just to say that i quite agree with you.
my experiences in actual design inquiries, preparing and testing of a design, do not require the kind of abstractions we have been discussing.
i responded in opposition to claims that are so far removed from what designers do, in effect trying to jump on the bandwagon of scientific research, without a deeper understanding of what scientists have to do when they engage in it, to the detriment of supporting what really matters in design.
you may recall, that, in chapter 7 of my semantic turn, i outline a science for design with practical methods and ways one could substantiate the kind of claims that designers typically make, ending with validity criteria that deviate from scientific research yet could acquire the same rhetorical force.
From: PhD-Design - This list is for discussion of PhD studies and related research in Design [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of David Sless
Sent: Friday, August 20, 2010 12:40 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Where do we want to go?
Unlike Klaus and Terry, I have no stomach for the spirals of abstraction that sometimes permeate the discussion on this list. Nor do I have a head for the heights of grand theory and generalisations. If I had not become a researcher and designer, I would have probably been a carpenter. I suspect my way of thinking owes more to my love of carpentry than to my love of the academy.
Anyway, I make these personal observations to suggest to the phd students on this list that there are other ways to contribute to knowledge in our field (the point of doing a phd) than to engage in gladiatorial combat on the high twisting wire of abstraction and grand theory. It is possible to proceed from the ground up, as it were, building a stable platform bit by bit.
With that in mind, and to augment what Keith has just said, I'd like to suggest the question of 'where do we want to go?' takes on an altogether more pragmatic tone, yet remains poetic. In our own case, as information designers, we try to begin answering the question 'where do we want to go' in the scoping stage of our work. This is the 'fuzzy front end' of the design process.
Sometimes this question can be answered by taking account of everything we can find out that is relevant to where we are now and how we got there, then working out from that where we want to get to. If this is called 'history', then I am very much in favour of history. Indeed, to proceed without that knowledge is simply irresponsible, disrespectful, and probably unsustainable.
At other times, this question becomes problematic in itself. An old joke captures the sense of it. A tourist in Ireland who is lost approaches a local (has to be an Irishman) and asks him "how do I get from here to Dublin"? The Irishman pauses to think and then says. "Well, if were you, I wouldn't start from here". This is a simple and profound answer, and far from making the Irishman appear simple minded, as a first hearing of the joke suggests, it suggests that the Irishman has a profound understanding of what we sometimes incorrectly call 'wicked problems'. When this happens, in one of those delicious moments of epiphany and revelation, in which I am suffused with the wonderment of design.
A simple example. We often get commissioned to redesign instructions for people to use when taking medicines. Sometimes we find that the instructions require us to tell people to do things that seem odd-like asking frail bed-ridden old ladies to walk up and down after taking the medicine. On investigation of this case, we discovered that the reason for this odd instruction was because the medicine was coated in a substance that can burn the lining of your oesophagus, if it lodges there for any length of time. The solution was not to redesign the instructions but to redesign the medicine.
This is a simple example of the type that many designers would recognise in different fields-thinking outside the box, as it were. What is interesting, as a research topic, is how we get from redesigning instructions to redesigning medicine. Also, I would note that the shift in thinking was not the result of a creative moment inside someones head, but rather the result of a systematic engagement with the world. It is the quality and breadth of that engagement that deserves research attention. For example, we could have defined the problem boundary around the instructions only. Indeed, the client expected us to do just that, but we chose to push the problem boundary out further. We could, of course, have pushed the boundary out further still to look at the social and economic circumstances that gave rise to the condition that the medicine was treating, or the genetic predisposition to the condition, etc, etc.
There are other 'creative', 'inventive', 'discovery' moments in our projects, most notably at the benchmarking and testing stages when we invite people to use designs, listen to what they say, ask them questions, and observe what they do. This is sometimes called usability testing, but that is misleading and a form of pretend science. Some of our most intense moments of discovery occur in our work at this point. Once again, these moments are not the result of a creative process inside someones head, but rather the result of a systematic engagement with the world, with an openness and preparedness to be surprised.
To those of you with the normal cliched view of science, and the idea that testing and creativity are anthema, you might want to look at our experience and think again. Also, bear in mind that we do this type of 'testing' precisely because we accept that we are dealing with non-predictable phenomena. So at the very moment we seem to be at our most 'scientific' we are also at our 'creative' best.
I would not want to overgeneralise our experiences and suggest they are relevant to all other areas of design, but they might be worth thinking about.
At a simple level I believe that the question of 'where do we want to go' has to begin with the question of 'where we are now and how did we get there', even if we discover in asking that question that we are starting from the wrong place. Moreover, once we work out the right starting place, I believe that we need the before and after data to persuade someone that we have done something useful. To behave otherwise is to be irresponsible and we should not be surprised if the outcomes are unworkable and unsustainable. And that is a generalisation that might be relevant to all areas of design.
Professor David Sless BA MSc FRSA
CEO * Communication Research Institute *
* helping people communicate with people *
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