Design in Orgs Needs More Science Than Art (The Designerly Leap Trilogy Part I)

Screenshot of About Design: Insights and Provocations for Graphic Design Enthusiasts by Gordon Salchow
Screenshot of About Design: Insights and Provocations for Graphic Design Enthusiasts by Gordon Salchow

Design is, by definition, a service relationship. All design activities are animated through dynamic relationships between those being served… and those in service, including the designers. Design ideally is about service on behalf of the other—not merely about changing someone’s behaviour for their own good or convincing them to buy products and services.

The Design Way

The habit of labelling significant human achievements as ‘discoveries,’ rather than ‘designs,’ discloses a critical bias in our Western tradition whereby observation dominates imagination.

The Design Way

Many of the decisions you make in design are rather implicit, and partially determined by the culture in which you are working. Even if you work methodically and use ‘objective’ evaluation techniques to explicitly choose between design concepts, you have already made many implicit decisions in the creation of those concepts.

—Kees Dorst, Understanding Design

What We Talk About When We Talk About Design?

Whenever the word “design” is mentioned, the first thing coming to people’s minds is almost always something visual. Although abstract ideas are no stranger to common people, visual things appeal viscerally. That makes it far easier to remember, and requires much less mental load to interpret.

Visual representation has been the branding of the concept “design”. Design indeed originated from a primarily visual culture. From ancient times to rather recent centuries, designing observable artifacts had almost been the only design activity familiar to common people.

The “public image” of design is therefore inevitably a visual one. The visual metaphor originated from arts and crafts. Visual culture has a history much longer than the non-visual (and more abstract) one.

The visual metaphor of design is an unfortunate challenge to us now. When people talk about design, they tend to think about the visual intuitively. Over the last few centuries, the scope of designing has expanded enormously, along with the industrialization and modern concept of management. Specifically so in the digital world, where more things are invisible.

The fascinating difference between the physical world and the digital world is this: when there’s no interface, physical things are completely exposed, a.k.a. bare naked, to the external environment; however, when there’s no interface, digital things are completely hidden and encapsulated, not visible at all to the external environment.

The design of the invisible has always been with us, in arts and crafts, politics, and beyond, while the exponentially accelerating development and evolution of the digital world simply disrupts the long-standing balance between the visible design and the invisible design.

Worse, a new balance is far more difficult to establish nowadays. When far more interconnected things are changing way faster, the system becomes incredibly complex. Modern complex systems are coupled with social, economical, and technological factors. There are many “fine lines” between any two of the three. Sometimes whether it’s visible or visual is not even the biggest concern.

Some found an easy way to interpret all those challenges, by regarding design as the intersection of art and science, which is gravely misleading in our current context.

Design is NOT the intersection of art and science. Design is a third culture that heavily borrows from both.

…design is not a midpoint between the applied arts and sciences. Design is a third culture with its own founding postulates and axioms, with its own approach to learning and inquiry. Design is inclusive of things found in science such as reason and in the arts such as creativity. But just as science is inclusive of creativity it does not follow that science is the same as art or that art is subsumed under science. They are different ways of approaching and being in the world. This is also the case for design.

The Design Way

Design is the FIRST TRADITION among the many traditions of inquiry and action developed over time, including art, religion, science, and technology. …design touches nearly every aspect of our experienced world.

The Design Way

Design Was Castrated to Fit Its Narrow-Minded Application in Modern Orgs

We have been struggling for years to bring the invisible design back to business and apply it to a new hybrid physio-digital world.

The visible design has always been there in the businesses, especially ones that involve physical or visual artifacts. The dichotomy of visible vs. invisible is not absolute; in fact they’re often tightly coupled in the hybrid world. That coupling makes design hard to measure at times.

How do we fit something holistic into something analytically individual? We don’t, or we castrate. We keep the easily measurable pieces and omit the rest: we adopt the parts but not the sum of design. And that doesn’t work so well.

Design is Difficult to Measure

The visible part of a design is often relatively easy to measure. The coupling, invisible part is often not.

Orgs don’t know how or what to measure in design (due to lack of understanding or mere ignorance). Sometimes they even think design is immeasurable, which is a huge myth.

Alan Cooper holds such a view:

Alan Cooper’s view on design’s immeasurability is fascinating and eloquent, but he seems to be focusing on the invisible part of design, hence the analogy of you can’t measure how much you love your spouse.

Design in Business Lacks Science More Than It Lacks Art

There’s a huge difference between art and design:

Art isn’t utilitarian, and if it is, perhaps it isn’t art. Art serves a nonpractical role in our lives, but that does not mean that it is not vital or necessary. One’s individual identity and our collective identity as a culture have no clear serviceability, but they are critical to our ability to function as a society.

—Kit White, 101 Things to Learn in Art School

Likewise, design is utilitarian, and if it isn’t, perhaps it isn’t design. It’s built with a purpose and it serves with a goal.

Promoting the art part only works in certain businesses or particular work cultures (e.g. creative agencies, physical products).

When an org don’t have the proper measurement in place for its design practice and delivery, it’s easier for them to go for the largely visual, art part for either justification or renunciation.

Risk management is often done to the product, service, operation, or strategy, but rarely to the design practice itself.

Measuring only the visible design makes it difficult to assess the whole picture for any practical use.

That scares people away from taking on the challenge of measuring the design practice, its delivery, and its impact.

In positive cases, attribution biases lead to the praising of established and well-measured practices (visible design, operation, management, etc.), but rarely to that of the poorly-measured parts like invisible design.

In negative cases, self-fulfilling prophecy justifies the lack of long-term or further investment in design.

Three Challenges of Measuring Design

There are three challenges we face when we try to measure the design practice.

Any general statement (theory, model or method) about design must sacrifice some realism for the sake of clarity.

—Kees Dorst, Understanding Design

Firstly, there’s an interpretive ambiguity in design. The difference between design as a human activity and design as a profession is huge. A design profession is a concept we defined according to an old taxonomy that has been working so well in modern management and operation, which mostly boasts the triumph of an analytical approach. When we break down the design practice into dividable and conquerable pieces, we lose the dynamics that make design creative.

The end of the freedom to experiment is the end of the design process.

—Kees Dorst, Understanding Design

Secondly, there’s often a lack of probabilistic thinking (and therefore risk analysis) in management when they come to design. Thanks to the traditional approach to risk management, people want certainty in measurement, but the design practice contains a lot of uncertainties that are often very hard to accommodate. As a result, adopting a design process becomes a half-hearted change management effort.

[Design models and frameworks] are about controlling design processes, not about doing design.

—Kees Dorst, Understanding Design

Design communication… does not depend on selling outcomes as much as it does communicating process. Design is, at its root, a form of democracy: not the arithmetic democracy of majority rule or the representative democracy of elected political bodies, but the democracy of self-determination through interrelationships of service.

The Design Way

And thirdly, both the taxonomy and the frameworks used for modern management don’t quite work for design. The cultural implications of the creative dynamics require the management to tweak or even revamp their approaches to risk management, operation, accounting, and accountability structure. Making changes to many of those are not for the faint of heart. Making those changes risks the failure of management, while not making them risks the failure of design.

Design is Driven by Creativity, Insight, and Data

If design is to be driven by creativity, insight, and data, all three must be able to be measured. They are.

In fact, anything can be measured. Because measurement is not about how precise we can be, but about how much less uncertain we can become.

Clarification Chain:

(1) If it matters at all, it is detectable/ observable.

(2) If it is detectable, it can be detected as an amount (or range of possible amounts). 

(3) If it can be detected as a range of possible amounts, it can be measured.

—Douglas W. Hubbard,

How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business

Creativity-driven design implies a holistic approach, mostly seen in arts and crafts, while hardly fitting in the analytical tradition of modern management. That poses profound social and cultural challenges to modern orgs, especially on the front of transformation.

Insight-driven design requires empathy and an anthropologic approach. That means understanding context, understanding people, and, at the very least, being humane.

Data-driven design means computing, analytics, and AI. Human brains are too limited in capability and capacity to process and compute information/data. Machine are virtually not limited to those. With human curation, intelligent machines can assist humans greatly in advanced analytics that lead to better decisions. Contrary to what’s commonly believed, analytics doesn’t generate insight.

Creativity, insight, and data driven design approaches demand sheer human judgement. An org needs a cultural profile for its design practice, by looking at it from the lens of creativity, insight, and data. Many other frameworks also apply, depending on the context, while whichever “lens” we choose to use, there’s no question that we have to assess an org’s strengths and weaknesses of its design capability and capacity, for the org to lead its design practice to fruition.

Next: The Designerly Leap Trilogy Part II

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