Posts Tagged ‘design thinking’

Each year, I begin my course on Ecology and Design with quotes from astronauts who have seen Earth from space, and I remind my students of the first time humans were able to get this awe-inspiring view of Earth. After 40 years of Earth imagery, we take this perspective for granted, I’m afraid. The 40th anniversary of the Blue Marble image, shot by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972, is celebrated in a short film by Planetary Collective.

The quotes that I use in my class are the following:

Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home.
- Edgar Mitchell, USA

For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light – our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.
- Ulf Merbold, Federal Republic of Germany

The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.
- Aleksei Leonov, USSR

Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that human kind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.
- Sigmund Jähn, German Democratic Republic

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Image credit: personaldevelopmentplanning.pbworks.com

A 1992 article titled Wicked Problems in Design Thinking by Richard Buchanan in Design Issues journal is worth a fresh look, and, in fact, it continues to be cited by many authors. [A description and definition of wicked (and super wicked) problems can be found here.] I found the discussion of the communication gap between scientists and designers to be especially interesting.

Members of the scientific community, however, must be puzzled by the types of problems addressed by professional designers and by the patterns of reasoning they employ. While scientists share in the new liberal art of design thinking, they are also masters of specialized subject matters and their related methods, as found in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, the social sciences, or one of the many subfields into which these sciences have been divided. This creates one of the central problems of communication between scientists and designers, because the problems addressed by designers seldom fall solely within the boundaries of any one of these subject matters (pg. 14).

Buchanan then speculates that the heart of the problem is the indeterminate nature of the problems addressed by designers. In other words, design problems are wicked because they are indeterminate.

Design problems are “indeterminate” and “wicked” because design has no special subject matter of its own apart from what a designer perceives it to be. The subject matter of design is potentially universal in scope, because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, the designer must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. This sharply contrasts with the disciplines of science, which are concerned with understanding the principles, laws, rules, or structures that are necessarily embodied in existing subject matters. Such subject matters are undetermined or under-determined, requiring further investigation to make them more fully determinate. But they are not radically indeterminate in a way directly comparable to that of design (pg.16).

Buchanan further explains:

design is fundamentally concerned with the particular, and there is no science of the particular.

In actual practice, the designer begins with what should be called a quasi-subject matter, tenuously existing within the problems and issues of specific circumstances. Out of the specific possibilities of a concrete situation, the designer must conceive a design that will lead to this or that particular product. A quasi-subject matter is not an undetermined subject waiting to be made determinate. It is an indeterminate subject waiting to be made specific and concrete (pg. 17).

Buchanan explains how designers deal with indeterminacy through his theory of “placements” – signs, things, and actions organized by unifying ideas or thoughts.

This is where placements take on special significance as tools of design thinking. They allow the designer to position and reposition the problems and issues at hand. Placements are the tools by which a designer intuitively or deliberately shapes a design situation, identifying the views of all participants, the issues which concern them, and the invention that will serve as a working hypothesis for exploration and development. In this sense, the placements selected by a designer are the same as what determinate subject matters are for the scientist. They are the quasi-subject matter of design thinking, from which the designer fashions a working hypothesis suited to special circumstances.

This helps to explain how design functions as an integrative discipline. By using placements, the designer establishes a principle of relevance for knowledge from the arts and sciences, determining how such knowledge may be useful to design thinking in a particular circumstance without immediately reducing design to one or another of these disciplines (pg. 17-18).

I am particularly interested in essays like this one that explore the relationship between design and the sciences – natural, physical, and social. Landscape architecture academics often find themselves having to prove the value of design thinking in relation to the scientific disciplines that dominate university campuses. Explication of the unique role of design and its relationship to other disciplines aids this process. But, Buchanan’s work is just one perspective. Do any challenges to his stance come to mind? Or thoughts that expand on his work? Feel free to comment by following the link.

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My research on the potential for design to positively affect low income communities led me to an editorial in the New York Times from May of last year. The article’s title is Hands Off Our Houses, and it was a response to a competition to design a $300 house for the world’s poor. The authors, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, work in Dharavi, a neighborhood in Mumbia “that has become a one-stop shop for anyone interested in ‘slums’.” They give us a glimpse into a world that outsiders, especially Westerners, do not understand. Without an understanding rooted in the uniqueness of place, and of the lives of people living in that place, designers cannot offer solutions. The $300 house, an idea with good intent, will not help the poor of Dharavi for these reasons:

To start with, space is scarce. There is almost no room for new construction or ready-made houses. Most residents are renters, paying $20 to $100 a month for small apartments.

Those who own houses have far more equity in them than $300 — a typical home is worth at least $3,000. Many families have owned their houses for two or three generations, upgrading them as their incomes increase. With additions, these homes become what we call “tool houses,” acting as workshops, manufacturing units, warehouses and shops. They facilitate trade and production, and allow homeowners to improve their living standards over time.

None of this would be possible with a $300 house, which would have to be as standardized as possible to keep costs low. No number of add-ons would be able to match the flexibility of need-based construction.

In addition, construction is an important industry in neighborhoods like Dharavi. Much of the economy consists of hardware shops, carpenters, plumbers, concrete makers, masons, even real-estate agents. Importing pre-fabricated homes would put many people out of business, undercutting the very population the $300 house is intended to help.

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Khayelitsha Township via The Guardian

How can designers improve the quality of life for residents of the poorest and most dangerous parts of cities? It is a daunting problem, and the temptation is either to say that the problem is too big or that a huge infusion of cash is needed to even get started. What if some of the problems of the poorest and dangerous places could be ameliorated, at least, by design that does not cost a fortune? The figure for total world population living in cities by 2050, cited in the Gary Hustwit film, Urbanized, is 75%! And 1/3 of those people will be living in slums. It’s time for creative thinking!

One of the many interviews with Gary Hustwit on Urbanized is found in Urban Omnibus. Hustwit describes a project in a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa that is striking in its success, both as participatory design and as a well-conceived, modestly priced solution to improving quality of life for area residents. In Hustwit’s words:

the idea of participatory design — of using the public as a design compass instead of just getting a reaction to projects that are already proposed — is not being employed as much as it might. It’s really inspiring when you see it happening and working, like the VPUU (which stands for Violence Prevention by Urban Upgrading) project in Khayelitsha in Cape Town.

And on the process:

They spent two years talking to residents before they even started thinking about their first plan. They trained volunteers to go out into the community and talk to people about the problems they face. The biggest priority turned out to be pedestrian walkways, which were where most crime was happening. Khayelitsha has a series of stormwater overflow channels that run through the settlement that were just undeveloped, garbage-strewn land. They weren’t lit, and harbored gang activity and all kinds of criminal activity. But those stormwater floodways were also the informal pedestrian route between the train station and the township. So what VPUU did was formalize the informal pedestrian paths, or desire lines, by paving and lighting the barren channels and turning them into these amazing walkways and public spaces. People are now turning their homes to face these routes because they’re so well designed, and that increases passive surveillance, puts more eyes on the spaces. The murder rate has dropped by 40%. It has become a great pilot program, which they’re now expanding into other townships and to other areas in South Africa. Also, they have trained the people who live in the area to maintain and program it. The project is still evolving. They didn’t just say, “here you go, we built a path, see you later” and step away from it.

 For more on Hustwit’s thoughts, check out Urban Omnibus – or see the film!

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It would seem that conceptual thinking is inseparable from design, but I find that many design students just cannot grasp the idea of abstraction. Can this be taught? Is the capacity for conceptual thought just part of a person’s DNA? In searching online for insights, I found these observations.

1. This definition from the Eleven Seconds blog:

conceptual thinking is simply the ability to effortlessly walk up and down the ladder of abstraction

and the slightly murkier:

 To make their thinking useful, abstract thinkers need to be able to convert something abstract into something concrete, and vice versa.  This ability is what I call conceptual thinking.  A conceptual thinker starts in the concrete, then walks up the hierarchy of abstractions.  At some level they make connections between the abstract representation of the concrete thought and another abstract representation.  If need be, they can then walk that abstract thought back into another, very different concrete thought.  The idea is that a local search (i.e. making connections) in the abstract space is easier than a local search in the concrete space.  And so that person can either communicate more effectively, or solve the problem more effortlessly.

The example given of moving from the concrete to the abstract is seeing the concrete problem as an example of a more generic class or category of problems. Pattern recognition leads to relationships between ideas and eventually back to the concrete.

2. Discussion about conceptual thinking in the world of business tends to focus on the growing need for such thinkers in business (critical for the flexibility and innovation demanded by the global economy) and on the fact that these people are “hard to come by.” (more…)

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A big, big subject that I am tackling in two courses this spring. OpenIDEO and Steelcase are sponsoring a design solutions challenge for Vibrant Cities. Check out the brief here.



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Nice catch by Donovan Gillman of Urban Choreography – an extensive post on urban design, the Strelka Institute, and the revitalization of Gorky Park from the polis blog. Many images of the park and the new institute as well as a video of a presentation by Rem Koolhass accompany the post, which you can view here.

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