Friday, 10 May 2013

Design as a Literacy

“The journey is more important than the end or the start.” 

I first heard these words when I was 13, but the message has become increasingly more valuable as I’ve grown up: focus on process, not just the product.

One of the biggest problems I’ve seen in my own schooling, as well as in the American education system, is that the emphasis is reversed. Too often students are focused on (and encouraged to focus on) having the right answer, regardless of how they get there. In reality, life has few “right answers” and many unsolved problems.

I can’t fix the American education system with a simple idea, a set of lessons, or a whole new set of curriculum, and I’m not trying to. But I do believe that students, schools, and, ultimately, society would benefit from teaching and practicing the design process as a way of thinking as it encourages intentionality, dialogue, and reflection. In fact, for most schools, this wouldn’t even be a massive shift, as many schools already teach the writing process, which is the design process as practiced within a specific domain.

Although the “design process” differs depending on who you talk to, there are a few key elements:

  • Ideation
  • Creation
  • Iteration
  • Reflection
  • Production

The writing process, as it is commonly taught, involves similar elements:

  • Brainstorming
  • Prewriting
  • Drafting
  • Editing
  • Publishing


Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that neither of these processes are linear. They are both messy, cyclical, and have feedback as well as iteration based on that reflection as a key part of the process’ success. Furthermore, this is 
not a suggestion to teach the design process instead of the writing process, it is a suggestion to teach the design process before the writing process, and continue to help students integrate it into their way of thinking.

In both of these processes, the first step often involves identifying the constraints of the object to be produced (e.g. “Who is my audience?” “What type of object am I creating?” “What resources do I have to work with?”). From there, a basic artifact is produced that roughly addresses the goals, though perhaps not in the best way. Then, the object and its producers (and hopefully peers) undergo an iterative process of evaluating the designed object, identifying elements that are successful about the object (in hopes of keeping them in subsequent iterations), and identifying elements that are less successful (in hopes of improving upon them). This part off the process is perhaps the most important, as the ability for an individual to step aside from their work and embrace other perspectives (whether self-imposed or brought on by others) is crucial to the development of the work. This cycle of evaluation and evolution is often repeated until either the timeline for the project ends or a object is declared “finished” by the creators, and thus is produced.

While there are many benefits that the design process has over the writing process, some of the most important are that the design process can be applied to any situation, because it asks for the individual to make intentional decisions about a desired outcome based on a set of constraints (e.g. “What do I cook for dinner?”, “What do I wear today?”, “How do I talk to one of my colleagues about an obstacle that we’ve come across on this project?”). Although the writing process does much of this, it does it only in one context, and rarely, if ever, do schools have a conversation about how this process can be abstracted and applied to more broadly.

Everything in the world we experience is designed in some way. Some things are well-designed. Some things are under-designed. Some things are poorly-designed. But at some point, individuals made decisions that resulted in the products and experiences that all of us have. By teaching the design process and the practice of reflection and iteration, we are encouraging individuals to identify in what situations, and how, they have agency or control over an outcome, and to exercise that agency in an intentional way.

Good design is not necessarily about making “beautiful” things. Good design is about creating value within a set of constraints.

As a final note, I do want to acknowledge that I see the design process as a foundational way of thinking, because design is neither a spice you can add in at the end of a project, nor is it a “cookbook to guarantee a given outcome at a certain date.”