Design Comes Back Around

May 27, 2010 Leave a comment

|Photo by Kevin Krejci||

“Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something the world didn’t know it was missing.”

-Paola Antonelli

The other day I was clearing out some file drawers at the office in advanced preparation for our impending move into Boston this summer, when I came across a 17 year old paper written by Interaction Associates founder David Straus.  This paper’s date times with the founding year of the Interaction Institute for Social Change and speaks to the longer historical roots of the Interaction methods that IISC and IA share.  As I read the paper, what struck me most was David’s very early recognition of the interconnections between design, thinking, and cognition.

As an aspiring architect at the Harvard School of Design in the 1960s, David found himself frustrated with the pedagogical approach of his professors who tended to pass evaluative judgment on his designs (“Yes, that’s right.  No, that’s wrong.”) without ever lifting up the hood to take a look at the creative engine, the process underlying these products.  David kept elaborate design notebooks that unpacked his own thinking and thought processes while designing, which eventually led him to wide-ranging explorations of cognitive structures, group processes, and problem-solving techniques with researchers and practitioners around the country.  His work externalizing mental and collective processes lay the ground for what would become Facilitative Leadership, the core of IISC’s practice.

Fast forward 40 years, and design thinking is all the rage.  From IDEO’s Tim Brown to biomimicry, design claims a prominent place in the growing toolkit for making social change.  While David’s early work focused on problem-solving heuristics, much of what design tends toward these days is innovation.  This is perhaps due to the increased understanding of the complexity with which we are surrounded and the need for more emergent and “possibility-leveraging” orientations.

In her TED talk that has become a fixture in some of our trainings, MOMA curator Paola Antonelli refers to the power of design in maintaining elasticity in our brains, such that we continue to be open to new ideas.  She makes reference to scientists who thanks to their work in nanotechnology are coming to understand that they too are designers who have the capability of building new possibilities from the ground up, accessing an ever deeper realm of human creativity.  This is perhaps the most profound shift in design thinking in this day and age, that we are witnessing fields merge (the hard sciences, the arts, social science) in their recognition of not just the possibility, but the need for humanity to reimagine itself, to tap more sustainable narratives and our collective empathic nature.  And in many ways it seems we have just scratched the surface.

So how does design thinking fit into your efforts?  How might design play a greater role in shaping the future towards which you are working?

No Comments

  • Gibran says:

    Thanks for the reminder Curtis, I love that history of the Interaction method and I too think that good design defines our work when it is at its best.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    I had a great meeting today with folks at the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools about the design of their work to improve educational outcomes for children of color in public schools. Afterward, one of the staff members, Victor Cary, told me about methods he has learned for handling the emotional content and context of work around race and equity. After having a positive experience, he asked the facilitator “Did you do that on purpose?” It’s a simple question and the answer in that case was “Yes.” I lilke to think of the design aspect of our work as doing specific things on purpose in order to enable people to achieve meaningful results.

  • Curtis says:

    Cynthia, thanks for sharing about your meeting. I am interested in hearing more about it, especially on the heels of our Whole Measures training last week. People were very eager to discuss design and its specific application to issues of power and privilege. We scratched the surface, but the discussion we had around design principles, or the underlying values we bring to and desire to have expressed by our design, was rich.

  • Charlie says:

    Curtis – Love the post – hate the quote.

    “Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something the world didn’t know it was missing.”

    -Paola Antonelli

    I really think this quote is overused in our practice and, it’s really not that good of a quote to boot. Something about producing, “something the world didn’t know it was missing,” bothers me. Sounds like something a Snake Oil Salesman does.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks Charlie, for the plus and the delta. The quote elicits all kinds of reactions, for sure. What I like about it is it asks that we go beyond our typical planning (and pre-planning, and planning to plan) orientation, and to be a little creative in our choice of process. Too often I see clients defaulting to what they’ve always done in terms of meetings and meeting formats, in favor of things that are just not very enlivening. Producing something the world didn’t know it was missing could be an idea, a combination of what already exists, a relationship, a conversation. Does not need to be so grandiose. It could also lead to the remembering of something important. Did you check out Antonelli’s talk on TED? In any case, appreciate the candor.

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