Unraveling Urban Life and Space
(A written iteration of some of the material from my March 8, 2016, talk “Disruption and Design Thinking,” in the Syracuse University School of Architecture Spring 2016 Lecture Series. This is post #1 of 2, with a second on Disruption to follow…soon.)
A buzzword is a curious balance between popularity of use and definition of meaning. Buzz seems to equate to being all things to all people. At some point, meaning can stray so far from origins that even a knowledgeable observer can lose track of what’s being said.
Take, for example, “design thinking.” Design thinking is a huge trend, a very profitable trend - and one nearly devoid of designers. Design thinking is celebrated in business and start-up culture as a way to innovate and solve complex problems. One can receive training in it by no less than Stanford, Harvard, and Ideo and see it used at corporate giants like GE and PepsiCo.
What is it? Ideo says design thinking's benefits are: fun, better collaboration, "getting unstuck", individualized solutions (true), effective solutions, and "more creative confidence."
Or, from Harvard Business: “A set of principles…empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and tolerance for failure chief among them.”
As someone with 20+ years of experience as a working designer, I am bemused by the rise of design thinking. If design thinking is not how designers (like me) think, then what is it? And if it is how we designers think, why aren’t we the ones doing the training modules and seminars instead of the business folks? This leads to a rather disruptive (**buzzword alert!**) yet logical notion: that designers are experts at design thinking. Perhaps we should believe the hype and apply our fearsome skills to problems outside of our narrowly defined design disciplines. The rise of design thinking’s popularity tells us that lots of people cherish what we have to offer – but we need to be fearless in applying those skills to broader problems, problems outside our fields.
So what are these skills? Opinions vary on that. Show me 20 different designers and I’ll show you 20 different version of design skills or design process or “how to do design,” but here’s my take.
We designers offer the outside world:
Spirit of the place to storm water We learn from assessing existing conditions, needs, and opportunities to see the given conditions that really exist, not what we believe to be there, or what we think should be there. We become adept at making these observations across boundaries, from theory to art to practicalities, because good design must address all given conditions, not just the ones in your particular specialty. We also learn to be value-neutral in observing and assessing these existing conditions - that a particular condition simply is, rather than whether it is good or bad.
Design is an omnivore We become adept at drawing connections between radically different spheres of knowledge, without being limited by the prison of expertise (eg: to a chemist, the world may be nothing but chemistry). We become skilled at weighing the relative promise or urgency of competing needs, and at home with doing this examination and analysis in a goal-driven way. That goal - and this is important - is the development of ideas, solutions, and designs. The goal isn't merely to draw attention to the problem or place blame for it or clarify its relationship with other variables. We operate at multiple spatial scales at once and involving multiple systems and their interactions at once. This is the antithesis of “siloed” thinking (and yeah, "siloed thinking" is pretty buzzword-y as well).
Solutions linking function with form and spirit No one is better at ideation (the buzzword) or idea generation (the term used in ca. 1995 design studios). The keystone of working as a designer is rapid generation of multiple ideas, without personal allegiance to any single idea. It's vital to keep each idea from being too precious, because there's always some way it can be altered to make it better. I once heard a psychology prof call this separation of one's identity from one's work; I call it confidence that there will always be another idea. An extension of this is the hallowed design tradition of critique as a constructive, positive force: that more voices are better and everyone has something to contribute.
Does it stand up? Does it sing? Finally, we designers are experts at giving visionary ideas physical form – at developing practical application out of poetic inspiration. This seems to be a skill we develop after college, when the realization dawns that design firm work is about 80% construction-related tasks and 20% everything else. An awful lot of what working designers do is figuring out how to make ideas work with the inconvenient realities of real-world conditions, like weather, properties of materials, and of course, budget. The art lies in learning to do this without losing all of the art.
For some years now, I’ve had at least one foot in research focused on people in urban environments, particularly during economic transformation. Without question this is beyond the normal boundaries of environmental design and/or landscape architecture, even a bit past urban design. I’ve kept a hand in (to mix a metaphor) through teaching design studios, even a bit of construction, but for the most part, my business has been doing research. I’ve often characterized myself as a designer who does research, but really, isn’t this applying design thinking (and research rigor) to urban issues and economic transformation? Issues like immigration, the transition to clean energy, and urban wilds and neglect?
These endeavors are all design beyond the boundaries, and there’s plenty more where these came from. There’s no shortage of urgent problems to focus on, and no shortage of people and organizations who want solutions. We designers need to not limit ourselves to work labeled “architecture” or sanctioned by whatever your favorite glossy design magazine is. The world needs your good mind and, yes, your designer's thinking, doing what you do now, just a little farther outside the box.
Assorted drafts, previews, and outtakes from the book I'm currently writing about the impact of vegetation and neglect on urban life. I also take other thoughts for a test drive here, including nascent design and research ideas.