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.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Some ongoing readings

On my desk at the moment I have some book that I slowly are trying to get through. The problem is as usual that they are good which makes the reading slower at the same time as rewarding.

These are the books I am reading right now:

Christoffer Alexander "Notes on the Synthesis of Form", (1964). 
This is a re-read. I read this book in 1983 and I was really inspired and excited. Now, after only have read a few pages, I am equally excited and realize that many of the ideas I think are my own are probably from this book.

Bruno Latour, "Reassembling the Social", (2005)
Together with some PhD students and some colleagues we are reading one chapter every other week. Then we meet for an hour to discuss that chapter. It takes time but it is really worth it. This is a challenging book in which Latour redefines sociology in a way that is consistent with his earlier work while highly critical of traditional sociology. Is is fascinating to read someone who takes on such a huge task and does it extremely well.

Peter-Paul Verbeek "Moralizing technology" (2011)
I am halfway through this interesting account of the relationship between technology and morality. Verbeek does a wonderful job in laying out the problem and also in providing some great insights. The book is surprisingly easy to read for such a complicated topic. I will hopefully write a review when I am done.

Ludwik Fleck "Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact" (1935).
I realized a while back that I had never read this influential book. It comes with an interesting Foreword by Thomas S. Kuhn who was inspired by Fleck when he wrote his seminal "The structure of scientific revolutions". Fleck develops the notions of "thought style" and "thought collective" in a way that is still more than relevant. I am reading this book in a less structured way, jumping back and forth, not good.

Andrew Feenberg & Norm Friesen (Eds) "(Re)Inventing the Internet" (2012)
I just got this book sent to me from Feenberg and have only started to read it. It is of course based on some of his earlier philosophical writings. The book presents a "critical theory of the internet". Of what I have read so far, it is a welcome analysis of internet which is more analytical than most writings on the topic.

OK, that is enough for now. I guess I have to finish these readings so I can move on to other books.

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