Beyond the Horse

A cup of coffee (content which is both functional and social) doesn’t exist without the activity of a global system of persons (context as activity continually reproduced through interpretation and reinterpretation, individually or collectively). In the case of coffee that global system involves people planting, growing, harvesting, processing, auctioning, exporting, shipping, importing, transporting, roasting and brewing. What feels like such a simple, given pleasure is actually a highly complex global commodity that equals varying degrees of livelihood for very many people. 

At the cafe level, we brew coffee considering three important variables – strength, extraction and brew ratio. Plotting the relationship between these factors, we aim to achieve the optimum balance that will produce the most naturally occurring sweetness in that coffee.

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We use tools like refractometers and smart scales and thermometers and cupping spoons and grinders. And we rely on science and math and graphs in addition to our own palate, developed over time and with practice. Often times we will understand palate as intuition and lean more heavily on this because nobody wants to do math at 5am in the morning.

Why is this relevant to understanding the role of design research? Context isn’t just ‘there’, Paul Dourish writes, “but is actively produced, maintained and enacted in the course of the activity at hand.” I believe what Dourish is driving towards is that context and content are not mutually exclusive but produce meaning and value when we consider the interplay and interconnectedness between the two. 

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The graph is charted to reflect how the methodologies described by each author are indicative of an approach more concerned with Designing With People, as in participatory design or co-creation methods, versus Designing For People, as in product ecology or experience prototyping. The Y axis is reflective of the authors bent – towards a focus on content, as in objects, technologies or interventions, versus a focus on context, dynamic interpretations which are continually reimagined and sustained by activity or interaction. 

Through learning about different design research approaches, and considering the ethical implications of each, I’ve developed my own perspective on what the role of the designer is in 2019. We are given access to many opportunity spaces through individual stories which is a privilege and a responsibility that we shouldn’t take lightly. What’s lacking from the conversations about the functional and social roles of designed objects, technologies or interventions is the possibility that those can also have an integrative role. 

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Today’s designer should consider their role, then, as one of Integration. Not only integrating context with content but also, bridging the divide between an organization and its people; merging the functional with the social; and cultivating participation between the designer and their publics. 

I’ll leave you with a quote from the spiritualist, Parker Palmer, that was instrumental in my decision to leave the coffee industry after fifteen years. It compelled me to consider how else I might participate in the world and ultimately led me here. 

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Losing the Battle for Brevity.

For the last several weeks we have been reading the work of designers and theorists – Maurizio Vitta, Neil Postman, Victor Papanek, John Dewey and Edward Bernays. The goal of which is to think critically about the merits and role of design in society, and to consider the ethics & responsibility we have to the objects themselves as well as the persons for whom we are designing. I should say in learning to design for people, we are really learning to design with people. 

I’ve identified a key concern that each theorist discussed and how those concerns inform the functional methods that are proposed, the ethical implications that creates in our role as designers and finally, how the progression of their ideas mimics the structure for how we are learning design research here at AC4D. 

Vitta sees material objects as “confirmation of the prevailing values” as they offer insight into the production and manipulation of social meanings or social logic. He is quick to recognize that a ‘culture of design… is meant to suggest the totality of disciplines, phenomena, knowledge, analytical instruments, and philosophy that the design of useful objects must take into account.” He charges designers to think critically about what we design and why. In other words, he speaks to the notion that we ought to find problems worth solving – something we are afforded through the flexibility of the medium and the framework for social analysis it provides. 

While his address isn’t directed to designers, Postman offers up the need for an organizing moral framework to emerge as we are largely unable to parse through the overabundance of information. The problem however is that most of this ‘filtering of knowledge’ is done by people in power – people with special knowledge and special language that reinforces the status quo while restricting access to the common folk. Design has the potential to make our lives more meaningful and more humane and the sensemaking process requires we learn from diverse perspectives and experience as that allows greater access to new insights and avenues for inquiry. 

What do we do once we’ve made sense of the problem? Papanek argues that problem solving is more difficult when we can’t access creativity and creativity, he argues, is inhibited by perceptual, cultural, emotional, and associational blocks. He speaks about a need to broaden our scope of experience well beyond the limitations of our own and suggests rapid, free associative ideation and iteration as one method for countering these blocks and incorporating new ideas. He summarizes Postman’s argument in saying, “By bringing more than one language to bear on a problem, we obtain more insight.” 

Even though he wasn’t writing for the design profession specifically, I found Dewey’s thinking around experience to be the most actionable in terms of designing. He explains experience as a moving force which made me think about the way we can build on experience for cumulative effect with the purpose of fundamentally altering attitudes, habits, or behaviors. Generally, if we are concerned with addressing problems worth solving then we are also concerned with needing to influence majority opinions and democratize access by designing with the actual views of the actual public. 

He goes on to argue that we need to articulate what experience means before we can begin to create for experience. He wrote, “of, by, or for… each [is] a challenge to discover and put into operation.” I found it so interesting that the person who dedicated the most time articulating around the necessity for defining experience was also the person who most understood that, while thoughtful articulation is a critical component in the design process, there is an activity of language that needs to bear itself out. Clear and coherent ideas are only valuable insofar as they are practically organized and executed. Naturally, I’m beginning to drink the language kool-aid of this program and Less Talking, More Doing came to mind. 

Lastly, Bernays – the mastermind behind the propaganda machine. While I don’t think Bernays thinks very highly of people and sees them as easy pawns, what he offers to my perspective on design is the real need to cultivate buy-in when bringing something new to market. Shifting public opinion relies on broad acceptance and is most quickly achieved through group adherence and the cooperation of major stakeholders. Building on the recurring theme of language, Bernays argues for an economy of words – adapting messaging for clarity and accessibility so ideas can quickly flow across a variety of platforms. 

Ultimately, after we’ve discovered problems worth solving, after we’ve done sensemaking of the information gathered through a user-focused research strategy, after we’ve done hundreds of ideation exercises to arrive at meaningful insights, and after we’ve built something real and tangible to bring to market, we owe our stakeholders a value proposition that shares a compelling vision for the future. 

This has been my takeaway. Bless your heart if you’ve read this far.

lil lil

Work in Progress or Progress through Work.

I kept hearing the word ‘intense’ as I met with former alum and looked into the program. Trying to wrap my head around what to expect I asked, what does intense mean?? How does it look? How will it manifest? How can I prepare to manage intensity?

There are certain knowable factors that I could rearrange to prioritize this program – assuming a part time job, meal prepping breakfast and lunch, buying a car, getting one good fuss free haircut, cancelling every streaming service. I met with designers and alum to understand what their life was like and to try to grasp the meaning of intensity within the program. How do you balance work/life/school? Can you? I heard useful tips along the way – embrace the criticism and learn from it – but I also heard that you just don’t. Balance as I may want to conceive it will not be a reality and, in a way, it’s helpful to abandon this idea of perfection around balancing all things.

Ultimately, I realized I can’t over anticipate this. At a certain point you have to stop hemming and hawing and asking around. Answers don’t come from investigation alone – we arrive at those through lived experience and by fumbling through process until we understand our own. This week has taught me how very little I know and how very much I will be stretched. Somehow, rather than feeling daunted by this, I feel energized.

Bootcamp has helped crystallize the goal I have for being in this program which is to leave AC4D as a design strategist, as a team player, and as a better human. I’m going to learn how to use creative, analytical and empathetic skills to design programs or processes or, dare I say, solutions that will drive us toward a more empathetic, more connected, and more human centered society. Creating meaningful social change through design is still an unknown to me. I can only discover the how and the mechanisms and the processes by which we create that by giving myself permission to try and permission to fail. But most importantly, by putting in the ‘ducking’ work.