As part of the workshop that Jilly Traganou, Lydia Matthews and I ran this past week at the New School’s Design and Social Science seminar we asked participants to identify and diagram a time of compelling interdisciplinary collaboration. We particularly asked participants to identify the material and immaterial (social, cultural…) conditions that enabled this compelling interdisciplinary moment. The results were fascinating. Planning our workshop activity beforehand, we had to think of what our own answers would be to this admittedly difficult question.
I feel lucky to have had some powerful interdisciplinary moments in my education and teaching life (not least in my collaboration with Kaushik on Buscada), but the one that sprang to mind was one that has informed (and absorbed) much of my thinking over the past few months. I recalled the blackboard shown above.
It shows a portion of my start-of-semester working process with landscape architect Elliott Maltby to develop the syllabus for our Public Space Critical Studio + Practice-based Seminar which we are co-teaching this semester, Fall 2009 at the New School. Blue post-its are my methodological and ethnographic readings, green post-its are Elliott’s design readings. Many of our readings overlapped – and sometimes we would find the same readings posted twice, on both green and blue post-its. Though we had had conversations, this process made powerfully visible our own intersecting thinking, through our intersecting literatures. This process made it clear to us that we could indeed collaborate on the class, showing us that we had often come to similar ideas via different routes.
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I just returned from the Digital Hollywood conference in Santa Monica, CA, I talked on a panel which was trying to understand how to best leverage video archives and assets for both large media companies and smaller non-profits.
I showed the PBS video platform on which I was the design lead. I discussed how the new tools we developed give PBS access to their own rich archive, and allow them to program in a new way online. These online video platforms in effect allow PBS to return to being true network producers: categorizing shows by content topics, not by the time-slots of linear TV. They are now able to create new channels of content by combining new and old shows with valuable web content for context.
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A design process must not be a straight-jacket on creativity. On the other hand, creativity in design needs to have some form of validation; otherwise it reduces its own ability to create new opportunities.
This simple cycle is inclusive of multiple design tactics but is rigorous in how it judges the results of any design. The designer/s can enter into the cycle at any point.
If you have a great idea, start by making it.
If you need to define a problem, start by thinking and analysis.
If you already have a product or service, try critiquing it.
The most important next step is to go to the next point in the cycle.
In the design industry, many designers / product owners only go through this cycle once and then bounce between “making” and “critiquing.” This can easily turn in to a vicious cycle of iterating on tactical designs that do not really address the problem. Often, in this “bounce” the process lacks a critical piece of thinking or analysis which might unlock the true nature of the problem.
At every point of the design process it is critical to reconsider, or query, the problem, checking in to see that you are designing for the right problem.
Following the cycle is not easy. It requires you to question opinions you have formed in the course of a project which can be hard to let go of. These opinions or decisions may have been hard fought victories with other project team members / clients and seem irreversible; but nothing is irreversible if the problem itself has changed through your considered process of thinking and analysis.
This process happens at every stage of a project from concept to production and brings fresh insight to every step.
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At the New School, I teach a class in the Urban Studies department called City Studio. The goal of this class is to collaborate with a community organization and to understand a contested urban space. The outcome of this class is to develop a project for the public that helps the broader community visualize our contested site. In 2008 and 2009 we have focused on the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) – located on the Lower East Side, and one of the most contested urban renewal sites. It is still the largest parcel of undeveloped land in NYC south of 96th Street, as noted by the New York Times, here.
Now, this year’s class is grappling with this complex site, and the new questions that have developed, as last year’s community organizing by SPURA Matters (a collaboration of community organizations including GOLES, Place Matters and the Pratt Center) has furthered the conversation in the community. So much so, in fact, that Community Board 3 has once again begun to consider the question of development at SPURA.
At this point in the semester, City Studio is starting to develop our research questions about the site, and how we might contribute to furthering the conversation. A brainstorming session in class, pulling from each student’s own research questions (defined in an earlier paper) resulted in some exciting connections – as seen here.
This week, our research groups present their work plans for public projects, and things will start to develop quite quickly.
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An important principle in designing anything is trying to understand what the function and purpose are for something, and how these are different.
What is it that someone is trying to do? This is the function.
What is someone trying to achieve? This is the purpose.
A simple example,
Function = I want to make some tea
Purpose = I need hot water, I need a tea bag and I need a container for two things to come together.
“A kettle” may seem the obvious answer to this riddle. Yet, there are myriad ways in which the purpose can be met without using a kettle.
[Example] A cup which on contact with water starts a chemical reaction which heats the water.
[Example] Boiling water and a tea bag in a cooking pot.
The question is: Are there new ways of satisfying the purpose, which work better than a kettle and a cup?
Stating the problem in this way allows designers to think about a problem conceptually and allows them to think critically about current conventions and while allowing them to see the atomic elements of the problem.
The purpose can also be broken down into sub-purposes, giving us a more granular way to look at a problem.
Thinking about how purpose can be broken down also allows you to think about the best possible outcomes for each given purpose.
The best outcomes for a given purpose or sub-purpose can also be validation tools that allow you to:
- measure the success of a design concept
- have a uniform way of comparing your design idea against other existing design solutions.
If your design solution allows for a much better outcome to a purpose, this is the starting point of creating a design which really innovates and does not just incrementally iterate on a problem space.
An excellent book which uses similar principles is “What Customers Want: Using Outcome-Driven Innovation to Create Breakthrough Products and Services” by Anthony Ulwick. This book concentrates on product design, but I think this process and way of thinking can be applied to products which are much more conceptual, as well as in identifying whole new markets of opportunity for innovation.
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Just released, a new project designed & edited by Buscada!: The America Project: A Teaching Method for Collaboration, Creativity and Citizenship. Building on the work of Sekou Sundiata and dance & be still arts, this guide was produced by MAPP International, written by Kym Ragusa and edited by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani. It is a great resource for teaching and civic engagement.
Here’s the guide in process:
and in its completed form:
Read more about The America Project at: http://mappinternational.org/america-project
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