The Hand and the Rock
In 1973 the BBC broadcasted a documentary series titled ‘The Ascent of Man’. This series was the crowning achievement of Jacob Bronowski, who wrote and presented the show. Bronowski had spent a wonderful life examining the symbiotic relationship between art and science, as a man with considerable achievements in both areas. He starts the programme with a remarkably simple, yet powerful idea that he then uses to analyze the history of human civilization.
Humans see the world through two forms, one created by the smoothing action of the hand, like those soft undulating forms of our first mud brick houses, and the other by the cutting action of the rock, which we use to smash objects into sharp, angular forms.
The analysis is a deeply personal and interesting account of human development, and one that I’ve found very useful to understand our relationship with technology and design. Data is all around us, created by us, and is used by technology to solve problems that were previously out of our reach. Data and design is the soft, malleable form, and technology and its techniques are like the cutting action of the rock.
As designers we bring the summation of our human experience to imagine what a future world can look like, through the lens of products, services, or ideas. I see this on the same continuum of human development that Bronowski explored and the opportunity to use new tools and ideas to solve greater problems is a rather exciting prospect.
My recent work has focused specifically on the role of data and technology in those musings and imaginings, and how we can use these tools to generate impact and improve the world around us.
I’m currently working in the public sector on a project looking at what a future city looks like. It is essentially an embedded innovation programme inside a large public body, so there are many fascinating opportunities to consider, imagine, design, and deliver projects that integrate technology and social problem solving.
It is the most appropriate environment I’ve been in for a human-centered design approach. From a commercial perspective, one might say the stakes are lower in the public sector; the opportunities are not as clearly linked to money and revenues, they are hard to measure and relatively easy to sweep under the rug when things don’t go well. However, in my view, the stakes and opportunities are much higher.
The role of government is to design and manage the world around us, from macro level policies right down to the daily lives of each citizen under their charge. The government is the locus of power that we have created to bind us all together. The opportunity is to unlock the inherent value in people on a large scale, especially in those who are locked out by structural inequalities in our society. The immense value of unlocking the latent potential in our society is unquantifiable and cannot be overstated.
One of the most interesting insights I’ve learned on this project is the power of integrating qualitative and quantitative techniques into the design process. As I delivered during my two days with the first Digital Experience Design masters cohort at Hyper Island earlier this month, this is an extremely interesting area for exploration and yields some forceful ideas and outputs.
One of the key concepts I was trying to put across was that as designers, qualitative decision making and analysis is our comfort zone, but that is not enough to reduce the risk inherent in making decisions on our own. We look at the world, products, services, or anything else, and say, “that is good, that is not so good. This is how we can make it better.” The currency here (hopefully) is our good judgement. We bring our life’s history of experiences and understanding to the table and imagine the world as it could be.
But this isn’t enough. A good design process is about reducing risk. A process that helps us slow down, think deeply and clearly about a subject or topic and generate new ideas, is one that protects us from our own need to fix problems. The fixer wants to to fix, and when you are accustomed to having good judgement this can be a dangerous combination.
Once we get something wrong or make a bad decision these ideas take on a life of their own. They are hard to slow down or stop, usually for the same reason that we have created the bad idea and have become attached to it. Singular judgement is never enough to adequately understand the context of a highly complex, dynamic system. When it is your job to understand experiences and design around them, that is exactly what you are dealing with, highly complex, dynamic systems.
My view is that quantitative analysis, taking a numerical evidence-based approach using data, is the perfect compliment to a good design process. In addition to slowing us down and helping us put our good judgement to good use, it can help us uncover patterns and ideas that were previously invisible to us. Data allows us to codify and reuse information in a way that extends our brain’s limited capacity for remembering specific information. This is a gift and one that should not be overlooked when we are trying to understand a problem, design, or create.
Just as with the smoothing action of the hand and the cutting edge of the rock, data is created by us, and quantitative techniques help us cut through problems that we can’t manipulate with our imagination. Our comfort zone is shaping things with our hands, using our intuition to integrate complex information, create ideas and tell stories. The powerful cutting action of quantitative analysis opens up a whole new set of opportunities to supercharge our already highly developed sense of intuition. For any designer, I think this is an area worth investigating.