Over the next few posts, I’m going to make some distinctions between a few basic approaches to design. You can think of these approaches as dispositions or attitudes that one can take to problem solving. These are meant to be really simple distinctions to help organize one’s thinking, and they’re spurred from Ezio Manzini’s new book, Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. In a way, these little reflections are meant to explore what the meaning of co-design is and whether or not this notion needs to be pushed further, or discarded in favour of something else.
What is the role of the designer in relation to complex problems? What entails good design work? Good design action?
From Big-Ego Design to…
Big-ego design is what we usually think of when we think of a designer or an architect: a highly regarded name and a highly regarded artifact.The gifted designer imprints his or her signature and stamp onto a unique artifact, multiplying its value beyond a comparable mass-produced object. Whether the outcome is functional or purely expressive, the signature of the creative genius creates a universe of meaning and value surrounding the end result, the work. Manzini rightly points out that this type of design becomes very dangerous when applied to complex problems. Complex problems will entail messy efforts to work together on a shared understanding of the problem and a vision for what the solutions might be. This is the opposite of the singular vision of an auteur.
Opposite big-ego design is what Manzini calls “post-it design”. It’s the kind of design work that you see in stock image photography of anonymous facilitators at work in anonymous team meetings. To wit, I bring you the perfectly titled stock photo “Portrait of creative professionals looking over a post-it note wall and brainstorming. Young man and women standing at the office behind glass wall with sticky notes”:
The post-it note is the penultimate symbol of this type of design work, and it shows up whenever you google: “teams brainstorming”, “design thinking”, “team problem solving” and so on… That and teams of faceless suits holding puzzle pieces (and on that note, I bring you the also perfectly titled stock photo “business team solving problem in the office”, because problems are usually as simple as a four-piece puzzle).
(The pieces don’t even fit together! But maybe they’re realizing that they’re missing pieces? or have the wrong pieces? Maybe the problem is the puzzle pieces! What does it mean!?)
But I digress.
Post-it design could be seen as a reaction to big-ego design: instead of a visionary designer leading the charge towards the solution, we have a designer asking the opinions and wishes of users, customers, citizens, etc., capturing their answers and clarifying them. Instead of a studio or a drafting table, or a desk and a personal library, any smooth surface can be turned into a space for thinking in diagrams (a lil’ nod to Deleuze and Guattari). The post-it note can be used wherever its adhesive will stick, making many spaces potential work spaces and stirring up stagnant office meetings with colour, movement and plasticity… transforming office space into AirSpace (more on this later).
The post-it note can track the best bits of a conversation and capture essential learnings, immediately broadcasting them to others in the room. Everyone can scribe their ideas, making everyone an instant contributor without the need for a moderator. The post-it note organizes our thinking, and enables the creation of a good first draft. The post-it note decrees: no idea is precious, no idea is stupid, jot it down and “put it out there.” Where the creative moment of big-ego design is singular, cloistered, focused, silent, etc. the creative moment of post-it design is singular or multiple, silent or cacophonous, but always modular, diagrammatic, plastic, open, unfinished.
“Post-it design is a way of seeing the design process that emerges from the positive idea of considering all the social actors, ordinary citizens included, as potential resources for the solution to a given problem: as people with something significant to bring to the design process.”
For Manzini the problem with post-it design is that in trying to counter big-ego design, it ends up “transforming design experts into administrative actors, with no specific contributions to bring, other than aiding the process with their post-its (and at the end, maybe, with some pleasing visualizations),” reducing the design process to “a polite conversation around a table of some participatory design exercise” (Design, When Everybody Designs, 66).
Designers need to be more aware of their unique role in a collaborative problem solving setting. Rather than fade into the background, the designer should develop their judgement to know when to come forward and lead, and when to hold back and let a process unfold. During a group’s efforts to creatively solve a problem, it is the designer’s ability to strategically switch between leading and following that will determine whether or not a process is just being facilitated, or if there is a measure of politic involved (We will explore politic in its relationship to co-design in the next post).
While it is possible that we can all be designers through post-it design and co-design, we cannot all be strategic designers (much of that hinges on whether or not one is mindfully being politic). What skills and tools can we practice to become more politic? How can group problem solving move from the work of sifting and sorting ethnographic data, to the action of making something happen?