Every individual brings a unique approach to the act of designing, which binds together the ethics, values, beliefs, experiences, culture, and other hegemonic assumptions of that individual in the process of design and is infused in the final designed artifact. This brief statement structures some of my core beliefs about design and the design process, which encapsulate my design philosophy or design identity.
Because of the wide range of implicit and explicit beliefs and behaviors that constitute an individual’s identity or way of acting, this paper represents a summary of the forces and constructs that are most important in understanding my philosophy, and does not constitute a complete model of my design philosophy. I will briefly describe my beliefs about design, how those beliefs shape the design space and the act of designing, and how activities within that space are selected and executed as a mediated act.
beliefs about design
Individual beliefs naturally shape the experience of a phenomenon or activity. In viewing design, both as a practitioner of design and a researcher of design thinking, I believe that it is vital to view design as change, an artifact and activity that is situated in time and space, and represents a natural human ability and activity.
Design can be defined on broadly as intentional change (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012) or “changing existing situations into preferred ones (Simon, 1996, p. 112). Beyond the immediate change that may be explicitly designed, there are long-term implications for the design as its use changes over time, and even in its eventual disposal or obsolescence.
Design is situated in time and place (Rittel, 1987), and cannot be separated from its context of use or human activity in the creation and dissemination of the designed artifact. This includes sensitivity to the place of a design in place and time—through cultural, social, political, and other hegemonic norms.
Design is a natural human activity (Heskett, 2005). It is something that everyone does on an informal level, and everyone has the capability and capacity to improve their design skills and thinking processes over time (Cross, 2011).
the design space
Within my view of design as an intentional process of creating change in a contextualized, situated space (Rittel, 1987), the design space forms a mediated relationship between actors in the design process. Actors in this mediated relationship may include designers, contractors, developers, and implementers of the design on one side, and the client, management, employees, and projected or actual users on the other side. The design process itself can be seen as the human activity that produces a new design—the not-yet-existing, including the construction of these relationships (the contracting phase), creation of the design, and the implementation and lifecycle that the design commences (Hatchuel, 2001; Heskett, 2005; Nelson & Stolterman, 2012). In this way, the design space is a social and creative organism that exists along a significant time scale, where the creation of the not-yet-existing can be seen as consequential yet liminal. The design process is a threshold between contracting and implementation/lifecycle, and likely represents a small portion of the overall relationship between designer, design, and user.
Nelson and Stolterman (2012) define designing as “…the means by which desired ends become real” (p. 239). In this process to create the real, my process is characterized by relatedness and connectedness, not linearity or hierarchy. Any number of design methods or activities may be invoked at various stages of the process in an opportunistic, generative, and value-driven way. While my process within the design space is characterized by flexibility and is full of value-laden, in situ judgments, these characteristics also form a natural chaos and contraction. This chaotic atmosphere of design indicates that working in the design space is not for the risk averse, and implies constant iteration, recharacterization, and reimagining of potential futures—a move beyond technical rationality toward a procedural rationality (Hatchuel, 2001; Simon, 1978).
mediation of the design space
Design is mediated through my personal experience. This first level of mediation is internal and often implicit, marked by the construction and opportunistic use of prior experience in new design situations (Boling, 2010; Lawson, 2004). This involves my use of past experiences leading to the present to structure present design spaces, processes, and activities. This generation of “schemata, gambits, and precedent” (Lawson, 2004) is a designerly act that is at once individually bound and directly mediating present and future design processes.
The design space mediates the needs and desires of the client or user and the designer or design team. I view the design space with equal, yet different roles and responsibilities for the client and designer. The client may drive the framing of the design problem, along with a guiding (yet often implicit) desiderata, but the designer is responsible for drawing out the communication of this framing and desiderata and employing it in the creation of the design (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012). In this structure, the design space itself is the mediator between the client’s needs and desires and the skills and imagination of the designer. The designer’s role is to develop design possibilities within the general framing (or an alternate framing) provided by the client (Schön, 1990).
The mediatedness of the design space extends outward to encompass whole systems of designers, design processes, clients, and actual or potential users. These complex and interrelated social systems comprise the lifecycles of creation and use of the design (Sommerville, et al., 2012), and imply pathways for design decisions, implementation, and space-wide communication.
postures toward the design space
When viewing the design space as mediated—as an individual designer, between designer and client, and between systems of designers, clients, and users—this implies the need for guiding principles or postures towards this space. As a designer, I seek to promote awareness of one’s self and the goals of the design process, communication between all stakeholders and user systems, an overriding empathy for all constituents in the design space, and a desire for rigorous failure analysis at all stages in the design process.
Awareness of the design context, and of my biases, identity, and values is critical to understanding the components of the design space. While awareness does not directly produce action, it can be seen as a precursor to action, and a source of knowledge that has the potential to direct design decisions and inform design judgment. Understanding my personal biases in any specific design contexts allows me to direct research, execute design activities, or assign other designers with different biases to the design problem to truly understand what problem to select and how to go about solving it.
To facilitate awareness of the space, communication must exist between all members of the system in an open and honest way. Awareness of personal biases cannot be ascertained without rich knowledge of my co-collaborators and prospective users. Bi-directional lines of communication must be established during the contracting phase to ensure dissemination of design ideas, opinions about those ideas, and ongoing information about the performance and experience of the design in situ.
Empathy or the ability to position-take on behalf of stakeholders or potential users allows an individual designer to understand their individual biases, and to more clearly understand the perspective of the client or users. This is not possible to achieve without awareness of the context and ongoing communication, but requires a personal commitment on the part of the designer to actively pursue the subjective experience of the “other”—the other designer, the client, the stakeholder, and the user. Empathy can be seen as a form of Schön’s reflection-in-action (1987), and guides user research, the implications of that research for design, and ongoing improvement based on actual user experiences.
Rigorous, honest failure analysis creates an environment of continuous improvement, where current design spaces can be compared with past designed artifacts, and alternate design futures can be explored (Friedman, 2003; Howard, 2011). Failure analysis (or negative case analysis) allows the designer or design team to actively explore inefficiencies or inappropriate design decisions in a given situation, analyzing judgments and unexplored possibilities for future iterations of a given design, or for opportunistic use in future design spaces.
When I view the design space and implied process as a mediated experience between myself and the client or prospective user, this relationship becomes generative for future design, and allows me to maintain an ongoing awareness of biases and patterns of thinking that are different from my own. This structure aligns with my design philosophy—an attitude toward design that is future-looking, open to honest reflection and change, always looking out for personal biases that keeps me from hearing what is really being said, and attentive to the full lifecycle and experience of a design.
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