The Digital Cave: Math vs. Design Literacy

When I started my career as a math educator fifteen years ago, I was motivated to change how my students saw math, to see that  is math all around, to feel that understanding math matters, and most importantly, everyone can learn math. I wanted my students to read the world through numbers. I was driven by the belief that math formats our world – from the ways we plan our cities to the digital technologies that are now omnipresent to the economic models that control our global markets, mathematics is the foundation of our built environment. I doggedly tried. I had to do a lot of heavy lifting. Time and again I had to confront a growing tide of apathy. Students, teachers, graduates, they all recited the same chorus: “So what? This stuff can’t really help me.” And honestly, I thought so, too. Even the most studious who learned to rigorously think mathematically, what would they do with it? Where could they go? Ten years into my career, I discovered design thinking and it revolutionized my classroom. The skills and mindsets practiced by professional designers offers everyone a way to get out into the world and do something real.

A decade and a few months later, I am completing my first quarter of a program in Interaction Design at the Austin Center for Design. In theory class, we read a cadre of articles that articulated what I intuited years ago: design literacy is just as important as math literacy. Math formats our world. Design structures it. To me, teaching the general population the how, why and what of design helps all citizens to first, gain consciousness for the complexity of the manmade world and second, be empowered to critique and contribute to the world around them.

Teaching people “…basic skills in inquiry, evaluation, ideation, sketching and prototyping…” as (Pacione)  as well as lateral thinking skills (de Bono) empowers  people to escape the feeling that, “…the machines of our culture often appear out of human control, threatening to trap and enslave rather than liberate.”  (Buchanan) Just as understanding how knowledge is constructed within the domain of mathematics helps all citizens to grow their awareness, learning how to practice design would open up everyone’s minds to how the world around them has been constructed.

Now, I am not proclaiming design thinking would save the world. This would be naïve. As Horst and Rittel proclaim, there is no way to save the world because “social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved—over and over again.” However, since designing is a form of intelligence (Cross), I believe that just like mathematics anyone can learn the art of design. If more people learn to grow their design literacy, their capacity for understanding how the world operates will grow.

Learning that technology is “…a discipline of systematic thinking” and not a product liberates. It can help all people to both learn how the products and services around them have been constructed and also to give them ideas about how to contribute to new constructions.

Mathematics is abstract and distant. Design is concrete and lived. Design can help all people to feel connected to the built environment. It can also be a bridge between mathematical ignorance and knowing-ness. It can inspire students to ask questions and feel empowered to answer them.

After thinking about how design can reshape one’s consciousness, I thought about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. A brief summary of the allegory: in an imagined world, humans are chained to seats below the ground in a cave. They are forced to watch two-dimensional shadows on a wall from birth to death. They believe this representation of the world to be reality. Randomly, one person’s chains are broken and he ascends to the real world, seeing the sun and trees for the first time. He feels obligated to return to the people still chained down below in the cave to tell them the truth. Instead of embracing what he has to say, the people shun him and threaten to kill him. He fails to return to his world and will wander alone above ground for the rest of his life. This allegory inspired my synthesis of the articles about design education. Thus, I called the story, “The Digital Cave.”