Encouraging Innovation, Demystifying Design

This post is based on Jon Kolko’s Fast Company’s design blog post and follows Jon’s previous post on design synthesis here and a post on playfulness here.

Demystifying design could be a good theme of Jon’s posts.  Today he looks at the relation of playfulness to innovation and the work cultural requirements in three points.

Embrace dynamic constraints.

Any design or artistic endeavor needs constraints to focus participant activities within an endless universe of possibilities.  Jon’s point is that the best art accepts constraints and then selectively finds innovation by stepping outside of those constraints.  Hence, accept constraints, but also accept the possibility that constraint may take on a dynamic character.  Encourage a culture of functional flexibility.

Provide a Runway (Space) to Explore Deviant Ideas

Don’t allow decision processes to squash deviant ideas during design processes, even conflictual ideas.

The notion of being playful is to appreciate and encourage divergent thinking and the shifting, flexing, and removing of constraints. Play is about exploring “what-if” scenarios; that is, dream states. Our lives, jobs, and compensation are so frequently tied to rational thought that we have often forgotten how to actively dream, yet these dreams — the ability to generate ideas, outlandish or otherwise — are at the core of design innovation. Design synthesis embraces this divergent dreaming.

Encourage Flow and Autonomous Decision Making

Jon references psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow; an “automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness.”   I diverge with Jon on this point.  I like the idea of flow, but I’m going with Hagel’s  knowledge flows, not Csikszentmihalyi’s version, which I think takes us back toward magical thinking.  I interpret Hagel’s flow as much more than a rational process.  It is a social, emotional and unpredictable process that has some similarities with Jon’s approach.  It fits the idea of playful design spaces, but doesn’t depend specifically on a hard to define altered state of consciousness, which may or may not be available when they are needed.

The Integration of Design and World: More on Design Thinking.

This post responses to Anne Burdick’s invitation concerning the presentation: Design without Designers (found in the comments of my last post).  I will address the question, why would educational theory build on design concepts or how do I see the relation between education and design? I will look at three areas:

  • Erasing the distinction between art and science
  • Artifactual cultural aspects of psychology
  • The trans-disciplinary nature of ideas

Erasing the distinction between art and science

I see general changes in the practice of science along the following lines:

  • The critique of positivism (for promising more than methodology could ever deliver)
  • The critique of postmodernism (for fetishizing certainty; i.e. If positivism fails than scientific judgement cannot be trusted at all.) and
  • More acceptance for addressing real world problems (where problems tend to be interdisciplinary and often involve mixed methods).

The result is that many of the walls and silos of science have been reduced including the distinction between art and science.  In example, I often refer to judgements based on validity.  Although validity uses rational and empirical tools, building a body of evidence and achieving a combined judgement is more like telling a story.

Artifactual cultural aspects of psychology

The work of (or derived from) Vygotsky is popular in psychology and education.  It has also proved consistent with, and complimentary to the recent findings of the “brain sciences”.  While there are genetic and hardwired aspects of psychology, the structure of our minds can be said to reflect, to a great extent, the structure of the social and artifactual world that we live in.  The design of the world is more than just a decorative environment to an autonomous mind, it has an impact on who we are in both development and in how we interact with it in our ordinary lives.

Our delineation of the subject matter of psychology has to take account of discourses, significations, subjectivities, and positionings, for it is in these that psychological phenomena actually exist. (Harré and Gillet, 1994, The Discursive Mind and the Virtual Faculty)

The trans-disciplinary nature of ideas

Ideas never seem to respect the traditional academic disciplinary structure the way that methods and theories did during most of the 20th Century.  In the mid-90s a graduate school mentor pointed out that you could read many books at that time and have no clue to the discipline of the author without reading the back cover.  Psychologist, educators, literary critics, philosophers, sociologists and yes, designers, they all often seem to be speaking in the same language about the same type of things.

In Conclusion

  • The distinction between art and science is dissolving.  Method is important, but it does not rule.  Achieving a scientific break-through is analogous to creating a work of art (even though it still uses rational and empirical tools).
  • The design of our world is not just decoration, it reflects who we are and who we are reflects the design of the world.
  • Tools (artifacts, concepts, theories, etc. . .) are needed to act on the world.  Where these tools come from is less important than our ability to make use of them.

So in the above ways, design and design thinking is everywhere.  I do think designers should be more present in my own thinking as both a technical adjunct and as a foundation of both my thought and of the academic curriculum?  Yes, I do!  What do you think from a designer’s perspective?  How does the thinking of designers and current design curriculum fit into the above ideas?