I’ve been attending the conference A Better World by Design at Brown the past few days and have been struggling with a bit of frustration. The people are fantastic, a lot of the panels and workshops are interesting, but I have a few problems with some of the discussions taking place and I wanted to clear up a few things with the help of my friend, All Caps. Say hi, All Caps. HI GUYS. Okay, cool, let’s do this.
WHAT IS DESIGN THINKING?
Critical thinking skills* applied to situations where the data gathered is a mix of anthropological/ethnographic information and aesthetic information, and that data is then used to fashion solutions to problems found within that situation.
I would postulate that the main difference between design thinking and scientific thinking is the type of data which is gathered about the situation.
*what I mean by critical thinking skills: knowing what about a given situation needs deconstruction/definition/clarification. So think Socrates.
WHY IS EVERYONE TALKING ABOUT DESIGN THINKING?
Visual, interactive media has reached saturation levels, bringing the link between seeing (visual), doing (interactivity), and understanding into shared realization. We’re also in the midst of a big shift in the scale of problems it is necessary for a human being to be aware of and create problems for; This visual interactive media is a tool we can use to understand a world that is beyond our scale of the personal and therefore beyond any natural and easy understanding.
I would say a parallel could be drawn to the 18th century rise and idolization of the scientific method where old ways of understanding the world -religion, myth- were becoming insufficient to solve the problems of the time. (Not to discredit spirituality and narrative as valid ways of sensemaking: just that they were insufficient.)
Design thinking is one of the growths of a new kind of sensemaking (there are others), one which takes into account what was often previously discredited as unimportant or subjective.
WELL WHAT’S ‘INNOVATION’? ISN’T THAT WHAT DESIGN THINKING IS ALL ABOUT?
Innovation is to make a large change. That’s it. That’s all it means. To say “a company needs constant innovation in order to stay relevant” is a thank you Captain Obvious statement. Yes, you need to change in order to evolve. We’re treating that statement as revelatory because the rate of change in the world feels so fast from the individual’s perspective (aka the amount of information we are ‘required’ to absorb every day is overwhelming), that it feels necessary to put the responsibility of one’s own evolution on these Qualified Changemakers: Designers.
Yet that doesn’t answer the question that I see All Caps bubbling to ask: BUT DESIGNERS COME UP WITH SUCH COOL STUFF. THERE MUST BE SOMETHING SPECIAL ABOUT HOW THEY THINK WHICH MAKES THEM MORE LIKELY TO COME UP WITH SOMETHING INNOVATIVE.
Here’s my swing: Designers make it their job to hone their critical thinking skills so that they’re thinking about the flow of information (usually in the high-tech urban western/western-influenced areas, where you’ll find most of those who identify themselves as designers to be). So to give a marketing example: designers are thinking about how word gets out about a product -twitter, facebook, posters, post-its, videos- and they’re thinking about what it is about the packaging of that content, from the colors and typefaces to the humorous inside-jokes, that makes the idea spread.
So when you hire a designer to solve a problem for you, you are hiring a person who is up-to-date on the way information flows through the world to find a way to make the information you have flow through the world in a more efficient, focused manner. If that makes them Qualified Changemakers, then cool beans. But we can take the pedestal out of the room because they’re not the only ones who are qualified to do so.
So can we stop asking these basic define-your-term questions already? Design thinking is critical thinking that gathers different kinds of observational data than one would through the scientific method, and applies it in ways that are relevant to a culture’s flow of information, making it appear innovational or unconventional because most people don’t keep up with that kind of relevancy. That’s it. So let’s stop talking about how designers have unique snowflake brains and start asking some real questions about the discipline, shall we?
OKAY THEN, OH OPINIONATED ONE, WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME QUESTIONS WORTH ASKING?
Why has the issue of ethics in design fallen out of commonplace discussion among designers? In a consumerism-driven, capitalistic society, has it become taboo to talk openly about the way artists and designers are playing off of people’s biological/psychological and personal vulnerabilities and weaknesses in order to get people to want shit they don’t need? Outside of design communities, I see a great deal of vilification of the way advertising takes advantage of people; yet among designers, I see only back-slapping congratulation. What’s with that?
Or let me phrase it in a simpler manner: At what point do designers take responsibility for both the methods they are using to promote content and the content itself which they are promoting?
Is the dominance of western design the new kind of imperialism? After all, dominance over the design of information is the dominance over the information that is presented. And what pantheon of color theories, compositional treatments, film editing styles, and textual narratives compose this dominant western design approach?
How are the technologies we are creating revealing only parts, never the wholes, of the information available? Take an obvious example: social media doesn’t reveal the full personhood of an individual, but encourages by its very design the process of crafting (/falsifying) an online persona to be given as a substitute for one’s self. It encourages shallow interaction and quick passage of small, three-minute ideas. There is an iceberg of personhood beneath that one crafted veneer that the technology reveals: what effect does this have on the information itself? On our ideas of it? On our assumptions about that information?
Which leads us to the next question: what critical thinking skills do designers need to develop in order to think about the impact of that which they create on the quality of mind, quality of body, and quality of life of those who come into contact with their creations?
Those are a few of the conversations which I wouldn’t mind having.
SIDENOTE: Many of you make comments in the facebook comments section. Please put your comments here in the blog so everyone can read the discussion!
Okay, I woke up to this article in my Facebook news feed and it pissed me off enough to have me gnacking an irritated response to it while making breakfast. So I figured I’d throw my bone into the vast sea of opinions about this topic, if only to get it off my chest.
Summary of the article if you don’t feel like reading it: “Gen Y’s are entitled, unhappy, and self-centered.”
1. Everyone is the hero of their own story. That’s a fact. We are not being selfish a-holes because we believe we’re the center of our own universe. You believe the same thing. (unless you have children or a very close family/friend circle, and in that case your center of the universe may encompass multiple immediate individuals.)
2. I’m just wondering… In the previous eras of 20-somethings, have older generations so obsessively measured and re-measured and hashed and re-hashed and bickered and debated over how happy young adults are and how happy they have the right to be? I’m sure parents have always obsessed over the happiness of their next generation, but did the internet always provide SCIENTIFIC DATA to measure their child’s success and their child’s happiness by? Have anthropologists and sociologists always gotten such press with their studies on happiness and success metrics? Is our generation really that uniquely self-centered and miserable, or is it just that you’re paying so much attention to 20-somethings now than you did 50 years ago?
3. Is the generation before us REALLY that much happier than we are? The divorce rates, the unemployment, the sluggish recovery after 2008- are you really so sure that the 30-40-somethings are that much happier than we are? It doesn’t really look like it.
4. Why would you vilify us for expecting what our parents expected: that is, to do better than they did? Laden by student loans from having to get graduate degrees to flip burgers, the international competition for the jobs we were promised, and the looming financial burden of paying for aging baby boomers, we’re not going to be doing better. And when every American generation has done better than the one previous, and we’re not, we’re going to feel like failures.
5. Where are we supposed to look for examples of being happy with less than everything? A common situation I’ve been finding myself in:
“So, I’ve been thinking lately that maybe I don’t need to be a statistic of female CEOs and have a Mercedes and live in Berkeley and wear business casual to a little gray office every day in order to feel validated that I’m not a waste of space.”
“No shit, dude. You can be whoever the hell you want to be. Now hold on, I’m having this great Twitter conversation with this amazing startup guy, and can we talk about this later because I have a ton of emails to respond to.”
There’s this strange dichotomy of “obviously you should be okay with a life that’s not crazy ambitious but just happy” and “but if you are okay with that, you’re not really going to be a cool ‘successful’ kid, just fyi”. How do you validate your own sense of what you need when everyone is telling you that you shouldn’t be happy with anything less than what everyone else has?
6.You raised us this way, bitches. You were the ones who fought to get us into the bilingual elementary schools. You were the ones who sent us to SAT cram courses, who heaped medals on us and made the word ‘achievement’ meaningless, who pushed us to get that GPA so we could get into the best possible colleges, all to reflect on what a fuck-yeah parent you were. And you told us that someday we could spend our lives in the idleness that we wanted when we were children, someday after school and grad school and that career we were promised we should have. Someday we could actually have time to do whatever it was that we did as kids that we were too busy being validation for your parenting techniques to do. So now you want us to stop moaning over how we’re scratching our heads and trying to figure out how to validate our lives when we’re failing the American Dream, how to still make a difference in the world, and find a way to be happy outside of all your little strict metrics? Just shut up. Seriously. Go back in your minivan, drive away, and let us kids be kids.
And I’d like to end on a general comment, a plea if you will: Stop talking about us. Stop measuring us. Stop worrying about us. Stop pointing fingers and whispering about what selfish a-holes we are. Because you know what, there’s Syria, there’s women getting stoned and beaten to death, there’s widening class gaps, there’s global warming and mass extinctions, there’s a shitload of problems that ACTUALLY need to be dealt with. One of the nice things about my generation is that I see many of my peers (if they can afford to) go into non-profit work or turn down cushy office jobs to try and make a difference. We’re bumbling at it, but so were you. My generation is more keenly aware of the world’s state than you give us credit for, and we’re going to do our best to clean up the mess your generation left behind. It’s just that posting too many depressing news articles in our facebook feed makes us look like total party-poopers.
So lay off. And talk about something that matters.
They’re like designing candy. Small, tasty little things that are supposed to catch the eye and the interest.
Alex is a little iffy on the bright colors, but he’s more a monochrome minimalist guy. I think the black and white thing can be done right, and has been done right about a gazillion times before- I have to say I like a little (okay a lot) of color.
So color we go.
Don’t we all feel like this?
Reading articles like “10 Traits a Designer/Entrepreneur/Web Marketer MUST Have!”* or “Advice from the Top People In Whatever Field”** or “50 Reasons Why These People Are Successful (And You’re Not)”***, it’s really easy to feel like you’re completely unprepared for whatever endeavor you’re attempting. And then, just as you’ve reassured yourself that no one like that actually exists, you meet someone at a networking event and you start talking about one of these things -let’s say- marketing, and the conversation goes like this:
“Yeah, I got a twitter account, I’m still figuring out how to use it… It’s a little intimidating to be honest.”
“Oh, it’s like that at first, but if you’re a social media guru (like me), and you really enjoy being connected all the time to everyone (like me), and if you want to be up-to-date on all the events and news (like me), then it’s just perfect.”
“Oh, okay. Uh… what if you’re not one of those people?”
“Then you probably shouldn’t be in marketing.”
(On a side note, I’m never going to be one of those gurus like our hypothetical conversationalist, so clearly I need to hire one.****)
And then you go home and you’re freaking out because there ARE people out there who seem to match those “Top Ten Traits” list and you’re not one of them and ohmygodyou’reafailure.
…then you realize that they only talked about one trait. And only if you found ten people each with a stunning pedigree in one of those traits and brought them together Transformers-style would you have The One.
Then you feel better and go dig out your favorite Batman movie.*****
*I didn’t bookmark this article.
**Or this one.
***In fact, I’ve stopped reading them. Or at least I’ll tell myself that until I see another link to one and then I’ll click it, read it, feel bad, but not tell you I read it so that I can maintain the façade of feeling superior.
**** For, like, everything. I want them to follow me around taking Instragram photos of everything I eat and I want them to hide behind my shoulder so that I can bend my chin into my neck awkwardly and take awful selfies.
***** Disclaimer: this is not an excuse to not try to improve one’s self. You should always try to improve yourself! But you can’t shoot for perfection. $*
$* Saying ‘you’ instead of ‘I’ is a total cop-out for bloggers, beeteedubs. Shame on you.
1: Raising Money is Hard.
Nobody told me (until after I launched my campaign, naturally) that successful Kickstarters can take up to a year to prepare for. I had prepared for a few months, not to mention all the effort I had put into networking for months even before that, so I figured I’d be all right. But I’d underestimated how hard it would be to ask for money. This isn’t a personal complex either, it’s a professional conundrum. How do you ask for money without feeling as if they’ll resent you and without burning any bridges? It’s a delicate balancing act you make, and it all depends on phrasing.
So I know now what would need to be done to make a successful Kickstarter, but I’m not planning on doing another soon.
2: In-The-Trenches Management Techniques.
So second week into the campaign, a big deadline at my part-time job at Brown began to loom. I work in the Graphics Lab at Brown (a group of undergraduates led by Professor Andy van Dam) that work on various corporate-funded projects. I had recently taken over management of the team so it was my job to make sure shit got done. But we had to get out the first version of our app onto the Windows 8 store by a certain date and between Murphy’s Law and Zeno’s Paradox, we weren’t getting any closer to finishing. The final week before the deadline was a brutal 90-hour work week for me, although I tried to keep it at 80 for most of the students. Juggling work-induced fevers, RIS, eyestrain and pure exhaustion, the experience of managing a team under those circumstances was invaluable.
From lessons on how to manage different personality types…
To learning how to gauge someone’s capacity with a single look…
To becoming extremely aware of managing my own energy and health…
it was a crash-course in crisis management.
And in the end, what told me I was successful wasn’t that we got the app released and bug-free. It was the fact that not only did my team not hate me for driving them so hard; but that they showed the same dedication and great attitude that they had when we started.
Love those kids.
3: Why Minnows Grow in Mangroves.
When people refer to places like Rhode Island as “small ponds”, I feel the need to correct them. A small pond indicates isolation and lack of contact with the broader lakes and oceans, but that’s not true. With the kind of social media available to everyone now, there’s no isolation. Rather, it’s more that Rhode Island is a mangrove, a slightly convoluted place with a strong sense of interconnected communities. Small non-profits and businesses, branches of larger national non-profits, tech businesses, academics and students… there’s all kinds of fish, and though we each have our mangrove roots that we typically hang out around, we still mingle. And there are larger fish and smaller fish and everywhere in between, but everyone knows everyone else.
Since the Kickstarter started and I had the chance to write an article for Go Local Prov about why I came back to Rhode Island, the Providence community really stepped out to support me and my work. Even knowing the closeness of the business, political, and personal networks here in the state, I was still surprised. And it’s provided huge opportunities that I wouldn’t have had a chance at in another state.
So work moves forward, lessons continue to be learned… the failure of the Kickstarter hit hard at first, but everyone knows you can’t measure yourself by how you fall, but rather how you pick yourself back up. So Alex and I will just need to continue to put in more hours at Brown while we get the first version done, but we’re still shooting for a new-year’s release!
So I was asked last weekend to write an article for a local news source, Go Local Prov, about why I moved back to Providence to start my company.
The deadline was Monday morning and I was told on Saturday about it, so I didn’t have much time. All considering, I think it came out all right, but a thought didn’t occur to me until after it was already published online and I was staring blankly at my all-too-professional-headshot sandwiched between my writing and sidebar ads for restaurants:
This technically means I’m published.
Why the “what”, you ask? All I used to do is write. Not that you can tell from my writing these days, but I used to be pretty hardcore into big-word-run-on-sentence fantasy and sci fi with, yes, all sorts of made up words and unpronounceable names and shit. Space opera, fantasy political intrigue, magic and mayhem, the whole nine yards. From the time I was about ten to when I was about seventeen, I spent nearly every free hour writing or drawing. Looking back on it, I feel almost envious of the endless fountain of creativity I seemed to have… Story after story came out of me, too fast to finish before I felt compelled to jump on to the next.
Then the stress of “oshit, I have to get into college” set in, and I forced a plug in the fountain to let myself focus on my grades. And when I finally went back and unplugged it, I found only a trickle left.
Now RISD, or art school in general, does interesting things to creativity. You’re shaping your creativity, giving it new tools, articulating and honing its expression. It’s like you take that wild fountain and you create rivers and dams, learn to control its flow and guide it to fill up your projects and solve your design problems. But when you come home and try and tap that fountain for something wild and open, it’s too exhausted to do more than point you to Netflix.
Twice, since high school, I’ve had geysers of writing. Once was right after I came back from studying abroad in Japan. This huge story just burst out of me, and I couldn’t type fast enough. But then it trickled out and I was left with three-quarters of a novel and characters who I loved but couldn’t understand. (That’s a problem with writing adult characters as a young writer: there are certain complexities of life that are hard to know until you’ve been there and back to tell the tale.)
The second time was when I was working at Microsoft and got sick for about a week and a half straight. I just decided to sit down and write, twelve hours a day. And I did- and a really awesome story came out.
But then work intruded. And I had to put it the wayside. Even now I have the characters still living in the back of my head, checking their watches impatiently while they wait for me to get back to them and their adventures.
But I don’t have the time, I never have the time.
So if you had told the teenager me “the first time you’ll ever see your writing in print is an article you’ll write about starting up a tech company in Rhode Island”, I would have squinted at you, made a confused chipmunk face, decided you were crazy, and dismissed you.
You never really know where life will take you. That’s for hella sure.