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May 11, 2009

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The Tyranny of Solving Problems

Here’s a great bit of counter-conventional-wisdom from Jack Schulze. He’s talking about design:

4) Some people (they are wrong) say design is about solving problems. Obviously designers do solve problems, but then so do dentists. Design is about cultural invention. There are some people who want to reduce the domain of design to listable, knowable stuff, so it’s easy to talk about. Design is a glamorous, glittering world and this means they can engage without having to actually risk themselves on the outcome of their work. This is damaging. It turns design into something terrified of invention. Design is about risk. We all fear authentic public response to our work, but we have to be brave enough to overcome.

On one level, I really respect people who believe that a craft, or a career, should be about Solving Problems, and that everything else is ego, excess, decoration, distraction.

On another level, really? The world is just a set of problems to be fixed? Wounds to be healed? Boxes to be checked? Doesn’t seem correct.

I like Schulze’s word: invention. Maybe we need more self-identified inventors.

Posted May 11, 2009 at 11:45 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted


I'm really pushing myself towards this idea (which I can't totally articulate) that Design is Rhetoric, that design is the visual and tactile equivalent of rhetoric in speech, that good design and good rhetoric actually shape and are inseperable from their content, that design for us is the equivalent of rhetoric in the middle ages, that the elements of rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery) have analogues in design...

But anyways, one of the things this analogy suggests is that there are different styles or genres of design just as there are different genres of rhetoric. Problem-solving is (for lack of a better word) forensic design. It's like you're in a court of law, you're trying to figure out the best outcome, so interested parties are kicking theories back and forth to figure out what will get the job done.

But then there are also dialectic, panegyric, hortatory modes of design. These kinds of design actually change our definitions, how we feel/think, and what we do.

Tim reminds me, oddly, of an incite I had during a late night session studying synthesis steps in first semester organic chemistry. On one level it was an awful list of things to memorize, and so it often seemed. On the next level--thanks to a very dynamic professor, Carolyn Bertozzi, a relatively apparent level--it was a list of operations and tools for solving a problem, and if you could line them up in the right order, they would take you from A to B. On a third level that the later physicist in me saw, they were just complex manifestations of the same basic principles of physics, and not so much to memorize. But one night I realized I was going through the same process I had gone through in first semester programming--going from awkward memorization and construction to more fluent sentence formation. And that both processes were like learning French or Latin. Or Classical Dance. And that eventually one might hope to be as creative and spontaneous an organic chemist, a programmer, or a writer in a second or third language, as one is much more easily a writer in a native language or a dancer. Besides practice, though, one needs to be well-read, have a multi-scale vision, and imagination. Reducing good design to "problem-solving" is like sticking to the technical writing manual/freshmen comp part of the endeavor--your task is to explain, in 200 words, how to assemble this vacuum cleaner. But just as good writing rarely exists without clarity of thought and a backbone of good technique, I can see why design education might focus so much around the first lesson" what are you trying to do?

This all, of course, ties back to the new liberal arts--a re-recognition of the fact that really, it's all the same discipline.

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