A sort of philosophy

A year ago Richard Harper asked me to put together a short document on how I thought we should approach our work in the Socio-Digital Systems, from a design point of view. Recently, a colleague who was visiting us in Cambridge at the time asked me to post the document somewhere public because he’d mentioned it a couple of times to others, and he wanted to be able to cite it more specifically. So here it is.

In some ways it’s more about what I DON’T believe about the design process as much as it is about what I DO believe. It’s a draft still, and something I’d like to keep on working on in one of those spare moments that we so rarely get at the lab.

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I’ve been asked to write a little on the potential processes and methods of design that might be brought to bear on the research themes that we are thinking about at the moment, such as Domesticity 2.0 and Propinquity.

To be honest, I’m not one to write about what I do as a designer. I tend to draw things more then write. And I don’t believe strongly in methods in any defined sense. But, maybe outlining some things that I DO believe about the design process would be useful. Here they are:

  • I believe that the design process is unique and adaptable to any given situation. Part of the designer’s job is to be open to that adaptability.
  • I believe that the design process is rarely formed of discrete phases, but overlaps and loops back on itself in unpredictable ways. Part of the designer’s job is to embrace and even encourage that unpredictability.
  • I believe that the design process relies partially on certainties but primarily on intuitive steps into the unknown. Part of the designer’s job is to hone and gradually learn to trust their intuition and instincts.
  • I believe that the design process is about making abstract concepts real. It’s never too early to do this, although how real or unreal you make things can radically change the conversation. Part of the designer’s job is to learn, develop or even invent new ways to create the appropriate level of reality.

For me, design is primarily about understanding a context; seeking inspirations from which many ideas can spring as solutions to that context; visualizing and testing those ideas in both informal and formal ways; making choices for which ideas to prune; and then repeating this process until the last idea is standing. The last idea isn’t necessarily the best idea. I’m not sure I believe in best ideas.

So in the context of this document the questions I’d ask in developing a design approach to our themes are:

  • What do we know, and how do we better understand any of the contexts for the themes that are described?
  • What sources can we use as an inspirational springboard for the development of many ideas for the themes?
  • How best should we represent those ideas?
  • How should we test and then select from those ideas?
  • Then how shall we go about iterating on those ideas that we’ve selected in order to build one or two examples?

 

timeline 
Fig 1. The Inspiration process
Above is a simplistic visual of the way in which I think of the design process. Many sources of inspiration, whether technological, cultural or even political, lead to a multitude of ideas, which, through iteration and pruning lead to artifacts which help with testing and selection.

 

Taking the topic of Values of Space and Place from the Domesticity 2.0 theme as an example, a rough outline of a design process might include:

1. Context: Understanding what we mean by values in the home, and looking for situations in which we might develop ideas that add value to these spaces, by revisiting research work that we’ve done to date, as well as instigating a new round of field research. Once we have an understanding of what we do or don’t know about what we’re interested in we can set up a new set of field research, perhaps even revisiting previous subjects, with a new set of questions in mind.

2. Inspirations: I’m a strong believer that inspiration comes from many sources, any of which can lead to strong ideas. My goal here would be the generation and recording of MANY ideas, though. We have a tendency to sit around as a team and chat until ideas emerge, and we often have strong pre-conceived notions of what ideas we are already fans of. I’d like to see us make a more concerted effort at pushing ourselves, in a more typical brainstorming fashion, to go for a breadth of new ideas, rather than fixating on the details of one or two existing ones.

We should see ideas as a resource, as a sign of the creative output of our team. Instead, we tend to let go of our ideas and lose them once they are no longer of interest in our current work. Instead, I imagine making a concerted effort to record our ideas so that even if they don’t work out and apply for our current theme they provide some fodder for future inspiration. Ideas are an investment for our team.

It’s likely that any review of prior work described in the previous section on context will already throw up inspiration for a set of ideas for design work. Some other sources of inspiration might include juxtaposing our theme with unrelated work. We might, for example, review content from the Trends website looking for technologies and their social uses whose compliment or contrast with our theme provide some interesting new ideas. We might also look for inspiration in purely visually-stimulating content. One way of doing this might be to search a stock photo website looking for images associated with particular concepts and keywords.

3. Visualizing I’d like to see us go through a slightly more participatory process for visualizing our ideas earlier on. We have a tendency to talk about ideas in the abstract, and often the process of visualizing them helps bring clarity for everyone. We can do this by having me sketch during reviews of our ideas, but ideally there’s no reason that the team as a whole doesn’t draw what they mean as they say it. As we develop our ideas, we may chose to visualize them in different ways – as abstract 3D models made from found items, as simple thumbnail sketches, or as highly rendered items.

4. Testing and choosing: At this point “testing” really means discussing the pros and cons of different ideas in order to prune. Depending on how our ideas have developed, and what we may be more or less excited about, we may chose for this choice-making part of the process to include family members. Again, we’re not particularly rigorous about this part of the process. I’d like to see us go through a more structured, choice-making exercise, in the style of a design crit, at different points in the project.

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