Design Thinking Workshop description

Thank you again to everyone who attended the recent Design Thinking workshop. There seems to be a consistent interest from companies, organizations, and schools in hosting this event for themselves. It’s becoming a kind of “classic” that is a great way for design professionals to build relationships with new organizations. I put together the following copy to be used by internal advocates in these organizations who want to foster interest for the event.

Design Thinking Crash Course

Short Description: A two-hour workshop that provides a vivid introduction to one of the most successful and well-known approaches to brand building and business innovation in the new global digital economy.

Background: Companies such as Apple, Google, Starbucks, and P&G are using Design Thinking to integrate all of their products, services, channels, and communications into innovative brand experiences. Their Design Thinking approach has turned their consumers into advocates. In response, many top business and design schools around the country have created Design Leadership programs to meet the demand for design savvy business leaders. The graduates of these programs appeal to those companies who need to transform not only their products, and services, but also their processes and even cultures, to be responsive to their customer’s growing complex needs and preferences. Design Thinking offers an alternative to linear analytical decision making by using a collaborative disciplined approach that builds a shared empirical empathy for the customer. The Design Thinking methodology is used by business leaders, engineers, marketers, and product designers, in areas as diverse as healthcare, sustainability, education, urban planning, new product and service development, and entertainment.

The Workshop Description: This is a two hour interactive multimedia course in the Design Thinking methodology. Participants work in pairs and groups using worksheets, and a variety of construction materials. A facilitator and coach provide contextualized instruction through a fast-paced series of activities.

Learning Outcome: Participants come away with first-hand experience in one of today’s most important trends in business, engineering, and design communities.

Key business leadership concepts include:
Building a culture of emotional engagement
Increasing speed to market.
Leading cross-discipline collaboration
Having a bias towards action
Business model innovation

Key engineering leadership concepts include:
Human Centered Design principles
Systems thinking
Rapid prototyping and testing
Shared understanding of stage gates among collaborators
Applying engineering skills in new areas such as service design

Social Media Promotional Support: There is social media promotional content and support for the Design Thinking event. The content assets can be used by your internal social media team, or we can manage the program. The Social Media content and support has the following components:
Pre-planning: Creating timelines for the event, branding the event for your departments, and creating event pages on Facebook, Linkedin, Google+, and Hashtag designations.
Pre-Event: Daily posts on Facebook, Linkedin, and Google+ (Content can be used on internal blogs as well), links to 60 second video commercial spot.
During Event: Live Posts and images on Facebook, and Linkedin. Monitoring event hashtags and event mentions. (Live feed on Google+ and Hangout if desirable.)
Post-event: Event videos uploaded to Youtube or Vimeo. Sum up best posts. Wrap up article for internal blogs. Post-cards are available should your departments desire to stay in touch with guests who came to the event.

Writing a Wrong

When writing an academic research paper there are two rules.

1) The hours needed for editing are equal or greater then the hours required for writing the dang content.

2) Formatting the paper requires at least one full day. Two days if you are forced to wrestle with a conference template.

Failure to plan accordingly results in eating bowls of cereal and self-pity at two in the morning.

Whats The Word?

”Language can also be compared with a sheet of paper: thought is the front and the sound the back; one cannot cut the front without cutting the back at the same time; likewise in language, one can neither divide sound from thought nor thought from sound.”
(Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 1916)

Saussure’s comment about sound is describing the way language is, not the only way it could be or had to be.  After-all it was he who said that signs are arbitrary in language. This implies that the medium is also arbitrary.  If the medium of vocalized utterances weren’t available or expedient, another medium could’ve very well sufficed. In this way, phonology is not the study of language, but the study of the medium of language. What Saussure called langue may be described as a stable system of interconnected sounds which are arbitrary and unintelligible to speakers of other systems. In fact, until the rise of national language in the modern sense, the people of one village would not be able to understand their neighbors just a few miles away.

The spoken word is a medium for expressing ideas. Sign language is an example of another successful medium. For many years many people believed congenital deafness deprived people of language. Many could not see sign language as a complete language that followed the same rules of syntax and grammar of spoken language.  In his book “Seeing Voices”, Neuroscientist and doctor Oliver Sacks explored just how rich and complete sign language actually is.

My assertion is that vocal utterance became the expression of language simply because because of the remarkable dexterity afforded humans by their vocal chord anatomy.  Morphology and phonology are concerned with encoding the medium of sound; they are neither syntax nor semantics.  They aren’t even thoughts. You could substitute one grammar of morphology and phonology for another, and still have an intact language, although no one might understand it. In fact, this happens in the context free grammars used for software programming, where coding languages need syntactic rules to function properly, while not needing semantics or meaning.

Perhaps, the only reason musical tones or paint daubs are not endowed with the explicit or precise meanings found in a system of spoken words, is because they didn’t need to be. Human sound was more readily available and efficient. Yet other mediums could’ve evolved into language systems as cohesive as spoken language if the situation required it. If the hidden cognitive structures of language were not afforded vocal utterances, they would’ve generated alternative systems of expression somehow.

Along this line of speculation, I like to think that music was a derivation of spoken words, and that a branch of painting became writing. Many different types of linguistic, anthropological, and cognitive scholars agree that for centuries writing and drawing were closely related. (The alphabet was mankind’s first abstract art.) My point here is not to assert that the corpus of painting and music are equal analogs to English or Chinese.  There isn’t a langue of musical notes or paint daubs producing the same level of mutual intelligibility of a shared language. My point is simply to suggest that if our species had the same brain, but different vocal instruments, an alternative sophisticated signal production system could’ve emerged.

All of this is a prelude to wonder if the cognitive pattern handling systems that manage formal language are also still involved in other areas of our behavior.  We study language as a complete and self-contained system. What if our concept of language as a discreet object is wrong? What if our true language systems extends beyond our verbal construction into behavioral syntax and grammars? What if language and art aren’t two different systems, but rather two manifestations of the same generative procedures, albeit with different outcomes and manifestations?

Modern linguistical analysis is based on the humble sentence. What if that premise is wrong? Rather then a study of sentence analysis,  should linguists be concerned with something akin to behavioral analysis? Linguist Kenneth L. Pike sums up the possibility succinctly, “Linguistic analysis must begin with the composite verbal-nonverbal behavior. Numerous recent authors continue to treat sentence as the basis of linguistic analysis.” He notes the majority of linguists “take the central problem of linguistic science to be the study of the formal, or syntactic, properties of sentences” He also made a point to quote eminent linguist Noam Chomsky from his landmark book Syntactic Structures, “from now on, I will consider a language to be a set (finite or infinite) of the sentences”

Yet Chomsky has also noted elsewhere that “Humans developed what we now have: a very wide range of creative capacities that are unknown previous record among other animals. There is no analog to them. That’s the core of the human cognitive… right at the heart of it was the emergence of language. In fact it’s very likely that language was delivered while other capacities developed. In fact other capacities may just be piggy backing off language…To the extent that we understand these other things, which is not very much, it seems that they’re using the same or similar computational mechanisms.”

So, what’s the word? Perhaps nothing that couldn’t be replaced with a body gesture, or paint strokes, or light flashes in another universe.

The Relationship between Anthropology and Design

We live in a time of blending boundaries between professional and academic disciplines. For instance, business schools want to become more like design schools and design schools want to become more like business schools. Along the same lines, anthropologists want to be in the design business and designers are anxious to become anthropologists. Exactly when and how did the present connection between anthropology and business and design begin?

Throughout the 20th century social and behavioral sciences have had a relationship with corporate industrial America. From 1913 through the early 1930’s  Edward Bernays used Freudian psychology to invent modern propaganda and advertising. Starting in the 1924 AT&T’s Western Hawthorne Plant in Illinois conducted a variety of performance studies on workers to increase productivity. The data collected during that time was studied by anthropologists and Psychologists for the next ten years. These studies on the Hawthorne Experiments helped management see the working man less as an economic beast of burden and more of a social being.

During the 1940’s and 1950’s companies hired anthropologists to study a variety of labor related issues. Sears, IBM, Container Corporation of America, and many others sponsored studies on labor relations and the link between social and technological factors and striking workers.

In the spring of 1966 an event happened that caused the American Anthropological academic community to reconsider it’s mercenary ways. The Department of Defense and CIA had recruited social scientists from Harvard, Yale, and other prestigious universities to explore civil and political unrest in Latin America. Called Project Camelot, the plan was but one of many new experiments within an emerging new US political-military strategy to abate Soviet expansion overseas. An agency known as Special Operations Research Office (SORO) set out “…to develop a study that would use the systems analysis approach to study internal war.” Using anthropologists and psychologists in academic camouflage to recon for fissures in the social cohesion of foreign national groups sounded like a sequel to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

However, a Chilean newspaper learned of the plan before it could become fully implemented. It published a story that resulted in stinging questions for professional social and behavioral scientists around the world. Should the international academic community now suspect every American academic abroad of being a spy or asset of the CIA? Would the DOD/CIA sponsored research be considered top-secret and therefore not publishable to the rest of scholar community? And most importantly, how could any conscientious anthropologist allow their work to be used in the possible exploitation or hurting of the very people they were “observing?” As a result of the backlash, the six million dollar “Camelot Affair” came to a sudden end.

Two years later the US government once again called upon the Anthropological community. This time the job was with Psychological Operations in Vietnam to evaluate enemy propaganda and to test the effectiveness of US propaganda on local populations. Once again the anthropological community was outraged at the idea that a colleague would be part of a foreign war.
During the 1960’s, while the CIA and Department of Defense was engaged in containing communism overseas,  American Corporations were expanding their reach overseas. As was the case in government and military related research, the 1960’s were not a happy time for corporate sponsored anthropology. First of all, anthropologists were growing uncomfortable at the sight of US factories being built in foreign communities for the purpose of cheap labor. Secondly, anthropologists were appalled at corporate indifference to the social and physical impact American businesses were having on other cultures. Marietta L. Baba, Dean of the College of Social Science at Michigan State University records the following episode in the Encyclopedia of Anthropology:

“One notorious example of such tragedies was the malnutrition and infant death
that followed Nestle’s introduction of infant formula in the developing world. Often,
Third World women could not afford to continue to buy formula in the amounts
recommended, nor could they ensure that bottles were sterile or that water to mix the
formula was pure. Formula often was heavily diluted with contaminated water, leading
to infant diarrhea, malnutrition, and outright starvation. Women who relied on formula
instead of breastfeeding could not switch back to the breast, since their milk supply dried-
up when not used. Nestle was aware of these problems, yet would not withdraw the
formula from countries where these problems were manifest, triggering a massive global
boycott of Nestle products. Such instances of unethical corporate behavior further
alienated anthropologists from industry, and caused some to begin labeling any work for
industry as ‘unethical’.”

As a result of these clandestine transgressions Anthropologist not only stayed out of war, but also stayed out of business for the rest of the 1960’s and 1970’s. But science and capitalism can’t be kept apart for very long. By the 1980’s US businesses began employing anthropologists to study such things as Japanese business culture, and other emerging global concerns that kept international business leaders up at night. What was different about this anthropological expansion was that the research was published in respected journals. By the end of the 1990’s it was acceptable in the social science community to not only conduct research on the culture of business organizations, but to help these organizations understand and sell to their consumers. Soon anthropologists were working for product manufacturers, technology firms, and advertising agencies.

Ann T. Jordan, in her book “Business Anthropology” writes, “Today, consulting in marketing and consumer behavior is one of the fastest growing job markets for Anthropology.” As her book title might suggest, Business Anthropology is now a legitimate area of scholarship in business schools. Roger Martin, the Dean of the Rotman School of Management has said that ethnography, a central method of anthropology, is an “essential tool” for business.

In the year 2004 two business anthropologists felt that their specialization needed it’s own worldwide conference. What resulted from that idea was the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC). It is held annually in different countries and represents the blending of disciplines that Anthropology for business and design has become. I’ll close this post with EPIC’s mission statement:

“EPIC is the premier international forum bringing together anthropologists and other social scientists with artists, computer scientists, designers, marketers, academics, and advertisers to discuss recent developments and future advances around ethnographic praxis. The EPIC Conference promotes the use of ethnographic investigations and principles in the study of human behavior as they are applied in business settings. By understanding people, what they do, how they do it and how these change over time, we can create better business strategies, processes and products, as well as enhance and simplify people’s lives.”

Just What is Design Becoming?

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

If ever there was a quote that is difficult to attribute to an author with certainty, it is this one. The list of possible candidates includes  U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, business philosopher Peter Drucker, computer pioneer Alan Kay, and aerospace engineer Dandridge Cole. Perhaps it’s fitting that no one can claim ownership of a quote about designing the future. Design, once the business of designers, has recently become everyone’s business. It is expanding into most industries of business and domains of life, becoming synonymous with problem solving.  It goes without saying that it’s difficult to summarize or predict it’s course. Still, there are a few significant trends effecting designers that I believe are going to be around for at least the foreseeable future.
Acceleration of New Technologies
Co-Creation and the Rise of the Citizen Designer
Trans-Disciplinary Collaboration
Careers Depend on Creating New Markets
Design for Social Innovation

Acceleration of New Technologies
It takes no insight to see that new technologies will continue to emerge at an accelerated rate. When predicting which technologies are most important to design, key considerations are how form factors and human factors combine to offer interactive, individualized, and responsive experiences. Here are just a few technologies that I think designers will play an important role in:

  • Wearable Tech will certainly need industrial and user interface designers. The larger opportunities will be for service designers who can innovate with data scientists on ways to use the abundance of data for more than spying and selling, but to build hero’s journey experiences for consumers. We will continue to experiment with virtual and augmented realities in location-based applications, but until consumer GPS can locate in terms of centimeters instead of meters, we probably won’t see a true proliferation of mobile AR applications. (See HoloLens below.) While on the topic on wearable tech, new smart materials, tech fabric, or E-textiles offer fashion designers new expressive grammars.
  • 3D Printing will continue to change industrial age paradigms in both manufacturing processes and design processes. While predictions of Asian factories becoming obsolete are premature, new additive manufacturing technologies offer OEM companies the agility of integrating design, prototyping, and testing into the manufacturing process. This opens up new  windows of collaboration for designers in diverse industries, including health care equipment and supplies, consumer electronics, transportation, fitness wear, music instruments, and many others.
  • 3D pipelines will continue to become much more intuitive and integrated, with tools like Microsoft’s HoloLens  blurring the lines between real and virtual. Ironically, the intuitiveness of these tools will  lead to software coding becoming a part of design literacy. I’ve talked with several interactive studios who would rather train designers how to code, then hire experienced software coders with no design training. Related to this, gaming will continue to be a huge industry for designers of course, and so accessible gaming engines like Unity, Unreal and others can contribute to a designers multi-literacy. However, even with cheap game engines, not to mention HoloLens, I’m still unsure if the much-anticipated of “gamification” of other industries is going to become mainstream.
  • Robotics, are an important intersection for design, engineering, and business. From hamburger making machines, to homemade drones, there will always be a market for devices capable of cheap skilled manual labor. Designers can play a role in the not only the design of robots from both a form and human factor perspective, but also the service models that they are sold and serviced in.
  • Advanced technologies, such as article intelligence, nano-technology, and gene sequencing, may be out of direct reach for most designers currently, but the ethical dimensions of these technologies certainly call for participation in social innovation and transition design thinking.

Designers in general are early adopters of new technologies. However, if there’s one cardinal rule I’ve learned about technology, it’s that it giveth and it taketh away. The same digital tools that can empower designers, can just as quickly decommission them. Take for example what is happening to VFX designers in the film industry. For this reason I am wary for designers who market themselves on their technical capabilities alone. The best way to show capabilities is by not letting them be an issue that distracts from strategic goals.
The Rise of the Citizen Designer
As we talk about the impact of technology on designers, we can also talk about the impact of technology on “non-designers.” On second thought, perhaps there will be no such person in the future. While professional still design has it’s geniuses and luminaries, much of design’s technical craft has become democratized. Ours is a D.I.Y. era, where everyone with an iPhone is a practicing multi-literate audio-visual artist. “Unauthorized” citizens everywhere are building their own robots, filming their own movies, and printing their own jewelry.

Consequently the future will continue to be very promising for design, yet also a time of reflection and repositioning for many design graduates. Thousands of years ago scribes could earn their living just by giving written expression to other people’s ideas and stories, but with the rise of written literacy, the sanctified role of the scribe literally became part of ancient history. Likewise, not too long ago the designer could earn a living by owning a rare technical literacy, but as those skills sets are replaced with free mobile apps, the professional designer must reposition themselves in the market.

In light of this fundamental reality, the future of professional design is in facilitating co-creation and participative design processes. With the rise of design literacy comes the rise of the citizen designer. Whereas design was exclusive, it is now inclusive to anyone who wants to play a role in the shaping of their own environments and lives. Of course designing with people, as opposed to for people, is a conversation that has been around at least since the 1970’s, but in those days the conversation was relatively small and academic. Today inviting people to participate in the design conversation is a matter of economic and environmental sustainability.

Trans-Disciplinary Collaboration
In full disclosure, collaboration is one of those meatball words that tastes good, but we aren’t always sure what it’s made of. Certainly the idea of collaboration has a nice egalitarian ring to it, and so people often mistake their intent for practice. Actual collaboration requires more than vague aspirations, but disciplined methods for communication and other project management requirements. In other words, collaborations themselves need to be designed.

Accordingly,  collaboration opens more opportunity for designers to lead. Designers see communication not as an event but as continuous process. They know how to share processes as explicit mental models, while at the same time remaining adaptable to changing parameters. They know how to provide the right combination of human empathy and process analysis for navigating ambiguity and leading team outcomes. As a result, collaborations are often the first areas a young designer can demonstrate organizational leadership. As trans-disciplinary collaboration becomes more vital for solving complex problems, the designer will become more vital as a leader in business and social communities.

On a related topic, many aspects of current Intellectual Property law will need to be reconsidered for a future where co-creative and collaborative situations become standard practice. Currently, rights too often default to the largest entity in the collaborative relationship. As Milton Glaser once observed, many contracts with designers read like unilateral surrender terms. In the future, designers will not only need to understand their rights and obligations as collaborators, but also become advocates for change whenever entering into a relationship is inequitable.

Careers Depend on Creating New Markets
Trans-disciplinary collaborations, by their very nature lead to disruptions. Larry Keeley in his book Ten Types of Innovations makes the claim that successfully innovating in 5 areas of a business creates a disruption in the market. This means creating a new category of product, service, or business model.  These new categories introduce competitive advantages that are technological, financial, logistical, or relational in nature.

In the future, creating new markets will be the primary means designers use to build and sustain long-term careers. Simply creating better products and services are no longer sustainable strategies for either design or business. So whether for themselves, for clients, or for employers, designers will need to help open new market categories, or find themselves at the back-end of businesses where activities are viewed as costs rather than value.

The good news right now is that established legacy brands have less equity then they did 10 years ago. Small attackers can topple large defenders. New start-up brands increasingly have more trust with shoppers then established companies. We are living in a time of quiet revolution where status quo is being questioned even in consumer markets.

The need to create new markets extends into social innovation as well. From a technical execution standpoint, commercial and social innovations often require the same skill sets. The question is how technologies, finances, supply chains, and other components can be re-imagined and re-arranged for more equitable and sustainable outcomes for people. In this way, the designer can gain leadership experience in the commercial sector which can then be applied the social sector. Or perhaps, more crucially, the designer can look at even commercial markets from a social perspective.

Design for Social Innovation
Historically, Design has been a field where you can be a for-profit professional while still being wary of capitalism. Today the conversation is morphing away from cynicism against business towards co-opting business practices for social purpose. Whether innovating in commercial or social scenarios, design for business is clearly becoming a human centered occupation. I see this as a good development, as improving people’s lives is a principle upon which I believe design should “nail it’s flag to the mast.” Surrendering to any other motivation may provide a temporary sense of job security, but ultimately will turn the designer into a commodity and render the design profession irrelevant.
If  the trends in the above paragraphs – new technology, co-creation, collaboration, and creating new markets – are to have meaning it will be because they benefited people’s lives and environments in appreciable ways. This is as much a concern for business interests as it is for social interests. So while much design literature is preoccupied with tools and processes, I believe design’s ultimate purpose is in the service of people. This is where it’s finds it’s courage and creativity to lead through uncertainty.
Happily today’s designer is armed with more than mere sentiment. The recent years has seen a virtual explosion of tools and methods for conducting qualitative human centered research. Firms such as IDEO and writers like Donald Norman have shown how designers can use a wide variety of methods developed within ethnography, anthropology, and psychology to solve complex design problems. (And perhaps create a few good problems too.) So while in the 20th century design was defined by it’s ability to apply critical theory, today the discipline is being redefined by it ability to apply empirical inquiry into the quality of people’s experiences and lives.
Everyone seems to be interested in design these days, so it’s no surprise that defining it leads to contested consensus. As designers, we find ourselves in Plato’s proverbial cave, interpreting events as best we can. All of these mixed interpretations are expanding the definition of design to include MBA’s, engineers, anthropologists, and psychologists. Accordingly, the demand for design in business and social innovation has never been higher. So, perhaps the important question in all of this is not what is design becoming, but whether today’s designers can keep up with it’s future.

Dance of the Ten Thousand Hours

I want to be a better writer. This is no small goal, as many authors have observed writing is inseparable from thinking. As such, I’m coming to see that writing as an athletic mental exercise that benefits only with consistency. Hours of reading push-ups and writing pull-ups go into building our own language,  thoughts, and consciousness.

In his book Outliers, Malcom Gadwell introduced the adage that ten thousand hours of practice can transform a beginner into an expert. While the statement was derived from academic research, it was probably more platitude then prescription. Something with as many variables as  musical or artistic proficiency can’t be boiled down into a single theorem. The scholarship on human learning and development is as engrossing as it is immense,  but it doesn’t render obsolete Uses promptos facit, or “practice makes perfect.”

The bottom line is that each of us contains a certain amount of bad art that must get out before we can make our good stuff. The best way to expunge this bad art is to make it. To be sure, we can reduce the number or push-ups and pulls-ups we need with a healthy diet of theory and work from great artists and writers.  Guides are helpful, but if we are to move into a place of making our own good art, their maps are not our territory.  American author Ted Chiang crisply sums up the obvious, “experience is algorithmically incompressible.”

Thankfully, “experience” is also algorithmically incalculable. Intelligence, talent, skill, not to mention emotional and physical training, can’t be expressed as a calculus for computing the arch length of our abilities. Nor can it be reached simply with ten thousand hours of tire rotation. People develop in different fields at different rates for different reasons. This is a consolation to everyone who wants to continue learning and growing. After-all, how many ten thousand hours are there in a life-time?

All of this musing still doesn’t save me from the bad writing that is in my system. So, I’m going to post every day for the remainder of this semester on this blog, focusing less on craftsmanship and inspiration, and more on completion and iteration. Perfectionism is like having around your waist a large rubber band that is also anchored to your immovable fear. The further we pull against our fears, the more the resistance increases. Things get fun only when we make two discoveries: the resistance will never go away, but we can become stronger.

It’s time to get my reps in. 😉

Finishing in Small Steps

I applied for the MFA program in 2013 with the intention of writing a book dealing with the changing landscape for design in recent years. In the past year I began to feel that, while writing is a great strategy for constructing my thoughts, a book (as I imagine it) is not the best channel for those thoughts. At least not yet.

Instead I’ve come to believe that presenting and publishing at academic conferences is a better strategy for my development. This is for two reasons:

More Deadlines: There’s nothing like a deadline to propel me past my perfectionist paralysis. Publishing in small pieces prevents me from tinkering too long in isolation. The submission deadlines of these conferences forces agile, iterative deliveries which are better for my development as a researcher and writer.

More Feedback: Interacting with conference themes encourages me to move outside of my own monologue and to enter into dialogues. By shaping an idea to fit a format or theme, my ideas are made more relevant and connective to the larger discourses that are happening.

Here is an update on some of my publishing and presentation initiatives to date:

Winthrop University, Rockhill, South Carolina

Next month I’m presenting to members of Winthrop Universities School for Visual and Performing Arts and College of Business Administration as part of their Innovate, Create, Engage (ICE) series sponsored by the South Carolina Department of Commerce in Rockhill. My program, titled Artists, Activists, and Anthropologists: The Rise of Storytellers in Business, will be reviewing how new consumer empowerment is motivating businesses to infuse their products, services, brands, and even cultures with empathy and understanding.

LearnXDesign Conference, Chicago, Illinois

For the LearnXDesign Conference in Chicago I’ll be submitting a paper and conducting a workshop on using Grounded Theory in design research. I proposed a workshop to introduce transcription coding techniques from Grounded Theory to designers and design educators. Although Grounded Theory is well known Social Science education literature, it is a relatively overlooked method in design education literature, despite the designers growing interest in learning from ethnography and anthropology. Yet, it is one of the tools in the Social Scientist’s toolbox that is most compatible with the designers and educators toolbox, because it places an emphasis on suspending hypothesis and judgement until after learning directly from users about their unique experiences. I’ll be focusing on the practical application of Grounded Theory by helping the participants practice transcription coding* techniques for beginners.  Although I’ve been working on Word and Excel templates, as well as learning commercial coding software, the main focus of the workshop is to guide participants through the process of coding a 10 page transcription using just paper and pencil.

Arts in Society Conference, Imperial College, London

I’ve been accepted to present a paper on my ideas about the connection between cognitive linguistic procedures and design this July for the Arts in Society conference at the Imperial College in London. The basic concern of this paper is that preoccupation with technology is luring this generation of designers away from strategic thinking towards surface concerns. Many young designers are all too satisfied with becoming skilled technicians who will find themselves irrelevant to real problem solving.  Meanwhile business schools, rather then design schools, are redefining the future of design around human factors and strategic concerns. If this redefinition continues, eventually designers won’t be able to contribute to design!

In response, I assert that design doesn’t begin in Photoshop or CAD, but is rooted in the generative processes common to every toddler who acquired language skills to think and communicate. From there I argue that design education needs to be less aligned with the latest design tools, and more aligned with native human creative and critical thinking processes. There is no idea and no project that a human being will ever undertake that doesn’t bubble up through basic epistemological, phenomenological, semantic, syntactical, morphological and phonological transformations. Accordingly we can appoint disciplines that develop and amplify these native abilities. (This is why Design Thinking, and Human Centered Design, have the designer begin with epistemological and phenomenological inquiry before breaking out their favorite software tools.)

Other Initiatives

I’m excited to be working with Johanne Hirsch, the Director of Research Services for AICAD, on creating an institutional review board for membership schools who are incorporating qualitative human centered design research into their curriculum. An IRB specifically tailored to the needs of designers will be a landmark development not only for design education, but also for the design profession itself. A credible review process for designers conducting research into human behavior will be a legitimatizing entity , signifying that design research is emerging as a professional discipline in it’s own right. We are tentatively hoping to present a plan at this summers 2015 AICAD symposium.

On a less defined, but equally exciting note, I’m currently talking with board members of the Global Institute for Arts and Leadership out of Boston about several initiatives. Most interesting to me is the crafting of new language for business leaders who are finding their Industrial Age management models and systems are proving to be unsustainable in the new economy. The Global Institute organizes World Cafe events in New York, Barcelona, Los Angeles, and other cities, to foster these conversations. It’s an audacious conversation to be sure, but I believe we are seeing a horizon event of some import coming our way whether we talk about it or not. In any case, the intersection of organizational development and community development has always been compelling for me personally.

In conclusion, these conferences and conversations are functioning like a lens that focuses my writing energies. By aiming my thoughts through these lenses, my original lines of thought are remaining intact, but go through collimation to become sharper content. Although I aspire to wrestle with lofty ideas, it is always humbling, often intimidating, and occasionally overwhelming to expose those ideas to public forums for peer review. However, in my own case, jumping into the water is the only time I actually care about knowing how to swim.

Griffin Pines: Summoning our Inner Anthropologist

Using video loops of flashing squares, visual cultural objects, and audio events, Griffin Pines creates aleatoric audio-visual experiments that test the connections we hold between senses and symbolism, eyesight and mind, and ultimately between empiricism and rationalism. He combines seemingly disparate image and sounds to create overtones of paredolia in the spaces between objects. In one piece, “VC972”, these objects seem to have no relationship to one another such as toddlers playing and rockets exploding. In other pieces, such as “Getting There” and “WC612” he presents us with similar slices of different faces that function together like a shredded document reconstructed.

However, it is not through disconnected imagery that Pines necessarily draws the viewer in with, but the suggestive use of musical structures that underpin the composition.  The artist uses mathematical codes to signal not everything he is presenting is pure chance. There are rules at work in his art; the only problem is that the rules are hidden from us. As a result, we play a kind of hunt and seek rather then taking the images and sounds as we find them, to let them wash over us.

Leona Jaglom, a child developmental psychologist, writes about our native human ability to project order upon the world in her essay “Cracking the codes of Television: the Child as Anthropologist.” She observes “Most of us have been anthropologists early in our lives. For in being placed in front of a television set, and being asked, in effect, to make sense of the innumerable fleeting images it presents, the young child of two, four, or eight years of age is a kind of anthropologist.” Indeed, she says, the child’s job is even harder as they have only a few years on this planet from which to construct context and meaning. “He [or she] must make sense of diverse and seemingly incommensurate forms of reality, …which constitute daily video fare.”

Griffin’s work presents us with an anthropological puzzle reminiscent of when we were children first encountering the disjointed world of television. The found video indicates that we are looking at a collage of social codes, but what kinds of codes? On one hand there are visual codes which are highly unstructured and subjective, and on the other hand we are given musical codes, which historically signal what Umberto Ecco calls a “rigorously structured system” is at work. Pines musical codes tell us there’s more order here then meets the eye, and so we scan the pieces for other codes such as systems of similarity, or plot structures.  Studying the patterns I even wondered if I could detect evidence of even deeper formalized or mathematical structures at work smacking of Morse code or boolean algebra.

It is this very searching, and ultimately, our projection of codes that is the real subject of Pine’s work. He recreates our first childlike experiences with society, or what sociologist Hubert Blumer refers to as “Society as Symbolic Interaction.”  From birth we are symbolic social creatures, craving symbolic meaning from the world and from one another’s actions. We can’t help ourselves. As Blumer writes, “…human beings interpret or define each others actions instead of merely reacting to each others actions…based on the meaning they attach to such actions. Thus human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols…” When deprived of these shared symbolic meanings and schemes, we our left with our true selves; our isolated selves. 

Relationships, including ours to the world, depend on structure. We define ourselves not in isolation but in relationship to social narratives. We use this commonplace Gestalt principle to deconstruct the components of the outside world, but often overlook that our internal individual self is also organized and defined according to our relationship with other’s. However, as Adorno noted,  human beings, “…are in the habit of requiring that a work ‘give’ them something,” or else they, “fall back on the shameless assertion that they do not understand.” Pine is demonstrating to us that the  meaningful symbols we expect the world to give us are found in the rationalistic symbols we impose upon it.

Pine’s work lies in the disconnection between what our senses see and the meaning our minds want to supply. In one work he begins with purely rational codes of white squares. We find a collection of visual objects and instinctively react as if we are tasked with decoding and interpreting. However, any symbolism we find externally is an illusory projection. As Rudolph Arnhiem, in his book Visual Thinking, points out  “If a visual item is extricated from it’s context, it becomes a different object.” Or to borrow a phrase from essayist Hal Foster, all the content Pine assembles for us is merely “signs taken for wonders.”

Now while Pine’s ultimate thesis may be that we bring our own meaning to the world, this isn’t necessarily a tragic conclusion. After all we are talking about the stuff of creativity, hope, faith, and even love here. Cognitive scientist Gilles Fauconnier congratulates us accordingly: “Human beings are exceptionally adept at integrating two extraordinarily different inputs to create new emergent structures, which result in new tools, new technologies, and new ways of thinking.” In this sense, Pine’s work explores our unique abilities of conceptual integration, cross-space mappings, and selective projection that we call imagination.

In taking us back to the flashing video images of our childhood, Pines reminds us that we did navigate the many disconnected worlds we encountered. As Jaglom said, “…amazingly, the average child, working largely on [their] own, succeeds in making sense of these worlds in largely short order. All the same time, the child’s conquest…is not total nor totally.”

Design as Social Science.

Design is a form of research, and research is a form of design. The two practices overlap. Perhaps not all design is research, and not all research is design, but the two domains overlap. In fact, it can be argued that you can’t complete one without the other.

Now of course design is a boundless term. Trying to define it elicits opinionated judgements from almost everyone these days, and so it’s not surprising to find a lack of consensus about what design actually is. Is good design a form or object? Is good design about usability? It it concerned with features and functions or how it makes us feel? In fact, we can hardly agree if is a noun or a verb. I suspect this lack of agreement is somehow linked to the hermetic cultural and academic divide between art and science, leaving neither camp with the complete tools for writing a complete definition.  

In this brief article, I don’t want to dwell too long on this notion of the divide between humanities and the sciences. However, anyone interested in design should be aware of the “two cultures” conversation begun over 50 years ago by C.P. Snow. Historically speaking, this debate might even predate Snow’s thesis, appearing in historical perennial forms ranging from philosophical investigations into “positivism verses interpretivism,” to the familiar “right brain/left brain” discussion. 

My aim in bringing up this topic here is to conscientiously resist it’s partisan effect on my identity not just as a designer, but as a human being. Design, like people, exists in both the humanities and social sciences. The emerging popularity of research tools for design is evidence that most designers want to live in the intersection between human experience and scientific method. 

In the 20th century design was an industrial art, but 21st century design acts like a branch of social science.

20 years ago the education of designers was still largely rooted in critical or cultural theories, drawing inspiration from influential movements such as the Bauhaus school, the Swiss school, constructionism and post-constructionism. In the 21st century, more sensible concerns seem to have distracted designers from theory. In Steve Hellers book “The Education of an E-Designer,” design critic Katherine McCoy suggests that perhaps the reason theory has taken a backseat is because of technological experimentation. Certainly designers are preoccupied with new technology, but artists have always sought new technical tools in every century.

While technical experimentation is important to a successful design career,  I believe critical theory is being pushed aside for more pressing concerns of learning with business strategy and human centered research. Critical theory is not being neglected because of technological obsession but rather because of consumer-market pressures to learn empirical research methodologies with names like “User Experience, Human Centered,” and of course “Design Thinking” which begins with phenomenological inquiry. This is not so much design as a branch of the humanities, but as a branch of social science and behavioral psychology.

All of this discussion about the humanities and social science is a prelude to explain my interest in research methodologies. This is not an “either or” choice, but rather my attempt to practice design at the intersection between both the arts and sciences, where people live. The search for empathy, can function as a kind of bridge between the arts and sciences. It requires all of our intelligences, from emotional to engineering. Above all, it requires that we learn and grow in order to understand.

My professional practice still has roots in the arts. I value the technical and theoretical disciplines I have honed over the years. In fact, my interest in design as research is to amplify and extend my formal training as an artist, not abandon it. Whereas my undergraduate studies focused on design as art, I want my graduate studies to focus on design as a social science. I’m looking to combine form-factor with human-factor.

Even as I talk about my own motivations, it is important to point out that design research is not just a pet interest I have. There are macro-economic forces which will seismically altar not only design for business but also design education. The emerging demand for designers to have their own primary research capabilities is due to the increased demand for design strategy.

This pursuit of strategy has led to growing trends of applying ethnography and anthropology in business. It is proclaimed as an innovation that marketers should live with their customers in their own environment to better understand them. This new trend correlates to the rise of consumer choice. In short marketers and designers have to do a better job of knowing the people they are wanting to attract, and how they can improve their lives. This is design as a social science.

Now there are already plenty of toolkits for designers wanting to practice research. My thesis project is to look past contemporary design literature, into the social science literature base. I’m not looking for design tools per se, but essential research tools for designers and innovators. Also, I’ve found that almost none of the existing toolkits talk about how to successfully market design research. My goal is to assemble a well-rounded kit of tools that are just as usable in the commercial sector as in the academic arena.  The “commercialization” of research will be one of my primary interests. For me, this means recognizing that businesses are looking for rapid outcomes, and place less value on meticulous process. So in addition to building tools for practicing research, I am also including tools for proposing and presenting the value of qualitative research to clients. If design research is not a demonstrable value to business clients, the conversation becomes…well, academic.

It is my belief that all of us have a basic need for intellectual growth and freedom. Research is a practical empowerment of our need to be free creative beings. If we would be creative we must become researchers. More pragmatically, research capabilities enable us to give strategy to businesses and people. When we read about the “creative class” we are reading about people who are making a living doing creative work. In this sense, research is not an innovation, but a recovery of something lost.

Design Communication Thesis

Designers who want to avoid being commodified into manual labor, are experiencing more pressure then ever to explain and validate their thinking and process. The planning and materials required for design communication can be intensive. In fact, the focus they require often precludes individuals and small design firms from successfully managing this new vital area of their profession. In short, there is a “communication gap” emerging, which will result in not only an income gap between “big design” and “small design”, but also a sustainability challenge for small design.

Design no longer exists solely within a set of specialized verticals, but is horizontally distributed across many professional sectors. The design profession is alive and well, but it’s role is changing from execution of product to facilitation of process. As design becomes more collaborative and participatory on an enterprise level, assumptions about how designers communicate will fundamentally change.

For decades designers by and large communicated to peers within their own or adjacent verticals. This allowed designers to not only develop their own specialized languages, but more importantly allowed them to take many aspects of communication for granted. Today, design is moving out of pre-contextualized norms, and must function in collaborative processes with highly diverse perspectives. In this transcendent environment, design communication is emerging as a new vital skill with growing conversation about building intentional, and robust strategies.

Design communication, within the business environment, is in fact a subset of traditional business communication. Whereas traditional business communication is exchanging the data of facts and figures in didactic reports and power points, design communication is about sharing the data of insights, thoughts, and feelings. Unlike traditional business and technical communicators, the design communicator is no longer a reporter reading from spreadsheets, but a tour guide reading from conceptual maps. Such communication calls for more immersive experiential methods.

For the past year I’ve been researching how design practitioners and innovation managers approach building these conceptual maps and leading these journeys. I’ve interviewed professionals from at least a dozen different industries. I’ve traveled with design strategists on observational field trips. Working with designers from other companies, I helped insight presentations for both commercial and non-profit organizations. I’ve helped design and build workshops for design thinking.

My motivation for all of this research is to build an online system of some of the prebuilt resources needed for design communication. The objective is to find and catalog repeatable patterns, frameworks, methods, and tools media tools that can make the communication processes less labor-intensive, boast both manually and cognitively. From my documented research experiences I’ve begun writing user scenarios and stories.  Here are sample:

  1. Maria, a freelance designer, is asked by one of her clients to submit a proposal for a research project by the end of the week. She checks the website on her iPhone and sees that several worksheets and proposal formats are available, allowing her to confidently affirm that she will deliver.
  2. Cindy, the principle of a design firm is wanting to initiate a relationship with a potential client. She offers to run a free half-day brand strategy workshop at the customers location. Once the customer happily agrees, Cindy needs access to a suite of editable workshop materials, including promotional media, facilitation guides, audio-visual templates, and follow up materials.
  3. Josh, a design student in Columbus Ohio, is needing to research markets in multiple cities, but can’t afford the time or money needed to fly. So, he downloads and edits some useful research guides and worksheets, to equip and inform friends in various cities who have agreed to help out.

User stories like these are helpful in keeping the formal technical details of design work subservient to human needs. These stories will in turn inform and inspire the design of not only materials, but also a responsive website. Ultimately this website can be contributed indefinitely by multiple authors.