Designerly Imagination: Fencing Us In
What limits what we can imagine? That’s the provocative question and theme we explored the past two weeks with Richard Anderson.
It’s a more complicated question than it might appear on the surface. After all, who hasn’t been told at least once (or been the person imparting the wisdom) that the only limitation is imagination? As if imagination can be tapped into if only we try hard enough.
The readings impart several barriers to what we can imagine:
Language. The word we use matter and shape our perception of the world. In healthcare, individuals are patients (even when they’re healthy), and providers are health care professionals.
Context. We must look deeper to understand the meaning and the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea. In science fiction, despite imagining worlds that have never been seen but later became a reality, “one limitation of the past and current science fiction communities is that they disproportionately feature the contributions of a particular author demographic (i.e., white men). If we admit that visions of the future are influenced by the present context of the author, this is an important point to consider when adapting ideas from science fiction narratives.”
Education. Professionals, from doctors to MBAs to designers, are taught to think a certain way and to becomes masters of specific tools and processes. This embedded way of thinking frames how we view the world.
Trends. Trends tell us where the world or the market are heading. There are smart reasons to jump on a trend. It’s often a recipe for success. But patterns can have unintended consequences, such as convenience and efficiency which has become the hallmark of technology and design. Trends are not inherently bad. What if we refreshed our hot trend more regularly?
Perseverance. Stick-to-it-ive-ness is often a good thing. But knowing when to walk away is a good thing too. The answer to lousy technology often adds more technology. What if there’s a different solution?
Objects. Physical objects offer limitations of their own. For a writer, it might have been a typewriter or pen and paper. For a designer, sharpies, and post-it-notes?
Fencing Us In
People of all stripes are subject to these limitations of imagination. And it seems there are endless limitations. Culture. Religion. Empathy. It goes on and on.
For designers, a common trap is thinking that we’re the innovators and saviors. Everyone should think like a designer. Literature can learn more from design than design from literature. Got a wicked problem? Get a designer.
Designers are taught to embrace constraints when working on a project. Constraints are our friends. So perhaps we need some limitations to what design is capable of imagining.
Just like ego can affect our ability to receive critique and to collaborate, it can affect our ability to be open to creativity. Design and humility are a good match. It leads to an understanding that design works best when partnering with other disciplines and taking every opportunity to learn and leverage other talents. I’m all about design, but even I am growing tired of headlines that tell practically every profession to think like a designer.
At the start of the quarter I wrote that design is human and in another post I wrote about the need for design agency, a distinctly human ability. I thought they were simple, yet provocative statements. It’s also complicated.
In an era of artificial intelligence and exponential growth of technology, what it means to be human is up for debate. Faith Popcorn, a leading futurist who has worked with some of the most significant companies in the world, said that “we already live in a world with self-driving cars soon taking to the roads and a robotic citizen.” Faith thinks that “things will become even more sci-fi. We’re on the bridge from the past to the future. It’s going to be even faster than we think. People must move forward and redefine what work means, whether we must work, and consider what it means to be human.”
That’s going to take a big dose of humility and a multidisciplinary team to prototype, test, and iterate. Grab the post-it-notes and let’s get to work!