Future Designing

Peter JonesSlow Learning, Strategic Foresight

Future designing is and always will be a process of figuring things out.

The human animal has been named, by some, homo faber, people who make, and making is the primary act in designing. Art, design, and engineering share this impulse and endow it with vocabularies that contain some people inside the practice, and place some outside the practice. These vocabularies, or design language systems, are learned in education and practice. As in most fields, the language systems constitute much of the identity of designing, if not the skill.

Even so, for many years, design education was treated as a craft tradition, with students (undergraduates in particular) learning as apprentices in intensive studio courses. In Canada’s tradition, art and design programs have usually been joined together, with specialized schools outside the university system. (Consider Toronto’s OCAD was founded as the OCA art school in 1876).

Now OCADU has become a university, with a growing portfolio of innovative graduate programs. Some of these programs – the MDes in Strategic Foresight and Innovation that I teach in, for example – do not extend a prior design background but are new inter-disciplines. Are these design programs design-as-making? Or something else?

Design is a Way of Knowing

One of the concepts I’ve been wrangling toward coherence is a formulation of designing as a way of knowing. It is not a craft activity or a way of thinking, but a way of knowing that pervades all these activities.  It is independent yet informed by the other (culturally designated) ways of knowing: science, humanities, religion, and even art.

These are independent because we recognize the cultural categories by their exclusivity. Science and art do not require any relationship to each other, and even humanities does not. Certainly religion, as a way of knowing, is separable from the other ways.  Design can contribute to all of these, but is not contingent on any of them.  If this is true, then the future of design education is not as simple as pundits propose.

Design is a making-first way, learning by making and doing, with its proof in practical use and delight. Some abstract definitions of designing (Herbert Simon’s in particular) elevate the thinking practices of design to the often-promoted motivation to change structures and systems. That’s a motive of mine too, yes. But the motive itself is insufficient – “mere planning” is not designing. designing a better way – by planning – is not in reality designing that better way. If this is true, this also has implications for education and the way designers structure future scenarios for such planning.

Designers have to do the messy work of making things happen in the world – according to plan to some extent.  Reality forces the design/planner into iterations, prototypes, and creative contingencies. But designing a plan? I’m not so sure anymore – You have to draw the line somewhere. Everyone may be a designer, but then, everyone can also be a writer or artist as well.  A way of knowing is not automatically a profession after all. Its a preference, a way of making sense of the world. Even when working as a scientist, as a collaborating researcher, I found I design things first and support the research later based on scientific standards.

If Humans are Homo Faber

Here’s the other side of the problem. If we as educators and designers “make” Design to be only a discipline, one that we rule, then we may have professionalized one of the primary acts of being human. By trying to authorize the appropriate ways to design our things and lives, we the “design community” are Making Things Worse.

Don Norman considers “the future of design,” a topic that engrosses a lot of designers. And he focuses on how that future requires meaningful changes to the content of curricula.  All informed perspectives on this question are significant, and the quality and volume of comments on Don’s piece are extraordinary. I wrote this partly because i thought my response there would just get lost.

One motive for a stronger focus on sciences and engineering method in design is to ensure the survival of the fittest designers in a cut-throat economy. Yes, some are hoping to protect one of the last bastions of work protected from global wage arbitrage, so that designers can elevate their jobs to essential status. Those of us – like Don as well – who lead in an educational institution have to “make plans” for what to teach and how.

Then What DO we Teach?

I hear a lot of criticism about current design education, and it is easy to propose what curricula we should design, and how we should teach. Quite a challenge it is to work the plan and iterate to the contingencies of new design education. Don says:

Design schools do not train students about these complex issues, about the interlocking complexities of human and social behavior, about the behavioral sciences, technology, and business. There is little or no training in science, the scientific method, and experimental design.

Is it just me, or is  this kind of a wildly generalized statement?  It does not specify fields of design or level of study. Second, even if this is the case at most undergraduate levels, is this a problem? When Dr. Norman says:

The social and behavioral sciences have their own problems, for they generally are disdainful of applied, practical work and their experimental methods are inappropriate: scientists seek “truth” whereas practitioners seek “good enough.” Scientists look for small differences, whereas designers want large impact. People in human-computer interaction, cognitive engineering, and human factors or ergonomics are usually ignorant of design. All disciplines have their problems: everyone can share the blame.

I find room for argument on both sides of the problem as stated. He’s comparing practitioners in these fields across levels, contrasting “workaday” bench scientists with top designers. Top scientists certainly seek impact, and workaday designers – the majority – must be contented with one of the many jobs in the field that require daily design work.

Top level professionals share a lot of qualities in common with each other. One quality is that both design and science are dialogic practices, advanced by argumentation, in the oral tradition. Even though scientists must publish, a small proportion of all papers are really read. Scientific ideas – and design impacts – advance through argumentation and illocutionary force (the force of intent of the speaker). This is an essential skill that is rarely taught in science. Scientists have to figure this one out, because unfortunately, they are not taught in the classroom of crits. They have long, slow, fussy peer review to contend with. But argumentational force can obviate a lot of review.

So, as with most fields, if a practitioner aspires to have impact, they must educate themselves to speak to problems at the level of impact they envision. This is not a failing of design, or of science.  Business students seek MBA’s to have more impact, and even then, the potential for impact is rightly debatable. The individual must seek that level of education where available.

So What About Design Schools?

Again, design schools grew from an arts school pedagogy and studio tradition. Even at the major US university design programs, courses in human factors were not taught until the mid-1980’s. The needs of the marketplace for designers led design education. For what has been a practical profession, this is not bad in itself.

At the graduate level, design education is changing. We are seeking candidates from non-design backgrounds, as medical schools often accept humanities students or scientists get MBAs. In interdisciplinary design programs, we must carefully choose the coverage and depth of sciences, social sciences, and systems.  As educators, we have to envision the impact we desire grad students to have. I believe the OCADU grad students will largely be creating new jobs for which there are few good titles now. They are unlikely to be satisfied with the workaday, and corporate employers do not know how to even specify the skills and aptitudes necessary for their own jobs of the near-future. I believe new work practices can and should created this way, from the vision of what’s possible. Helping those visionaries gain credibility and experience is the near-future job of the design educator.