A romantic view of design

How do designers solve problems differently, to say the least, from the rest? Or to jump right at the meat of things, how do designers perceive problems differently from the rest? Ever since I developed the itch to learn the art of design, I've let this question brew inside, allowing it to ferment as I moonlighted over small design experiments and occasional inspired readings.

As serendipity would have it, while dipping my toes into the effervescent Twitter stream a couple of days ago, my attention circled over a tweet made by my favorite thinker, Dave Snowden.
Dave's sneering remark on "Design thinking" came as a surprise. It led me to introspect my enthusiasm over the burgeoning popularity of design in the age of "digital revolution". Truth be told, I am among the multitudes who have sung hosannas to the importance of design in humanizing the current technological landscape. (You can check this one where I suggest MBA types to learn design to get rid of the bullshit they were taught in B-School). 
Whenever a new topic/phenomenon enters my radar of attention, I've noticed a pattern in the way I assimilate it. It starts off with a romantic view, when you are completely in awe over that that brief, "satori" moment of understanding. As the initial enthusiasm evaporates, you doubt every thing you've taken for granted, including the privilege of attention you lavished over it. After this discomforting phase marked by doubt and cynicism, you finally make peace by finding the appropriate context frame in which its position would be weakly held within the lattice of meaning cultivated inside. 

A romantic view
Design stands now at the "romantic view" phase in my exploration. In this phase, I see its emergence as a reaction to the dominance in which analytical thinking has colonized our sense-making apparatus - the tools which do the job of making sense of our world.

How does one depict this romantic view of design? I created a small graphic which contrasts this romantic view with the dominant analytical world-view, as I perceive it now. A romantic view inevitably comes with necessary simplifications for the sake of clarity. Odds are likely that this view would change soon as my understanding deepens.

Credits: I must thank Jon Kolko for providing the intellectual foundations to frame my thinking through his insightful papers. Hat tip due to Sanjay Radhakrishnan for introducing me to Jon's works




If I could depict the essence of the fascination I share towards design, this one might come close. Before I get to that, let me walk you through it.

At the outset, it is obvious that the analytical mindset is very good at solving the problems if, and that's a big if, the problem has been accurately defined. In contrast, the design world-view is more keen on discovering the contours of the problem with the conviction that the problem walks its way to the solution as it inches closer to an accurate definition of the problem.

Let me unpack the components of this diagram. As you can see, the analytical world-view begins and ends with “facts”. In the diagram, therefore, the lower compartment has been called the ‘real’ world (of facts), and the upper portion ‘imaginary’ and ‘abstract’, implying it exists only in our imagination and is not real.

Contrast this with the mirrored design world-view where the physical world is seen as a reflection of the inner worlds, which is considered more "real" than the reflected world of sensory perceptions and physical objects.

Why is this so?

Unlike the analytical world-view, which can afford to insulate its methods from cultural context( For example, Laws of gravity transcends all cultural beliefs which depict the forces of Earth) , design world-view is deeply affected by its cultural context and these real "inner subjective worlds" - comprising the users' needs and desires - dictate the intent, methods and the forms used in the design of the artifact

Although both the world-views begin with accumulation of facts, they differ greatly in the way the facts are organized. While the analytical world-view depends on the principles of objectivity - to observe without the prejudices of the observer, the design world-view is strongly influenced by the designer's subjectivity. This obviates the need for the facts to be replicated in generating the "vision" through the dark, invisible process of design synthesis. The designer's subjectivity is also evident in the way "beauty" is perceived with respect to the utility of the solution and the utilization of the resources.

Does this depiction distill the essence of the differences between these deeply divergent, yet mirroring world-views? I leave it to you to decide. Feel free to share your thoughts and comments. 

2 comments:

Sanjay Radhakrishnan said...

Excellent post. Very well articulated. Design methods are designed to pursue contextual truths, unlike the sciences which are meant for pursuing universal truths. Thanks for the mention

Venkataraman said...

Thanks Sanjay for your feedback!