Friday, June 28, 2013

Book note: "Back to the rough ground" by Joseph Dunne

In our research group where we study design practice, we read relevant texts each week this summer and talk about them. Yesterday we read the last chapter, the Epilogue, from "Back to the Rough Ground" by Joseph Dunne.

I read this book when it was first published and I keep coming back to it. When it comes to scholarly examinations about what practice is all about, what competence is, what rationality is, there is no other book that can deliver so much wisdom.

Yesterday, re-reading the Epilogue (which I have read many times before), I was again completely overwhelmed with the way Dunne handles this difficult topic. Some paragraphs are so good, it hurts physically to read them!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Book note: "101 Design Methods" and the problematic success of design

I just received my copy of the book "101 Design Methods -- A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation inYour Organization" by Vijay Kumar. This is one of quite many similar books that have been published the last few years, that is, a book that contains a large number of design methods nicely but briefly described.

I have always like this type of book even though I never really use them myself. The same is true for "101 Design Methods". The book contains many of the popular design methods that are used today and Kumar has organized these methods by providing "A Model of the Design Innovation Process".

This model is, in my words, a schema that helps designers think about the design process, what activities are involved,  and how the different activities relate to each other. It is a nice schema that invites for further exploration.

Kumar does not discuss design in terms of phases or steps, instead he talks about "Seven Modes of the Design Innovation Process". For each of the methods, Kumar then presents benefits, input, output, and when to use. He also presents "what it does" and "how it works". Everything is well presented and the methods are pedagogically introduced, each on two pages.

As for many of the similar books that introduce methods and techniques in a condensed form, this book also have the same issues. I believe that for someone who is already trained in design and has internalized designerly thinking and is experienced in the design process, a book like this works well. The book then becomes a handbook, a repository, a memory support, an inspirational source for when a designer has to select how to approach a task. For a designer, the descriptions are enough to inspire how to do something based on previous experience, and then they can adapt and adopt the method to the specific situation and need. The two page description reminds the designer of potential methods and also about the core aspects of the method.

However, for someone who is not trained in design, who does not think in a designerly way, the book does not give the same support. Instead, it may even be misleading in the sense that it portraits design as a process of activities that all seem fairly straightforward and "simple". It may appear that given the situation at hand you just decide what you need, or what "mode" you are in, and then uses one of the methods for that purpose.  However, this is not the way design works. The complexity of even the "simplest" design situation and process never means that there are obvious choices of methods or techniques.

What we face today with the enormous success of design as a solution to most problems, such as 'innovation' in Kumar's book, is that design is being transformed from a process requiring competence and skills that takes time and effort to achieve into a "quick fix" approach where it is all about picking the right tools. It is as if we would take a traditional carpenters workshop, pick 25 out of the several hundreds of tools in there, arrange them conceptually in relation to what a carpenter does, and expect anyone to be able to do carpentry and achieve high quality furniture. We all know that is not possible. To be a skilled carpenter means to know what tool to use, when and how to use them, and to recognize improvement and quality of outcome. None of these skills are intrinsically part of any method or tool. The skill to be able to think and act like a carpenter is what carpentry is all about.

So, even though I am very happy with the way design has reached the status of today, that all companies and organizations want to be design thinking organizations, I am less happy with the way that this success is manifested in books. The book described above is definitely needed and is a great contribution to many designers. But what we need is more books that can help people to understand design, what it means to be a designer, that can support them in their struggle to develop as a designer. We need books about design that accepts that it is not a "quick fix", not a question of using the right tools, not a question of selecting the right method, but that design is a way of thinking and approaching the world with the purpose of change. And we need books that can do this in an intelligible way that intrigues non-designers and make them understand that the effort needed is worth it if they want to become a designer.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Wonderful 1.5 minute video about design

It is difficult to show what design is about, even if you just want to explain a few aspects of what characterizes the design process. This little video by Apple is in my mind an amazing good and rare example. In two minutes they cover the importance of first intentions, desiderata, service, composition, etc. framed in Apple language. All core concepts from our book "The Design Way".

Of course the video does not give a full exposition of design, but it presents some reflections of its core. And they do it in a beautiful way!

Monday, June 03, 2013

The many (universal) versus the (ultimate) particular

Being in an academic environment where many different approaches to understanding reality lives side by side is fascinating. I am intrigued by the new and growing approach that takes on the study of social phenomena as a study of complex systems and those who advocate 'big data' as the solution to most problems.

It seems as if almost everything today is studied in the format of "many", that is, as a sum, average or network of many actors or activities. This is of course the basic approach of science, the universal is at the core.

At the same time, so much of what make up our reality as humans is a composition of particulars. I live in this particular house, work in this particular job, have these particular friends, etc. Designers have always had a strong affinity for the particular since design is always about the ultimate particular and not about the universal or general.

It is interesting to think about the modern academic world in light of this division. Who in academia has as their main interest to figure out the universal and who is ultimately engaged with the particular of some kind? The answer is that a huge majority is engaged with particulars and how to deal with them, while very few are involved in the pursuit of the universal. But at the same time, the pursuit of the universal is considered the most valuable and the protocols and procedures that guide the search for the universal is also pushed into areas where the particular is in focus. My guess is that we will in the next decades see a new understanding of knowledge production that is more 'designerly' grounded, that is, with the intent to develop knowledge that support engagement with the particular.

The thing is that dealing with the particular can never be approached as if it is a consequence of universal knowledge. Why this is the case is a philosophical issue that I may come back to in another post.

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