Allowing for ambiguity, complexity and exploration in a practice driven by uses and outcomes

March 25, 2020


Design is ubiquitous in everyday life but learning to become a designer is not well understood. The reasons for this will be explored in this short piece, part of a larger project which explores the impact of Design Education on learning, creativity and society as a whole. 

Dr. Ron Burnett is President Emeritus of Emily Carr University and Professor of New Media. He is a recipient of the Order of Canada (2013) and was appointed Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres by the French Government in 2010

Design is everywhere. I would argue that design is at the heart of creative thinking and production in most disciplines, but what is creativity and how does one learn to be creative? What, as Donald Schon asked in the 1980’s, “…is the kind of knowing in which competent practitioners engage?” (Donald Schon, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, New York: Basic Books, 1983. P. 2.)

Schon asks crucial questions about epistemologies of practice and how knowledge is acquired, as well as what actions follow from research, exploration and practical engagement. How can designers be reflective? How, for example, can they prototype new ideas and explore human need at the same time? How can they develop products and technologies that respect community values and expectations? Designers problem solve, that is a given. But, how do they choose the problems they want to solve and what criteria determine the value of the outcomes? These questions are at the heart of teaching and learning in design but are sometimes obscured by a focus on the crafts of making, and the challenges of developing and completing design projects. Often, economic considerations outweigh or obscure questions of cultural difference, social justice and economic fairness and equity.

Design has been appropriated by Engineering Schools, Business Schools, Marketing and Public Relations without enough exploration of the roots of the discipline, its history and connections to art, studio cultures and laboratories. Design as process and methodology has been converted into a platform for technology invention and appropriation, into a vehicle for making ‘things’ look good or understanding empathy in the context of corporate strategy and customer relations. The diffusion of the meaning of design has made it more difficult to talk about the histories of craft, creative thinking and doing. How can design be used as a transitional tool and platform for the exploration of social and cultural needs? Since when does design teaching always have to be built on an applied approach?

In design learning, techniques of production and evaluation are meshed together without the rigour necessary to evaluate their impact or effectiveness.

Design is about how humans interact with their societies using tools, products and modes of thought that are functional, practical and accessible. Function and accessibility depend on a set of generalizations about use, practical applications and further assumptions about outcomes. Prototypes are used to test whether all this works when actually used in real life settings. However, use (and its translation into that terrible word, users) is evaluated by traditional methods of observation, questionnaires or in the field experiences. The evaluation of design outcomes, even in the area of design thinking, is governed by how much information is processed and exchanged between 
creators, practitioners and their subjects or clients. This is at best highly subjective and at worst a simple verification of existing assumptions.  Affirmation through use cannot replace questions about meaning, and what happens in communities when expectations of human rationality are not met. This empirical style of thought replaces critical thinking and promotes change of any sort as evidence of effectiveness. 

In design learning, techniques of production and evaluation are meshed together without the rigour necessary to evaluate their impact or effectiveness. In design thinking, human interactions are modeled to highlight potential changes in behaviour for the benefit of organizational change and efficiency. These ‘applications’ of design leave out ambiguity and the complexity of human interactions and promote the supposed benefits of a technically rationalist approach for problem solving as an end in itself.

How do students learn about people’s needs? How can someone else’s feelings and expectations be understood? These are very complex issues that cannot be addressed without accessing the research produced in disciplines as diverse as communications, anthropology, sociology, psychology and cultural studies. These are inherently difficult areas to learn about let alone research within the context of a fast-paced and results-oriented environment. Designers often answer these tough challenges by talking about practice-based learning that develops ideas, processes and products through prototypes, testing, evaluation and continuous iteration. 

But combined challenges of learning by doing and researching human needs is very difficult. The exploration of need requires a multi-disciplinary strategy that combines ethnography, the ability to explore social formations, communities and the way they work and communicate and how humans interact culturally, socially and politically both in person and through their use of technologies. 

These are daunting challenges for any discipline. Complexity cannot be mapped into simple equations defined by use and outcomes. Design learning could benefit from fearlessly engaging with complexity, valuing exploration and play and celebrating diversity. The focus on outcomes needs to be replaced by a focus on research that may not have an applied purpose but may in the end discover new ways of thinking, making and doing.

This story originally appeared in Applied Arts magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.99 a year, click here.