This is a rather long posting. If such things are a bother for you,
please trash w/out prejudice.
I've been 'lurking' in the virtual shadows of the phd-design list
since its inception and have only just this evening had a bit of time
to crystallize a few thoughts which I hope might be of use / interest.
First, I began to puzzle over the question: just what is design?
Clearly, others are also usefully exploring this question with very
practical program planning goals in mind. Also, the question has
been around for a long time and much has been written and explored
Those who are 'designers' and wish to have a better grasp of 'design
programs for designers' have added many ideas about the concepts of
originality, creativity, innovation, and modelling, among other
In addition and not exclusive to this list, folks who are artists,
computer architects and even aerospace engineers, for example, have
offered many useful viewpoints to include aspects of their
perceptions, their trades, their skills, their thoughts, and their
abilities; the history of these viewpoints and observations is
It is my opinion that 'design' is not a special category of unique
capacities or talents belonging exclusively to people today (or of
yesterday) who we might usually think of as 'designers'.
This is not to suggest that everyone can become what we think of as
an architect (software or bricks and mortar), a rocket scientist, a
political or military strategist, an interior designer, an artist, a
sculptor, or a renaissance engineer.
But I do suspect that the capacity to design is much more general
that we might normally think, and is generally applied (with
differing levels of success) -- and I do think we should all stop
and think, and think differently, about design, from its smallest
pieces to its largest embracing elements.
I think re-thinking design, however slightly, may well increase our
chances of survival (although it may also be too late -- the outcomes
Allow me to tell you why I think this to be the case.
It strikes me that the extent and nature of originality, creativity
and innovation on the part of the individual are aspects of humans'
general adaptive capacity.
What does this mean? Adaptive capacity, I think, has to do with the
intellectual, emotional and interpersonal skills and abilities a
person can use to interact with and apply to our environments.
These skills are expressed conceptually, technically and politically
and are primarily intrapersonal and interpersonal (in fact I'm not
sure there are any other categories).
Our environments can be usefully thought of as intrapersonal (having
to do with the reflective, metacognitive, self-awareness of the
individual) as well as interpersonal (having to do the organizations
-- family, work group, team, proximate social environment, etc.,
within which one operates -- and, on a larger scale, the cultural
milieu within which said organizations operate).
In the situation where our intra- and interpersonal environments have
relative long-term stability and predictability, one has only a
moderate need for adaptive capacity; however, if either or both of
these environments are not particularly stable or predictable, one
has a greater need for adaptive capacity.
As our environments change for whatever reasons, our palate of
adaptive skills, and our application of those skills, changes
Therefore, what are perceived and understood to be the 'survival'
tasks to hand, regardless of environment, I think determine in large
part whether one engages in creativity, originality, and
innovativeness (e.g., the engagement of appropriate adaptive
capacity), or primarily patterned, algorithmic responses.
Further, the ongoing interactions between the two environments,
especially with the deliberate engagement of critical metacognition,
permit the longer-term establishment of what I think is absolutely
necessary in the expression of originality and creativity -- the
perpetual dynamic balancing between epistemic dissonance and harmony;
that is, our ongoing adjustments and readjustments of our intra- and
interpersonal environments vis-a-vis what is perceived to be the case
and what we wish to be the case.
The tractability and solubility of what are perceived and understood
to be the survival tasks to hand are also evaluated in terms of what
a person has in his or her 'toolbox' of dynamic adaptive capacities.
So one of the questions that arises is: can perception,
understanding, and tool use for such tasks be taught? Is it possible
to 'teach' creativity, originality, innovativeness -- the capacity to
be adaptive (and, by extension, the capacity to design)?
The answer, I think, is yes. I suspect that the creation and
maintenance of an encouraging, challenging, humanistic,
well-resourced environment -- where the self-directed exploration of
interdisciplinarity as well as more disciplinary and defined
task-focused engagement can take place -- allows the individual to
develop and pursue intrinsically-motivated, externally-facilitated
self-teaching of adaptive capacities.
I suspect this happens 'naturally' when effective child-rearing, or
what we would today call excellent teaching -- at any age or in any
environment -- takes place. This might be defined as a caring,
proactive environment, process and developmental response.
Further, I suspect this also happens 'naturally', regardless of
circumstance, when the perceived dissonance between what appears to
be the case and what is desired reaches a threshold where (hopefully)
intelligent action leading to increased chances for survival simply
must take place. This might be defined as more of an environment and
process of urgent reactivity.
I suspect that the encouragement of design capacity as it has been
discussed on this list emerges more from the former circumstance than
the latter. Design capacity, therefore -- which I suspect involves
much more than a subconscious or even conscious metacognitive
adaptation, and likely involves a great deal of practised
deliberative introspection as well as subconscious recursivity -- is
a specific example of the general case of adaptive capacity.
All of us start at a very early age addressing the tasks of building
design capacity. For example, small children must design the
elemental components of their epistemologies which they will
formatively use for countless purposes as foundations for the rest of
their lives. Without even being aware of it at the beginning, they
must 'create' everything in their intra- and interpersonal worlds; in
other words they must assign reliable, robust, yet
generally-modifiable meanings to all the pieces which they experience
and deal with. They must teach themselves to place those pieces into
a useful dynamic framework to allow the beginnings of that perpetual
balancing of epistemic dissonance and harmony that will, in the end,
define their humanity.
I think a very important result of this early and ongoing design task
of epistemic construction is not just the burgeoning dynamic
epistemological framework, but also the creation of varieties of
metacognitive tools which can be recursively applied to new
variations of the epistemic construction tasks themselves -- as well
as the wide variety of elements experienced in the emerging intra-
and interpersonal environments.
This, I would suggest, supports some list members' arguments that
starting early to encourage comprehension of and practice with design
is a very good thing.
I would go further and suggest that starting early is crucial.
The reason for this last point is the primary focus of this essay.
In my opinion, humanity is inexorably losing the skills and abilities
necessary for survival. As has been observed and argued for some
time, we have increasing evidence that our interpersonal environments
(our families, our neighborhoods, our malls, our towns, our cities)
are fraught with increasing numbers of increasingly complex,
insoluble and often incomprehensible circumstances and problems,
rates and varieties of change never before experienced, and
increasing instabilities of every kind on both intra- and
interpersonal levels (of all kinds). We are moving simultaneously on
many broken fronts from industrial, to post-industrial, to
post-modern ways of being human. Hand in hand with this, our
intrapersonal environments are, in general, increasingly stressed,
angst-ridden, and full of questions, most of which have no truly
fulfilling or meaningful answers. Denial and pharmacological
'solutions' are de rigeur.
Given this unfolding circumstance, how well do we teach, learn and
apply design skills?
Today, as the move into full post-modernity (for lack of a better
term) takes place, children in general no longer play as they once
did. Their lives are programmed and channelled and filled with every
artifact of galloping global microeconomic consumption imaginable
which, thanks primarily to the global application of
computer-mediated communications technologies (wonderful tools, but
sadly, in aggregate, emerging beyond our capacities), crowd out the
beginnings of what I would argue are 'natural' and genuine epistemic
construction tasks. These tasks are being replaced by worldviews
which are not self-created, but are pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped,
extremely well-marketed and uncritically consumed en masse.
I suspect that this is one of the prime features of the erosion of
humanity's adaptive capacity -- the capacity to survive.
We are in trouble.
From time to time we might wonder about how well we are able and will
be able to design almost anything in small focus; in larger compass,
I think we even bump up against wondering about how well we are
inventing our futures, and what our humanity will end up
(formatively) defining itself to be.
Whether we can hope to successfully apply any of our diminishing
adaptive capacities to this state of affairs is a nagging question.
One would hope that optimism and clear thinking would prevail.
It has been said that our species' undeniable technological
brilliance has far outstripped our humanity. It may already be too
late to apply the technobrakes and turn up the volume on reflective
awareness of just what it is we've done and are continuing to do to
The tasks of design have much greater significance than what I have
seen to be discussed on this list (although I fully acknowledge that
I may have missed some elements of exchange so far; if I have, my
Critical feedback is appreciated.
Bob Este <[log in to unmask]> / 250.774.6958
Resource Centre Coord., and | Sessional Instructor
Talented and Gifted Coord. | University Transfer Programs
School District #81 | Northern Lights College
Fort Nelson, British Columbia, Canada