What should we be doing in Design Education?

I’ve just come across a thoughtful article by Ian Curry of Frog Design about design education. The whole article is well worth reading, but the two paragraphs I quote below seem to encapsulate dilemmas I have been wrestling with for years about create contexts for learning how to design:
“… Design is that rare field in which you can actually make thorough use of a liberal arts education. At frog, you will find many design generalists with backgrounds in the humanities, from anthropology and sociology to, in my case, comparative literature with an emphasis on Andean Indigenous poetry (not kidding). As a baseline, these people possess strong communication skills, which helps. But more valuable than what they know is the basic fact that they are comfortable, at least temporarily, in the state of not-knowing. Why is this important? In the time I have been at frog, I have worked on products used every day by individuals I began knowing nothing about, from stockbrokers to “tweens.” With my comparative literature degree in hand, I set off to gather information, draw parallels, synthesize, and yes, compare. Pretty much just what I learned to do trekking around Peru reading Quechua poetry. If you find yourself doing design research or planning online communities – typical emerging design tasks – your cultural studies degree is hardly going to prove more useful in any other non-academic field.
“Fine with me,” you may say, “but who is going to actually design my damn [insert thing]?” Fair question. We need to teach our designers how to think, but we must teach them also how to design. Adaptive Path’s Dan Saffer addressed the issue in a recent blog post bluntly titled “Design Schools: Please Start Teaching Design Again.”8 In it, he stakes a claim for the value of the traditional design education, arguing that design schools who are jumping on the “design thinking” bandwagon “are doing a serious disservice to their students by only teaching them ‘design thinking’ when a class in typography or mechanics or drawing might not only give them a valuable skill, but also teach them thinking and making and doing — all at the same time.” Such programs equate design with fields of study like semiotics, which are studied without any real intent of application. Yet at the end of the day, a designer still needs to know how to make ideas into realities. We are not hired to analyze only, but to turn that analysis into creation. In tailoring our schools for this new realm of “design thinking,” we have maintained the thinking part, but have lost touch with that which makes our work specifically design. We have wandered, in both our schools and our profession, from that “specific context” which transforms strategic thinking into design.”

A decent life

In my manifesto,”Purposive Drift: making it up as we go along”, I talked about our sense of well-being being a better compass point to orientate our lives than external goals. So reading Humberto Maturana’s words that I was enthusing about in my last post, I was delighted to find this bit:
“I think our fundamental resource is the biological background from which we human beings obtain the fundamental elements not only for creativity, but for the possibility of living a decent life. By a decent life I mean something we would recommend because it is accessible to everybody else around us. A decent life has to do with material, intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual well being. And well being means not a cage; but a possibility for reflection and for movement.”

Plans never work

I’ve just been reading a wonderful re-creation by Pille Bunnell of a talk Humberto Maturana gave at the Society for Organizational Learning Member’s Meeting in 1998. This is one to savour. Something to read with pauses for reflection. Words that can been returned to again and again. I hope the passge I quote below will get you clicking and going to read the whole thing yourself, I think you will find it worthwhile:
“You will notice that there is always a whole domain that is intrinsically outside our niche, outside our existence, but elements from it may suddenly appear in our existence, because the medium has a dynamics of its own. For example the homosphere is embedded in the biosphere. When something happens in the dynamics of the biosphere that we do not know, do not see, something new may appear in our niche. Suddenly we find ourselves facing a situation which is completely unexpected, and our niche expands. Similarly we also have an internal dynamic which is invisible to us, and sometimes suddenly in our reflections an idea, a notion, or an emotion appears… which surprises us.
There are always circumstances which arise in the independent dynamics of our intrinsically invisible medium, and this we cannot control. Last March I made a presentation at the American Society for Cybernetics about something that Peter Senge also mentions in his book “The Fifth Discipline”, something that all you know from your personal experience: namely plans never work. I mean they work for a little, but then they begin to fail because there is this tremendous dynamic of things which go on in the environment, and then suddenly appear in the niche. Something unexpected is always something that could not have been imagined because one can only reflect and make plans in the niche. Inevitably something unexpected does arise, and we can treat it as a failure that deserves punishment, or as an opportunity for expansion of our niche. The only possibility for remaining in adaptation, is to be open, to see failure as an opportunity for expansion of reflection, both personally and for the community, or the company. In order to treat it as an opportunity the company would have to be open to accept these things as legitimate and to talk about them.”

Saving the Planet is easy

We’ve got a long time to go until the Sun dies and with it our planet. In the meantime the Earth is perfectly capable of looking after itself. It did for a long time before we arrived and if we are foolish enough to go as we are, it will for a long time after we’ve gone. So saving the Planet is no problem.
What is a bit trickier is finding a way of living, working and playing so that our interactions with one another and our world continue to remake conditions where future generations can exercise their creativity and flourish. This too may be less difficult than the vested interests of rich, old men proclaim.
As Simon Caulkin wrote back in 2002:
“After Kyoto and Johannesburg, only an idiot would say it was easy to save the planet. But the dizzying irony is that it is. All the posturing at political level ignores a prosaic truth. Every company in the world would directly benefit – in lower costs and higher profits – by doing its bit for the earth. And it would cost nothing except the energy to shift office furniture or a few machines around the factory floor.
All it takes is for managers to start tackling the waste in which their companies wallow. Companies are almost inconceivably wasteful. Most obviously, they directly waste raw materials and energy. But less obviously, all companies actively generate waste – masses of it. One form of self-generated waste is rework – correcting errors that should not have been made in the first place. Another is making things that people don’t want to buy. Half of all the books printed in the United States are pulped unread.
But even less obviously and worse still, all of these conspire to create a nightmare spiral of yet more waste, endlessly feeding on itself – more space, heat, light, people, conveyors, paperwork and computers to track it, all to deal with stuff that would be better off not being done at all.
It’s uneconomic growth – activity that adds no value and profits no one except perhaps the economists who add it up. And the more that is wasted, the more effort has to go into managing its byproducts and pushing harder against the friction on the flywheel.

Waste on this scale is the treacherous legacy of mass-production techniques and thinking that have long outlived their usefulness.”

And then there is climate change. The way some of the discussion is framed, it is as if this is some thing new, an aberration. The fact is climate changes. That we contribute to this change seems unarguable. In reality, we have probably been having some impact on the climate for thousands of years as we modify our environment to suit our immediate needs. But it is also true that even if we hadn’t been around the climate would change, just as it did before we were here.
As Jonathan Raunch has said:
“Climate change, then, is a reason to do more of what makes sense anyway: reduce coastal vulnerability and strengthen homes to minimize hurricane damage, improve public health and develop drugs to fight malaria, and so on. There is nothing radical about any of this. No rethinking of capitalism is required.
Given how neatly adaptation dovetails with the sustainability agenda, and given its immense potential to relieve whatever human suffering that global warming causes, one might think environmentalists would tout it to the skies. Some do, but many seem to believe that reducing harm distracts from the real job, which is to reduce emissions. In a blog post last year (at gristmill.org), an environmentalist named David Roberts made the point with startling candor. “In an ideal, abstract policy debate, sure, I’d say we should boost our attention to adaptation,” he wrote. “But in the current political situation, I don’t want to provide any ammunition for the moral cretins who are squirming frantically to avoid policies that might impact their corporate donors.”
This is like denigrating HIV treatment and blocking condom distribution in order to discourage promiscuity. And it is every bit as callous and irresponsible. Where climate change is concerned, the truth — and this truth really is inconvenient, or at least sad — is that too many activists and politicians mistake panic for virtue.”

What seems to be our biggest obstacle to muddling our way to a sustainable future is the power and influence of the hard headed realists, who can’t imagine a future different from our present. Of course, their “realism” is a kind of grumpy fantasy that celebrates their ignorance and lack of imagination and it could well be that it is the idealists, who have a better grasps of the realities of our world. Trying to do things better may be the most realistic thing of all. So, on that note I leave you with the words of Greg Steltenpohl, quoted in a recent article in the New Statesman:
“”In the past, organic and natural foods were about personal health,” says Steltenpohl, “which is why they have become mainstream today. And that’s very important. But it’s impossible to separate the organic movement from environmental and social-justice issues. The idea now is to make the whole process of what you do the thing that does good in the world.””

Wicked problems

One of the things I wrote in my manifesto, “Purposive Drift: making it up as we along” was this:
“We need a language of the human. A language that recognises that life is more open, much messier, more ambiguous, more complex, more mysterious, more surprising, and filled with more possibilities for good or for ill, than the rationality of the machine allows.”

I was reminded of this after reading an entry on Johnnie Moore’s weblog, “Waterfalls and Chaos”, which led me to a paper by Jeffrey Conklin & William Weil,”Wicked Problems: Naming the Pain in Organizations”.
As they indicate, we need a language of the human because machine style language is not only inaccurate, but it hurts:
“One of the sources of pain in organizations, especially for managers and project leaders, is the gap between the linear and orderly progress you and your group are supposed to be making, and the chaotic reality in which you operate. The power of the distinction wicked problems is the freedom you gain by knowing that chaos is inherent in solving the problems you face. With this knowledge, the chaos does not decrease, but you can let things be the way they are, and stop feeling like something is wrong with you or your co-workers.”
As they argue earlier in the paper:
“The natural pattern of human problem solving appears chaotic on the surface, but it is the chaos of an earthquake or the breaking of an ocean wave. It reveals deeper forces and flows that have their own order and pattern. The non-linear pattern of activity that expert designers follow gives us fresh insight into what happens when we work on a complex problem. It reveals that in normal problem-solving behavior, we may seem to wander about, making only halting progress towards the solution. This non-linear process is not a defect, not a sign of stupidity or lack of training, but rather the mark of a natural learning process. It suggests that humans are oriented more toward learning (a process that leaves us changed) than toward problem solving (a process focused on changing our surroundings).”
So why can’t we celebrate our freedom instead of trying to push people into the straightjacket of machine style thinking? A question, I suspect, that has uncomfortable answers.

Consciously competent

Bob Sutton has been enthusing about a deli based business, Zingerman’s:
“What I was most taken with, however, is that that Saginaw and Wienzweig have grown this business by focusing in the quality of their products and service, and on treating their employees very well, and treating profit as a secondary goal.”
In his piece he links to articles in The New York Times and INC, which are both worth reading in full.
What caught my eye in the INC article as almost an aside talking about one of community of companies that make up Zingerman’s training company ZingTrain was this bit about learning and teaching:   
“There’s a concept taught in ZingTrain’s seminars concerning the mastery of a skill. When you know absolutely nothing about a skill, you are unconsciously incompetent — that is, you don’t know what you don’t know. As you learn more, you become consciously incompetent: you know what you don’t know. With training and practice you can become consciously competent, while total mastery makes you unconsciously competent, meaning that you use the skill so effortlessly that you’re not even aware you’re doing it.
Here’s the kicker: in order to teach a skill, you have to go backward, from being unconsciously competent to being consciously competent. Until you can teach it, moreover, you don’t really know what you know. That concept helps to explain the process Zingerman’s went through that earned it a reputation for management equal to its reputation for food.”

Is it necessary to be consciously competent to teach something? I’m not quite sure, but it is certainly something to think about.

Against schedules

The other day I went to our local bookshop on a mission to buy a book by Robert Wilson – I had just devoured his “Blind Man of Seville” and wanted more. Glancing around the shelves I saw Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Fooled by Randomness”, saying buy me. So I did.
I have written approvingly about Taleb before ( Here, here and here). His message that life is “more random than we think” is close to the ideas I talked about in my manifesto, “Purposive Drift: making it up as we go along.”
He says in his preface that he wrote it for fun and hoped it would be read for pleasure. Well it’s a good read, written in an informal style, with lots of stories. It’s also an immensely wise book and, for those of us who celebrate the richness and unpredictability of living, a very optimistic one.
What really warmed me towards him was a section late in the book where he talks about the way that schedules can block us from enjoy the random pleasures of life. As he says:
“I am convinced that we are not made for clear-cut, well-delineated schedules. We are made to live like firemen, with downtime for lounging and meditating between calls, under the protection of protective uncertainty.”
And I would say, Amen to that.

First real feedback and backtalk

We’re just beginning to get our first real feedback and backtalk on the prototype that Ben Copsey has built.
The feedback ranges from “nice, little application” to “I love it. What do I mean by this. If you ask me to give it back, I won’t.”
The backtalk was “Please keep this version as it is. Don’t change anything. I love the simplicity.”
What is really pleasing is that the tiny number of people currently using it are already inventing their own ways to use it – which is just what we wanted to create – a possibility machine.
(Note to diligent readers: See how I can contradict myself. A few posts ago I was writing at my irritation at what I saw a misuse of the word “feedback” and here I am using in exactly the same way I complained about.)