interactions magazine

This is from 2013 | 5 minute read

The Optimism of Design

Design is optimistic. Designers dream of a future that doesn't yet exist, and work to bring that future to life. They see a path of opportunity, one where problems can be solved, constraints moved, policies evolved, and behavior changed. For a designer, people, services, and things are malleable, and a more positive set of experiences is always right around the corner.

Yet not all students of design share this optimistic stance, and for those with an analytical outlook on life, this optimism is often seen as naive or even wrong. An analytical mind seeks rigidity of rules, clear constraints, and boundaries. With rules and boundaries come deductive logic, and causality. The analytical mind searches for logic-chain-connections, in order to exclude irrelevant data and to reduce complexity.

Design is an open-ended sense of opportunity, and this is confounding for some students — and is realized as anxiety. For if design can be anything, how are we to know what it should be? What's the right answer?

Consider this actual conversation between a student and a professor, during a mid-project critique:

Student: I don't understand what else you want me to do. I'm done.

Professor: I want you to explore the solution space more, and try to understand how to push this idea further. Think of all the ways it could adapt to the changing needs of the user.

Student: It already adapts to the user.

Professor: It adapts in one way, for sure. But think of all the other ways it could work. What other needs did you identify during your contextual research? How could the solution be more comprehensive?

Student: I saw a lot of needs. But I don't have time to work out all of the other ways that it could evolve, so I picked this direction.

Professor: And it's not a bad direction. But what if you picked a different one and explored that, too? The exploration would help you dream of what might be.

Student: I feel like I've made a choice in a direction and it's working, and now you want me to completely change everything I've done. I'm so discouraged.

The professor recognizes that the student has artificially constrained the solution space too early, and is trying to get her to explore other potential outcomes — to see other potential futures. But the student feels a sense of investment in a given direction, and feels as though she's identified the logic of a solution. She feels like her direction is "working" — that the design solution solves the problem in a succinct causal chain. Her reaction is defensive, because the request to broaden her exploration challenges her understanding of deductive logic. If she's already solved the problem, how can there be anything else to do?

Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, describes a process of integrative thinking that he's discovered as common across industry leaders. "Over the past six years, I have interviewed more than 50 such leaders, some for as long as eight hours, and found that most of them share a somewhat unusual trait: They have the predisposition and the capacity to hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they're able to creatively resolve the tension between those two ideas by generating a new one that contains elements of the others but is superior to both."

Designers seek an optimistic future, but no one can actually predict the future. So, design becomes about predicting possible optimistic futures. Students need to be taught to view outcomes as a series of opportunities that are set in motion through design. More specifically, students need to be taught the process of realizing the future as a process that requires variation: a process that requires the ability to consider multiple and often competing perspectives at once. When the professor above says "think of all the other ways it could work," they are really urging the student to paint multiple, positive futures of the world but to postpone actually picking one. Fundamentally, they are urging the student to generate the knowledge material necessary for future synthesis, and to form the building blocks for later integrative thinking.

But simply telling the student to do this doesn't work. For the professor is now fighting against a fundamental worldview that the student has developed over their entire life: that there is a single right, optimal answer to any given problem, and that a deductive stance can serve to reduce ambiguity and arrive at a space of confidence. Put another way, students have learned that if you look really closely at a problem, you can isolate the cause of the problem, fix or remove the cause, and the problem will be solved. Problem solving is a process of narrowing and backtracking, in order to understand causality.

This is not true. There are infinite right answers to a given design problem. It's impossible to understand if a solution is "optimal", because it's practically impossible to try all of the possible "right answers". Design recognizes that problems exist in an ecological space of human interactions, and so it doesn't make sense to speak of the "root cause" of a design problem. While designers try to reduce during the design process, they do it through creativity rather than through analysis. By making a thing, a designer says "I mean this, but not that."

And so, the way to teach and urge a frustrated, analytically-minded student to begin considering multiple futures is to have them make things. Lots of things. A diversity of things. It's a slow, arduous, and time consuming process. It's one that requires constant care and teaching, and even cheer-leading. And there's no real shortcut to the process. Learning to iterate and variate leads to an appreciation of multiple outcomes. And in those multiple outcomes lies an optimistic future.


Kolko, Jon (2013), "The Optimism of Design". In interactions magazine, July/August, 2013.
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