You’re reading DisAssemble, a biweeklyish philosophy of tech newsletter aimed at those interested in creating better digital products.
I start writing my newsletter. I am certain what I am going to write about. Certain.
I write, then write some more, and then procrastinate for a day or two, assured that I really only have to do a bit of polishing here, a little sprucing up there, to enable me to fire my new newsletter off to you - my dear subscribers.
After procrastinating I return to read what I have written. The re-reading lights a spark in my mind; that triggers more, I see a new direction suddenly illuminated. When I head in this direction, my perspective changes, I see my article differently.
My original point seems...off...somehow. Not wrong - but less relevant given my new perspective on the topic. It's as though the act of writing my article - and subsequently reviewing it - has modified my point.
I re-write huge portions of the article, and my newsletter is delayed by a week. This is why my bi-weekly newsletter is more a tri-weekly newsletter.
Perhaps not the most compelling anecdote, but one that is hopefully illustrative of a process - perhaps a process you are familiar with. Writing, likely many other creative activities that at first blush may seem to be manifestations of mental thought, is perhaps more akin to the thinking of thoughts. The doing is the thinking. This is true for design as well.
In my last newsletter I gave some examples of why solution-first thinking is ineffective and harmful. I also discussed how hermeneutics can help us understand the 'problem spaces' (the details and boundaries of a problem) of different people or groups of people.
But I left solution spaces unexamined. ‘Solution spaces’ are the shape and parameters of possible solutions - how possible solutions could possibly look.
Note:I use the term solution space reluctantly. Design problems tend not to have 'solutions' as such, like a puzzle has a solution. What design does is closer to addressing problems, but 'addressing space' isn't really as impactful as 'solution space' - nor as correlative of problem space.
Once we understand the problem space through the interpretative capacity and understanding given to us by our research, we focus on the solution space, right?
Sort of - but not quite. We want to avoid ‘solution-first’ thinking, but it’s negligent and ineffective to move from problem space to solution space in a linear manner. It’s vital to understand that, much like how our thoughts and writing evolve in tandem, problems and solutions co-evolve through their exploration.
To illustrate this, it's worth citing design theorist Kees Dorst discussing his study of how designers design:
[A] core solution idea changed the designer’s view of the problem. We then observed designers redefining the problem, and checking whether this fits in with earlier solution-ideas. Then they modified the fledgling-solution they had.
The problem space begins to appear differently when the implications of an initial solution are thought through. For example, we might design an application that connects people to doctors, then realise that the implications of the design mean that doctors may be over-contacted. This then changes or adds to the problem space, which then affects how we look at solutions - we see it with new constraints or requirements. Understanding how to triage or limit contact may become a new constraint in the design; we see the solution space with this constraint in mind, and through this lens.
Another important design theorist, Donald Schön, describes this co-evolution of problem and solution as 'a conversation with materials'. The materials - that is, the elements you are designing with - seem to have an agency and 'speak' back to you.
Of course it’s not exactly explicitly obvious how design materials 'speak back to you'.
This is illustrated nicely by the cognitive archaeologist Lambros Malafouris, who discusses a potter placing their hand on the potter's wheel:
What is it that guides the dextrous positioning of the potter’s hands and decides upon the precise amount of forward or downward pressure necessary for centring a lump of clay on the wheel? How do the potter’s fingers come to know the precise force of the appropriate grip?
Celebrated polymath Gregory Bateson also provides an apt example:
Consider a man felling a tree with an axe. Each stroke of the axe is modified or corrected, according to the shape of the cut face of the tree left by the previous stroke.
This self-corrective (i.e., mental) process is brought about by a total system, trees-eyes-brain-muscles-axe-stroke-tree; and it is this total system that has the characteristics of immanent mind...But this is not how the average Occidental sees the event sequence of tree felling. He says, ‘‘I cut down the tree’’ and he even believes that there is a delimited agent, the ‘‘self’’, which performed a delimited ‘‘purposive’’ action upon a delimited object
The comically anachronistic use of 'occidental' notwithstanding, this is an interesting observation. There's a kind of emergence here, where, even if the tree-chopper doesn’t realise it, the tree is guiding their actions.
Physical action such as chopping down a tree or making a clay pot is a dynamic coupling of human and materials that is skilfully conducted through what can be known as 'embodied knowledge'; that is, motor knowledge that can be very difficult to explain or transmit to another person. It is however transmitted between the materials and the body through a kind of embodied conversation.
Doubtlessly designing or writing are more intellectual than these embodied, physical activities - but the way a potter's fingers press down on the spinning clay, which responds, is not so distinct from when we make a sketch and this nascent design 'speaks back to us'. Indeed, this is analogous to System 1 thinking, a type of cognitive behaviour theorised by famed behavioural economist, Daniel Kahneman. System 1 thinking is “fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, unconscious.” This is different from more deliberate System 2 thinking, which is “slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious”.
Clearly, designing has elements of System 2 - it is effortful, intellectual and conscious - yet there’s elements of rapid unconscious association than can be incredibly difficult to nail down. This isn’t any kind of magic - but there is a loss of controlled, conscious cognitive direction when swimming through spaces of creative ambiguity. This makes it difficult to reconcile design with other areas of business where control and predictability are paramount. Design is an unstable, unpredictable process that can have outcomes that disrupt the problem space - previously established requirements or expectations - through new insights. It can evolve ideas along trajectories and along dimensions that weren’t initially considered.
In the most interesting cases, this can even evolve the reason why you are creating something. New opportunities, user groups or purposes can appear.
I was recently designing a tool to be used to help people who need to be referred to community services; through our design exercises we realised that we could not only help them find services, but also build their confidence and consider services they likely would never have thought of.
It's important to be clear: designers should do a lot of upfront research to understand the problem space. Designing without upfront research is ineffective or even harmful. However, this does not preclude designers from thinking, at a high level, about solutions early on - this can even help direct research trajectories.
So. Let’s can expand the graphic created last time around. The upfront understanding of a problem space is conducted via research through hermeneutic circles of understanding and interpretation, while addressing the solution space highlights further problems, which provides lenses for the solution space via new constraints and goals.
There’s no shortage of difficulty in trying to trace how certain ideas and designs come about - they rely on chains of thought, associations, and sparks of insight that are difficult to define. This is why there are leagues of people studying design - the process is complex, implicit and difficult.
But it’s only in reflecting on design, on the solution exploration process, can we be honest about what this process is, and, perhaps more importantly what it isn’t: something that is linear, stable, and knowable.