The truth about egalitarian design

We are all designers

We are all designers

‘Design thinking’ is being sold as a methodology for sticky problems. It is also being sold as a process that just about anyone can use to solve ‘wicked problems’. Either something is slightly inconsistent between these two claims or it’s one hell of a method.

‘Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need weird shoes or a black turtleneck to be a design thinker’ Tim Brown writes (HBR, June 2008). ‘Nor are design thinkers necessarily created only by design schools… many people outside professional design have a natural aptitude for design thinking, which the right development and experiences can unlock’.

Claims such as these ease the fear of inadequacy and heighten the sense of opportunity. Social media has proven on a grand scale that people will eagerly adopt something new that makes them feel good about themselves. Some ‘Design thinking’ proponents express a similar populist message – through the processes of ‘design thinking’ anyone can be an active participant in the design process. Blog, tweet, design, make friends and accumulate followers. Design belongs to everyone; design is a right; everyone can design.

This egalitarian vision democratises a field long subjected to an authoritarian oligarchy. How good those words sound to us ‘designerly mortals’. There’s only one problem. It is a commonly held view that the ability to design is largely bestowed at birth and refined over decades of practice, and not an emergent property of group activities amongst well-meaning but ungifted and unpractised enthusiasts.

A significant and mostly convergent body of academic and industry-based research broadly supports this view. Design, like music, acting and playwriting (to name a few similar performance-based crafts) is dominated by the few because it is a meritocracy that values individual creativity, ability and insight over that of a collective. Design theorist Nigel Cross studied exceptional designers and found a number of sharp characteristics not exhibited by beginner or journeymen designers, including the ability to frame problems, to jump tacitly to viable solutions and ‘generators’, and the propensity to ‘fixate’ on their initial problem frame, even defending it in the face of self-evident flaws or significant problems.

It also turns out that effective collaborative design takes great skill on the part of a facilitator, if the group is to avoid the pitfalls of ‘Design by Committee’. From public architecture to information modelling standards and software architecture, unguided collaborations frequently fade into low-value obscurity or visibly spiral out of control. To guard against the inevitable dilution of vision that committees are so effective at, architects have often been accused of becoming irrationally protective of how their buildings are finished, furnished and occupied. Frank Lloyd Wright, the master of balancing abstraction and detail, designed not only the bedrooms, chairs and wardrobes, but also the dresses that his client’s wives wore.  It is said that Harry Seidler once threatened legal action if a replacement rug by another designer was not removed from the foyer of his tower on the corner of Spring and Flinders Streets (Melbourne).  making collaborative design work takes a firm commitment to oversight on every level.

Even the godfather of devolved design process, Christopher Alexander, found himself disturbed by the results achieved by unskilled builders working with his pattern language.  He famously self-criticised the realisation of his pattern-based design approach, referring to elements as ‘funky’ and without the mystical Quality Without A Name. Alexander’s patterns empowered the Oregonians to design in situ, when and where design was needed, in immediate and local response to habitation problems and experiential ‘rough edges’. Others have written about how patterns encapsulate the heuristics of experienced makers who design and assemble with a ‘smooth, relaxed, and almost unconcerned simplicity’. That Alexander’s patterns were widely incorporated into design practice as heuristics rather than as a universal method for domestic design points to the subtlety of design practice.

The notion that all designers are equal confuses designing with design participation and blurs distinct roles in collaborative design.  But the Orwellian take – that some designers are more equal than others – attributes the difference to political rather than design competency.  The great unwashed do have their role in designing and ‘design thinking’. Most of us know a thing or two about what we actually do. Some of us are good observers. And we are all human…

‘innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dis-like about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported’. — Tim Brown, HBR, June 2008.

Brown lists empathy, optimism, the propensity to experiment and collaborate with others, all characteristics that any self-respecting human being might be expected to possess.  So most of us have a role to play in collaborative design but we are not all great designers, or even good designers.  And good design does not depend upon groupthink or slavish devotion to a design process.  The act of designing something, something that hasn’t been thought of or seen before, is by its very nature a difficult thing to share around.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s