Why Transdisciplinary Design?

5 learnings of a personal journey on how to design for our complex world.

Two weeks ago I received my degree in Transdisciplinary Design, a Masters in Fine Arts from Parsons School for Design, in New York. Even though I spent a great deal of time immersed in studio work over the last two years of my life, it’s still somewhat difficult for me to explain what “TransD” really is — or what it really represents. Fresh out of the oven, TransD is in its 6th year and is one out of 4 Masters born within the also newly born School of Design Strategies, within Parsons. There’s only around 17 of us every year, cherry-picked from all parts of the globe, coming from the most diverse cultural and professional backgrounds you can imagine. From an Iraqi graphic designer to an American philosopher, from a Korean product designer to a Brazilian marketer (aka, myself), we all seemed to have come to this program united by something that perhaps we couldn’t really put into words, but somewhere deep down in our hearts and minds we knew what it was.

According to our faculty, Transdisciplinary Design is something about tackling humanity’s grand problems, the kind of problems that require more than a single discipline to solve. However, during my time there, this definition gained not only multiple versions or interpretations, but also proved to but live way beyond this simple sentence — I’ll come back to that in a couple of minutes. For starters, a grand problem stands for what we know as the “global challenges” we face in this young 21st century, that includes themes such as climate change, education, health, wealth inequality, mobility, natural disasters and food access, among others. It’s easy to argue why none of these challenges are solvable solely by one discipline, such as architecture, law, engineering or even design. Jamer Hunt, our former program director and the mastermind behind TransD, used to clarify this by beautifully saying “if you present an healthcare issue to a lawyer, he will propose a new law; if you ask an architect, he will suggest designing more hospitals, and the engineer will most likely suggest to build those hospitals.” As we know, healthcare, for example, is a very broad and extremely complex topic. More than passing a new law, building new hospitals or even bringing in more doctors, healthcare is a system, and as such, is has multiple entry points, and ways of being framed and analyzed, and certainly multiple ways of being solved. In essence, all of these great challenges share the same characteristics: they are deep, ever changing, usually very polemic, confusing and difficult to grasp. These are what we call “wicked problems”. But what does design have to do with global or complex challenges?

Released by former Mayor Bloomberg, this video translates the amount of carbon accumulated each day in New York into a visible mass.

Over the course of the 20th century, the design discipline has gone through a very transformative process of its own. If you take a look back 100 years ago, you will find the emergence of (1)graphic design, also recognized as the visual communications that use typography, imagery and colors in the form of posters and banners — which actually dates back from the first advertising pieces in the 19th century and goes all the way to the ubiquitous infographics and way-finding we see anywhere we go. Next, (2)industrial design, born fresh out of the industrial revolution and peaking with the mass production (and mass consumption) of mid-20th century, is the practice that gives life to all physical products we know — from an airplane to a pen. Around mid-80s, (3)interaction design came as a result of a deeper comprehension about the the way humans related to physical objects, which extended the scope of design, taking into account the correlations and consequences of how products are used by people. With the advent of the internet, interaction design gained even more traction in the form of user experience design and user interface design, touching on the relationship humans/computer screens and, more recently, to the design of intangibles such as services (service design). It was only in the last few years that design has gradually taken another leap, to what we call (4)systems design, where the goal is to propose entirely new systems, including new business models, noticeable in the disruption caused by the exponential growth of tech business that is successively breaking paradigms, making everything so quickly obsolete. In this evolution, it is accurate to say that design has broadened its scope enormously, moving from a “traditional” and circumscribed intervention to a more “strategic” and omnipresent one. While this shift will be a topic for another post, the point for now is that the most progressive practices today are the ones where design is (a) starting to to have affairs with “foreign” domains, or other fields of practice, from healthcare to organizational change; (b) tackling ever more complex problems with an extremely sophisticated approach, inquiring about root causes and generating innovative solutions, and/or (c) pushing the envelope helping us re-think and question our intent in the things we do and make — either through critical design, speculative design or visionary design. Within this brief design taxonomy, Transdisciplinary Design offers an emphasis on systems and interaction design to help solve and re-think complex challenges and propose solutions, new narratives or new discourses that will naturally take the form of new experiences, services, business models, movements or systems.

But like I said two minutes ago, TransD is much more than solving or re-thinking our complexity. Given that cohort comes from very distinct origins, it is natural that each of us will have a particular take on what TransD is about and therefore will be touched by it in unique ways. Along these lines, all I can offer is my own perception of how this program influenced me.

People say if you leave a Masters with the same ideas you had as you entered it, something has probably gone wrong. And today, two weeks after I graduated, I look back to who I was when I entered TransD and who I am now and I can say: everything has changed. It is very hard to assimilate, let alone put into words how the things that I have learned have changed me in the last couple of years, but I will try my best to sum up in list of a few key takeaways. I kindly ask you to bare with me on this; if you find it hard to understand, rest assured that I found hard to explain.

  1. All of us is greater than any of us

The nature of what we do in TransD is extremely complex, given the broad problems or questions we tackle. The issues we face are not anyone’s but everyone’s, so as said before, no single discipline can solve for such things, and this is where collaboration is necessary. We need the different backgrounds, cultural and professional, because they will not only give our assumptions a “reality check”, but also render extremely creative outcomes — as Tina Seelig masterfully shows in inGenius.

Collaboration is extremely difficult. It is not about simply working in multidisciplinary teams, but in interdisciplinary teams. Carefully distinguished in Change by Design by IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown, in the former approach “each individual tends to become an advocate for his her own technical specialty and the project becomes a protracted negotiation among them, likely resulting in a gray compromise”, while in the latter “there is a collective ownership of ideas and everybody takes responsibility for them”. Understanding and navigating this takes time because most of our education and professional practice doesn’t wire us that way. It’s a painful process, where mastering the arts of active listening and feedback giving takes time until teams function like an integrated and fluid organism.

Nothing in TransD comes from a “sole genius mind” or out of endless brainstorming sessions. Ideas are nurtured out of extremely empathetic research approaches, ideation sessions, rapid prototyping and constant iteration. Nothing is final, we are always learning upon ever-changing conditions.

2. Learn to learn

Assumptions. We all have them and most of us know how hard it is to avoid them, but fact is that we very often assume stuff. As we grow older and experience things, our repertoire expands and naturally we become used to saying (most times subconsciously) things such as “I know where this is headed” or “I’ve seen this before”, specially in a world still very much dominated by the thinking that knowledge is power. And in some sense it definitely is, no questions asked. But the point is that, in face of extreme uncertainty so characteristic of our times, where everything around us is changing faster than ever (as per Salim Ismail in Exponential Organizations, Gary Hamel in The Future of Management, Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma, and steve blank in the Lean Startup movement) the whole idea of planning is falling short in coping with the pace of change. These times are about systematically creating new knowledge, and not just retaining it, and sharing it to build new knowledge.

In this process of inquiring about different possibilities for innovation, the fundamental training is about letting go of the incessant search for the right answer, and starting to look for the right questions (Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question). In the global and connected world of today, systemic problems have not only one but several possible solutions. However, if we miss out on what the root causes for our problems might be, then we will probably be off to predictable and palliative solutions.

As mentioned before, during our lifetime we’ve been trained and rewarded for giving the right answer, so sitting in a “always learning” mode and developing a “beginner’s mind” can prove to be quite challenging, to say the least.

3. Be comfortable with chaos

An elastic system is one that has the capacity to be stretched in face of internalities and externalities that act as vectors pulling it towards different directions. But in essence, elastic systems are (or at least should be) resilient enough to respond to these forces and maintain it’s functioning. When we were given the challenge to (re)design for elasticity of Hunts Point, the main hub that bottlenecks 65% of all arriving food in New York, most of us had absolutely no clue of where to begin and even how far to go. There were so many entry points, so many scales at which could design and so many possible outcomes, that it was easy to get lost amid ambiguity. The main takeaway in this sort of situation was to look for a specific point of intervention where our designs could have a ripple effect across the whole system. But foreseeing that is not trivial at all.

Food, climate change, mobility, natural disasters, education, wealth equality…Almost every design challenge in TransD prompted us to feel somewhat wary— at least at first sight. Since the methods and tools we learned are also extremely novel, it took time to understand that not knowing where to go, but staying flexible enough and accepting of the non-linearity nature of our processes were all part of the journey for impactful proposals.

4. Take leaps of faith

When things get hairy, it’s easy to succumb to old habits or lose patience. I guess one of the most difficult things I learned in TransD was to just trust the processes we were using, as confusing or even misleading as they could be. Working in intense collaborative challenges can usually default us back to “survival mode” and before you know it, everyone is going back to creating assumptions and trying to nail the right answer — as solutions tend to get more predictable and standard. It is inherent of the creative process to build something new, and for that matter, it is required that all us take a leap of faith — that’s inherent of the creative process that implies coming up with something new. The further you open your mind and will to explore, while knowing that problem framing, brainstorming, prototyping and iterating are all rigorous and structured steps, the more innovative your end result should be.

Here is what I would like to quickly digress a bit to tie this thought to one of the biggest struggles that keep industries from truly embracing design as an invitation to innovation. As mentioned above, we were all wired to get the right answers out of our problems and we were all told throughout our lives that whenever we don’t get the right answer, we failed. And failing is something historically taken as negative — bad, wrong, or both. There are several counter arguments I could try to make here to support that failing isn’t bad, but I will just bring the very famous quote from Thomas Edison, while attempting to invent the light bulb after thousands of tries, he said “I haven’t failed, I just found 10 thousand ways it won’t work”. This means that making mistakes is part of getting it right. It’s like that when we learn to ride a bicycle, when we learn a new language or when we start at a new job. Trial and error are typical of new breakthroughs, so if we are not making mistakes, then we are probably not breaking through anything. In other words, the whole idea of failure being a negative thing in business culture comes from the fact that organizations today are build for command and control, operating for specialization and efficiency, for a somewhat foreseeable scenario. These tenets denote a will to withstand changes coming from outside. However in a ever more complex world, when things are changing everyday, the notion of planning for the future becomes obsolete and falls short of the always-learning approach of iterating on “the now”. Failing, then, becomes a necessary step in attempting to create the new.

As much as the principles for innovation have yet to be fully comprehended in the market, I was able to experience in TransD the inner tensions that emerge from when we try to constrain our designs, limiting them to fit within a viable criteria. Not to be mistaken, viability is one key aspect designers sometimes ignore — that’s one of the reasons why so many design consultancies try to attract business people nowadays — but in order to be disruptive in our thinking, we needed to let our minds travel far to them pull them back to more concrete and applicable propositions.

5. Whatever happens, just be grateful

It was such a journey. Long, mentally and physically demanding, but absolutely worth it. That’s how moments of growth feel like: daunting, scary, and painful…but it is only when we go through them that we can really come out stronger, wiser and more mature. Our own individual resilience was put to test during these two years, in all of those moments of uncertainty of what to make of what we were learning. I would risk to say that Transdisciplinary Design itself is a big framework, an approach, still far ahead of the current understanding of how design intervenes in our complex lives. Most markets and most forums are yet to comprehend and embrace the discourse and practices we learned and crafted in our program. But I think beyond anything, TransD stands for a point of view that challenges the assumptions we carry within us, to re-think way we do things and the outcomes of our decisions, in this quest to envision ways to improve the world around us. This is about thinking big.

For us TransDers, we leave our program looking to re-insert ourselves out there, yet to see how we will impact this world as much as we all probably wanted to when we joined the program . Some of us changed backgrounds, some of us went deeper into our own backgrounds, and some of us are a bit unsure of what to make out this all. Personally, the time right now is of decompression. Is about assimilating all that I went through, connect dots between different projects, different readings, different discussions. As I sit here and wrap up this post, I find myself with a racing mind, eager to take on whatever next role is ahead of me and contribute in work that matters. While my future is uncertain and my recent past is so rich it’s hard to assimilate it wholly, I try to focus on the now and be grateful about it all.

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