Synthesize: What is Design Judgment?

[Background: I’m in Sweden, acting as the Entrepreneur in Residence at Malmo University]

Our third Synthesize session today focused on the nature of criticism, judgment, and point of view – and the nature of cultural performance in determining good from bad.

We started by framing the role of judges, and the larger legal profession, in determining legal precedence and in forging new rules and consequences. While judging is commonly thought of as an objective measure, it’s actually quite interpretative, as it requires assumptions to be questioned, criterion to be both developed and embraced, and societal norms to be utilized as points of departure. Laws are political tools, and there’s a series of layers atop precedence, including interpretation, morals, norms, social status, and all of the baggage that comes with being in a particular group (political, racial, social, economic, or otherwise). There’s also a fairly fundamental relationship between technological advancement, behavior, and laws as a way of constraining, shaping, or directing potential behavior. And courtroom decorum creates a show, which is a performative way of externalizing decisions that are, for all practical purposes, already determined.

Then, we shifted to examine the role of judgment in design, and not surprisingly, the parallels are striking. Designers judge by comparing design solutions to existing design solutions, themes, or trends (often implicitly), and productively gathering and generating knowledge by extracting patterns, components and reusable elements. It’s an interpretative act that is often political. Like law, a more thorough read and understanding of history can lead to a more thorough synthesis (and therefore, a more rigorous and rich criticism or judgment can be formed). And like a courtroom, we’ve created a show – through design awards, magazines, conferences, and the like, to create a performative manner of showing our design decisions.

Finally, we spoke of curation from an art and design perspective, identifying the power system that exists when one is able to judge simply through selection. This is non-generative; the inference was made that perhaps the electoral democratic system is a curation of policy through proxy, which seemed to have as much of a negative response as the idea of a design curator-as-designer.

Ultimately, the conversation highlighted the complexity of design as a cultural phenomenon. In the same way that “laws are always political”, so too are designed artifacts always political. And so too is design judgment always a political statement, argued from a political perspective.

[Crosspost to the MEDEA Blog]