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.