January 27, 2012

Problem Solving through Design and Dancing your Phd: #design, #urbanplanning, #dance

Design is an experimental process to question and remix the obvious
Last week I wrote about how design has lately become over privileged as a problem solving tool with the recent pop-culture and corporate belief in the power of design-thinking.  Certainly while design-thinking will not solve all problems, it does have its merits.  In fact, it is the use of design and product-centric outcomes which differentiates my own work from many competitors.  Too often urban planning and development firms invest thousands of hours into research and strategy, only for the final product to manifest as a sterile report and an underwhelming powerpoint presentation.   Imagine if urban planning retained the energy of a design process throughout multiple phases of strategic problem solving.  It could potentially engage broader audiences, source more diverse inputs, and lead to solutions that aren't so easily diluted by city governments and regional politics.

Design thinking has benefits.  It is both systematic and exploratory.  Take for example a typical model for concept development within industrial design practice.  It is more or less similar to an urban planning approach - to identify stakeholder interests, define guidelines, to research similar projects and move forward with a product for phased testing.  Over time the concept becomes more refined and at anytime you can - and should - revisit previous steps to continue revision.  Eventually the final product is realized and implemented on a broad scale or mass produced.  Only within the process of idea creation are decisions arbitrarily made, yet the process is not strictly scientific or entirely reliant upon market tests.  In theory, the final result should maintain some degree (or hopefully all) of its original creative energy while nonetheless balanced and viable.  Typically work developed via a design methodology should be effective, attractive, accessible, inexpensive, and broadly communicative.  Perhaps it is the infusion of such simple concepts as "attractive" that have corporations suddenly lusting for design integration within their work.  Yet the real question is, why was this not a concern before?  How many revolutionary moments in human invention have been connected to the phrase "our product is really ugly, hard to use, and  cumbersome, but please ignore that."

Concept Development within Product Design Methodology

The power of design can also undermine real analysis 
Obviously a design-based approach has an important role beyond the idea development and solution process, as it has the means to transform sterile content into an engaging opportunity.  For example, a quick look through the UNHCR Statistical Yearbook reveals an adept use of Adobe Indesign and a variety of visualization techniques.  Or take for example the work done by Space Syntax.  Their GIS work is consistently beautiful. So much that I am often distracted by the quality of the renderings, uncertain of their specificity and meaning.   Of course that is a keen advantage to providing data via beautiful imagery, as the method can smoothen over the gaps in knowledge and research.  Then again, the strength is as much a weakness.  

If the purpose of design is to communicate, then we must be wary of how easily the beauty of design can undermine the ability to do so.  Communication is challenging, in particular when communicating complex information to audiences who are unfamiliar with the territory.  I believe every grad student experiences that moment when a relative asks "so what are you working on in school" only to watch their eyes glaze at the over-long, overly detailed, and laborious response.  A couple clean graphics could change this entire situation, yet the result could just as well become "what beautiful colors."

A recent TEDtalk by my buddy John Bohanon does well to illustrate how good intentions can go array when  communicating information.  In the video below (or here), John satirically examines the detrimental impact visual PowerPoint presentations have made upon the global economy.  And in a beautifully choreographed yet modest proposal, John demonstrates how other means of communication are perhaps more appropriate to explore complex concepts.  Although John embraces dance as a vehicle to communicate, one could just as well embrace music or knitting.  Ultimately, the vehicle by which a message is delivered cannot redefine the message itself.  It can only carry it.  Sometimes the correct vehicle is chosen and is a smooth ride.  Sometimes its not.  And sometimes, it would have been better to walk or ride a bike had one taken a moment to stop and consider the possibilities.