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Thinking in Systems, Design and Otherwise
by DK Holland
I’m hosting a beehive on my roof in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Beekeeping (of European honeybees, the ones that have been mysteriously dying off) was just made legal in New York City this spring at the urging of local beekeepers, removing honeybees from an official New York City list of forbiddens that includes tarantulas and ferrets. I’ve also suddenly developed allergies to the trees in my neighborhood. Chosen for their disease resistance, cities have historically planted hardy male trees but their choices have included highly allergenic pollinators. In large quantities, these regal verdant canopies screw up the natural balance. As a result, spring in New York was almost unbearable for many whose immune systems were taxed. And that’s why the honeybees are on my roof; local raw honey and pollen from bees builds up the immune system.
With the wrong kind of stewardship, trees, bees and other natural resources run amuck, which can ultimately lead to calamity for our tiny planet. The world watches helplessly as reckless decisions—like those that lead to the massive BP Gulf oil spill and the Massey coalmine collapse—decide our fate. Do you, as I did in those instances, think in horror and despair, “Why weren’t they prepared?”
Cities could obviously design more balanced ecosystems, the typical tangle of bureaucracies notwithstanding. BP and Massey could have avoided disaster. We know that. And, while it’s easy to say their judgment was clouded by corporate greed, what’s probably more true in all cases is that they lack a holistic systematic design process. For instance, if the planners had started with a user-empathy phase as prescribed in design thinking,1 they would surely have unearthed the potential problems; the disastrous and costly ramifications of taking shortcuts and of not investing upfront in a sustainable strategy. They would have, at the very least, been prepared for the very worst. But the user-empathy phase is the opposite of a shortcut, it’s the initial phase where all is considered, including ditching the project and taking left turns. Time-consuming. Nervous-making. Deep-thinking. Pondering long-term effects is anathema to the corporate mindset of growth and profit; if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Well it’s broken. So now what?
If design thinking is not the master chef of the corporate stew, is it even an ingredient? Has the world started to recognize the importance of design? Back in 1971, revered industrial designer Victor Papanek wrote, “All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act toward a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process. Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the fact that design is the primary underlying matrix of life.”2 This concept fell on deaf ears in 1971: Design was still the artifact, not the act. A noun not a verb.
The designer’s lament, “everyone is suddenly a designer,” is not a putdown. It’s not a fad. It’s been this way all along. It’s reality. We’re all just catching up with Papanek. BusinessWeek's World’s Most Influential Designers (perhaps a more honest title would be World’s Most Influential People We Happen to Know Who Understand What Design Is) might puzzle readers of this magazine. Included are only two graphic designers—the legendary Tom Geismar and Ivan Chermayeff, partners in Chermayeff and Geismar. No Glaser, no Sagmeister, no Scher, no Vanderbyl. Sorry! Similarly, the writers of BusinessWeek’s Best Innovation and Design Books of 2009 included economists, entrepreneurs and academics. Few professionals that readers of Communication Arts would call “designers” were considered important enough to even cite.
Has “designer” become so ubiquitous as to be meaningless? Many designers think they are not like the population at large. Terry Irwin head of the design school at Carnegie Mellon says,“I’ve had arguments with designers who don’t think anyone else is designing but them. They tend to not be collaborators.” She continues, “Design is a new discipline with many specialties and subspecialties—that is what we do. The problem is that debates can happen in different territories and miss the point of each. When you have a debate as a communication designer with an engineer, they see communication as a piece of what they do, not the main activity.”
Tom Geismar concurs, “It’s always been confusing. People don’t know what we do. It’s insufficient to call us graphic designers but at least it defines us. I judged work from the painting, sculpture, photography and graphic design departments at Yale recently and there were so many overlaps from so many different parts of the school, it was hard to tell who was what.”
If you go by the dictionary definition (planner), God is a designer: Maybe that’s why BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Harvard University and other business entities have glommed onto design recently.
A SNOOTY BUSINESS
Some graphic designers see what they do as a combination of skill and strategy while others are just naval gazers. In reality, effective graphic design is both a craft and a discipline requiring concentrated strategic thinking. It is a commodity. Artistic. Unverifiable. Undervalued. On the other hand it’s an intellectual pursuit. Analytical. Verifiable. Highly valued. Go to the public library or a bookstore. Look up design and you will be sent scurrying in many directions. Chaos and extreme emotions hover around design, partly due to a lack of clear definition, but also because of the hodgepodge of “design professionals” out there.