Aerial: how might a drone become more than an observer by learning design skills?

In Jon Kolko’s course, Design, Society, and the Public Sector, we have spent the past two weeks reading and discussing articles about how designers think and work. The writers were Richard Buchanan, Nigel Cross, Edward De Bono, Chris Pacione, Horst Rittel, Jocelyn Wyatt, and Melvin Webber.

Design literacy and skills

Pacione, the writer of Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy, laid the foundation for discussions by making the case that design can be as important to humanity as mathematics. The work completed by Leonardo of Pisa in the 1200’s enabled people to learn math, which later ushered in the Industrial Age. For Pacione, design is a fundamental human literacy (equivalent to reading, writing, and mathematics) that is required to advance society.

Building off from Tim Brown’s famous quote, “design is too important to be left to designers,” Pacione reasons that design should be “put back into the hands of everyone.” Pacione is not trying to make professional designers out every student (no more so than teaching mathematics turns every student into rocket scientists). He believes that basic design skills like “inquiry, evaluation, ideation, sketching, and prototyping” are within the “cognitive and kinesthetic capabilities” of everyone and will better meet the challenges ahead of us.

Cross, the author of Discovering Design Ability, described distinctive themes of how designers describe their work: the importance of creativity and intuition; the use of sketches, drawings, and models to explore problems and solutions; and “recognition that problems and solutions in design are closely interwoven.” Cross reasoned that design is a discipline and that everyone has design ability (to greater or lesser degree). He reasoned that design ability is a form of natural intelligence and that it should be a discipline of study.

De Bono, the writer of Exploring Patterns of Thought: Serious Creativity, put forth ideas to enable everyone to think more creatively. Recognizing that is not natural to cut across patterns, De Bono created constructs to nurture creative thinking, and to lead to new perspectives and ideas. His techniques included the use of random words as a provocation to disrupt ordinary ways of thinking. I believe that De Bono’s methods are suitable for everyone to use for creative thinking, and especially so when stuck in a paradigm.

I think Pacione, Wyatt, and Cross make the case that design is an essential human skill that can and should be taught as a fundamental human literacy. Our world is changing as technology advances. Two hundred years ago most people worked on a farm. What will they be doing two years from now? Teaching necessary design skills will prepare society for the future—to help shape it and to live in it.

Design by definition

Gaining support to include design within educational frameworks might be difficult. I think Pacione is onto something when he writes that it is critical that we take control of the design narrative by stamping out “popular stereotypes” that design is “merely the act of arranging how something looks” and that innovation simply turns “on in our mind, like a light bulb.”

Even as a graduate design student, it can be difficult to give a concise definition of design. In Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, Buchanan wrote, “design eludes reduction and remains surprisingly flexible.” For Buchanan, design is found in so many places because of its degree of depth and context. Buchanan developed a framework for where we see design: signs (symbolic and visual communication), things (material objects), actions (activities and services), and thoughts (complex systems). Buchanan saw an opportunity for innovation by repositioning items within the framework (for example, taking a product (thing) and repositioning it as a brand (sign) to develop unique product categories.

Rittel and Webber were the first to use the phrase wicked problems. As urban planners, they found that the existing tools of their trade were not enough to solve the dilemma of urban planning because each problem led to another problem. “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.” An essential point of the article was the importance of problem identification.

In Design Thinking for Social Innovation, Wyatt makes the case that designers are moving away from traditional roles rooted in aesthetics and functionality toward designing solutions to complex problems. For Wyatt, it’s the convergence of design (visual, feelings, intuition) and intellect that creates something new called design thinking. Wyatt stresses that design thinking “relies on local expertise to uncover local problems” as she reiterates the importance of understanding the user’s needs and perspective.

On assignment

The assignment was to identify the author’s positions, sketch a storyline that explains their views, and recreate the sketch in a short video that leverage the unique qualities of the medium to enhance the message.

My story is about a drone, Aerial, with plans to become more than an observer of the world. Using his existing cognitive capabilities, he sets out to learn design as a new skill.

  • From Pacione he first learns about design as a human literacy
  • From Buchanan he learns about a design framework consisting of symbols, objects, actions, and thoughts; this helps him understand the depth and context of design
  • From Wyatt, Aerial is encouraged to continue learning design since he’s uniquely capable of going where design is most needed, and he’s cautioned to be careful with bias
  • From De Bobono, he learns techniques to think differently and cut across patterns
  • From Rittell and Melvin, he learns the importance of problem definition and those complex problems do not have straightforward answers
  • From Cross, he learns necessary design skills like models and begins to use them
  • He also starts to think about himself as a design problem—how might he become more than a drone? His intuition told him that his desire to be more than a drone was essential and that his new human literacy, design, can help him reach his goal.

As the story comes to a close, Aerial has many traits that we might find in a designer (even with Cross’ ordering principle of designers hanging onto ideas because of the difficulty of starting over). The story ends with Aerial positioned to become more than an observer, or consumer, of the world and with a cliffhanger concerning the impact that a drone with design skills might have.

I chose to work with stock footage and photography, which I thought would give me the ability to take advantage of the medium. Ultimately, stock visual items presented constraints. What I had in mind for a scene might have been unavailable, and I found myself swayed by images and videos as I curated them. For example, a camel never made it on my storyboard, but a scene with camels went into the video when I found striking stock footage that evoked the words from the narrative.

Aerial: a drone with plans to become more than an observer of the world