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Ideas about transformations in learning for a better culture.

The Maturity of a Discipline

It would appear that we’ve arrived: design has emerged as the discrete discipline of problem solving and cultural change, and the designerly ability described by Nigel Cross in 1995 as “a distinct form of intelligence” is now considered with some degree of respect in disciplines such as the sciences or the liberal arts.

That’s good, as a disciplinary acceptance of design work would imply that:

- Designers could spend less time justifying what we do and why we do it, and more time actually doing it
- Designers could work alongside and with other disciplines, rather than working instead of other disciplines (or being excluded by other disciplines)
- Designers could begin to further differentiate and structure nuances of specialty, allowing for a more impactful depth of practice and a larger degree of impact 
- A larger “we” could benefit from a broader view of problems and opportunities, approaching issues from a multiplicity of perspectives simultaneously

Yet these statements aren’t necessary true, and as I traveled between three significantly different groups of thinkers at three different conferences, I interpreted a few trends as an indication of some of the largest “next steps” we face in achieving the above. I’ve summarized a few of these here.

I observed design educators struggling to justify traditional methods and approaches to design. I interpreted this as a fear of an evolving discipline, and as a desire for a simpler time of control and craft.

At the AIGA Design Educators Conference, held at NC State, I heard conversations from attendees describing the classes they were teaching. These seemed to fall into three categories; (1) the traditional design studio, (2) the traditional foundations courses of typography, color, and branding, and (3) classes that taught specific software packages, such as Adobe Photoshop. One educator I spoke to described (with a strange combination of pride and frustration) how she fit six unique software tools into a 14 week curriculum (including Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, Fireworks, After Effects, and Dreamweaver)!

Yet the provocative keynotes of Shelley Evenson, John Thackara, and Sharon Poggenpohl described service design, interaction design, design research, systems thinking, and other aspects of the new integrative thinking approach to design. The disconnect was evident; the keynotes urged an intellectual approach to solving problems, understanding culture, and empathizing with humanity, yet the overwhelming response from individual educators was that they simply didn’t have room in their curriculum to offer these classes, and by the way, when would students learn letterpress if they were busy learning things like ethnography?

I fundamentally reject the notion of dedicating class time to teaching specific software packages, yet this seems to be the extent that many traditional graphic design programs have dealt with the complex emergence of the internet and ubiquity of mobile computing. And while a few classes have been rearranged to support these technical skills and the emergence of branding and other categorical shifts throughout the last few decades, the curriculum at a given graphic design program has essentially remained unchanged since the precedent was set at the New Bauhaus in the early 1900s.

And so I interpret the disconnect between the educators and the keynotes as one of hesitance and stubbornness: an understandable hesitance to jump into a complicated world of technology, and a stubborn desire for a “simpler time.” I share their frustration, as I too long for a simpler world, yet the grasp on traditional “core skills” does a grave disservice to students and parents (who often pay over $100,000 for a graphic design education) as it misleads them to believing they will either serve humanity or achieve any legitimate return on investment for a  Bauhaus-driven design education in this very different day and age.

I offer various recommendations to educators who may be captured in this gross assessment of design education, including:

- Narrowly focus your program to one of the “old craft methods”, and become the world’s resource for that particular aspect of design (such as typography)
- Embrace a much more progressive understanding of what a core curriculum is, based on the changing role of design in culture and society
- Specialize in sustainability and ecologies, systems thinking, software design, organizational change, or any of the emerging areas of design

I observed philanthropists and entrepreneurs jumping to an amorphous frame of “design thinking” as a silver bullet to the world’s problems. I interpreted this as a desire to apply lessons from great thinkers, without treading deep enough into the territory of design to fully understand what they were getting themselves into.

At the Social Capital Markets conference (SOCAP), “design thinking” was all the rage – amongst what are some of the most generous philanthropists and amongst many of the entrepreneurs seeking funding for health, education, and energy initiatives. This translates, for many, into the simple idea of “do some ethnography” – which is one great part of a much larger, more robust, and much more powerful process of design. I appreciate very much the attraction to ethnographic research in order to ground ideation and product development (it’s so engrained in my personal education that I’m not sure I really understand any other way of learning about a particular discipline), but I’m more than a little skeptical of the ability these folks will have to deliver on the other part of design – the design doing.

Simply, as important as the core ideas of “cultural immersion”, “rapid prototyping”, and “abductive reasoning” are, a cure for poverty this does not make. Teams need to execute and follow-through, and that execution takes the care familiar to most designers who were trained in (not ironically) the above type, composition, color, and two and three dimensional design activities. This is the iterative, careful, methodical, and articulate approach that designers inherited from movements of arts and crafts. It’s hard, and it takes time, patience, and experience. And while you may learn about it in business school or in the Harvard Business Review, it will take a lot more than some articles from some truly incredible thinkers to become capable of actually executing successfully.

And so I interpret the popularity of design thinking to the alluring qualities of something “new”, and something visual and magical, and something that truly does have immense power to change cultures. But I’m worried about the inadvertent damages that can come from the best of intentions, and we need not look far for an example: the consumptive culture we now find ourselves rebelling against was set in motion by designers and advertisers with the best of intentions. I urge those enamored with design thinking to get closer to the actual theory, closer to the actual methods, and closer to the actual practice of design to better understand how truly substantial design-driven change can be – be it positive or negative.

I observed leading design and cultural critics borrowing traditional business-school methods and tools as a silver bullet. I interpreted this as a desire to exhibit designerly rigor, but I wonder if there might not be a different definition of rigor in a discipline such as design.

I most recently spent two days at the Winterhouse Education Symposium. Organized by Bill Drenttel and Julie Lasky (who run and edit Design Observer - which just launched a shiny new iPhone app), this as an opportunity to get together with others who are engaged in driving social innovation educational programs and dramatically shifting the quality of what we teach up-and-coming design students. Attendees included heads of programs from CMU, RCA, Stanford, Pratt, Parsons, Art Center, and RISD, among others. Our topics ranged from that of content, to funding, to platforms and networks.

But what struck me was the desire and near consensus to utilize methods, language, and frameworks from business-schools in social innovation work coming out of design programs. Specifically, this included the “case study” as the ubiquitous learning tool, metrics and assessment skills for judging success, and the adoption of an overall procedural framework that’s fairly ubiquitous in business-school circles and is heavily influenced by statistical measurement:

[Theory of Change] => [Inputs] => [Activities] => [Outputs] => [Outcomes] => [Impact]

The basic premise is as follows. A theory of change is presented that offers a hypothesis for changing behavior. It’s an assumption about how your activities will drive a positive outcome. In the case of Austin Center for Design, the theory of change is manifested in our mission statement – that individual designers are responsible for large-scale social impact by applying a process of design in the context of a given social problem. This theory of change drives our inputs, the things we control. In our case, this is the curriculum that emphasizes qualitative research, deep synthesis, systems-modeling and diagramming, and the rapid prototyping of focused and simple design solutions. It’s also the pedagogy that demands learning by doing, public critique with explicit articulation of improvement, a focus on extremely-public working styles, and a constant structured reflective period of self-examination. And it’s an environment that supports collaboration, yet demands argument by emphasizing a multiplicity of professors, students, and viewpoints.

These inputs directly lead to activities, where we tackle a large-scale social problem – again, in the case of AC4D, we’ll be working with Austin Resource Center for the Homeless to tackle issues of homelessness in Austin.

This model then demands a focus on retrospective outputs – the (often) quantifiable things we produce or affect through our work. How many people were affected by the project? How many homeless individuals were provided work? How much did the average income level rise based on the interventions?

These outputs theoretically lead to outcomes – the specific changes you hope have occurred as a result of the outputs. Because 200 homeless individuals found work, they were able to save enough money to afford a place to live. Because the average income among homeless workers rose by thirty-five cents a day, they were able to afford access to a cellular phone or PO box.

Based on the outcomes, one can arrive at impact – the large societal impact you’ve ideally driven. Because more people are living in apartments, there is less crime; there is less of a tax on the public health system; there is a higher valuation on urban land.

I observed our symposium generally adopting this model, as it helps to frame socially-responsible design activities in a way that’s clear and that’s easily understood by granting agencies and entrepreneurs. And it's a similar theme that was found at SOCAP. But I’m concerned, particularly with the metric-driven emphasis on measurable outputs, measurable outcomes, and measurable impact. By definition, a measurable output is reductive, and rigorous measurement serves to separate a given phenomenon from the background of a larger context. It’s at the heart of scientific research – the idea that one can isolate a variable from all others, treat it, and measure the effectiveness of treatment (comparing that effect to a control group to help determine causality). But as Dori Turnstall (Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching at Swinburne University in Australia) commented at our symposium, an ontological view of the world doesn’t separate a person from the background, or view a figure-ground relationship between a person and a culture. Instead, it views all of these things as intimately connected, and a discussion of causality is neither appropriate nor necessary.

This ontological view of the world, of interconnectedness and interdependency, is generally accepted in theory amongst anthropologists, biologists, designers; yet in practice, it’s highly disputed by a focus on experimental methods. Just as behavioral economics embraced science as a method of understanding, we too appear to be falling into the same trap of appropriating the scientific method to study design phenomenon.

I think the reason we are gravitating towards this model is explainable. The model is one that the philanthropic foundations, the granting agencies, the government, and most financially-trained individuals understand and are fluent in. It’s one that mitigates risk. It’s one that forces reflective analysis of data, and it’s one that makes a great deal of logical sense in our logical world. And, alternatives are not readily available. 

But Designers aren’t scientists, and design is different. To again quote Nigel Cross’s “Discovering Design Abilities” [pdf] from 1995, design knowledge is “the logic of conjecture… [it is] ‘productive’ reasoning”. The scientific method isn’t the right approach for doing design, and statistical significance isn’t the right measure of success for design.

Then, what is?


There is the opportunity. We need a rigorous and reflective assessment tool or framework that can help us understand and potentially even measure impact through design, resisting the urge to evaluate design through standards of causality and without emphasizing quantitative metrics. This is the challenge we face as our discipline matures; it’s one with precedent, and I welcome it as a much needed evolution from toasters and typefaces.