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The Age of Interdisciplinary Work

“If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”

The subtitle is an old adage highly attributed to Abraham Maslow. I read it years ago, during my development of becoming a designer, so it immediately stuck to my collection of adages. I just told a former colleague that my passion for interdisciplinary work is probably what drove me to the Design field.

Oftentimes we designers are placed at the intersection of different fields. Many times designers have to use their creativity not for mastering their crafts but for facilitating people coming from different fields for them to come up with a collaborative solution. If you’re not a designer, it’s important to stick to your field so you can recognize your strengths, but it’s also important to expect that interdisciplinary collaboration will fall into your lap very soon.

Why? Simply, because we cannot see a problem from one point of view. We need to be able to see it from different frames. For example, an engineer studied social science and tried to solve social problems. Although it seems easy to just read up social science materials, it’s not easy to switch to using the social science way of seeing the problem. Sometimes, a technology person translates the research results into just numbers without stories. I’m not trying to undermine the engineering profession, because this is just a way to illustrate why multidisciplinary team (for interdisciplinary work) is needed. Engineers can crunch numbers with technology, but social scientists can do better in translating numbers to stories.

A similar experience during my Computer Science days is in fact what drove me to leave the computing world altogether. It seemed like every problem in the computing world needs to be solved with another computer or piece of software. It’s like promoting the use of tool (the hammer) to solve the problem (the nail), instead of seeing the problem first and then see whether your tool can solve the problem or else try to build another tool. I’m not trying to say that computer scientists cannot solve problems. There are many problems that need solely computing solution (yes, Google!), but there are many more problems that need interdisciplinary solution.

As written in my piece about becoming a designer, I jumped from Technology to Psychology, yet I could not let myself focus just on Psychology. I could leave Computer Science altogether but not Technology. Glad that I found Design (specifically Interaction Design), and glad that I could contribute both as an academician and a practitioner. The field opens doors to more interdisciplinary works.

We shape our ideas together with people from various disciplines to form a better idea (Source)

I understand why some academicians do not participate in interdisciplinary works. In order to protect the branch of science itself, an academician needs to stick to their ways of seeing a problem. There are people in academia who dedicate themselves in maturing their branch of science. I have done it myself, not for academic purpose, but for practical purpose. The practice of Interaction Design is still new, that academicians are expected to guide practitioners in terms of what and how of the field, as exemplified by Jon Kolko, formerly at Savannah College of Art and Design.

Yes, practitioners can also have aversion to interdisciplinary works. For example, we can easily find Technology practitioners trying to define User Experience as solely about the user interface of a piece of technology even when the problem needs understanding of the complex socio-technical system. It’s a system with various actors, not just an isolated actor with a piece of technology. Therefore, engineers in practice need to prepare themselves for interdisciplinary work. Those who already do are usually eager to take part in a interdisciplinary way to look at a problem, where they can refrain from offering their technology solution too soon.

This comes back to why, as an academician, I try to promote interdisciplinary work. When the students graduate and start contributing to society, I hope that they are open to invitations to solve a problem together, using interdisciplinary way of seeing the problem.

And as a practitioner, I try to remind fellow designers to keep our ego low and improve our facilitation skills. Like a chef, our job is to cook the raw ingredients that come from multidisciplinary colleagues. We cannot cook without them. You’re not your crafts, so you’re not the final dish itself. We’re the one who know how to serve the dish but only if we understand the people we’re designing for.

IDEO’s How Might We method to see a problem

If your only tool is a hammer, it’s actually fine. You just need to be aware that eventually you need to solve a problem using more than hammers. If you have difficulties unseeing every problem like a nail, try inviting a designer. Learn from him/her to unleash your non-linear brain, e.g. by doing a design workshop with holders of different tools. May you eventually be able to see the problem in a new way. And then you can proceed to developing an interdisciplinary solution.

It’s the age of interdisciplinary work. Apart from Design Thinking, there are actually various branches of science that promote interdisciplinary work. One example is Science and Technology Studies, where scientists focus on the use of science and technology and their impact on society. Another example is Translational Medicine, where the medical field welcomes scientists from any branch of science to create medical solutions through interdisciplinary experiments.

Are you ready to practice interdisciplinary collaboration?

PS: A sequel to this article The Culture for Interdisciplinary Work

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