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Thinking Beyond Design Thinking


How have design thinking and design aesthetics become such strange befellows?

These past few weeks, I've been meditating on the following quote by Charles Olson regarding the two critical human inputs into a powerfully charged poem:

the HEAD, by the way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE

In Olson's quote, he's referring to his theory of organic poetics, which is a type of poetry that derives its power from closely mimicking the ebb and flow of thought as opposed to falling into the lockstep cadence and strictures of versification, meter, rhyme, and other European contrivances. As a result of this alignment of the head and the heart beyond intellectual constructs, the art that you experience through the eye and the ear inspires direct transmission of experience.

Why is there not such a unity in how we talk about design? Perhaps because we still have no vocabulary around how to describe the most important result of the design process: the direct transmission of knowledge.

I studied and wrote much poetry in college and graduate school, all while paying the bills as a designer. In many ways, my mind was split down the middle by the exercise.

When coming into class, I was expected to bring in a sheet of paper with words printed on it; said words taken as a poem would be successful if I had wrapped an idea in an aura of mystery. However, while I was at work, I was paid to arrange words and pictures in space whose overall concept and meaning had to be readily apparent. A good logo or brochure cover would provide only so many layers of meaning before being exhausted.

These seem like divergent activities—one is design making, while the other is the creation of art—but there is a thread that binds the two together.

In its purest sense, design is the craft of shaping thought forms that can then be made. When we say that "design is change," the form that the change takes always begins and ends with thought. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we make the world in our bodies, rooted in our physical experience. This is the place where change takes root.

Designers may know how to cultivate meaning via selection and arrangement, but the very mediums of design are the constraint of its growth: the user interface, the ever-dying annual report, the logo mark. Just as when writing poetry, you may choose to write in the form of a sestina, a sonnet, a villanelle, and so forth. None of those forms is required for the process of design to be applied well.

Or, to put it in another way: A poem is not poetry. A designed artifact is not design.

Which brings to mind another Charles Olson quote: "We do what we know before we know what we do." You can't be a poet and not write poems. You can't be a designer and not go through the process of design, which yields artifacts. There is nothing new here within our discipline, for many hundreds of years, from the scratchings on a cave wall to help other hunters locate the best place for felling game, to a waddling penguin on a train billboard in Japan that explains how we can use our mobile phones for paying for subway fare. All were inspired by thoughts, which led to a process of making. Change came through ideas applied in form.

I think this is why the real area of growth for design, as a both an avocation and an industry, has little to do with aesthetics and execution—though knowledge of such concerns is quite important for the overall flow of industry in general. Where I'm dwelling more and more often is in the realm of making informing thinking. The result of the infusion is direct knowing.

This idea bedevils the executive, who wants to power their left brain towards the next increment in shareholder value. It may elude them that the philosophical why and how of what makes design function independent of media is that design making cannot exist without design thinking. No one wants an "I'll know it when I see it" moment, but this is the true power of making informing knowing. You really don't know until you see it, on a gut level.

Can anyone beat us at this game? The technology of idea delivery may continue to befuddle us, but at root, as design tools become more ubiquitous and accessible for the layperson to "design" for their own needs as opposed to hire a professional, we need to become aware of what methods we can employ that our cohorts can't. We may not be able to outwit them in Illustrator, but we sure as hell can come up with better ideas employed through technology. By mindfully controlling the path from the mind to the gut, our profession can survive.

Which leads me to thinking about the future. I see two paths from here for any designer that's serious about retaining a substantial career in the next ten years: the artisan informed by thought, and the thinker informed by art.

The artisan retrenches themselves into deep mastery of a narrow slice of skills that prove more desirable than the works of the armchair designer. By connecting themselves to a legacy of a living tradition, such as type design, they will carve out a specialized niche and a depth of thinking and education that a prosumer could never touch. There will likely always be a need for those who specialize in brand, as it is the most spiritual expression of a corporation's existence—and, like the Sasquatch, the most elusive to track down and capture in a two-dimensional image.

The design thinker informed by art will help provide the shape of what thought forms are required for design to continue its ongoing evolution as a force of change. Design thinking can transform and shape not only artifacts, but extant systems, procedures, and expressions within corporations, governments, nonprofits, and practically any other organization of human beings. Design, in this realm, is a form of agency. It is a shaping of behavior made manifest through action. And within such thoughts are the seeds of artifacts that are then recognized by people for their value. But none of that value would be possible without a true quality of thought.

A designer may be both of these, depending on how they can flip the switches back and forth in their brain, but it's unlikely that a designer will be known for both of these talents. Can a student become a thinker before they have mastered being an artisan? Perhaps but they would have to prove that they understand the form of their thought and how it must be realized tangibly in the real world. This only comes with maturity and experience, if it is to be charged with truth.

Which leads me to a final quote by another poet, Denise Levertov: "Form is never more than a revelation of content." In ten years, the dominant thought form and highest echelon of progress in our design industry will be the cultivation of meaning infused into human behavior that resonates foremost at a gut emotional level.

The form that the content takes is relevant, only in that that is how the world will see the service that we provide. But as designers, we will know that the lingua franca of the realm that we travel transcends what is made and resides in what is known.



One of the challenges is that the industry has squeezed the deeper elements of design (the architectural side) out of designers while asking them to focus more on the tactical elements (the 'drafting' side).

A balance is needed. We need more architects who can design embracing the reality of the implementation side, and more implementers saavy to the longer-term implications championed from an architectural perspective.

On Brochure Printing

This design phenomena can also be put into terms of form and function. It can be very difficult to marry form and function. As mentioned, many students have trouble writing poems because they can't separate their knowledge of poetic form from its true function - to put thoughts and emotions into words so that a reader can understand the mind of the poet. So it's easy to see how this problem in writing poetry relates to design. Ultimately, blending form and function together for a design as difficult as brochures or posters comes with years of experience, and this is what will continue to set apart professional designers from amateurs.

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