling through over the past few months is why the thinking part has been getting all the attention these days. Is it simply a buzzword that has a lot of traction? If so, why?

When I listen to the loudest voices in the “design thinking” space, they’re mostly commercial. Frankly, this scares me. Design firms have traditionally been involved in projects towards the end of the development cycle. Product designers come in after the product is defined; architects after the assumptions about spatial needs mostly made. When “transformation” and “innovation” consulting became popularized practice among design offices the hourly rates went up. To be overly simplistic and just a little brutal, design practice has been incentivized by the market to favor the “thinking” end of its service spectrum. When you run a for-profit company, particularly one with the typically low margins of a design firm, you have little choice but to gravitate towards the those services which yield more profit. High-level consulting is a win-win since it’s generally at a higher hourly rate and has lower overhead costs. In other words, “design thinking” makes more money than “design doing” and thus it’s no surprise that the conversation has been leaning heavily in that direction when the loudest voices are speaking from within corporations, however altruistic and collegiate they may be.

On the contrary, the quick wins of some big ticket consulting sessions sell our discipline short by pretending that design is some magical elixir that can be poured into a situation and zammo everything is fixed up. Like accounting, medicine, and just about every other profession, design is a practice which is persistently useful at regular intervals. If anything, during this transitional period where business and government are slowly coming to terms with the potential yield of having design as an integral part of the conversation it behooves us to collectively seek longer engagements, not shorter. That means transformative conversations in the board room as well as being embedded within client organizations to act as stewards during the implementation. If “design thinking” becomes the mainstream discourse of the broader community, design is in danger of becoming the new moniker for management consulting thanks to the domination of business schools in this conversation. Yes, design processes can be very useful for a variety of communities, but we need to do a better job of collectively valuing our own expertise.

Over dinner a few nights ago I asked the VP of a major multinational how he made the decision to hire the Idea Factory, a design firm based in Singapore, to help him sort out some of his business challenges. He was frank: to his eyes as a client, the Idea Factory looked like a management consultant. If the empty slot left in the wake of management consultancy is a first foothold for design firms to enter new, more profitable engagements that’s great news. However, we should collectively be careful that these board room opportunities do not becoming defining. In other words, I would hope that the trend is towards design firms being opportunistic rather than capitulating. Design practices should be flexible (and always truthful) in pitching their services so that they can capture these opportunities, but not abandon their core methods, competencies, and attitudes in the process. Personally I don’t know any designers who are satisfied with just thinking and talking - it’s a culture of doing, of making, of sticking around till the job is done.

I should be very clear that I’m an entrepreneur at heart and have absolutely no problem with people profiting from their work. And while I generally like lopsided things, I really don’t like lopsided conversations. This is why the weekend at Torquay seems important to me: the academy and other neutral actors nee
d to speak with a louder voice in the conversation about the future of design so that it maintains a useful balance of consultation and implementation.

As we saw at Torquay, there is a lot that propositional (as opposed to analytical) thinking can contribute to the endeavors of business and government. To paraphrase Stuart Candy, society needs to be better at imagining possible futures - and a dash of design is instrumental in developing this capacity. This is largely the promise of “design thinking.” Designers also tend to be pretty skilled at holding complex and contradictory inputs in play while searching for ways to make sense of the jumble without resorting to oversimplification. Developing a synthetic understanding of the problem is one of design’s value propositions, but the other half of the contribution is a persistent care for realization.

Design has an in-built concern for making. This manifests itself as a cycle of reality checks that reign in “thinking” within achievable brackets as well as sustained attention throughout the process of implementation (or fabrication or construction) which always requires tweaks and adjustments of course as the contingencies of the material world come to bear upon the exuberance of ideation.

Through the practice of producing Things, designers acquire an expertise in the framing of problems, an agility required for executing on ideas, and a particular understanding of material and spatial consequences within manifold contexts. This is the fundamental differentiator of design as a discipline and it’s the foundation of the expert that we call a designer.


Ken Friedman closed the conference with a proposition that CP Snow’s Two Cultures of knowing, science and the humanities, needs to be rewritten to be expanded to include design as a third. In my own monkey brain this works out to something along the lines of science = search for fact, humanities = search for truth, and design = search for opportunity. While my noggin is still churning on that one, it does seem like a valuable framework insofar as it establishes the so-called “design thinking” not as a proprietary skill of the designer but a general cognitive mode which all humans exhibit to some degree or another. As my colleague Marco Steinberg eloquently put it the other day, anyone can be musical but that doesn’t make them a musician.