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PHD-DESIGN  August 2009

PHD-DESIGN August 2009

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Subject:

scientific jetsam and design thinking

From:

"Swanson, Gunnar" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Swanson, Gunnar

Date:

Mon, 17 Aug 2009 10:00:25 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

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text/plain (41 lines)

Since graphic design is a bit of a cargo cult, I've been trying to find useful flotsam in Terry's notion of the scientific future of a scientific future where machines do the designing and, of course, there are some large crates that are well worth opening. While others search for beetles, I think it's worth pointing out a couple of things before we turn too much of it into a bonfire on the beach.

Some of Terry's description of design can be justified by noting what might be called extreme affordances. Most users of graphic design software never adjust default settings so many "decisions" are never consciously made by "designers." To this extent, the software is doing much of what designers think of as designing.

One doesn't have to argue about consciousness or agency or such to note that much of the work done by graphic designers and by those employed by graphic designers a few years ago is now done by software and that much of what was called wisdom or taste or judgment is now called "the default setting." We can also guess that this trend will continue. 

One good example is the spacing of letters. That used to be a matter of looking closely and spending the time to make careful choices. Until the conversion to small computers, most graphic designers left most of that to their typesetters but Herb Lubalin famously sliced away at the most expertly set headlines. Now InDesign does a better job of making those "subjective" decisions than do the vast majority of graphic designers.

I have argued on Typo-L that most of the judgments we call "standard typography" (i.e., the skillful setting of large amounts of type for continuous reading) is rule based even if there is no agreement on the rules. Any set of rules can be made into software so the typographer's craft will be automated. This argument is not as obviously true of other aspects of graphic design or of typographic design as we move farther away from book typography but it is clearly true that most activities--from writing to cooking--include making the same decision repeatedly and any such decision can be automated.

If we assume that the demand for graphic design services (kind and quantity) were stable, Terry's description of a few developers of software and knowledge for software, plus many machine-tending drones would be more compelling. The nature of the "deliverables" for graphic designers has changed enough in my career to belie the implicit notion of stability. (Of course Terry could argue that the software designers change faster than the graphic designers so stability is not required.)

Terry's description of design and the future of design education got me thinking about how (and/or if) it applied to graphic design education as I see it (and as I might project its future.) If the purpose of graphic design education is to train people as computer operators and if computer software will be doing more and more of a non-expanding task (and if the software will become easier and easier to use) then the only conclusion would be that the task of graphic design education is shrinking.

If the task of graphic design education is to train computer operators, one would also wonder why this is a university major. If the software tending is ever-and-ever easier, it seems that graphic design would be (and should be) marginalized in the university more and more.

It is possible that Terry is right and that this realization drives much of the resistance to design research and design becoming scientific. If we define graphic design in the narrowest sense and assume that the role of design education is to minimally prepare people for the minimal description of the job, this seems to make a bit of depressing sense. 

As my previous post showed, I don't buy Terry's description of the task of graphic design. (It has little to do with what I did for a living for most of my adult life and is a much narrower job than mine.)

Although I don't object to the broader views of design as possible models for education (some of you are familiar with my 1994 Design Issues article on one such approach http://www.gunnarswanson.com/old/writingPages/GDasLibArt.html), it's not the basis of any design education I'm familiar with. There are some programs that claim to teach "design thinking" as a separate activity from design as I think about it. (Some of how I think about design as an activity is evident in a slide lecture in the form of a Flash movie I did about a year ago. It's at http://www.gunnarswanson.com/definedesign and requires a chunk of downloading, sound on, and a screen bigger than my smallest laptop.)

Roger Martin, dean of Rotman School of Business says design thinking is, instead of choosing from existing models, the ability to develop new models. Several people on this list say that design is pretty much any effort to change the present reality. 

Most design education is almost necessarily narrower. The student population comes expecting to learn how to function as designers. (Certainly many of them have expectations of that in line with Terry's machine tenders.)

My experience is that the activity of designing combined with analysis of the activity and the designed objects that are the result prepares students to do the sort of thinking that Martin describes better than most university majors do. I don't have any direct experience with the teaching and/or learning of design thinking divorced from design doing. I would love to hear anything that anyone has to say about "design thinking" programs.

Gunnar
----------
Gunnar Swanson Design Office
1901 East 6th Street
Greenville, North Carolina 27858

[log in to unmask]
+1 252 258 7006

at East Carolina University:
+1 252 328 2839 
[log in to unmask]

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