Design as a Liberal Art

These past few weeks, our class at the Austin Center for Design focused on the question that in a way is at the heart of this program – “What is Design?” This question has become more prevalent over the last century as thinkers like Dewey and others have wondered if the art/science of design is something worth exploring and harnessing for the benefit of society. To me, the answer is undoubtedly “Yes!”, and both the readings and paired video assignment made that clear.

The assignment for the topic of design was much like the past few assignments. First, read a handful of articles by luminaries in design and related fields. Next, make something that synthesizes those readings in a narrative. In past assignments, we needed to make sketched comics, presentations, and even a whiteboard presentation. For this assignment, the challenge was to develop a video that told our story.

The readings on design included:

Discovering Design Ability – by Nigel Cross

Serious Creativity – by Edward DeBono

Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy – by Chris Pacione

Wicked Problems in Design Thinking – by Richard Buchanan

Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning – by Horst Rittel, Melvin Webber

Design Thinking for Social Innovation – by Tim Brown, Jocelyn Wyatt

These readings were some of my favorite to date. I’m passionate about design, but in addition to design I also have worked in education the last eight years, read books about psychology often, and even minored in philosophy in college. These readings resonate with all these interests. Instead of looking at the question of design in relation to something such as poverty or public responsibility, these got “meta” and reflected back on the thinking processes, systems, and educational discipline of design itself.

Once I finished the readings, I took to externalizing my understanding of them. Externalization is an interesting process to reflect on in this particular post. It is a key process that a designer may use to make sense of the overwhelming amount of information they may try to process in the context of a project. Externalization is the process of getting information out of one’s head and into an external information system. The classic image of a designer’s studio wall covered in stickies used to seem silly to me, but now I understand how meaningful it is. By getting information onto stickies, about insights, observations, or other ideas, it becomes possible to better see, manipulate, and connect that information with other pieces of information.

Affinity diagramming - notes in yellow; observations and insights in teal; storyboarding in red.
Affinity diagramming – notes in yellow; observations and insights in teal; storyboarding in red.

In the case of my readings, in addition to externalizing the data so I could review it, I also did affinity diagramming. This is a process that helps develop insight into patterns that exist within sets of data. To do this, I wrote down my most important notes onto stickies and labeled them by author. I then assembled those notes into groups that I felt had similar themes. Feeling and intuiting in this case is just as or more important than analyzing the notes for common themes. If it feels similar, group it and see what they have in common afterward rather than require a logical explanation for grouping them in the first place. Lastly, I reviewed the groupings developed and wrote a description of what that group of notes described. This process helped me synthesize the data across the multiple articles, and it helped me see patterns and make personal connections that I would not otherwise have made if it were not for this additional process.

One of my favorite insights came as I grouped the data listening to jazz on my headphones, and it relates particularly to the articles at hand.

Edward DeBono is a psychologist who has made many contributions to theories of creativity. In his article, he urges people to move beyond logic and to appreciate creativity and intuition in solving problems and thinking more rigorously. In other readings, similar themes recurred regarding transcending the rationalism of science and distinguishing design from science in its reliance on intuition for sense-making. There is a sense in which design draws from the knowledge that science establishes, and then it will go a step further to seek truth by relying on a foundation where science would never find support – intuition.

In the same sense that designers utilize the structured knowledge of science and then extend further by leaping off from intuition, as I listened to the music in my headphones, it struck me that this is exactly what jazz musicians do. The insight that came to me was this:

“Design is like jazz, drawing on proven structures and departing to make provocative statements of truth that elicit conversation and movement.”

I know many jazz musicians, and they nearly all are well versed in classical music theory and structures. They know the standards, and they rely on traditional forms. But then they jump off from there to establish a new form of their own, and only intuition can guide them there.

Throughout these readings, I found so many interesting themes like these. The readings also touched on the potential for design as a type of intelligence, methods for design, whether design should be taught as a liberal art, and how design companies could even spread the gospel of design in communities and with their clients.

As I approached my project, I wrestled with the narrative I would tell. Would I have a designer as the main character? A city planner? Who?

Given my experience and love for the realm of education, and since the articles had such a strong theme around teaching design, I decided to craft the narrative around a school. In the school, a teacher is pit against a tough group of uninspired, uneducated students, and she decides to try teaching them through design project. Through their project, students learn about techniques for creativity, design research, and even how to better make use of what they learn in classes like math or reading by applying those skills in a real project.

Design is a fascinating field, and the opportunity to leverage design thinking as a skill and discipline across a variety of fields and types of work is exciting. This quarter is now over, but I look ahead to expanding on this skill set for years to come.