The Concept and Field of Design

At Ethics Lab, we aim to move from applied to translational ethics. In doing so, we have found design—as a mindset, an approach, a set of practices—to be a surprisingly simpático methodology. But why design? Indeed, given how unfamiliar design still is to much of the academy, what do we even mean by design?

In his 2016 Design in Tech report, John Maeda outlined three types of design: classical design (for example, architecture or graphic design); computational design (which we will leave aside for the purposes of this discussion); and design thinking, which is “a process for creative problem solving” that can be used outside of traditional design contexts (Maeda, 2016). It is the latter camp of design that our work in Ethics Lab falls into; but it can be helpful to start with classical design, since the process of design thinking has its roots in that practice.

Classical design fields such as architecture are, by their very nature, about intervening in the world. Paradigmatically, a designer is working to provide a solution to a problem or goal posed by another person (the client). That said, it’s not just any kind of solution process. If what you want is a toddler’s wading pool, you do not need a designer—there is an off-the-shelf solution at your local toy store. In contrast, design is about imagining and building something new. Furthermore, it is a process that does not take for granted what really needs addressing.

The first step in the design process is to correctly analyze and identify the underlying problem the client is attempting to resolve. Sometimes a client presupposes a solution in stating their problem or desire; while this can be helpful as a start, it is not the finish. To give an often used example, a city seeks an architect to revamp its public pool that is not getting much use. After talking to the public about why they do not frequent the pool, the architect advises the city that its pool is fine: what it really needs to do is to add a stop on the bus route to give people a way to get there. Or, as Henry Ford famously said, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

It is the designer’s role to surface the underlying problem driving the ask, in order to expand the field of possible solutions. This phase involves interrogation, observation, and tenacity. One method to aid this process is called the “Five Whys” (see below), which—as you may have guessed—involves assuming the natural curiosity of a five-year-old (and helps explain some of the natural connection between design and philosophy!):

Client: “I need [x].”

Designer: “Why?”(#l)

Client: “Because [y].”

Designer: “Why?” (#2)

And so on and so forth until you have exhausted the proxy explanations (or your client’s patience).

Design practice also uses prototyping as a mediating step. Prototyping— making a series of iterative, working models of a product or service—allows clients and users to experience a design in progress and to provide constructive feedback that will ultimately shape the final design. The process prevents wasting resources on an ineffective or detrimental final product; more than that, it gives others something to react to. Having a prototype to respond to facilitates shared understanding, helps to evolve expectations and goals, and gives opportunities for imagining alternative solutions. The process usually includes some form of visualization—sketches or models that evolve over time. Visualizing thoughts makes them more accessible to collaborative critique and reflection. The purpose is both representative and improvisational. Just as writing and speaking help in the development of thoughts, so, too, does drawing and making.

In the best cases, prototypes begin with an accessible medium that is open to direct intervention, allowing users to not only respond to ideas, but to generate them. Richard Sennett is a self-proclaimed fan of styrofoam models, which anyone can easily form and manipulate through cutting, carving, and gluing. “The subjunctive voice thus can morph into visual form, in which possibilities and what-if? scenarios take the place of policy declarations” (Sennett, 2018, 245). The roughness of the materials is also conducive to working quickly and iterating often. Imposing a sequence of time constraints requires that something be produced. Participants do not have the luxury of perfecting an idea or solution before sharing it. And it’s easier (psychologically!) to share a model that is inherently rough by design, one that precludes polishing, than it is to share one that could pass as a final product had there only been more time. Ideas that are not fully formed are tested and opened to interrogation, allowing them to grow in directions that may not have occurred to their originator in isolation.

Repeating this process creates a feedback loop in which prototypes are critiqued and refined in a cyclical manner until time is up. While insisting on high standards of rigor where it is actually critical (you do not want to build a bridge that is going to fall down), design gives space for expansive thinking when the details are not (yet) the issue. Design naturally leans toward action, emphasizing creativity informed by a deep understanding of content and context, examining the problem and solution spaces simultaneously. It’s also a practice saturated with the necessity of moving from idea to action. As much as it cares about creativity, it is creativity in the face of ruthless constraints—whether material, political, technical, temporal, or human. Designers are committed to harnessing (if not necessarily enjoying) deadlines as essentially productive tools—to get out of one’s own head, pull back from perfectionist gerbil wheels, get back to the prototype, and use it to mind-meld with others.

For design is also inherently collaborative. When there are diverse players involved, it is the designer’s role to mediate discussion, find ways of facilitating conversation across different perspectives. The ideal goal is genuine collaboration— or “co-design”—a process that yields emergent group ideas, not just a patchwork quilt of individual contributions stitched together. It requires the kind of collaboration that involves not just separate streams of work, but probing, questioning, developing, reasoning, together.

Design as a field has also, more recently, been in critical reflection on how essential understanding end-users’ needs is to an effective outcome. A classic cautionary tale is the “Frankfurt Kitchen” of the 1920s. Designed by Margarete Schiitte-Lihotzky for Ernst May’s new social housing project in Frankfurt, Germany, it came from a lofty aspiration: a desire to liberate women from the kitchen and achieve ideals of sanitation and efficiency. The new design was highly modernized (electric appliances), space efficient, and compact: a ship’s galley converted for the home.

Today the design is celebrated and was even featured in an exhibit of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA, 2010). Tenants in the 1920s, however, were less enthusiastic. Women felt cut off from family life while working in the kitchen, since they could not work and watch their children. The kitchen tables they owned did not fit in the new design. Residents could not afford the electricity bills necessitated by the fully electric kitchen (many resorted to using a camp stove!). As Martina Hessler explains, “Ernst May’s design team refused to allow the users of the new housing to have access to the kitchen design process and instead responded to occupants’ complaints with a huge ‘educating program’” (Hessler, 2009, 177).

A more recent example comes from William H. Whyte, author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. He noted the error of designing public city spaces on the basis of people’s responses to questionnaires. Often people talk about wanting spaces for “escape,” “oasis,” or “retreats,” as if they want to stay away from other people when out and about. As he noted, though, attending to “what people do ... reveals a different priority” (Whyte, 1980, 11). In fact, people in public often flock to social spaces rather than spaces of solitude.

The field of “human centered design” has developed practices and exercises, meant to supplement more traditional research, that help designers keep that end user in mind. For instance, “empathy maps” use a prompt to put one into the perspective of a concrete persona in a specific situation. The exercise then asks for fast, non-reflective notes jotted on a poster, or Post-its on a wall, describing what the person might be thinking, saying, feeling, seeing, or hearing. The aim is not for this to be empirically representative, but to move the mind to a place that keeps the essential subjectivity of potential end users at the forefront.

As theorists of design continued their reflection, the idea emerged of design as a mindset, an approach, a set of practices and tools. Even if one is not working with a classical designer, these “habits of mind,” together understood as “design thinking,” can be used to help innovation, research, and collaboration. As Laszlo Moholy-Nagy puts it,

[designing is not a profession but an attitude. The idea of design and the profession of the designer has to be transformed from the notion of a specialist function into a generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness which allows projects to be seen not in isolation but in relationship with the need of the individual and the community.

(Moholy-Nagy, 1947, 42)

Given its comfort with and practices for working productively with complexity and novelty, design thinking can be particularly helpful when addressing social issues regarded as “wicked problems”—a term introduced by design researcher Horst Kittel in the 1970s (Kittel and Webber, 1973), and popularized by the work practices of IDEO and John Kolko in the 2000s. Such problems are recognized by their tangled contexts, dynamic conditions, and the need to draw on expertise from multiple disciplines (Dorst and Cross, 2001). This is precisely, we believe, what characterizes some of the most urgent moral challenges facing society.

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