I find the explanation of ideas through an analogy to be more relatable, and so for the rest of this conversation, I will be using them every so often to invite you to sit with me and my thoughts and process it all together.
There are a few ingredients which form a major chunk of what is popularly considered design, ingredients of the design process. Those ingredients being:
It is one of those spaces which starts from a common base and then everyone adds in their flavour to the pot which ends up making each dish unique. What strikes me as interesting is when someone flips the recipe on its head and starts with base ingredients that are foreign to the common recommendations. So to read the works of Vilém Flusser, Donald Schon, Nigel Cross and Arturo Escobar, four designers who are unabashed in their expression was like being teleported to a world of vibrancy, novelty and freshness that creates itself through the ideas they serve.
The epistemology of design in this analogy is not the restaurant where these gentlemen work, but the culture of cuisine they add to with their signature style and ingenuity. Through the work they do, they create a few things; a path for other designers to test their potential, a style for others to try and adopt and a way of thinking that may feel structured enough to let novice designers explore more complicated themes without feeling overwhelmed. Just as in design we will look at how these designers understand design, we will diverge, converge, and repeat the process till we have a better understanding ourselves.
Lets first talk about Donald Schon and his way of explaining the reflective nature of design to us. He takes us through a lesson given to a student through an example in architecture by examining the process of master Quist as he helps one of his students understand better ways to design.
Schon chooses architecture as he is more confident of his knowledge in this field of design and feels that he knows enough to bend and blend the rules to explain his ideas best. His observation of Quist and his student is evident as that of someone on the outside looking in his description of their interaction. He lets us know that the language they speak makes sense only if they were present for that moment and should they witness the conversation through words and drawings in context. While his writing indicates him to be a curious soul, his observations are very nuanced as he remarks on the details that a novice might miss as he outlines for the reader the subtleties in Quist’s explanation. His approach considers the various angles of the same situation, and he continues to draw learnings from it to explain to the reader without being repetitive in the knowledge he is trying to capture. He zooms in and out of this interaction to talk to us and explain the larger concepts at play as he uses instances from it to outline the importance of these ideas and why they may have larger implications than might be evident at first glance. His nature of explaining it to us is how I believe design should also be approached by stepping back now and then from what we are doing to see if it still makes sense in the grand scheme of things. His way of reflecting on the journey a person goes through in understanding the same ideas over time is a practice that I feel we must all try to embody as it truly makes a difference when we look at what we already know through the lens of experience.
Next we look at Vilém Flusser as we pull away to see what he indicates to us as the big picture. Flusser starts by examining the term design through language, he examines its origins, its evolution and tracks it to what we perceive it as today. English in itself is an interesting tool to use while examining meaning as it is not a rigid language in its structure and is one that continues to grow in directions that one does not anticipate as it accommodates words as they find more commonplace on the tongues of its users. In that respect, context plays a big role in how one examines the meaning of words at any given point as the context present during that period might have a very different understanding of the word being examined than we would have today with the context available to us. Flusser manages to use this confusion well as he presents his view with context clues that make us believe him all the more as he explains the relation between design and deception and how the former is embodiment of the latter. This style feels common among his works as he leaves just enough of a trail that the reader can follow but does not divulge enough specificity in his writing that one can point to what he is actually saying. This is both a boon and not as it puts the reader desiring critical examination while it could also leave them feeling confused and more often than not, both. He does not speak off the top of his head though as he shares valuable ideas that are genuinely worth interacting with, just that he does it in a way that leaves some room for interpretations to sit with his views.
Nigel Cross, unlike his peers and myself, is not averse to using metaphors and analogies to have himself be understood. He explains to us, the readers that not unlike ants we have a view that shows us only the obstacles ahead of us as we are present in the situation, however, a global perspective is not one we may have till much after we have made our decisions. Hindsight is the gift that provides us with this perspective. This is something he contests as he lays emphasis in presenting that the goal here is not one that is already present, but something the designer sets as they create their solution. I agree with his understanding of the situation as the alternate provides us with a quagmire of questions that seem not to lead to a constructive destination. What I admire in his writing is that he never seems to be so swayed with an idea that he does not consider different views of the same ideas. He is frank about his ambivalence and does not try to pretend when he does not feel strongly about a topic, for example, his view on design intelligence not having satisfactory result when applied in the six types of intelligence done by psychologist Howard Gardener. He spends his energy in creating a new category for design intelligence rather than trying to force-fit it into the areas that already exist.
Arturo Escobar is perhaps the designer I relate to and am inspired by most. His views come from a place of understanding what it means to come from a culture where the contexts under which design exercises are regularly formed may feel odd. He understands industrialisation and its impact better than others as having grown in a land where he was subject to it more than the others may have been exposed to. Born and raised in Colombia, he understands the power that western influence in informing education as he travelled to the USA for his master’s degree. He is a critic of western industrialised societies and champions the cause of endogenous discourses to problem-solving. His writing is not as inviting as his ideas are though as the reading level is high and it takes time even when one can understand all of it as each sentence is so rife with information that it often takes a second or even third reading to truly grasp the depth of the views he is disseminating. His perspectives are some that I would encourage other designers to embody in their thinking as it truly adds a layer of functionality as an example in the postcolonial nature of his ideas and so as we layer context over context in a manner that seems appropriate for the region we can frame problems and design solutions that are endogenous and work for the people in the long run and not just as a temporary fix.
Each of these perspectives is worth a reading as each of them layers the understanding we have of design. It grants us nuance when we look at our work, be it while planning, in practice or reflectively, we would have the reference of a master designer in each stage giving us insight into the ways we could progress in creating designs that are as well-rounded and polished as the belief in the power of design that each of them passionately hold. The diversity we have examined today leads me to search not just for the why, but also the why not.