Monday, November 26, 2012

Adding to the Axioms of Design

Reading Nam Suh's book the Principles of Design makes me think of the number of times I have argued the finer points of design education. Although the text is written as a guide to quantifying design through axiomatic precision it leaves one wondering about the human factors not fully accounted. Axiom 1 is the Independence axiom which considers the function of a design and its relationship to the parameters in which design functions must operate. Function has been a common quality for design that distinguishes it from other art forms. Many an artist will argue that fine arts has a function to which I would agree, however, its function is not paramount in its existence. If the function is missed, misunderstood, or represents a function greater than the localized purpose of seeing the work we can say it is outside of work and more a result than a purpose. Function as a corollary can not be a design. Axiom 2 is Information and admittedly a more difficult quantifiable term. Suh uses probability and the notion of time as it relates to the importance of reducing information required for the design to function. As you can see, the connection to function and through axiom 1 a relationship to design parameters, the  rounds out the axiomatic framework nicely. Coupled functions are problematic because of the unpredictable nature of resultant behavior when one function (or its related design parameter) is changed. Decoupled and uncoupled functions have both a more predictable behavior pattern and the added benefit of modularity. What is valuable about Suh's work is the ground work he lays for design to be seen as a scientific theoretically based field rather than the mystical art form. What is needed is the relationship to human factors that makes it design and not engineering.

What should be included in the axioms of design principles is one of aesthetic value (AV) which can be quantified with the objective of describing good design. The importance of aesthetic value gets to the human response to a design that arouses visual senses and adds to the experience of using well designed objects. Two effects of design on human interaction include interest (I) which is the level of arousal at initial stages of interaction and experience (E) which is the sum of interaction and the positive or negative quality over time (T). Expressed as follows.

                                         AV= I(E)
These values are relative to the priori of the non-interactive T0 state to the state of T1.... Tn. Where interest is based on arousal levels of the same intervals. Interaction time is proportional to the value of overall experience where if interaction time is larger experience is more positive, and the more negative an experience the time approaches 0 but never equal to zero which would mean no time was spent interacting with the object. To say human experience is quantifiable is perhaps folly and at least controversial but if we are to have a clear axiomatic definition of design we can not eliminate the dimensions that exist within good design. To exclude the aesthetic value would be to neglect the human properties that make good design more value driven than the important features of function and information. Current data on human experience may show that the important nature of experience is, in its measurable self and all that is needed to describe its general value to design. Over the next months I will attempt to prove the axiom of aesthetic value and start the discussion of its inclusion in the principles of design. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Futurism Starting Today

For those who know me, have heard me say that a new Futurism is soon upon us and there is an optimism in the air after the Obama win last night. If we follow the history of design and signals of economic and political waves that have been flowing over us for the last few years it is clear that a look forward is where our vision is turning.

This is not the Futurism of the early 1900's that whole heartedly embraced mechanical technologies as a way to direct culture away from traditional forms and ideology. The disdain written in vitriolic manifestos diminished the neoclassicists in all areas of culture. Embodied in the design forms was a celebration of modern living. What opened the minds of Italian architects like Antonio Saint'Elia to the possible opportunities material and engineering discoveries offered was a new found freedom by rejecting the past. The manifestation of Futurist thinking came about in what was then becoming a radical artistic movement that spread to areas of design. Within the academe, old architectural training emulated classical masters, where futurists forbade what they saw as a compulsion to decorate (cover with pretty things - F.T. Marinetti). Futurists' exposed a buildings "mechanical simplicity" or emphasized the buildings purpose through form. We now see the influence of Futurism in Modernist painting and sculpture but architecture and design spun off favoring the functional International Style. The 'box' of efficiency and economic modesty seemed to justify the designers intent more clearly for makers than that of contemporary cubist or later modernist art which seemed self indulgent.

Futurism of 2013+ will no doubt reflect the new technology rather than mechanical marvel. In some ways we have not seen much of 'technical' building but for a few exceptions like Gehry, Magma or iGuzzini. Materials and form move beyond the current norms of construction but also embrace a human relationship. Curvilinear walls and softer shapes seem to address the shape of human beings rather than drive us into oversized cubicles. Work is changing from its central role for younger people. Being a brand can not just mean 'profession' it means work, play, family, persona... life - both virtual and real. New Futurism will be techno-everything that will not have the edge of the previous version because all life can not be an ode to only work. Because technology has permeated all aspects of the modern world the new Futurism will seem to be more well rounded by human activity like play, and family. Oddly enough it is these things that have been fading in a technology based existence.

What will also make this new Futurism seem more palatable, but should be no less aggressive in its influence over culture is the importance of sustainability. Technology as we know it is only part of the answer but  guided by an ethical responsibility to the environment the new Futurism will be distinguished from the technological paradigm we live in by incorporating a 'green' perspective. Seeing the issues of sustainability as part of design thinking made possible through technological means will bring about innovation unlike the previous decade. New innovation will come about through the story we construct around a 'healthy planet' but backed by large data to suggest its importance and validity.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Research Revisited: Design Elevation

It has been a long time since my last post and the following will begin a series of post from my sabbatical here in Chicago, IL. I am using this year to follow up on research that I have wanted to return to and have neglected for program direction and teaching. The start of this series will be to document my discovery and renewed enthusiasm I have for design theory and some to the more important methods and processes I have missed or dismissed over my career for one reason or another.

The importance of these theories will primarily be to shape my own thoughts on design but will ultimately influence my teaching and approaches to design research. My current literary research includes four notable writings, which I will describe and add to in the commentary I have set out here. Starting with Charles Owens' Structured Planning, followed by Horst Rittel and Werner Kunz's theory of Issues-Based Information Systems or IBIS to identify case studies that follow methods laid out in the writings. The others I am working on through prototypes, employing the Repertory Grid technique and followed up by the Design Principles described by Schermann, Kremar, Gehlert, and Pohl from the Munich University of Technology, and the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany respectively.

Structured Planning, developed by Charles Owen who is a professor emeritus at the Illinois Institute of Technology extends the idea of user centered design practice to formalize the design planning or what he calls 'metaplanning' using design factors, a document that states, "information about the problem detected (opportunity)" and, " information about what might be done about it (action)". Owen goes on to describe his process of documenting the information under observations, extensions, design strategies, speculation, structuring, and synthesis operations. One of the more important aspect of this theoretical framework is the value in the resource itself. Few designers approach the process of design in this manner and even fewer document their work with such meticulous detail for two main reasons. First, designers feel they have little time to formulate such documents because of time they feel is wasted on a process that has been internalized and now naturally follows from their experience. This is short sighted in its inability to recognize the value in a documented process. Using structured planning helps to clarify ideas and connect conceptual thinking with practical responses and identifies opportunities for clients (an invaluable skill), and demonstrates a deliberate methodology for tackling projects of a larger scale also making designers more valuable. The second reason designers fail to see the value in documentation and deliberate methodology is the notion that they will loose their 'mystic' quality as an unpredictable artistic genius. A sentiment that has all been lost on the business community and discounted by the technology industry. It is no secret that I have little admiration for 'creatives' that believe their value lay in the aesthetic qualities that veil intellectual gems for the trained observer, and for the untrained you get a cool looking cereal box. What is also important is the early implications of this theory to lay the ground work for service design and experiential design practice. Its approach is inclusive and particulates complex problems establishing relationships of all people and issues involved. What service design and experience design have in common is the scope and complexity of design problems each face. Structured Planning is particularly suited for these types of problems giving designers tools to demonstrate their particular ability and expand the practice of design to include strategic planning and systematic approaches to handle complex problems.

To read a detailed description of Owens work and examples of a design factor document see:

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Re-direct to System Design

After reading an article on service design from Live|Work a company that specializes in service design and thinking I am drawn back to the idea because it poses to overturn processes that are unsustainable in design. (see article Live|Work here) As a follow up from my last post changing point of view or approach to a design problem will significantly alter the interventions iterating from you sketch pad. If you are thinking of designing from a users perspective service thinking only extends this further and may help to justify ideas you have direction and creation of new communications. The most significant is the idea of sustainability and what that means for design. In the article, the writer uses the natural metaphor of the water cycle that is a closed loop on a large scale. The process of how water is used and returned to the system varies but does so continuously. If we think of design in these terms we would consider the brochure after the information is consumed immediately impacting the process we typically think about as graphic designers. In a more contemporary scenario we design and develop for web products or services but do we consider the energy that is being used by the electronic devices we are using to access information? How can you modify consumers energy use in the products and services you buy to offset the energy used to make the purchase of those products and services? Sustainability is a difficult variable to integrate into the design process but its impact on thinking about design solutions is immediate and complex. I often ask my students a question that is intended to be difficult for them to answer but one that was posed by my old school friend Rosan Chow. "How do you design a (fill in the blank) with kindness as a central criteria"? It is difficult for a number of reasons but it is often the first time my students have thought of a project in those terms. It forces them to think about the design from a position outside their own, kindness to whom, to what, how is kindness understood? These are the tenants of service thinking and should be encouraged from all our students. I am encouraged by our university to recognize students involvement with social learning and am rewarded by my own efforts to engage students in these ideas but they must extend beyond the classroom and be embraced by business leaders who are interested in real innovation. I believe there are a great many people capable of thinking in these ways but are stifled by tradition and old models that are entrenched by years of integration and investment. It will take a great deal of power and motivation to reconsider these approaches but proving their worth on smaller projects that have high performance and efficiency may encourage growth and an effort to adopt service thinking. My next few posts will discuss a case of service thinking. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Something from the French

It has always been of interest to see what the French design establishment has embellished by way of industrial, graphic and fashion design. I say embellish because it feels applied to me whenever I see french design and yet it projects sincerity in its execution. From Yves Saint Laurent to Philippe Starck the material is designed with the human form in mind and a rightful approach to design function. Then there is something more - a detail, a finish that is not just stuck on but not without whimsy. It feels like a later idea in the design process with enough relationship to the bigger concept it becomes essential to the work. It adds more than the big idea expanding its luxury, wit or complexity. As I said to artist Sonya Clarkson, cheap is never funny. I will write more on the subject of French design and other cultures that have defined 'style' and the role style plays in design.  

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Create what you love or what other people love?

We have often heard the advice to young writers, "write what you know and write what you want to read". This may be useful advice for writers but is it applicable to design? It is a conversation that I have with my students in terms of defining design as a service versus design as self expression. In talking with clients I often find the conversation coming around to this issue of "point of view" on how they develop new products or services. The conversation goes something like this:

Me: So, what do you think your customers see in the work you do?
Client: Well they like what we like. We built this company around our passion for the thing we make and a number of people asked, "how do I get one?", and the rest is history.

Me: How do you now tap into other things those same people like to expand your business?
Client: (paraphrase) We do what we did before and make what we love, and they will like it too.

I am always surprised to hear that companies are willing to bet that lightning will strike twice. They are also willing to forgo all they have learned or been told about understanding audiences and working from a user center perspective. Often they believe they are working with the user in mind but have suffered from a psychological bait-and-switch. "Our customers like what we offer so we must have understood what they wanted and filled that desire". In fact that is not the whole truth of the matter. Many businesses started off with a product or service that filled a need because the audience found it, not the the other way around. Products and service that do go out and find their audiences have an advantage of going through the process of positioning and fine tuning to the needs of the audience, but even that can have specific audience data of a particular product. It does not lead that audiences are understood because they like this particular product. Audience analysis requires both micro and macro perspectives to get a full view of who those people are. People come together around a product and service for different reasons but are seen from a marketing stand point as being similar. If you define these audiences as a collective the next proposed idea probably will only appeal to a small segment of this group. How often have we seen the sequel not do as well as the debut. Yes, some of it has to do with rushing the product to market, and not having the same originality of the first, or sadly just trying to milk something that has run its course, but often it has to do with assuming the same audience who liked the first will like the second product. Why, because they are the same people? Looking at smaller segments as discreet/overlapping groups of people will offer more insight into who may be interested in what. This is not a new concept it is just an observation of businesses failing to stay innovative after having success. Duplicating success is difficult and fresh points of view are always good. Change the dynamics of the conversation by bringing in someone new to the conversation. Maybe its a client you didn't know you would attract, maybe its a customer you want to attract, or maybe its just shaking up the meeting of the usual suspects and re-looking at the audience data and separating them into discrete groups based on unrelated interests rather than your product that brought them all together.