What is a designer’s role and how can it be determined?
In our first two weeks in our Design, Society, and the Public Sector section at ac4d, we’ve been reading and discussing articles that speak broadly to implications of design on society and attempt to derive meaningful roles for the designer.
As an exercise to help us process our thoughts and reactions we were asked to extract a central idea from each of the five articles we’ve read and then plot those five ideas on line to represent their importance. Laced into this process was that each of us were to decide what exactly that scale of importance was. Specifically we had to give the rankings context beyond their positioning on the line.
The process of reduction was difficult. These articles were largely academic and consequently full of meaningful ideas. My first few attempts at this spiraled into internal debate and on some level the process just felt wrong. But one of the major themes that I internalized through this unit was the uniqueness of design because of it’s intertwined relationship with the specific. So I tried a different approach.
I thought about my experience in other areas of my life. I thought about specific representations of the individual and then expressed those as an insight:
Increasingly, people are the curators of their representational identity in the world. In this role they struggle to expose their own vulnerability, and therefor their humanity, to others.
This insight may of course be completely wrong, but it was immensely helpful for me to reference in the process of reducing and ranking the ideas in the articles.
By defining a specific problem, a narrative started to form and then it was only a matter of understanding how each of the different articles responded to that narrative and to what extent I thought that response was insightful.
The result of this process is and related discussion follow:
“Design is Powerful” was the reduction of Manipulating Public Opinion by Edward Bernays. The article defines the process by which the public forms and responds to ideas and then outlines techniques which can be used to manipulate this process.
While there’s no questioning the potency of Bernays’s ideas, they also weren’t particularly insightful in thinking about how to help the curator. Empowerment seems much more crucial than manipulation in addressing the issues at play: pushing the raw power of Bernays to the bottom of my scale.
“Consequences are Amplified” was distilled from my reading and discussion of Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World. Papanek expresses a lot of ideas about the wider context of a designer’s decisions and the necessity for better approaches to design education. Embedded in this discussion is the notion that the industrial designer’s education and view of the world is crucial because his/her ideas will be greatly amplified.
I think Papanek is absolutely right about the need for a broad understanding of the challenges that face society in order to design. However, in the context of trying to provoke individuals to convey more of their humanity, the consequences of amplification only serve to highlight the problem: people are guarded and controlling with their identity precisely because of the increase in amplification in the mediums were are communicating through. While central to the topic, it’s also obvious.
“The Stakes are High” is a reduction from Maurizio Vitto’s The Meaning of Design. Vitto connects the dots between the mass production of objects, the individuals consumption of those products as a means of a communication, and the erosion of substance that results from the repetition of this process.
I think Vitto’s ideas are important to the specific problem I considered in that they offer a pinpoint explanation on exactly why our own control over our representative identity can erode our connection to our actual identity. By engaging in so many empty forms of personal representation we actually create a more substantively vacant version of ourselves.
“Context is Essential” was directly lifted from Allan Chochinov’s 1000 Words: A Manifesto for Sustainability in Design. Chochinov’s manifesto is full of helpful, simply articulated themes that are relevant to design. Particularly compelling are his statements about sustainability, impermanence, and systems design. But it’s not a stretch to see everything he writes as an extension of a deep understanding of the modern context of design.
The reason why Context is ranked so high on my scale is that it implies not just a process for understanding our specific problem but also suggests a technique for ranking difference design frames that are available (just as this activity has pushed me to do). While most of the other ideas represented thus far feel helpful in articulating the problem, Context seems to be the first opportunity for tangible steps toward problem solving.
“Design Technology must be Agile and Specific” was a helpful reduction of Richard Buchanan’s Wicked Problems in Design Thinking although certainly others were possible. Via John Dewey, Buchanan articulates a thought provoking narrative of the history of design as well as clues to how it can be regularly re-instantiated going forward through the use of technology. And the technology Buchanan is referring to are the mental methods and practices of design thinking.
Buchanan’s articulation of design technology was by far the most helpful in thinking of the specific problem at hand. It suggested a process by which a designer can locate his/her role in the world by rooting them in the specific problem and then calling upon them to employ the technology of design. The specific method that come out of this process are the result of the wide context that the problem exists but also result from an understanding of the fine details of the problem. In our case, we might think of how our context with the curator could be addressed by different current design areas (like signs and communication) and then try different very specific methods (like affinity diagrams and insight combinations) to provoke the design toward meaningful outcomes.
This process was at once helpful and difficult. In trying to make abstract sense of ideas about design I found the abstractions to be vacant and difficult to compare. However, by rooting my thoughts in something practical, the ideas in these articles started to come to life. I can’t escape the feeling that I made an intuitive narrative and then just pulled from the articles as it suited me and perhaps that is the most meaningful takeaway: that ideas reduced in isolation are arbitrary but in reducing with a purpose already in mind, the reductions take on meaning and multiple reductions are possible.