Design Research and Strategy, Graduate Student at Carnegie Mellon University

Writing

Close Attention and Lateral Drift

In some way, the story for this project begins four years ago while I was the research editor for an indie magazine called Makeshift. We started with a simple prompt: there is a wealth of creativity hidden in the economic fringe. Find it. And give it the documentation it deserves.

Maybe we could call this work design, but none of what we shared in Makeshift were speculations or future plans. It was composed entirely of observations in everyday life—noticing what already exists, but then learning to anticipate the surprises, discontinuities, and unexpected sites where these stories could appear.

If design is proposing ways things should be, it requires imagining how things could be, which, based on my experience, requires a deeper understanding of the way (and why) things are. There are other words, adjacent possibilities, and alternative futures happening all around us.

This project is an attempt to remap the process of understanding the world through story and image to a design thinking process. My hope is that this experience can become more intentional, repeatable, and expressive—and perhaps increase the chance of some transformational outcome.

The title of this project comes from a talk given by Dr. Anand Pandian, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University at the 2017 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Pandian’s work concerns the ecological horizons of human aspiration and he used the phrase to describe his way of planning and anticipating unexpected encounters in his daily reading and writing.

Introduction

Over the past sixty years, the systematization and professionalization (and marketing) of design—what we now know as design thinking—has produced a rich set of tools and methods, organized into a robust process that can be adopted and adapted across a breadth of disciplines.

If the relatively short history of design studies has taught us anything, it has shown us that after short, intense periods of generating new knowledge about a particular nature of design, a reactionary spirit emerges and tends to challenge those theoretical underpinnings—the Design Methods Movement was challenged by a return to the expert designer’s instinct and intuition, and the management theory of design emerged seemingly in opposition to this.

If design thinking has become generalized enough to be useful in any discipline, perhaps it’s time to revitalize the practice with a return to the individual and collective mindsets that drive the activities. It might be useful to dig back into the existing theory, to the work of scholars such as John Christopher Jones, Horst Rittel, Nigel Cross, Donald Schön, and Richard Buchanan and begin to reconsider their thinking through the lens of our most urgent needs.

“Designers’ mindsets and postures often go unnoticed and unacknowledged but they profoundly influence what is identified as a problem and how it is framed and solved within a given context” (Irwin, 2016). How might we become more aware of our own mindset? How might we consider alternative or radically different ones? And if we’re able to identify a more appropriate mindset, how might we begin to practice it?

To explore this hypothesis, it might be interesting to start with one of the most obvious [and possibly overlooked] method: observation. Borrowing from emerging thought in ecology, anthropology, transdisciplinary studies, and design research, we can begin to practice a new “art of noticing” (Tsing, 2016) with the specific intention of developing it as a way to reactivate an interest in the designer’s mindset. It’s my hope that by starting here, we can begin to bridge the gap in “mindset and posture” that is required “to live in and through transitional times” (Irwin, 2016).

Design (h)as a history

The professionalization and systematization of design—what we currently call design thinking—has only recently burst into popular lexicon. However, the theories, debates, and controversies that make up the history and lineage of design thinking have been going for nearly six decades. Though each professional discipline that has adopted design methods could have a different explanation for why design thinking has contributed to their specific practice, design thinking as an academic theory and practice has grown through a series of swings between design as a science and design as a discipline (Cross, 2011).

Design as a science

Championed by Bruce Archer from the Royal College of Art and John Christopher Jones from the University of Manchester’s Institute of Science and Technology, the Design Methods Movement aimed to separate design from art and craft as the means to produce physical artifacts by establishing a more scientific method of design (Langrish, 2016; Szczepanska, 2017). This was largely driven by the economic and cultural conditions of the period: well over a decade into post-war optimism and the belief that progress in society was directly linked to progress in science and technology (Hendren, 2017). A systematic approach to design could potentially amplify this belief through the capacity for mass manufacturing that had developed during the war (Langrish, 2016).

The movement officially established itself in 1962 with The Conference on Systemic and Intuitive Methods in Engineering, Industrial Design, Architecture, and Communications in London, England. According to conference co-founder Peter Slann, it was meant to “discover all the possible connections that link all creative activities” in order to “explore the application of scientific methods and knowledge” to problem solving (Jones, 2002). The conference continued to develop for four years until 1966, when it officially became the Design Research Society (Langrish, 2016).

Co-founder Bruce Archer’s Systematic Method for Designers, published in 1963 as a series of articles in Design magazine that spanned two years, was emblematic of the movement. His “checklist for product designers” was an obsessively detailed and incredibly popular 229-step design process (Archer, 1963). It would be forgivable to mistake his method, published three decades before IDEO was founded, as the work of today’s top design thinking firms. Then in 1970, co-founder John Christopher Jones published Design Methods: Seeds of Human Futures and, through this landmark text, attempted to finally integrate the intuitive aspects of design with their discovered and newly articulated scientific approaches (Jones, 1970).

At nearly the same time, economist (and political scientist and sociologist and psychologist and computer scientist) Herbert Simon began work on a science of design with his 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial (Feigenbaum, 2001). To designers, Simon is most known for describing the process as “courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon, 1996). On its own, the definition certainly encompasses the entirety of design, but it is critical to know how and why he proposed this definition. Simon saw the entire world as artifice, objects designed by humans. However, because of the limits of human understanding (he saw the human brain as the ultimate artifice) human needs could only ever be satisfied and never fully resolved. What Simon proposed though was a process of simulating the problem and observing its behavior (Di Russo, 2016).

While Simon believed this rigorous simulation could produce a single solution capable of satisfying unmet needs, University of California, Berkeley professors Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber argued in Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning that problems that could be solved in this scientific manner were merely “tame” and that problems that are social in nature cannot be definitively described or resolved—they are, rather, “wicked” (Rittel, 1973). Even though Rittel and Webber were concerned with what kinds of outcomes could result from the design process, like their peers in this time period, they were also concerned with methodology, but with more concern for the human experience (Szczepanska, 2017).

Around this same time, designer, educator, and activist Victor Papanek published his first edition of Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. Like Rittel and Webber, Papanek sought to extend the formalization of design methods to include the moral responsibility of designers. Working with his experience as an anthropologist and ethnographer, he challenged designers to use their existing theories and methods but toward meeting “the genuine needs of man” by deeply considering societal and environmental challenges (Papanek, 1971).

Design as a way of knowing

Toward the early 1980s, design theorists, reacting against the positivistic, rationalistic, and scientific approach to design from the Design Methods Movement, began to deeply consider the cognitive processes at work (Di Russo, 2016). Even some of the earliest champions for design methods began to question the scientific approach. In How My Thoughts About Design Methods Have Changed During the Years, John Christopher Jones said “I reacted against design methods. I dislike the machine language, the behaviorism, the continual attempt to fix the whole of life into a logical framework (Jones, 1977).

The fundamental issues that Rittel, Webber, and Papanek raised created the space necessary to challenge the efficacy of design as a scientific process (Cross, 2001). The first challenger was Nigel Cross in his 1982 Design Studies article Designerly Ways of Knowing. In it, he set out to defend that a particular kind of intuition is unique to design and it is that which separates it from both the sciences and the humanities. His uncovering of the creation and use of tacit knowledge and instinctive process decisions in design helped uncover the mysteries associated with “creative leaps.” By creating a theory of design as a way of thinking, Cross was able to show that designers are intentionally creating bridges across seemingly disparate islands of knowledge (Cross, 1982). He centered the designer not as a participant in the process, but the process itself (Di Russo, 2016).

In 1983, Donald Schön, philosopher and professor in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published The Reflective Practitioner in an effort, among others, to legitimate design through a deep, reflective understanding of the designer practicing design. This “reflection-in-action” approach to design stood in deep contrast to Simon’s cognitive approach and the logical process of methods proposed in the Design Methods Movement (Di Russo, 2017). In his book, he writes “The reflective practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation” (Szczepanska, 2017).

As the debate between design as a science and design as a discipline continued, another fundamental shift in design practice was underway. With the advent of personal computing, design began to separate itself from the creation of physical artifacts, toward the creation of human-computer interactions. In 1992, Richard Buchanan published Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, a widely influential paper that revisited Rittel and Webber’s wicked problems and the role design could have in solving problems. He argued that the uniqueness of design cognition and design methodology is unique enough to be its own liberal art. In articulating this liberal art, Buchanan proposed a roadmap for design to move toward more sophisticated contexts. His “four orders of design” acknowledged the success of design in symbolic and visual communication (first order), the creation of physical artifacts (second order), and proposed activities and organized services as its third order (what we know now as experience and service design), and speculated on a fourth order that included the design of complex systems or environments for living, working, playing and learning (Buchanan, 1992).

Design as a way of working

Nearly coinciding with Buchanan’s paper and the path it defined to move design from its industrial roots in manufacturing toward innovation and its application is a broader context, the design firm IDEO formed through a merger of David Kelley Design, Moggridge Associates, ID Two, and Matrix Product Design—David Kelley, Bill Moggridge, and Mike Nutall. Over the next decade, the company brings in experts from a wide range of disciplines in order to better serve their clients on innovative new products (Szczepanska, 2017).

In 1999, the company’s unique way of working is documented for an episode of ABC Television’s Nightline. In The Deep Dive, a team from IDEO shows how it would reinvent the shopping cart. The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO and Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley help create the major discourse for this period in design thinking’s history—based on experiences rather than theories (Johansson-Sköldberg 2013). This effort culminates in 2008, when CEO Tim Brown publishes Design Thinking in the Harvard Business Review, one of the publications most popular articles of all time.

Design as a way of thinking

With the success of design now entangled with the success of new products and services and, ultimately, their clients’ financial success, design returned to a heavy focus on the specific methods and processes that would increase the likelihood of a successful outcome, reminiscent of the Design Methods Movement of the early 1960s (Di Russo, 2016). The major difference, however, was that these methods were a result of working with transdisciplinary teams, rather than sole practitioners or teams of design experts. The methods produced during this period took into consideration the needs and ways of working of psychologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, computer scientists, human factors engineers, business strategists, designers, and many others (Szczepanska, 2017).

Not only was the design process beginning to include more experts, but it was begin to expand when, where, and how users became part of the process. Design theorist Donald Norman championed a user-centered design process. Instead of focusing on the usability of design, Norman pushed designers to consider the interests and needs of the user (Di Russo, 2017). This required designers to take cues from the social sciences and begin making toolkits that could help teams understand these needs (Szczepanska, 2017). Liz Sanders, founder of MakeTools, co-author of Convivial Toolbox, and later associate professor of design at The Ohio State University, is responsible for creating most of the generative research methods used in design thinking.

As design firms moved toward Buchanan’s higher orders of design, these methods allowed experts to not only observe and understand user behaviors for research, but allowed experts to work with and co-create with users and other non-design stakeholders (Di Russo, 2017). This human-centered design process not only enables the creation of experiences and services for end-users, but also, similar to the goals set out in Papanek’s Design for the Real World, allows teams to begin chipping away at Rittel and Webber’s wicked problems.

Design as an identity crisis

As early as 2010, though, design thinking began to enter a crisis of identity and legitimation (Norman 2010). Questions are continually raised on whether the term has become so diffuse that it has lost all meaning. Some of the early thought leaders for design thinking have started to move on from their focus on process and methods and have begun to address the individual qualities of the people interested in using design thinking methodologies. In 2013, former assistant managing editor for BusinessWeek and professor of innovation and design at Parsons School of Design Bruce Nussbaum published Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire (Nussbaum 2013). In the same year David and Tom Kelley from IDEO published Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All (Kelley 2013).

Once again, design thinking discourse shifts from methods to discipline. And once again design thinking discourse shifts from addressing design practitioners and experts to addressing all those interested in adopting its practice (Di Russo, 2017). Does this all sound a bit familiar? Might you have an idea where the debate goes next?

Mindset

Design thinking, at its best, offers a more sophisticated way to approach and deal with problems across many professions and disciplines. As a result, there is an urgent demand for clear and definite design methods and processes (Dorst, 2011). What is often underrepresented in the documentation and representation of the design thinking process is consideration for the various mindsets and postures that can be innate in, adopted by, and practiced by all participants—and how they might affect research inputs, decision-making activities, and design outputs.

In The Core of Design Thinking and its Application, Professor of Design Innovation at the University of Technology, Sydney, Kees Dorst argues that to even begin to make use of design methods, practitioners must build off  fundamentally different kinds of reasoning. Abductive reasoning, in contrast to deductive and inductive reasoning, seeks to propose a working principle in order to cause a certain desired outcome. However, unlike deductive reasoning, the working principles or premises (of which there could be many) do not guarantee the outcome (Dorst, 2011). This reasoning pattern is critical to practicing design, proposing a “thing” and a working principle in order to obtain a desired outcome.

In higher order thinking, this reasoning pattern can manifest (and brand) itself in many different ways. For example, in his widely influential article Design Thinking in Harvard Business Review, Tim Brown sketches out a profile of design thinker. Design thinkers should practice “empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism, and collaboration” (Brown, 2008). Over time this sketch has been extended and appears in one of the most widely available and used design thinking manual, IDEO’s Human Centered Design Toolkit. In order to best address the challenges a team might be addressing, the toolkit includes seven mindsets in its design philosophy: empathy, optimism, iteration, creative confidence, making, embracing ambiguity, and learning from failure (IDEO.org, 2011).

It is certainly not the case that because these mindsets are prescribed they are not valuable. Indeed, they matter greatly. However, they’re often presented the same way as tools, methods, and processes—modular, interchangeable, and perhaps without consequences. Two recent books from champions of design thinking aim to move away from the process as the core driver of innovation to the creative capacity of participants.

Two recent books have attempted to separate certain favorable behaviors and mindsets and focus on their development outside of the methods and processes of design thinking. After declaring design thinking a failed experiment, professor of innovation and design at Parsons School of Design Bruce Nussbaum published Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire, arguing that certain behaviors enable the ability to “frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions” (Nussbaum, 2011). Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tim Brown attempts to demolish the myth of the “creative type” and inspire and activate the dormant creativity within everyone, building the confidence to make and defend creative leaps (Brown, 2013).

Both of these books follow a pattern for most contemporary design thinking publications: defending an observation or argument (or hunch) through descriptions and anecdotes. What is missing in these books, then, is a way for the reader to actively participate in the exploration of certain mindsets. Both of these books also separate these behaviors and mindsets from the design thinking process.

In order to avoid further fragmentation, it might be worth working toward a model of design thinking similar to the one presented by Aalto University School of Science and Technology professors Lotta Hassi and Miko Laakso in Design Thinking in the Management Discourse: Defining the Elements of the Concept. Their argument is that design thinking done well emerges from its practices, thinking styles, and mentality—maybe something more, but certainly nothing less. In addition to the practices Hassi and Laakso identify abductive reasoning, reflective reframing, holistic view, and integrative thinking as the most favorable thinking styles from across design methodologies. They identify experimental and explorative, ambiguity tolerant, optimistic, and future-oriented as favorable mentalities (Hassi, 2011).

While these books and articles present a valuable descriptive effort for mindset in design thinking, they do not activate the practice of mindset in an intentional, methodical way. How might we discover and learn about the particular qualities of a mindset. How might we practice it? How might we reflect on the process and be aware of any noticeable difference in our current mindset? How might we also track the mindset’s entry into and its effect on the tools, methods, and processes of design thinking?

Design thinking is a multistage process that can help guide a team composed of varying degrees of discipline, experience, and subject matter expertise through problem-finding, problem-defining, and problem-solving activities. Based on the efforts for organizations like IDEO and institutions like the Hasso Plattner Institute for Design at Stanford University, design thinking is composed of distinct activities that generally map to a phases of discovery, definition, concept generation, prototyping, and testing. Though these activities follow a logical progression, the act of designing in this manner is nonlinear—knowledge generated in each phase can not only inform the next phase, but also require a return to a previous phase in order to reconsider previous assumptions. The entire process (however it plays out) can also be repeated ad infinitum in order to create prototypes of increasing fidelity and eventually a designed artifact, whether it’s a product, service, or some combination of both.

Tool

Through use of this camera, we are going to try to inject a different mindset into the discover and define phase. It will be very obvious and evident at this stage, but it will be up to you to see how this mindset affects the way you generate concepts based on your research, prototype a few new ideas, and test them in the real world.

This camera is meant to remind you of the point-and-shoot cameras you would typically use to capture moments from special events and everyday life. However, where the photographer would typically have complete control over what is captured, this time the camera is in control. The camera is pursuing its own agenda. And that agenda is to teach you the art of noticing.

This camera has a viewfinder, but it doesn’t display what you’re pointing the lens at. Instead, this screen will alert you to various prompts and tasks that must be completed. You’ll be asked to look at boring things, find weird things where they might not exist. You’ll spend time trying to understand and interpret the prompt and find its visual representation in the world around you. You’ll then spend time trying to make sense of the mess you’ve created. This is one of the essence of design: resolving tension and making meaning.

Interlude

If “design thinking is dead,” or only a “useful myth,” or needs to be “rethought,” what sort of reactionary studies might emerge to take what has been useful thus far and adapt it to our modern concerns (Nussbaum, 2011; Norman, 2011; Kimbell, 2011)? If we frame the reaction to the Design Methods Movement by the social and economic landscape of the 1970s, it might also be useful to sketch out a frame for our reaction based on the current social, economic, and ecological landscape.

...on noticing

In The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, professor of anthropology Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing offers a new way to understand our relationship with nature by telling the story—somewhere between adventure and nightmare—of the world’s most valuable fungus, the matsutake mushroom. Its entire existence, its global commodity trade, as well as the livelihoods of the pickers, brokers, and shippers is due entirely to the mushroom’s ability to thrive in ecosystems devastated by human activity. By starting to unpack the unexpected encounters of “people and landscapes, landscapes and mushrooms, mushrooms and people,” Tsing offers a richer frame for our planetary crises.

“It is time to pay attention to mushroom picking. Not that this will save us—but it might open our imagination” (Tsing, 2015).

In the chapter, The Art of Noticing, Tsing encourages readers to “look up and look around” (Tsing, 2015). “Living in a time of planetary catastrophe thus begins with a practice at once humble and difficult: noticing the worlds around us” (Tsing, 2017). Her worry is that terms like anthropocene are currently too big to be useful and have the potential to “block attention to patchy landscapes, multiple temporalities, and shifting assemblages of humans and nonhumans” (Tsing, 2015). “Somehow in the midst of ruins, we must maintain enough curiosity to notice the strange and wonderful as well as the terrible and terrifying” (Tsing, 2017).

...on anticipating

In their keynote talk, at the international and interdisciplinary conference, Anticipation 2017, Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney outlined a few of the behaviors that might make us more able to “witness, respond to, and create change” in a way that appreciates the precarity and complexity of our situation: Donna Haraway’s staying with the trouble, Kim Stanley Robinson’s pseudoiterative, Robert Rosen’s anticipatory systems, Timothy Morton’s wiggle room, and Nassim Taleb’s antifragility (Kuzmanovic, 2017).

“When you’re not sure what the future might hold, shift attention to noticing what is already present. Watch out for different possibilities to experiment with” (Kuzmanovic, 2017).

“Anticipation allows us to select and connect an assemblage of propositions that are worth committing time and energy to. The more we train our anticipatory skills, the more we can prepare for and navigate a wide range of futures and wicked problems” (Kuzmanovic, 2017).

...on dreaming

Timothy Morton, philosopher, ecologist, and Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University, is concerned with the crush of information used to describe our natural systems. Though we are awash in data about our present condition—Forty! One hundred thousand! Two degrees Celsius! Fifty percent!—in order “to live the data, [we] need not only to be able to act and to think, but also to hesitate, contemplate, muse, puzzle, scribble, doodle, read. To dream. We need to start dreaming.”

“Ecological data beats you down so that you are unable to move. We desperately need some wiggle room” (Morton, 2017).

Reflection and futures

If we return to a period of deep reflection on the tools, methods, and processes of design thinking, on the people and organizations interested in adopting its philosophy, and on who we now might be as design thinkers, then maybe we should also consider where we want (or need) to go. An emerging area of design studies, transition design, acknowledges the need to develop pathways toward more sustainable futures. Whether it is attempting to address climate change, loss of biodiversity, depletion of natural resources, or the widening gap between rich and poor, it is time to take a harder look at wicked problems. Again.

According to the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University, “the transition to a sustainable society will require design approaches informed by new and different value sets and knowledge.” Along with visions for transition, theories of change, and new ways of design, the transition design framework address mindset and posture as part of the “four mutually reinforcing and co-evolving areas of knowledge, action and self-reflection” (Irwin, 2015).

Living in and through transitional times requires a mindset and posture of openness, mindfulness, self-reflection, a willingness to collaborate, and optimistic grumpiness. And to extend this thought, a framework for mapping the shift in our current mindset to the mindset need to practice this new way of designing (Irwin, 2015).

For example, where we currently see the world as a series of components and mechanisms, and as resources for human activity, designing in transitional times requires a holistic mindset, understanding the world as a living system, with humans as part of an interdependent web of life and with nature as the context for all human life (Irwin, 2015).

To become of aware of this mindset and begin to practice requires us to start noticing more of world and more about the nature of this living system.

It was my goal with this camera to become aware of how we see and understand our and other things’ places in the world. That by constantly trying to create meaning from photos that are, in essence, meaningless (remember, they were created with totally random and seemingly nonsensical prompts) we being to question what we often overlook. Seek meaning from new places. And possibly make connections that we would have never made before.

It’s a small step. But my hope is that after committing to use this device and appreciating the intensity it demands, that the next time you grab a camera or even stare up at the sky. That reasoning and sensemaking behavior will become habit. A new way of seeing. That can inform your next move. And who knows what surprising or unexpected things could come as a result.

Matt Prindible