Posts Tagged ‘Nigel Cross’

Designerly Ways of Knowing

May 22, 2008

A couple of days ago, I attended an interesting talk on designers by Prof. Nigel Cross from the Open University, UK. Now, he himself is not a designer. But he studies designers and has a good understanding of their ‘ways’. This job of his is called a Design Researcher.

As a Design Researcher, he’s been working to build a recognition for/understanding of ‘designerly ways of knowing and thinking’ and to create a design discipline. “The ability to design is often thought to be a mysterious gift,” he said. To solve this mystery, he went and talked to the great designers and architects around the world, collected their perspectives on design, and derived generalized insights on design thinking. He presented a number of awesome quotes from these celebrated designers, and here are a few that stuck.

“I don’t think you can design anything just by absorbing information and then hoping to synthesize it into a solution. What you need to know about the problem only becomes apparent as you’re trying to solve it.” – Richard MacCormac
Well obviously we can’t just gather all these information and expect them to solve the design problem. It’s through sketching and trying to come up with a solution that we really get to know the problem space.

Coping with uncertainty is key” – Ted Happold
Uh-huh. No one designer can see or predict all of the unknowns. We just gotta be flexible and creative in dealing with all these unforeseen constraints and wacky user behaviours that pop up along the way.

Our job is to give the client not what he wants, but what he never dreamed he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time” – Denys Lasdun
Replace the word ‘client’ with user, and this statement holds true for me. iPod. GPS. Touch screens. Never knew we wanted these, but now that they exist, we can’t live without them.

Then he went on to talk about Roles of sketching in design. All these famous people (including Leonardo da Vinci) had used drawing “as a process of criticism and discovery”. Squid-like Lemon Squeezer by Philippe Starck is a example of some chicken scratches that transformed into a great design. The final design really does make sense (I’d buy one!) and it was interesting to see how he arrived there not in one shot, but through many sketches and revisions.

Then he discussed how design activities are different from problem solving activities:

Expertise in problem solving

  • Tackle the problem in the easiest way
  • Accept the problem rules
  • Adopt standard problem representations
  • Re-use previous solutions

Expertise in design

  • Tackle the problem in a difficult way (they make the problem more difficult and work harder than necessary)
  • Challenge the problem rules
  • Construct novel problem representations
  • Create new solutions from first principles

He emphasized the importance of creativity and boundary-less thinking, and said to put things that are previously designed in the back of your mind when you are designing. He also added, “designing isn’t problem-solving; it’s seeking opportunity.”

I do think though, there’s a value in looking at what’s been done previously. Not to follow or copy what’s been done, but to be aware of what’s been done already, what’s good about it, and what can be improved. I don’t think this stops you from being wild and creative. Einstein once said, “creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” =)

Also isn’t design all about problem solving and working within the boundaries … by definition? If there were no constraints and designers could design whatever they wanted, it would be called art, not design. When you are designing, you are planning a product that would be made and used by other people – of course there will be boundaries. The challenge is to create, innovate, and think outside the ball within these boundaries, keeping the developers and users in mind.

All in all, it was a pretty interesting lecture. People of all ages and domains from on and off campus attended (apparently Bill Buxton was in the audience – too bad I didn’t recognize him) and asked thought-provoking questions.

Advertisements