Making

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].

References

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

[2] HS2 and the Dutch Golden Age

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

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Design’s Political Agnosticism

At the Victoria & Albert museum in London at the moment is a very good exhibition called ‘Disobedient Objects‘ [1]. The exhibition shows examples of things produced for protest: against governments, against organisations, against building programmes, against injustice. Wandering around the show sparked lots of ideas, but not only for me; I overheard one girl knowingly saying to another, just in front of me: “are you getting blog inspiration here?”

She could have been talking to me, because that is what I was thinking too. The exhibition made a link for me that had previously been a bit hazy. It was brought home when I read the following quote, describing one of the exhibits. Try and work out who the ‘they’ is at the beginning:

“They have to be strategic with how they deliver their message. This can mean engaging tactically with the media, or finding ways to circumvent it and speak directly. Today, this involves immediate hands-on forms of expression alongside appropriating cutting edge technology and social media.”

The ‘they’ could be a Barak Obama political campaign – or any politician’s for that matter. It could be Facebook or Google or Vodafone, or any new start-up. It could be David Beckham or Victoria Beckham or even Brooklyn Beckham.

It is, in fact, a general description of how social movements voice dissent and hence how objects can be appropriated for ‘disobedience’.

The use of all manner of objects in civil disobedience shows how creativity and design is essential to form an effective protest. Police using tear gas? Make a gas mask out of a 5-litre water bottle (see below). Need to lock yourself to a post to stop a road being built? Make a lock-on device using a metal pipe with nuts, bolts, and chains. Need to distribute information quickly to avoid censorship? Make a pamphlet bomb.

Gas_mask

An improvised gas mask from ‘Disobedient Objects’. The original caption reads: “The Turkish Government used record amounts of tear gas to disperse the 2013 Istanbul protests. Protesters devised homemade gas masks as a form of protection” (p.48)

The quote was interesting to me because of my teaching in the area of Design Thinking. Rewind to 2009 and I was working for The Open University to put together a new distance-learning course called Design Thinking: Creativity for the 21st Century. Currently over 4000 people of all ages and abilities have studied the course – most with no previous experience – and learned about the many ways in which the methods of design can be applied [2].

In putting the course together, and arguing for the University to invest a considerable amount of money in a new area, I justified it in one primary way: that teaching design methods to people who wouldn’t normally have access, or the confidence, to undertake such an education was empowering; a way of engaging more with the world around and consuming less. Design to self-actualize, in other words, not design to produce more pseudo-useful stuff.

Of course there were other aims too. Giving people a foot up to study Design in a Design School, for example, or using Design Thinking to contribute creativity to an organization or service. And that is where the link I made above comes in; Design Thinking is an ability that can be used equally effectively for business or, bizarrely, for protest against business. In fact, ironically, the strategist planning an effective protest probably has a lot more in common with the strategist in politics or corporate business than they’d like to think.

It does perhaps reveal the strength and weakness of having a Design skill too – its political agnosticism. Design can be used for good or ill, protest or profit, obedience or disobedience.

Resistor

Resistance! Original caption reads: “In December 1981 martial law was imposed in Poland in a crackdown on Solidarnosc, which was declared illegal. Supporters wore tiny badges with the Solidarnosc logo, which signalled their support for the movement in a way that could be easily concealed. A more oblique strategy was to attache a ‘moc rezystor’ (power resister), taken from a domestic radio, to your lapel – a play on words which indicated resistance to the government and support for pirate Radio Solidarity.” (p.116)

I like to think that my teaching in Design Thinking produced, if not outright disobedience, then a measure of resistance (as one of the objects in the exhibition nicely exemplified, see below). I mean resistance in the sense of a questioning of the world around.  But that may no longer be the case, if it ever was. The Design Thinking course is now being offered as part of the Business Studies degree, and they’ll be no Protest 101 any time soon I’d wager.

[1] Floor, C., Grindon, G. (2014) Disobedient Objects, V&A Publishing.

[1] As a nice piece of Design Thinking in itself, the description about how the mounts to display the disobedient objects were put together is worth reading.

 

How to Grip the World: The Artist and the Designer

Two quotes caught my eye recently, both about the nature of ideas in the creative process. One is from an international artist and the other is from an international designer, see if you can tell which is which:

Here is the first, from Person 1:

“Between an idea and doing something, there’s a bridge. First you make a sketch, it’s a small doodle but it’s amazing, at that moment you have changed the world! Then you might do another drawing, a cardboard model, add colour, put it into a computer, maybe a scientist assists. The assumption in our society is that creativity lies within these choices, between cardboard and wood, red and blue, floor or ceiling, but it doesn’t. It is in the quality of the way it grips the world.”

And here is the second, from Person 2:

“I don’t know anybody who has just had an idea and then will stand up in front of a group of people and try to explain this vague thought. So it tends to be exclusive and fragile. When you make the very first physical manifestation of what the idea [is], everything changes. It’s the most profound shift because it’s not exclusive any more, it’s not so open to interpretation, it’s there, and it includes a lot of people. The ideas aren’t the most difficult bit, it’s the actually making them real. Giving an idea body is very hard.”

So ideas, according to the two people above, are neither in the thought or the thing, but in ‘the quality of the way an idea grips the world’, in the case of the first quote, or ‘making [the idea] real’, in the case of the second quote. It’s in how the embodied idea forces its way into the world.

Two more clues:

Person 1 has a studio that employs ninety people: architects, engineers, technicians, and two cooks. Person 2 works for a global computer corporation. Getting warm yet?

The fact that it is difficult to tell who is who in the above quotes reveals a similarity between art and design that is often overlooked; roughly speaking, the emergent quality of things. Both are iterative processes of making, to find out what is or might be. And this is a delicate process, easy to disrupt by too much exposure, too soon. An artist or designer must be able to handle fragility and uncertainty, nourishing and nurturing an idea whenever the opportunity arises – in making, in testing, in conversation, in thought.

That’s why a supportive environment is so vital to creative processes; to help both the nourishing and nurturing and in determining the degree to which an idea grips the world. The studio is the traditional environment that supports the growth and exploration of ideas – in music recording, across the arts, and design – but ideas of what a studio can be are opening up and going online. In the words of Person 1: “The studio is not a closed unit, it’s an instrumental part of society; creativity is about interdependence”.

That says something about the way we should value creativity in society, I think, as something that both generates growth and connects expertise around a common discourse. That might be a design discourse or an artistic discourse, but the effects are the same: compelling ideas that show us how we should live, and help us to live better.

So I’ll leave the last word to Person 2:

“[The creative process] is the most extraordinary process. The way that it comes from nothing. When you step back and you think about it, it’s bizarre, that it’s Wednesday afternoon at 3 and there’s nothing. There is nothing at all. And then at 5, there’s an idea…”

And who are the people?

Well, Person 1 is Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, famous for the 2006 ‘Weather Project’ setting sun in the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern, and Person 2 is the British head of Design at Apple Computers, Jonathan Ive.

Not so different, really.

References

Design Education is Tragic says Jonathan Ive, Dezeen, November 2014, http://tinyurl.com/mju3pkf

His Place in the Sun, Olafur Eliasson tells Jackie Wullschlager about the challenge of staging an immersive spectacle at the museum of France’s richest man, Financial Times Weekend, 6-7th September, 2014.
http://tinyurl.com/pddxnp3