Why design?

Over the past two months, many people have asked me why Austin Center for Design. As we’re now in the final week of the first quarter of the program, it feels like an appropriate time to reflect upon life events that led to my decision to attend using the context of the final set of readings in our Design, Society and the Public Sector theory course.

In retrospect, it’s easy to draw lines between the dots that have led me to where I am today. If you had asked me as I was graduating from college, however, where my career would lead then I would have had 20 different answers for you. In the same vein that Edward de Bono explained that self-organizing systems set up patterns, my career path feels perfectly logical in hindsight.

102a

I earned my bachelor’s degree in something called cognitive science. It was effectively a bachelor of arts hodgepodged together with required course credit options spread across the disciplines of psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and neuroscience. Richard Buchanan might have asked if studying cognitive science undermined or contributed to my ability to solve complex problems, and I hope that my path ever since would indicate that it has helped.

I learned relatively early in my career the importance of considering the culture and needs of people living in a community before trying to design a solution for — or better yet, with — the locals. As Peace Corps volunteers, we were encouraged to learn from and study solutions that were already working in our communities (or “positive deviants”, as Jocelyn Wyatt would say) to try to model these best practices in our work.

In my current role at the City, I espouse to incorporate the viewpoints of a number of our latest set of authors in my daily work. I first became interested in working for the City of Austin because I learned about the Office of Innovation and Design Technology while managing a small startup coworking space. Since renamed to be the Office of Design and Delivery (ODD), this department focuses on integrating human-centered design to help the City better serve its citizens.

Taking a page from the “Case for Design Literacy” by Chris Pacione, ODD is working to educate City staff that design is not just for designers, but for anyone whose business is to create or lead something. This recognition that fostering design literacy among a staff can lead to a stronger public sector was what motivated me to apply for my current role facilitating code education and outreach.

102b

Herb A. Simon might argue that community outreach is inherently an ill-structured problem. While well-structured problems have an initial state, goal state, and constraints clearly defined, my team has none of these. While we know that our overall purpose is to increase education and awareness of city codes, there is very little data to illuminate the initial knowledge state of Austinites, nor how exactly to quantify a goal state, nor a concrete definition of the parameters within which we must work (beyond budgetary constraints).

When Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber say in their article “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” that “the formulation of a wicked problem IS the problem”, it reminds me slightly of our team’s key performance indicators. How best can we measure success or progress when our mission and work might itself resemble a wicked problem? Do we monitor and record the number of community events attended each year? The number of code violations found by inspectors per year? Or the percentage of cases resolved by voluntary compliance? Each of these metrics and attempts to formulate ways in which we can measure progress toward a goal inherently tell only a small piece of the story.

Like any good fledgling design thinker, I will end with optimism. I would agree with Nigel Cross that “design ability” is possessed by everyone. I also appreciated Simon’s perspective that solving ill-structured problems requires the acquisition of and use of expertise of context-specific knowledge. In each role that I’ve had in my career, I’ve learned more and more about myself and the world around me. I’ll combine this perspective with Wyatt’s statement that “one of the biggest impediments to adopting design thinking is simply the fear of failure”.

102c

When Scott asked our class “what does fear of failure mean to you?”, my instinctual response was “lack of experience”. By this, I think I meant that the more life experiences I have, the less I fear failure and rather look forward to new challenges and opportunities. So, why design? Or, more specifically, why Austin Center for Design? I’m drawn to this program because it pushes me to stretch my limits and learn more about myself and the world around me. And hopefully, in doing so, I will be setting myself up today to help solve the wicked problems of tomorrow.