Ten Thoughts On Design

Design has a lot of definitions, some more representative than others.

Design has evolved with changes in societal values, it has responded to socioeconomic conditions, it has been symbiotic with technological change, but more than anything it has advanced deliberate change in the world — both good and bad. Broadly, design is a transdisciplinary agent of change that seeks an improved state. Design methods, planning, and action can be applied to just about anything, from products to environments, statecraft to bionics. Design is an expression of human intent. Definitions that box design in as a purely creative endeavor, aesthetics, function, or designer egoism miss design’s most impactful contributions to society through its broad inquiry.

The primary material of the designer is the problem itself.

Before plastics, screens, and A.I., designers deal in problems, framing, approach, and decomposition. Pathways towards a solution are rarely clear, hence the iterative, critical, and comprehensive nature of design process. Designers use methods to frame and untangle problems with the goal of finding new perspectives on what might otherwise be “understood.” Good design honors complexity and understands that simple problem-solution vectors aren’t usually fair. Design is more about the conception of new possibilities and putting them into the world for testing.

Design is a process-oriented field, not a recipe.

In design, there is just as much emphasis on the pathway as the solution. There is no formula for good design and no template for innovation or problem solving — despite what design thinking workshops might tell you. Experience can be a guide. So can the iterative, exploratory, and generative methods of design teams that help them find direction towards a future state. The iterative approach helps suss out new ideas within a multitude of perspectives, many of which are in conflict with one another. Eventually, the designers and stakeholders can synthesize a direction and put the right pieces together. Success is dependent on an open-minded team, fully informed, free of blinders, a willingness to question everything, and giving the process the time it deserves.

The value proposition of designers addressing complex problems is their mindset.

What sets good designers apart is the mindset and disposition they bring to the work. It’s key to addressing wicked problems: balancing part-whole relationships, carrying a deep concern for the human condition, thinking and working laterally, always questioning, always offering constructive criticism, putting down preconceptions, comfort with ambiguity, understanding that things can always be improved upon, and always starting with a “beginner’s mind.” These traits are what designers bring to the table before they begin framing, prototyping, modeling, and researching. They help turn a complex, arbitrary, and dysfunctional space into a manageable, clear, and organized one.

Nothing is designed or exists in isolation.

Whole-systems designers see everything made and every nudge forward as a part of a broader, interconnected world; that one seemingly small change can conceivably affect everything. Like Buckminster Fuller’s influence of the trimtab, designers can have enormous consequences even when they think they’re working in isolation. While it’s hard to anticipate ripple effects with precision taking an informed, iterative, and prudent approach can help. A systems-minded designer looks not just at data, objects, people, and environments, but on the connection points, the layering of nested systems, continuüms of scale, situated intelligence, and the flow of history.

Disciplinary boundaries fight complex problem solving.

Solving higher order problems in the 21st century requires discipline-free approaches. Design is no longer a set of specialty tools; when designing for and designing with communities of use, impact and innovation depends on designers to lead facilitation and translation — leading the process and people while translating the languages and perspectives of stakeholders. Furthermore, synthesizing the total problem space is crucial in dealing with complexity. Specialization makes it harder to integrate elements into cohesive wholes and disciplinary labels in design can hinder broader impact. Designers of the 21st century should position themselves as conductors, inviting subject matter experts, disciplinarians, and real world people to collaborate on stage together.

Design is an argument for the future.

Since design is rarely about creating absolute solutions, analytical methods aren’t ways to design or to evaluate. Rhetoric serves as the core of design creation and evaluation. Answers aren’t binary but ‘more appropriate’ and ‘less appropriate’. It hasn’t always been this way: the high modernists were seduced by engineering’s attitudes of efficiency and certainty. They created ‘universal solutions’ and imposed their will absent of contextual understanding or human need. The rhetorical approach respects wide perspectives on reality, histories, cultures, and ecosystems. In a post-modern, post-structural world, design, too, has become pluralistic in nature, adept at forming arguments that are relevant to situation, place, and rapid change.

‘Design thinking’ is best approached through… Aristotle.

The measure of good design is the balance between what’s useful, useable, and desirable. It’s one of the oldest frameworks in design and a modern interpretation of Aristotle’s Appeals and the Vitruvian Triad. To be useful is to create intellectual substance in a design. The outcome has to have purpose and relevance to people and communities. Usability is about crafting clear, self-evident functionality. Desirability is the voice in which the design speaks to the user and to its time and place. For Aristotle, logos, ethos, and pathos were a matter of coexistence rather than a paradox. For designers, their work and ideas succeed or fail on the equal and tenuous balance of these three dimensions.

Designers are stewards of the relationship between people and technology.

While the arts serve to make connections between fields and ideas, design transcends fields as inventor and curator. And as technology advances, design is alongside it to create value, to humanize it, and to give it voice. Design is the liberal art of the technological and information age. From smart contact lenses to entangled megalopolises, designers will bring new technologies into the human experience and be those ones to question, criticize, and shape the direction. Seeing the impact design and technology can have on society and the human and planetary condition is clear. Further disruption lies ahead on an even greater scale. What kind of a world will we make? What kind of a would should we make?

There is an ethical dimension to everything that’s designed.

Design is in constant service to people and the planet and it must be practiced with intent, integrity, and critical thought. There is an ethical dimension to everything we design and how we design it, not just in the product itself but in its ripple effects. This is especially evident in complex domains where designers have a direct influence on human and ecological systems — autonomous vehicles, urban landscapes, behavioral change, social programs, algorithms and AI. Remember, just because it can be made, doesn’t mean it should. From the dawn of industrial production to the integration of technology into our lives, designers are on the frontlines of ethical matters — sometimes the only ones considering them — and therefore must be vocal advocates for the interests of people, society, and the planet.

by Alexander R. Wilcox Cheek (2019)

The Design Disposition

Design is a values-based practice and at the core of every good designer is a particular disposition. While the designer’s day to day might be research, framing, facilitation, visioning, strategy, or production, ultimately every design outcome from cultural artifacts to dynamic systems is an expression of values and mindset. These outcomes, subsequently, touch the lives of everyday people and can cast wide-reaching effects.

1. The designer can think and act laterally. In fact, disciplinary thinking can be a hinderance for designers as they are liberal artists at heart and not bound by rigid practices or ideologies. This enables the designer to be clear minded in priorities and capturing needs rather than be confined by traditional modes of thought. It allows the designer to come to every scenario with “new eyes.” Liberal mindedness is the key to designing for intertwined, intractable problems.

2. The designer, though a powerful facilitator and lateral thinker, typically possesses certain concrete skills and disciplinary expertise. That in mind, the disciplinary expertise is best applied at the edges of those disciplines, or entirely removed from them, practicing and playing in other sandboxes.

3. The designer is a relativistic thinker where new knowledge gained gives them a new perspective upon which to act. The relativistic designer sees things not as good or bad but better or worse. It’s a sophisticated position, “one that recognizes a plurality of points of view, interpretations, frames of reference, and value systems.” (based on William Perry)

4. The designer would not be a designer if he or she were not a maker. This can be traced back to Aristotle’s Metaphysics and his articulation of techne (what we might call “craft” or “know-how”). And they can be obsessive over the details. It’s usually the difference between a good solution and one that truly resonates with an audience. Sometimes the perfection leads to things so good that they disappear into the background. Other times they become objects of art.

5. The designer possesses a strong sense of empathy, enabling him or herself to conduct ethnographic inquiry with a sensitive and ethical approach. This is intertwined with the designer’s deep interest in understanding and making better the human condition. It’s different from sympathy which creates a relational hierarchy between designer and subject.

6. The design disposition is a rhetorical disposition that advocates for solutions that are appropriate to audience values, environment, context, and individual and collective goals. The rhetorical stance also enables appropriate evaluation of the product or outcome.

7. The designer has a polysensorial awareness, or deep engagement with his or her surroundings — engaging all senses. This includes visual and tactile aesthetics, understanding discursive experiences, as well as hierarchies and relationships. (based on Kamil Michelwski)

8. The designer balances both insight and intuition on the pathway to change. Even in research-driven work, intuition serves a strong role. Good designers know when to rely on intuition over insight and vise versa.

9. The designer should approach each situation with a “beginner’s mind” (from Zen Buddhism, shoshin, 初心) with an attitude of openness towards understanding and interpreting, and a lack of preconceptions about the subject matter, people, and context.

10. Designer minds unify thought and action, thinker and maker after centuries of being regarded as separate. Some designers thinking by way of making, prototyping their way through problem solving. Others might employ a non-linear process where planning, prototyping, and problem framing all happen in a mix.

11. The designer envisions a future, though not always clearly; they are comfortable with and motivated by the totally unpredictable future, the very future that everyone, especially designers, will shape.

12. The designer visualizes and prototypes to advance stakeholder conversation about change, to break down boundaries between stakeholders, and clarify and reveal their latent and explicit needs and desires. It’s to show what’s possible. This is done through abstract forms: verbal, visual, and tactile.

13. Designers are naturals and finding and creating order in arbitrary, unclear, and unfamiliar spaces. They take inputs, quickly act to make sense of them, and create new possibilities. While they often rely on subject matter experts, part of what gives them nimbleness and clear thinking is the their outside perspective.

14. Designers seek legibility: the patterning and order of information, interactions, environments, and organizations. This comes at with a risk, as the high modernists learned. When scientific order and simplification is imposed on complex natural and social systems, it makes everything more brittle. Good designers recognize this; they allow systems to behave with their natural order and work with those systems — not against them — to create change. (based on James C. Scott)

15. Designer focus should always remain on people with sensitivity to ecological systems. The designer should always serve as an advocate for users, people, groups, future society, and the planet. As Dieter Rams once said, “Indifference towards people and the lives they lead is the only sin a designer can commit.” Design is a humble profession and in constant service to others and to society. (based on George Nelson)

16. The designer is a scalar thinker and sees situations holistically; parts and wholes, separate and together, studying the connections and interactions, conscious of the consequences of narrow-minded approaches.

17. The designer employs abductive reasoning, a form of synthesis, or, the “logic of what might be” (based on Roger Martin). This is what might otherwise be called “the designer’s leap” where the creation of new ideas and knowledge is the result of logical premise, the designer’s life experiences, and leaps based on inconclusive data. This runs counter to the misconception that design invention is “magic” or comes “in a flash.”

18. The designer works collectively and leads collective action. The designer working solo in his studio is a practice of the past and is unhelpful in addressing complex, systems-level challenges.

19. The designer has total comfort with being wrong. Designers are comfortable with just “having a go” and is constantly re-evaluating process and result.

20. The designer is a constant critic of his or her surroundings, thinking of how everything could be improved upon, and that there’s always room for change. A contradiction: the designer should refrain from criticism of all kinds, employing an “empty mind” so as to gain insight on what the designer does not know or understand, namely cultures and values different from his or her own.

21. Good designers democratically distribute their tools and perspective, empowering others to shape their part of the world in human-centered, holistic ways. Designers do this by creating platforms, translating the languages of subjects and participants. This could also be seen as a form of distributive justice and civic mindedness, bringing the benefits of clear thinking and design process to a wider audience.

22. The designer designs with a goal of dignity in the human experience. The designer helps people find their natural place in the universe through tools and knowledge shaped to suit their goals and objectives (based on Richard Buchanan).

23. The designer constantly asks questions of ethics and rightness: What kind of a world are we making? What kind a world can we be making? What kind of a world should we be making? (Liz Coleman)

24. All of design begins with a basic sense of curiosity about the world, about environmental surroundings, about people and how they live their lives, about things and how they came to be, and about a diversity of ideas. Human-centered and systems-minded designers think everything is interesting and everything has value and these exposures contribute to his or her library of insight.

by Alexander R. Wilcox Cheek (2014)