Austin Center for Design embraces an educational pedagogy focused on empathy, abductive reasoning, and rapid prototyping. All of these core pillars stand upon a foundation of relevance of impact: focusing on problems worth solving.
A wicked problem is a form of social or cultural problem that is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. These problems are typically offloaded to policy makers, or are written off as being too cumbersome to bother with. Yet these are the problems that plague our world and our cities - poverty, sustainability, equality and health and wellness are issues that touch each and every one of us.
These problems can be mitigated through the process of design - through an intellectual approach to design that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning, and rapid prototyping. These are the problems that are addressed at the Austin Center for Design.
A fundamental role of design is to visualize, create, and embody what does not yet exist. Policy makers and economists debate theoretical scenarios, while real life unapologetically marches on. Design makes things real, and only once things have been made real can they be sufficiently judged, examined, responded to, and improved. It is through a constant process of prototyping that results come to life, and it is this emphasis on creation that allows students at Austin Center of Design better understand how to manage complicated, multi-faceted social and cultural problems.
A prototype need not be expensive, and it certainly does not need to take a lot of time to produce. But a prototype should embody a level of fidelity appropriate to the given problem and point in the design process; a good prototype can be easily rejected without heartache.
Abductive reasoning can be thought of as the "step of adopting a hypothesis as being suggested by the facts... a form of inference". (Peirce, On the Logic of Drawing History from Ancient Documents 1998) It is the hypothesis that makes the most sense given observed phenomenon or data and based on prior experience. Abduction is a logical way of considering inference or "best guess" leaps.
Design synthesis is fundamentally a way to apply abductive logic within the confines of a design problem. (Coyne 1988) The various constraints of the problem begin to act as logical premises, and the designer's work and life experiences, and his ease and flexibility with logical leaps based on inconclusive or incomplete data, begin to shape the abduction. Abduction acts as inference or intuition, and is directly aided and assisted by experience. Yet the experience need not be with the specific subject matter of the design problem. The abduction itself can be driven by any design or cultural patterns that act as an argument from best explanation. As described by Peirce, "The abductive suggestion comes to us like a flash. It is an act of insight, although extremely fallible insight. It is true that the different elements of the hypothesis were in our minds before; but it is the idea of putting together what we had never before dreamed of putting together which flashes the new suggestion before our contemplation". (Peirce, Pragmatism as the Logic of Abduction 1988)
That creates a gap between the mysterious dreaming that designers appreciate and the proof business owners demand. Design cannot prove the solutions to the mysteries. These are unprovable, and are only demonstrable and testable. The idea of proof relies on and insists on declarative reasoning, which wipes out new and innovative thinking.
The key to successfully achieving wisdom falls directly within the emotional capacity for empathy. The designer needs to be able to truly empathize with the people who will be using, buying, considering or consuming his design. Empathy is fairly easy to discuss, but curiously difficult to actually feel. Most ethnographic tools are used to understand context – to uncover details related to work flow, or to learn vocabulary related to a particular group of people or activity. While this is useful, and particularly important for introducing positive usability changes or adding new features and functions to a product, understanding is not synonymous with empathy. To compassionately feel what it is like to be another individual, one must identify with his culture, his emotions, and his style.
And that is the real value of empathy for a designer. Experiences involve both the pragmatic (activities, goals and tasks) and also the conceptual and fleeting (such as feelings, and irrationality, and culture). Methods that attempt to formalize empathy can help a designer not only design for utility and for practicality, but also for emotion, and for behavior – the underpinnings of interaction design, and arguably the most important aspects of design in culture.
There is a gap in understanding how to successfully apply the creative, intellectual methods of design thinking – that have been so successful in generating profit for financially-driven companies – in support of humanitarian causes. This gap exists at a theoretical level, as the existing body of design literature does not focus on the research approaches necessary to investigate these difficult and multilayered problems. This gap also exists at a tactical level, as the existing curricula of most design schools prepare masters students explicitly for professional work in less supportive or impactful causes.
The long-term goal of AC4D is to investigate and drive a positive relationship between design thinking and the large "wicked" problems facing the public sector. These problems broadly include issues of poverty, hunger, education, health and wellness, sustainability, and equality; while these issues are typically explored and addressed through policy and politics, little has been done to understand how creativity and less linear thinking can provide assistance.