Thursday, August 18, 2011

The art of defining design

Art resides in the quality of doing, the process however is not magic. Design is art that makes itself useful. Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose. Ideas are cheap. Always be passionate about ideas and communicating those ideas and discoveries to others in the things you make. Eventually everything connects - people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se. Design is a creative response to social change. Design, in terms of its relationship with business especially in the corporate sector, should be seen as part of the business model. It should be understood and embraced by the company in general, and most certainly at the board level.

Design is in everything we make, but it's also between those things. It's a mix of art, craft, science, storytelling, propaganda, and most of all philosophy.A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.Designers attempt to draw connections between seemingly disparate ideas; they examine quantitative data provided from marketing and qualitative data gathered from end users, and before they can begin designing, they must make order out of the chaotic mess of research. The connections that can be formed during this synthesis phase frequently hold the keys to "innovation". Designers visually explore large quantities of data in an effort to find and understand hidden relationships. These visualizations can then be used to communicate to other members of a design team, or can be used as platforms for the creation of generative sketching or model making. Frequently, the action of diagramming is a form of synthesis, and is a way to actively produce knowledge and meaning.Design is the go-between. It is the interpreter of the intentions and ambitions of an organisation and the desires and needs (often hitherto unexposed) of the end user/recipient. Frequently companies have sound ideas, but they don't have the skills or experience—the creative wherewithal—to convert them into products and or services that are unique, prized and profitable.

The activities involved in synthesizing data bear a striking resemblance to two other disciplines or activities: Information Architecture and Design Strategy. Information Architecture has arisen as a field related to interaction design. It is commonly found embedded within the profession of computer science, and is associated with the creation of complicated software and systems. Design Strategy is practiced as the connection of design methods to business and marketing activities - positioning design in the marketplace in new, interesting and hopefully lucrative spaces.Choose your corner, pick away at it carefully, intensely and to the best of your ability and that way you might change the world. Design is the term we use to describe both the process and the result of giving tangible form to human ideas. Design doesn't just contribute to the quality of life; design, in many ways, now constitutes the quality of life.These are some of the key elements of design synthesis that are common to both information architecture and design strategy.In architecture the idea degenerated. Design allows a more direct and pleasurable route. Who ever said that pleasure wasn't functional?

Understanding Design

Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design. To whom does design address itself: to the greatest number, to the specialist of an enlightened matter, to a privileged social class? Design addresses itself to the need. Design is the creation of a representational dialogue between people and products, services and systems encountered in everyday human experience. This creation is grounded in a process; the process is a formal approach towards solving problems. These problems can relate to issues of complexity, or emotion, or visual aesthetics, and the solution is often manifested in a formal way. There are many different flavors and versions of the process of Design, but they all seem to encompass an aspect of research, synthesis, creation and reflection. Design is directed toward human beings. To design is to solve human problems by identifying them, examining alternate solutions to them, choosing and executing the best solution.

This process, and subsets of the process, are performed iteratively until a solution is identified. Interestingly, the process remains quite similar while the scale and scope of the problem may change; thus, creating a simple object like a vase or building a complicated interface to an aircraft may require the same steps to solve (albeit contained in a much different time frame and with a vastly different resource allocation). The continuity of this process, and the ability to apply it in a very fluid manner to problems great and small, paints the discipline of Design in a unique light alongside Science or Art. All three subjects have methods, and techniques, and processes, and tools, and in this way all three are the same. Yet each of these disciplines have different methods, techniques, processes, and tools, and in this way they are all unique. The uniqueness has been obvious, perhaps, between Science and Art, but Design has commonly been grouped alongside the other two: "Design is a blend of applied science and art", or "Design is halfway between the others". This hybrid placement does not recognize the uniqueness and depth of the subject matter itself, which is, perhaps, the subject matter of humanization of technology. What is design?... It's where you stand with a foot in two worlds—the world of technology and the world of people and human purposes—and you try to bring the two together.

The results of the process of design have formal manifestations, and these then position the fruits of Design within a culture. While a scientific principle transcends individual cultural beliefs ("gravity is true even if we don't have the scientific prowess to understand it"), Designed forms exist in a culture of use and it is this culture that helps to identify their subjective resonance. This means that issues of weight, line, placement, composition, color, texture and materials are not simply frames of aesthetics (as they would be in a context of Art); instead, they begin to help solidify and substantiate the cultural boundaries of intention for an object, service or system. This formal presence has long been described or critiqued in contexts of architecture, transportation design or product design; it is only recently that designers have begun to examine or consider the formal presence in digital artifacts (such as computer-based user interfaces) or in systems or services. Yet the same formal principles of cultural resonance are true in these contexts as well, and the subject of Design needs to better understand and identify the scaffolds of use in which this type of designed artifact is experienced. Design should do the same thing in everyday life that art does when encountered: amaze us, scare us or delight us, but certainly open us to new worlds within our daily existence. Design shapes the way we live. So it ought to serve everyone.

The process of design depends on the success of two highly generative (and therefore seemingly subjective) stages: design synthesis and ideation. These phases, while delineated in design subject matter as separate stages with discrete boundaries, in fact flow and intersect over and over throughout the generative stages of artifact creation. They are driven by contextual research, and they produce design solutions with formal resonance, but these stages are the 'moments' of Design, and it is thus necessary to better understand what occurs during these phases of creation. Design, in its broadest sense, is the enabler of the digital era—it's a process that creates order out of chaos, that renders technology usable to business. Design means being good, not just looking good. Functionality before form always.What works good is better than what looks good. Because what works good lasts.

The goal of Design Synthesis is to develop an understanding of the design opportunity that exists. Contextual research, competitive research, or standard academic research is used to gather data, but that data alone does not indicate the potential for strategic design thinking; the data must be analyzed, organized, and understood. Thus, design synthesis is an organizationally generative process for analyzing qualitative data. This stage creates a structured framework for design solutions; it is the phase of design process in which the design constraints are identified and established, and the design problem itself begins to become better defined. It is a messy phase with strategic implications and strategic importance.

Design Synthesis and the Three Chasms

Design synthesis attempts to organize, manipulate, prune and filter gathered data into a cohesive structure for information building. This requires a number of tools and techniques, many of which are subjective. The subjectivity of Design process indicates that the ability to replicate findings - a critical aspect of a scientific method or process - is not a relevant part of the process of design. One quite able designer may synthesize gathered data with a certain result, and another equally capable designer may synthesize the same data with wildly different results.With function, flow, and form as basis, design is evaluated as a process culminating in an entity which intensifies comprehension. The Synthesis phase of the design process requires the ability of the designer to cross several increasingly difficult chasms, in the pursuit of understanding. This pursuit is both selfish and altruistic at once. The designer seeks to achieve a sense of knowledge acquisition in order to adequately begin the process of ideation. Additionally, in order to encourage a sense of timelessness in the development of designed artifacts, it is important for the designer to encourage the same sense of knowledge acquisition for the end user. If the user has learned, or felt passionately, or experienced a positive (or even negative) interaction with an artifact, the designer has created behavioral resonance.

Three chasms split the synthesis phase into several pieces, each of which is increasingly more difficult to acknowledge during creative genesis. As the designer moves from data, to information, to knowledge and then to wisdom, the problem being solved changes from a single dimensional issue of aesthetics or organization to one of selective contextualization, and then to one of experience

3 Chasms, from Data to Wisdom.Specifically, the three chasms separating the four phases of data manipulation can be thought of as follows:

Chasm 1: Making Meaning out of Data
As the Designer concludes the research phase of the design process, they are left with a large quantity of data; the data, while potentially of great use, can be overwhelming and difficult to understand. Additionally, because of the overwhelming nature of the content and the frequently scarce resource of time, the designer is forced into an immediate conundrum: they must make sense of the data by immersing themselves in it, but the immersion takes time - and the more time spent inspecting the gathered data, the less time can be spent actually designing.The goal of this immersion process, then, is to quickly make meaning out of the gathered content - to create information where before there was only data. There are several immediate ways to begin to understand the gathered data.

1. Externalize the process.

The data that has been gathered from contextual research will often take many forms; designers gather and create photographs, video clips, transcripts, magazine clippings, and other artifacts related to the problem or opportunity context. In an effort to maintain some sense of coherence, young designers frequently attempt to horde the content in their laptop - the digital format allows for ease of organization, in the form of files, folders, and databases.

This digital structure is, however, arbitrarily imposed by the constraints of the popular software tools and operating systems. The physical limitation of the laptop (the size), combined with the digital limitations of the software (the organizational schema), dramatically limits the designers' ability to see the forest and the trees: they lose the ability to understand the research in totality and they are limited in their ability to freely manipulate and associate the content.

Data synthesis requires a designer to forge connections between seemingly unrelated issues through a process of selective pruning and visual organization. Because of the vastness of data gathered while solving even a simple design problem, the quantity of data that must be analyzed is often too large to hold in attentive memory at one time, and so a designer will externalize the data through a process of specialisation and re framing. The tools to afford this are presently quite limited; "a big wall, a marker and lots of sticky notes" are some of the most common tools used by designers. These tools help the designer gain a strong mental model of the design space. The externalization of the research data allows for a progressive escape from the mess of content that has been gathered.

Ironically, designers will frequently spend a great deal of time creating a war-room style wall of data, organizing and pinning the material up, and then ignore it for the remainder of the project. The designer needs the organization in order to gain a complete picture of the design space; they then draw conclusions, and then progressively through the phase of ideation, the synthesis wall becomes unnecessary: it has served its purpose in delineating the design space and allowing for a spatial understanding of structure.Thus, one of the most basic principles of making meaning out of data is to externalize the entire meaning-creation process. By taking the gathered data out of the digital realm (the computer) and into the physical (the wall) - and by including it all on one cohesive visual structure - the designer is freed of the artificial limitations of technology. Content can now be freely moved and manipulated, and the entire set of data can be seen at one time. Implicit and hidden meanings are uncovered simply by relating otherwise discrete chunks of data to one-another.

2. Basic visual design begins to clean up the mess.

Once the content has been externalized, however, the designer is left - quite literally - with a mess. The sheer amount of content can take up entire walls or offices, and the lack of consistency or cohesion between artifacts can look sloppy or disturbing; some designers describe a sense of "anxiety" from even looking at such a phenomenon.Therefore, a second principle of making meaning out of data is to use basic visual design to begin to clean up the mess. This requires a sense of attention to detail, and craft, and patience. Designers can begin to build uniformity out of the physical structure of artifacts on the walls by using a consistent layout, by squaring off corners, and by rewriting key points in clear and crisp writing. Because the content is always in flux during the period of synthesis, a "cleanup sweep" is necessary several times throughout the process.

3. Organization helps produce semantic relationships

Once the data has been externalized and the literally mess is beginning to be reduced, the designer begins the more intellectual task of cleaning up the contextual mess. The content has explicit relationships and implicit relationships, and it is important to draw out these content-affinities through the process of organization.The designer begins to move content around and place items that are related next to each other. Depending on the amount of data, this process can take some time. Additionally, the process is less about finding the "right" relationships and more about finding the "good" relationships. All of the content is related in some way, but the important connections are frequently those that are multi-faceted, complex, and rooted in culture. Thus, it may be necessary to duplicate content (to allow it to connect to multiple groups), or to abandon or rearrange already established groupings several times during this process.

4. Make semantic relationships explicit in plain language

Once the groupings begin to emerge through the process of organization, the groupings can be made explicit by labeling them. The grouping label captures both the literal and the implied meaning of the contents of the group - it makes obvious the meaning that has been created through the process of organization.

5. Interpret gathered data through alternative visualizations - enhance the content through "best guess" intuitive leaps

Finally, the Designer begins to visualize the relationships within each group through alternative visualizations. These relationships are interpretations of the content - they are informed by the content, but they are subjective and abductive. The designer must begin to ask "why", and do their best to answer the question with a credible, but not always logical, response.Design must seduce, shape, and perhaps more importantly, evoke an emotional response.The essential element in design is always beauty. This is true in nature, in the architecture of trees. Trees invent a way to coexist and survive with other organisms through beauty.

Concept Maps
A concept map is a picture of understanding. It is intended to represent the mental model of a concept - to allow members of the design team to see the "forest and the trees". Generally, a concept map links nouns with verbs. It provides a visual way to understand relationships through literal connections as well as through proximity, size, shape and scale. The tool is intended to illustrate relationships. The act of creation is generative in the sense that the designer must make subjective value judgments on the strength of the relationships.

The first step towards creating a concept map is the creation of a concept matrix or relationship tree. This matrix lists all elements relevant to a particular domain (nouns) and attempts to identify which items have a direct relationship. Consider, for example, an analysis of the game of soccer. One may identify nouns such as Ball, Referee, Goalie, Hands, Whistle, and Shin Guard (as well as nearly one or two hundred other terms). By creating a matrix to illustrate the connections between these elements, the designer is forced to analyze the strength of the relationship. All of the words are implicitly related, as they all have to do with the overarching domain of soccer. However, Ball is more closely related to Goalie than it is to Whistle. By analyzing the connections terms have with one another, the designer is forced to "zoom in" on the details to such an extent that they gain an intimate understanding of a discipline. They can then begin to understand the hierarchy that exists within a large quantity of data. The elements with more relationships become the main branches on the concept maps - they become the "glue" holding together the concept.Designers can create normalcy out of chaos; they can clearly communicate ideas through the organizing and manipulating of words and pictures.

Once the matrix is created and these core concepts are identified, completing the concept map becomes a rather simple activity of connecting nouns with verbs. How are Ball, Goalie and Hands related? The Ball can be Touched by the Goalie's Hands. As these are added to the diagram, the designer - and eventually, the entire team - can visually trace relationships between entities and understand how a potential change to one aspect of a system may ripple through the system as a whole.

Chasm 2: Experience Scaffolding

The designer has created a sense of informative meaning out of the gathered data through the various organizational and structural arrangements described above. This data may be meaningful on a pragmatic level - it will most likely be more usable and useful to people (both designers and users or consumers) than the raw words, photos, videos or artifacts captured during research. Additionally, these new visual descriptions will be easier to present to stakeholders and to others involved in the development of products. However, humanity requires a sense of emotional resonance; usability and usefulness does not recognize the subjective and rich experience of the human condition.The idea that you make an experience that requires a conversation in a public place is training for the fact that culture is collective.

A great deal has been written about the nature of human experience. Philosophers and authors has made vivid and critical connections between experience, art, and education. Yet even they have acknowledged that it is nearly impossible to create an experience with any degree of predictability, for the simple fact that people "complete" the experience, and people are different.Experience does not go on simply inside a person.Every genuine experience has an active side which changes in some degree the objective conditions under which experiences are had". Design allows things to operate more efficiently, smoothly, and comfortably for the user. That's the real source of advantage. Businesses have started to understand this, so good design will become the price of entry.Customers appreciate good design. While they can't necessarily point out what specifically makes it good, they know it feels better. There's a visceral connection. They are willing to pay for it, if you give them a great experience.

Designers have increasingly embraced the idea of experience design, but the subjective nature of human experience in life makes it difficult to truly structure a repeatable and predictable experience. Designers can approximate the human behavior associated with time-based design, however, through the creation of an experience scaffold: a framework that contains the elements of experience but allows for individual difference and expression.There are a number of methods that can be used to build the experience scaffold; all of these techniques emphasize the unique, rich and complicated facets of human life.

Chasm 3: Empathy

Wisdom is created through experiences. A teen living on the streets of New York City may be considered "wise beyond their years", while an author may be praised as "wise" towards the end of the career. Experiences do not have to be long, nor drawn out; they simply have to be emotionally resonate.Good design is probably 98% common sense. Above all, an object must function well and efficiently—and getting that part right requires a good deal of time and attention.As it may be impossible to design experiences, it may be equally impossible to claim the design of wisdom. Perhaps the best a designer can do is to achieve a sense of wisdom about the subject matter of design - which, for all practical purposes, may be everyday life. Thus, the path towards wisdom may be to experience human life, and to experience the beauty, pain, complexity and harmony of the human condition.

Perhaps the key to successfully creating wisdom falls directly within the emotional capacity for empathy. The designer needs to be able to truly empathize with the people who will be using, buying, considering or consuming their design.Good design begins with honesty, asks tough questions, comes from collaboration and from trusting your intuition. Good design is a form of respect—on the part of the producer for the person who will eventually spend hard-earned cash on the product, use the product, own the product.

Empathy is fairly easy to discuss, but curiously difficult to actually do. Most ethnographic tools are used to understand context - to uncover details related to work flow, or to learn vocabulary related to a particular group of people or activity. Understanding, however, is not synonymous with empathy. To compassionately feel what it is like to be another individual, one must identify with their culture, their emotions, and their style. Tools like Personas have been created as a proxy for actual comprehensive emotive immersion, but these tools may have a superficial lack of real feelings: they don't capture the depth of sorrow, or passion, or hilarity that can be found in actual life and in actual experiences.The good designer aims at a perfect fusion of the various considerations which enter into his design. He aims at an untortured unity—a direct whole. He arranges his levels consciously or subconsciously, adhering to the requisites of the problem he is asked to solve or to his own inclination. Some designers see total act through a disc of aesthetic considerations—others, more practical minded, may put economic considerations at top level.And that's the real value of empathy for a designer: experiences involve both the pragmatic (activities, goals and tasks) but also the conceptual and fleeting (such as feelings, and irrationality, and culture).Good design, at least part of the time, includes the criterion of being direct in relation to the problem at hand—not obscure, trendy, or stylish. A new language, visual or verbal, must be couched in a language that is already understood.The essential function of the (design) profession in our society is to enhance and cultivate communications toward: Easier understanding of ideas and complex problems, in the shortest possible time and higher visual and auditory retention of data.

Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that "A man who seldom rides, needs only to get into a coach and traverse his own town, to turn the street into a puppet-show." While observing the puppet-show of life gives a dramatic amount of insight into humanity, it provides only a sensory glance at the world around us. Intellectual discourse can serve to fill in the gaps between peculiar cultural norms and the richness of society. This discourse is found in the newspapers, magazines, and books around the world; the written word contains a magical wealth of knowledge that is waiting for be turned into Wisdom. In the same way that a story helps move structured information from information to knowledge, the act of reading can allow for the synthesis of knowledge into a world outlook. Design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn't know it was missing.

Perhaps not that ironically, Designers seem to gravitate towards design-centric magazines. They read about the newest products, and the latest technology, and the trends that are sweeping across the world. This frequently has little to do with "real life", as designers seem to appreciate a particular type of aesthetic (modern and sleek) and generally seem to get excited about advances in technology and in materials. Most people care little about these issues; instead, they care about the subject of practical, everyday life: their jobs, and their religion, and their community, and their family. Designers may be able to glean a great deal more insight into how the majority of the world approaches life by listening to the majority of the world, rather than listening to other designers.Good design helps build and sustain competitive advantage. Good design is a visual statement that maximizes the life goals of the people in a given culture (or, more realistically, the goals of a certain subset of people in the culture) that draws on a shared symbolic expression for the ordering of such goals.

 Today a designer is a master puppeteer.For a designer, the world is the puppet-show; the world we have built, and the natural world we have built within, are hilariously entertaining, intellectually instructive and curiously full of beauty when viewed as the subject of design research. Paradoxically, the designer spends an exorbitant amount of their time in the studio or in front of the computer - far, far from the puppet-show. Perhaps, in an effort to move towards a sense of humble wisdom about humanity, the designer needs to live more vibrantly.We interact with design on two levels: the physical and the emotional. We have a word for the physical part: ergonomics—what feels good to you. I call the emotional level "psychonomics"—what makes you feel good. The baseline of good design is a perfect balance of the two. During the process of design, designers attempt to draw connections between large quantities of seemingly unrelated ideas. Designers visually explore this data in an effort to find and understand hidden relationships. This synthesis can then be used to communicate to other members of a design team, or can be used as platforms for the creation of generative sketching or model making. The synthesis can also be used to feed the development of Information Architecture solutions for complicated systems, or can be used to develop product positioning strategies that can be used to effectively enter the marketplace with new products, services or systems. Implicit in all of these applications of synthesis is the emphasis on humanity, and the movement from data to wisdom - A path that depends heavily on experiencing all that the human structured world has to offer.

For a long time companies that wanted to shrink went to consultants for help. Consulting groups did a pretty good job in helping them. But the people who can tell you how to shrink are not the people who can tell you how to grow. They may be good at helping you to control the number but not at helping you to expand and create new ideas. For top-line growth, you have to sell something. For that you need design. Design innovation will provide the new products. Designers can tell you how to grow, how to innovate, how to change your culture. Don't make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don't hesitate to make it beautiful.

Gone are the excesses of the '80s and the style-first approach of the '90s. In their place is an appreciation of everything that surrounds us and means something. We've recognized that in today's society of fear, we need mental comfort as much as physical comfort, and we're offering wit, irony, nostalgia, and imagery in everyday products. Whoever said that pleasure is not a function? Design is that competitive advantage that sets a company apart in the global market. Within the global economy, the highest performing companies see design as a strategic asset. It becomes the core to their businesses. For those companies, design is more than aesthetics—it's competitive intellectual property. Increasingly, corporations will look to advertising agencies for direction.

Without an understanding of brand creation, messaging, and strategy, today's designers are destined to become the hair dressers of tomorrow's creative environments—great for styling but light on strategy. Our challenges for the future are the same as they have always been: Will our talents be used to divide or unite? For peace or for war? To replenish or deplete? Design brings emotion to a message. It takes an intellectual concept from the head into the heart. It is a powerful tool and, sadly, too often, a powerful weapon. As designers, we have incredible influence in shaping our cultural attitudes. We need to be more accountable for the selfish ways we use resources.Last but not least, good design doesn't cost, but it pays. Design, in the end, is about creating better things for people. Along the way, it can generate better profits as well. Design is intelligence made visible.