Stop talking, start thinking: The architecture of reasonable doubt

The classic 1957 film 12 Angry Men is a story about twelve jurors discussing what to most of them is a straightforward first degree murder case. A teenage Hispanic boy, living in a slum, is accused of stabbing his abusive father. To eleven of the twelve jurors he is clearly guilty. On a sweltering Manhattan afternoon, only juror #8 has a question in his mind about the boy’s guilt, dispassionately saying to the others after an initial vote:

“it’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first”

Surely he means thinking about it first?

Twelve Angry Men

Figure 1. Juror #8, played by Henry Fonda (right), calmly lays out his doubt to another juror.

Juror #8, played by Henry Fonda (figure 1), and whose name is revealed as Davis at the end of the film, is an architect. As the action of the film develops, he shows how he thinks differently from the others, questioning what they take to be true, and introducing a doubt that he slowly convinces them is reasonable.

Each juror in turn raises objections to juror #8’s wavering. Juror #3, pointing to the uniqueness of the murder weapon says:

“Take a look at this knife, it’s a very unusual knife. I’ve never seen one like it, neither had the storekeeper who sold it to the boy. Aren’t you asking us to accept a pretty incredible coincidence?”

“I’m just saying a coincidence is possible”, juror #8 replies, before taking a very similar ‘unique’ weapon from his pocket and sticking it into the table, to the others’ astonishment. During the trial he’d been to the neighbourhood where the murder had happened and managed easily to buy the knife.

The practical way in which juror #8 deconstructs the others’ arguments reveals a person who is able to imagine and interrogate alternative scenarios to fit the facts. This is a kind of creative reasoning that is called abduction, a design reasoning skill vital to the design process, and a way of thinking that an architect would be trained in [1].

Another example of design thinking occurs later in the film, when juror number #8, questions whether a key witness to the murder – an old man lying in bed in the flat below – would be able to get to his front door to identify the boy in under 15 seconds. Juror #8 calls for the plan of the flat used in court (figure 2) and is able to translate the dimensions of the bedroom and corridor into a rough prototype in the jury room (figure 3).

Twelve Angry Men

Figure 2. Juror #8 explains to the other jurors why he thinks a key witness couldn’t have got from his bed to his front door in 15 seconds.

Twelve Angry Men

Figure 3. Juror #8 arranges the room to simulate the layout of the old man’s flat.

“Those two chairs are the old man’s bed”, juror #8 tells the others, “I just paced off twelve feet across the room, this would be his bedroom door”

As he models and performs what the old man would have gone through, juror #8 asks another juror to time him.

Twelve Angry Men

Juror #8 asks another juror to time him while he simulates getting from the bed to the front door.

It takes 41 seconds.

Taking the action away from the ‘theoretical’ discussion at the table – a move from ‘talking about it’ to ‘thinking about it’ – allows juror #8 to produce a prototype, physically testing his conjecture that the old man couldn’t have got from his bed to his front door in 15 seconds. This test of practical thinking wins over another couple of sceptical jurors.

Davis displays design thinking in a legal context, overturning an eleven-to-one minority into a twelve-to-zero majority. As an architect, he is used to mapping the words that he hears to the spaces around him and it is the exploration of spatial, artefactual, and environmental possibility in the crime that reasons the other jurors into doubt. It is the kind of thinking – we could also call it a kind of moral imagination – that saves the boy’s life.

In the film Davis is one out of twelve (white, male) individuals but currently in the UK architects make up only one out of every 2000 people [2]. Perhaps we could do with a few more for our collective moral imagination, especially in the legal profession, in these uncertain, divided times.

[1] ‘Abduction’ is a type of reasoning identified by the pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce, who contrasted it with deduction and induction, as a way of reaching a conclusion from premises. He used it to try and show a logic to the process of creative discovery and creative explanation.

[2] Architects Council of Europe (2015) The Architectural Profession in Europe 2014 (pdf), p.10.

Plato, the first User-Centred Design Theorist

Last week I was an external opponent for the PhD thesis defence of Sigrun Lurås at Oslo’s increasingly impressive School of Architecture and Design. Sigrun’s thesis was part of the Ulstein Bridge Vision, Ulstein being one of the more innovative ship makers and based in Norway, the Bridge being that bit of the ship where the captain and others guide operations, and the Vision being a rethinking of the way that the interior and interactions of the bridge take place. The project, now finished, has proved a great success for Ulstein in a conservative industry, triggering a new organizational ‘design-driven approach’ to ship design.

Have a look and see for yourself what a 21st Century Ship’s Bridge looks like – more the celestial ocean around Alpha Centuri than the North Sea off the coast of Norway:

Sigrun’s research consisted of days of fieldwork spent on board offshore vessels documenting the behavior on the bridge and studying the ‘users’ of the ship’s bridge. The knowledge gleaned there formed the basis for the new design of the ship’s bridge and as an Opponent in the PhD exam, I was interested in exploring how ‘what is’ – the existing practices on board the old ship’s bridge – turned into ‘what is to come’ – the future design of the ship’s bridge.

It’s not a new question, of course. As designers have increasingly turned to the methods of ethnography to elicit the needs of users, the question of just how that translation is made has become more pressing. Is the new design about supporting the practices of existing users or getting rid of existing users and practices? Is it about saving or selling?

While ethnographers might reveal the subtle use and structures of artefacts, communication, ritual, and power – leaving the reader to work out their own meanings – the design researcher looks for those things that might form the meaningful basis of a new solution – observations as the seeds of future form. One might argue that this is method maligned; theory bent out of shape in order to neaten and change. The context for a pretext to impose a political sub-text. The designers, with the financial muscle, have the upper hand; the knowledge that wins. The users are the losers. The beast that is a design ethnographer, some might say, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It was not always this way.

In 360BC – 2376 years ago – Plato was writing the dialogues that would form The Republic [1], a book featuring Socrates and a cast of other characters, to discuss the ideal state. The Republic covers education, justice, the position of women, philosophy, the immortality of the soul, and… art.

Plato, in the voice of Socrates, was suspicious of artists (and we might include the modern day designer as a kind of artist in the Platonic sense). He thought they were people that could represent the truth without knowing the truth, and that made them dangerous.

He also wrote about the design of vehicle guidance systems and just who one should turn to to know what the suitable form and function should be. In the following excerpt Socrates discusses with Glaucon the bridle and bit of a horse’s harness. Think of the painter in the discussion that follows as a designer.

Socrates: The painter may paint a picture of bridle and bit
Glaucon: Yes
Socrates: But aren’t they made by the harness-maker and smith?
Glaucon: Yes
Socrates: Then does the painter know what the bridle and bit ought to be like? Isn’t this something that even the makers – the harness-maker and the smith – don’t know, but only the horseman who knows how to use them?
Glaucon: True.
Socrates: Isn’t the same thing always true?
Glaucon: Your meaning?
Socrates: You always have the three techniques – use, manufacture, and representation.
Glaucon: Yes.
Socrates: And isn’t the quality, beauty and fitness of any implement or creature or action judged by reference to the use for which man or nature produced it?
Glaucon: Yes.
Socrates: It must follow, then, that the user of a thing has the widest experience of it and must tell the maker how well it has performed its function in the use to which he puts it.

It is use that determines quality, beauty, and fitness for purpose, and only users are properly positioned to judge and communicate those things, Socrates argues.

If Plato were to watch the film of the Ulstein Bridge Vision, as well as other design visualisations I have written about previously [2], he would be sceptical. The high production values, filmic details, and the surging music are all techniques the artist uses to represent, manipulate, and persuade, but not to really know. That knowledge is left out at sea on all the existing Ship’s bridges.

Plato’s account of user-centred design suggests creativity in a tight coupling of maker and user – the maker proposing, the user assessing. Innovation happens organically, incrementally, as a tree slowly bows in a constant wind or a cliff is shaped by an angry sea; as a careful dialogue between what is and what might be. But what if we consider designers as users too? What is it that designers use?

Designers use tools and methods of course, and computers and cardboard, pens and PVA; prototypes, negotiotypes, and just plain old type as they steer the process of design from idea to thing. They know what designing is, so it is the design methodologist that becomes the villain of this piece; the person who represents but doesn’t know. The person that takes something like the slow digestive process of ethnography and packages it up like fast food.

Perhaps in this context it is the designers who are the real losers though, the real pretext for a political or organisational sub-text. Plato mistrusted the artists because he knew that they could foment opinion and upset the balance his ideal State. The aim of design, he might have said, is always political, whether designers know it or not. As Plato’s philosopher successor Aristotle aphoristically puts it: “man is, by nature, a political animal” [3].


[1] Plato, The Republic, Penguin Classics (1987)

[2] HS2 and the Dutch Golden Age

[3] Aristotle, The Politics, Penguin Classics (1981)

A Design Assignment (Part 2)

The world is running out of resources.  We are draining nature of the things that will keep us going. Somehow we can’t help ourselves.  This is the context for your next design assignment.  Design an object that represents the futility of our struggle to keep a lid on climate change.  The object should complement the natural world around, but clearly stand out from it as well.  It should combine soft and spiky elements within a rhythmic, multi-coloured structure as if excreted on to this earth by an alien life-force.

You have two days to complete the assignment.  On day 1 you should look at the world around you, and on day 2 you should shut your eyes and listen to the world around you.  During the last half hour of day 2 you should produce a form which will represent 100% of the total marks available for this assignment.  A good mark will be obtained for a form that properly represents despair.

A Design Assignment (Part 2)

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Woman in the Story of Architecture

An interesting article appeared recently in the Architect’s Journal that drew attention to two images of famous architects.  The images were produced from a photo taken at the launch of the recent BBC4 series The Brits who Built the Modern World at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London.  Here they are – see if you can spot the difference.

Here is the first one:


And here is the second:


A not-so-subtle difference I’d say.

The women that has been Photoshopped out of the first image is Patty Hopkins, the wife of Michael Hopkins (farthest left in both images) and founding partner, together with Michael, of Hopkins Architects.

As one of the academic consultants on these programmes I was involved with the project from the early stages.  The series, a collaboration between The Open University and the BBC and produced by Oxford Film and Television, is an exploration of the lives of five of the best known contemporary British architects – Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Michael Hopkins, Terry Farrell, and Nicholas Grimshaw. It is a good series I think, for the story it tells about the development of ‘Hi-Tech’ architecture, but it has a serious shortcoming: it’s representation of women in architecture.

In the initial phases of the project, where ideas about what the programme could be about were relatively fluid, my take on the proposed story of ‘the big five’ was that there should be more women figuring in the programme, either as architects or as architectural critics.  If the series was a kind of ‘Rock Family Trees’ for architects, charting the development of various relationships, professional partnerships, bust-ups and break-ups through the years, I made the point that perhaps more women could be brought in to the story.  Perhaps the original wives of Norman Foster and Richard Rogers – Wendy Foster and Sue Rogers – could be mentioned?  After all, they had all worked together creatively in their firm Team 4. Perhaps Patty Hopkins could figure more prominently? I remarked.

Good point, the production company said, but that’s not really the story we’re telling. It’s about the big five architects and their collective achievement.

Can’t we take out the overblown comments of Jonathan Glancy? I suggested, and find a female critic with a bit more insight?

Well, it’s so hard to find female critics, the production company said, there don’t seem to be many about.

The production company went away to do the filming and, in what was supposed to be a collaboration between The Open University and the BBC there certainly wasn’t much collaboration. When we viewed the rough cuts the male bias was stark. In our first viewing there wasn’t a female appearance until the 40th minute.

We know, the production company said, but that’s just the way it is.  We’ve got a female narrator, they said. Well, that’s something. The BBC guy liked it very much.

And so it went. All the feedback from me was I like the programme, but where are the women?  Even the women that were shown were done so in a demeaning way. In programme 3 a (male) London city planner talks about the development of Foster’s Gherkin building. The clients – Swiss Re: – are (unusually) female and very good at explaining the process. At one point the planner reflects on media coverage about the building and its ‘erotic’ shape. He stares, slightly unhinged, into the camera, as he says “some people did say ‘where do the batteries go?'”. The next cut is to the two female clients.

It seemed to me that this transition, reflective of the treatment of women in the programme more generally, was poor and out of kilter with current values. The Photoshopped image is the perfect visual illustration of what happened in the making of the programme, and what in architecture, and design too, has happened to many, many women. Narratives of male supremacy in the creative process are dominant, and perhaps sometimes true. More often, however, they are not. And this process, witnessed close up, is how the narrative of the all-conquering male architect is created and reinforced.