“There is no better way to gain an understanding of something than by designing it.” — Russell Ackoff
A while back, I casually dropped an alternative framing of design as a way of learning. My intent was to articulate the activities of design, decoupled from the technics of craft, to explore how we can bring our understanding of design to business. In the intervening months, I’ve gone deeper with this framing, pulling from several theories and connecting a few more dots to help articulate the why of design as a way of learning, and to examine what makes it different.
As design evolves beyond a consideration of objects to answer the challenges of the 21st century, it is essential to understand what design brings to the table well beyond the current framing of design as problem solving. When we look at design as a way of learning, we expand the possibilities of where design can go and what design can do. What is unique to the designerly way of learning is that it involves making, crafting in conversation with the world in order to understand and shape it. This article serves as a snapshot of my current thinking, weaving theories and explorations into a sense of what design is and why it matters.
Designing as Reflection-in-action
Donald Schön’s work in professional education gives us insight into how learning happens in the process of working with the materials of a situation. While observing architecture students working in the studio tradition, Schön conceptualized the practice of design as a specific kind of inquiry that he called reflection-in-action; a “reflective conversation with the materials of the design situation (The Architectural Studio as an Exemplar of Education for Reflection in Action, p. 5)”. In this configuration, knowing and making are intricately linked, as in the example of a studio master simultaneously drawing and talking in order to help a student explore some of the challenges she is facing with her own work.
Familiar yet abstract, this is the more tangible side of design that we experience through artifact creation and making things. In Design Unbound, Ann Pendleton-Julian and John Seely Brown outline this idea in a discussion of rapid iteration, stating “what is unique to design… is the capacity to think and act fluidly, not just as a repetition of sequences of thinking, acting, and prototyping but as a complex web of interaction between cognitive activity as both reasoning and imagination, and acts of making/doing to create meaningful things and context that have agency in and on a white water world. (p. 88)” Reflection-in-action invites practitioners to change the situation at hand and reshape what they are doing while they are doing it. Making is an essential part of action, usually taking the form of an artifact with its own meaning and coherence.
The artifacts a designer crafts in the ongoing process of reflection-in-action can be abstract or concrete; concept maps, prototypes, conversations, sketches, models, etc. Historically more attention has been given to material products and goods, but abstract artifacts are often employed in the composition of a process or system. In creating artifacts and placing them in the world — an act of transforming experiences — the designer engages in an ongoing process of reflection-in-action, manipulating the artifact and experiencing the outcomes of those changes. Herold Nelson and Erik Stolterman have a wonderful passage in The Design Way that illuminates this process:
“The way design ideas are brought into the world, as crafted material, is a critical part of the design process. Producing good designs requires building successful interrelationships and interconnections with the material of the real world. As the world speaks back, joining the designer in a dialogue, we move out of a polarity between objectivity and the subjectivity into a holistic interrelationship. That which is being innovated is part of the material process itself. When a design is brought into the world, there is no longer a distinction between that-which-is and the not-yet-existing. In this conjunction, we see the real nature of our designs and how they become a part of the world. (p. 176)”
Designing as Sense-making
While Schön’s theories of reflective practices illuminate how designers move from indeterminate situations to determinate ones, they are less clear on how understanding happens. If design studio practice is centered around “the relationship between changing things and understanding”, how does that understanding unfold?
Humans are meaning-makers by design. To get a sense of how understanding happens, I looked to Brenda Dervin’s theory of sense-making. Coming from the field of communication studies, sense-making describes a process of continuous dialogue with a situation through which we arrive at stable, although limited and tentative, observations or facts. Sense-making’s core assumption is that “reality is neither complete nor constant but rather filled with fundamental and pervasive discontinuities or gaps (p.4).” It is the process of dealing with those gaps, the “constructing” activities of information seeking, that we come to some sense of understanding (this works at both individual and collective levels). Said another way, sense-making highlights our ability as humans to “circle phenomena from various perspectives… [providing] the means for us to arrive at a more comprehensive, more fully informed, potentially more useful understanding of the situation (p. 7).”
What’s important about sense-making, especially in understanding the meta-activities of design, is that it cedes the idea of an objective reality and assumes there is no “neutral” observing. When we design, we are in the situation we seek to understand, becoming the “maker of ideas of situations (p.67).” The gap-bridging process involves both in-the-head and physical activities of making ideas, using strategies, connecting, sources, choosing words, etc. While Dervin doesn’t use the language of ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ in her own work, she does look at the interplay of situational and psychological experiences, the interconnectedness of inner and outer worlds of human existence, which I used to inform the mapping above. In sense-making humans are seen in through their experience-in-the-world, “as a body-mind-heart-spirit moving through time and space, with a past history, present reality, and future dreams or ambitions (Sense-making Methodology Reader, p.7).” Embodied thinking and feeling captures the essence of the human in the sense-making process, bridging gaps to create meaning and understanding.
Sense-making + Reflection-in-action
If you combine Schön’s reflection-in-action with Dervin’s sense-making along two different axes, you get what looks like the Experiential Learning Cycle — a process of transforming experience into knowledge. This transformation takes place in cycles that involve two dialectics:
- concrete experience (feeling) and abstract conceptualization (thinking)
- reflective observation (reflecting) and active experimentation (acting)
Feeling and thinking are grouped together in a dialectic of “grasping experience”, while reflecting and acting comprise the “transforming experience” dialectic. Everyone goes through these cycles in the process of learning, but how you resolve the dialectics is indicative of your learning style. In Kolb’s words, “Integrated learning is a process involving a creative tension among the four learning modes that is responsive to contextual demands [emphasis added].”
If you couldn’t tell from my added emphasis, there is something very interesting in the creative tensions that exist within the learning cycle because it starts to point to tension as a locus of creativity, rather than design itself. It’s a subtle nuance, but useful in that we can see the tensions design methods utilize — constraints, ambiguity, sense-making, divergence, convergence, etc. foster creativity, but we can also see where those tensions exist in other fields. The history of humanity is bursting with creativity well outside the realm of design.
There is something unique about design as a way of learning, however, in that design is interested in what could be, rather than what is. Herbert Simon (1969) and Richard Buchanan’s (1992) assertion that the difference between science and design is that “design thinking deals primarily with what does not yet exist,” while science “seeks to explain what is.” Science discovers, design invents. Where science works to uncover an objective world, design brings forth multiple worlds simultaneously.
“Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.” — Nelson Goodman
Worldmaking refers to the ways we collectively make the spaces we inhabit through symbolic practices. The human drive towards meaning-making leads us to unconsciously build our world from social conditioning, scientific rationality, artistic traditions, and our own struggle for survival. In this context, worldmaking is an acknowledgment of the interpretive frames and practices that we create our worlds through rather than an assessment of the fundamental nature of physical reality. Damian Cox makes sense of this in the following way:
Goodman’s worldmaking is a disciplined business. We do not always make worlds when we manipulate symbols. Worldmaking is constrained by coherence, consistency, the fit with intuitive judgement and intelligible purpose and these virtues add up to what Goodman calls the “rightness” of a version. Right versions make worlds, and are produced by many different kinds of people. Scientists create worlds; philosophers create worlds; artists create worlds; an advertising agency might create a world. World’s are the product of any ambitious, successful attempt to create an order of things (“Goodman and Putnam on the Making of Worlds p. 36”).
Design makes worldmaking visible, transforming it into a conscious act through intentionality, awareness, and an interest in the ways in which the world could be. In the process of articulating these worlds, the things that we make — the nouns — are expressions and references to the underlying logic of the world in creation. Worldmaking in some ways could be considered the essence of design experimentation, something Schön pointed to in his discussion of virtual worlds. For the designer, the ability to “construct and manipulate virtual worlds is a crucial component to his ability not only to perform artistically but to experiment rigorously (p. 75).”
Going back to the idea of materials, Nelson Goodman offers a subset of methods that contribute to worldmaking: composition and decomposition, weighting, ordering, deletion & supplementation, and deformation. Pairing this with H. Nelson and Stolterman’s articulation that “materials are what a designer brings together using structural connections or compositional relationships (p. 174),” and keeping in mind that materials are not limited to the physical, we start to get a curious inclination of how broad the meta-activities of design can go.
Design is a dynamic and unending cycle of grasping and transforming experience through the process of worldmaking. When coupled with the technics of design as craft, we can see worlds emerge through our experience of a brand, a service, or a product tied together through the logic of business in an invitation to a certain way of being. But we can move into other areas with different materials — business, organizations, governments, policy — and begin to use design to bring forth new worlds and possibilities.
In the 20th century design, tightly coupled with craft, combined intentionality and human-centered practices to create things that people valued. The challenges of the 21st century invite us to move beyond things and to design for complexity and emergence. In order to do this we must move our work to higher levels of perception, applying the fluidity of thinking, acting, and understanding to our conversations with indeterminate situations. My specific interest is in how the activities of design can inform the practice of worldmaking in organizations, exploring new ways of working that facilitate flourishing at the individual, company, and societal levels. Beyond business, the importance of design as learning through worldmaking configures design as a meta-cognitive activity through which we explore and bring forth new possibilities in any domain. Attuned to ideas of what could be, design is the way by which we consciously move through reflection-in-action and sense-making in order to bring forth new worlds.