Pointers to the Future of Design:
Musings inspired by the book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School
The fields of architecture and design have a lot in common. I consider the field of Architecture an elder sibling of design. The body of knowledge present in the literature on architecture reflects a vast amount of wisdom accumulated over years of life experience. I therefore often refer to literature in architecture to evolve my personal concepts and frameworks in design. For example, Christopher Alexander’s work in Pattern Language has shaped my values and conceptual frameworks in Design.
Recently I came across a book, “101 Things I learned in Architecture School”, by Matthew Frederick. It is a slim volume that carries byte-size pearls of wisdom embellished with simple doodles. I was delighted to go through the book because in it was a compilation of simple insights that resonated with my own views on the pointers to the future of design.
Early in the book Frederick quotes the famous architect Louis Kahn, “Architecture is the thoughtful making of space”. This quote immediately resonated with me because the word “thoughtful” aligned with one word that has occupied my thoughts for the past several weeks: Mindfulness. Mindfulness incorporates almost all the values I have inculcated as a designer. It refers to a multitude of character traits that must be present in a designer: the power of observation, empathy, the power of observing one’s surrounding with all of our senses, the ability to tune into our intuition, the ability to balance a learning process that relies on both rational and experiential information, good citizenship, sensitivity to preserving ecological balance, respect, humility… the list goes on.
All of these traits are possible if a designer embraces humility. Additionally, the idea of bringing focus on the space surrounding the architectural form reminds me of the need to understand the experience of living within the social space created by our design as opposed to being solely obsessed with the form and features of physical design.
Frederick suggests, “Our experience of an architectural space is strongly influenced by how we arrive in it.” For those of us who believe that the design process is the process of conceptualizing an experience, as opposed to a product, will find the idea of arriving into an experience compelling. It underscores the idea of designing a ritual and the need to consider a larger context or Zeitgeist surrounding how people arrive at the experience as much as what the experience is.
Just as there is a Zeitgeist surrounding a design there is also an experiential essence at the heart of design. “A Parti” is the central idea or concept of a building. In order for a design to be meaningful and the experience to be compelling, a designer must discover a core experiential theme that will live at the inner sanctum of her design. Gaining clarity on what the parti should be involves design research- a process of learning and translating insights about how the design will meaningfully blend with the life of the people it is supposed to serve. Frederick emphasizes, “Parti derives from understandings that are non architectural and must be cultivated before architectural form can be born”.
The field of design research draws people from different academic disciplines. Due to different views on the right way of doing “Research,”multi-disciplinary design research teams often experience tension between those focusing on scientific research based on deductive and inductive thinking (the process of finding the truth) and those championing abductive thinking (the process of finding what is possible). Their respective tools of insight gathering and analysis differ and often put them in confrontation with each other. Frederick has an advice for us in this area as well. He suggests,
“objectivity is the province of the scientist, technician, mechanic, logician and mathematician; subjectivity is the milieu of the artist, musician, mystic and free spirit. Citizens of modern cultures are included to value the objective view- and hence it may tend to be your world view- but both modes of engagement are crucial to understanding and creating architecture.”
Frederick also quotes, Louis Sullivan, “ A proper building grows naturally, logically and poetically out of all its conditions,” poetics of design is an area of my interest. How should we, the designers, encourage design as an organic process that is participatory: where both the people who have a stake in it and the events that surround it shape the evolution of design in a poetic manner? In the future, the designers should become the catalysts of a creative discourse and a co-imagination process that will guide the evolution of design organically.
Design discourse is a critical component of a participatory design process. Design discourse shapes collective imagination of possible design alternatives in the minds of people who have a stake in the design. It is therefore the responsibility of a designer to help facilitate the organic designing process by moderating the design discourse. Who would be best qualified to moderate such a discourse? Frederick suggests that the most effective and creative problem solvers engage in a process of meta-thinking, or “thinking about the thinking.” He suggests, “Meta-thinkers engage in continual internal dialogue of testing, stretching, criticizing, and redirecting their thought process.”
A discourse must allow multiple perspectives and counterpoints. A design discourse must allow for contradictory aspirations to co-exist and cohabit. A designer must restrain herself from imposing a personal point of view as the only experiential component of her design. Frederick points out that “…any aesthetic quality is usually enhanced by the presence of a counterpoint.” The dynamic interface between conflicting points of view makes the creative process more exciting and rich in outcomes.
That takes me to another important aspect of design presented by Frederick. He presents the idea of informed simplicity as a new way of balancing a designer’s predisposition to making either simplicity or complexity the guiding principle of her design philosophy. “Informed simplicity is an enlightened view of reality. It is founded upon an ability to discern or create clarifying patterns within complex mixtures. Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect, who must create a highly ordered building amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations.” Frederick names the three levels of knowing simplicity, complexity and informed simplicity.
The future of design must not only accommodate multiple perspectives, but also allow a design to mean different things to different people, depending on their context and predisposition. Frederick identifies a good building as one that reveals different things about it when viewed from different distances. A designer must imagine multiple representations of how her design appears or feels when seen or experienced from different perspectives. Frederick goes on to suggest that no design system is or should be perfect. A good design is always under construction. It is the users who continue to define, refine and evolve the design by living with it.
This means a designer must give up his/her emotional need to control the designing process. The designing must not end when it leaves the office of a designer. To achieve this Frederick suggests a process different from the conventional authoritarian control approach. He recommends that we engage the design process with patience, to accept uncertainty. To recognize as normal the feeling of lostness that attends to much of the process.
As a design researcher who has borrowed much of my learning and inspiration in recent years from the domains of anthropology, sociology and psychology I have a greater appreciation for the author’s observation that there are two points of view on architecture- that architecture is an exercise in truth and that architecture is an exercise in narrative. I belong to the community of designers who believe in design as a storytelling process rather than the old notion of form being an authentic representation of function. I envision the future of design as one that offers meaningful experience shaped by a narrative than a functional design embodied in a physical form.
In the final pages of his book Frederick recommends that designers put their ego aside. He wants designers to strive to accommodate and express universal concerns in their work- the human quest for meaning and purpose. That way, he suggests there will always be an interested audience for your design.
My key takeaway from reading this book was that the designer of the future is going to be a storyteller who engages communities of people and facilitates a discourse that shapes co-imagination of multiple design alternatives that are always under construction.