Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Can designers train their intuition?

We are entering a time of complexity that is recognized everywhere, especially in design circles. Don Norman's latest book "Living with complexity" is a sign of this. But the fact that the world is getting more complex is not a new insight. Christopher Alexander wrote in 1964 in his book "Notes on the synthesis of form" that "more and more design problems are reaching insoluble levels of complexity" (p 3). He argues in his book that due to the increasing complexity, design can no longer be an activity that is done by people who has an innate ability to make good judgments. He argues that good intuition is not enough. Design is in need of more systematic approaches. Out of this idea grew his proposal for the use of pattern language in design.

Even though Alexander argued that intuition is not enough, the notion of intuition has always and will probably continue to be a core concept when it comes to describing what is needed from a designer. Intuition is often understood as the ability to sub-consciously make considerations, decisions and judgments based on non-complete and overwhelming information. There is a fairly common conception of intuition that it is an ability that can not be trained or developed, actually in many cases it is even seen ask dangerous to examine or inspect intuition. The idea is that if you interfere with intuition you will destroy it.

Alexander also comments, however slightly differently, on this aspect of intuition. He writes "Enormous resistance to the idea of systematic processes of design is coming from people who recognize correctly the importance of intuition, but then make a fetish of it which excludes the possibility of asking reasonable questions." (p 9). To Alexander there is a respect for intuition that sometimes hinders the possibility to developing more structured and intentional approaches to design. He argues that there are so many designers who have an established position due to their ability to apply their intuition to complex problems and if other approaches are developed that is based on externalized knowledge, and therefore also possible to teach and practice, then their competence and status will be challenged.

Donald Schön makes two arguments in relation to the question of intuition. First of all, he acknowledges that every designer are engaged in deep internal processes of reflection and decision making that can be seen as intuitive since they are not fully possible to externalize. He also constantly advocates reflection as a tool to engage critically in what constitutes the elements and processes of design thinking. Building your expertise is a matter of training your intuition. "Training" your intuition can be done by expanding your design repertoire through constant critical examination of your own thinking and acting as a designer.

So, it is possible to both respect the position of Alexander and Schön. Intuition should be challenged by rational approaches to design but without requiring all aspects of the process to become externalized. Intuition can be respected as a core part of design thinking without making it a black box that is not possible to develop and is only a matter of talent. Any designer can develop their competence by doing both, that is, engaging in constant effort to develop their design intuition a la Schön and to engage in efforts to find more developed and systematic ways to improve the design process a la Alexander.


GK said...

Thank you for writing this. This has been on my mind lately as well. I still am not clear as to what we mean when we say systematize. This might be because I haven't read Alexander. That being said, I have two things that might be relevant to this notion of systematizing. The first is to dispel the myth that design just springs out of creative fountainheads who sit down scratching their chin - the 'Eureka' trope. That being said, my stance is that we cannot and should not attempt to make design "scientific". As you have mentioned during the lectures, design is not a science but can be informed by science. Trying to make it a science just results in off-the-shelf, plug-and-play template designs which have very limited scope of application. While we are trying to solve wicked real world problems, these just fall apart. The word systematize connotes notions of "science" since it implies predictability and generalizability. While these are useful qualities to have, they alone are not sufficient for the goals design sets itself up for.
The second point I want to raise here has been on my thoughts a lot recently. The notion of providing systemic structures that help promote design as an inherent and important activity in day-to-day life as opposed treating it as spurts of creative genius. One of this structure, which I believe is terribly lacking, is the notion of apprenticeship. The capitalist mode of production sees apprenticeship at its best as a resume building activity and its worst as non-existent and discards it as an extravagance. Tutorials are seen as a replacement for apprenticeship. Just to be clear, I am not questioning the value of tutorials. But, IMO, they can never replace the knowledge that can be obtained through apprenticeship.

Balakrishna Chennupati said...

Hi Erik,

How are you doing? Nice post!

I find it's the same with interaction design patterns. They are best to educate yourself, but once you know them, they are of lesser value.

Stephen Anderson wrote this article that is relevant about the difference between skipping a phase versus internalizing a phase. http://the-pastry-box-project.net/stephen-anderson/2012-april-4/


Erik Stolterman said...

Hi GK and Bala

Thanks to both of you for writing comments. I very much appreciate it. And I find both of your comments valuable. The notion of apprenticeship is so important and unfortunately not today included in higher education except maybe at the phd level. And Anderson's reflections are quite insightful.