Design is like thermodynamics

I've had the chance to hear many people talk about design at conferences, meetings of grant assessment panels, and curriculum meetings....

I've had the chance to hear many people talk about design at conferences, meetings of grant assessment panels, and curriculum meetings. While it's usually been in the context of engineering, it has also been otherwise. In those discussions, I have noticed something a little bit odd: people talk about design as if it were some distinct and crisply distinguishable real-life activity.
Image source: Tobias C. Larsson.
But it isn’t.
Design is a pure discipline, like thermodynamics, or epistemology, or economics, or fine arts.  None of these are actually performed by humans in real life.  Not, at least, as the self-contained activities they’re represented as in universities.
Real life is messier than how we teach stuff.  In real life, you don’t design things, you develop products and processes.  Sure, design happens during product development, but so does science, politics, economics, business, management, psychology, and sociology.  The problem is that we don’t give our students any real sense of what happens “out there."
I’m not the only one to think this way.  When graduates talk to me about their work experiences, they almost invariably speak with surprise about the differences between their studies and “real life.”  And the ones who don’t talk about it are the ones who already know about it (because they’ve worked in engineering or other design-related firms on internships or summer jobs).  School is organized, they tell me, and structured and sequential; by comparison, they find work to be messy, confusing, and non-linear.
Their studies have prepared them with spotty domain knowledge and virtually no process knowledge.  By spotty domain knowledge, I mean that an engineering student will learn only most of the basic technical knowledge and almost none of the other knowledge they need - knowledge about management, politics, etc.  By process knowledge, I mean the kind of knowledge needed to perceive how real life work actually happens, how to maintain direction in light of nearly constant interruption and distraction, how to adapt to constantly changing needs from colleagues, clients, and management.  This isn’t to say that we need to stop teaching the technical stuff.  This is to say we need to teach it differently, and we need to add more of other stuff.
Our students aren’t stupid.  If we gave them a chance to learn how product development happens - instead of just how design happens - they’d be much better at their jobs, and all of society would benefit.
(I must admit, I’m being a little too categorical here.  There are certainly several universities that do in fact teach much more broadly.  But there are too many other schools that still teach like it’s 1815 and not 2015.)
So, why are we design educators borking it up so badly?  I can think of several reasons.
Institutional inertia.  People are just too busy and too tired to put in the massive efforts needed to substantively alter curricula, and the paperwork one has to go through is soul-destroying in scope.
Political fear. It can be horribly difficult - especially in a politically correct environment of faux openness and transparency - to change.  Change implies that the previous way wasn’t the right way or the best way, which means students weren’t getting the best possible education, which means some people will (quite irrationally) demand “recompense” for faulty past teaching; budgets will be cut, heads will role, and all kinds of other apocalyptic tripe will happen.
Intellectual stagnation. After enough time of always teaching the same way, it’s easy to come to think that it's the only way to teach a subject well.  I feel that pressure myself, and I sympathize - especially since only a fraction of new teaching knowledge is anything more than a silly fad.
Lack of experience.  Virtually all current design educators were taught to think in ways that are decades old and (probably) decades out of date.  We’ve effectively been brainwashed.  What’s worse, many of us lack the real life experiences (albeit understandably) to help students learn about real life product development.  And because of this, we tend to just perpetuate the attitudes and approaches that we ourselves learned.  It’s a real catch-22.
Lack of an evidence-based body of knowledge.  Comparatively speaking, the body of knowledge on real life product development is virtually non-existent.  I’m not talking here about the get-rich-quick schemes that seem to populate the bestseller lists on innovation and design.  I’m talking about serious, reproducible, well-evidenced, scientifically grounded research in how product development does and should happen.  Without that research, we can’t build a curriculum to help others learn.
There’s probably other reasons too, that I haven’t even thought of yet.
Research is, I think, key.  We don’t have the body of knowledge in place, so even the most forward-thinking schools are really using anecdotal evidence to support their curriculum design.  But we do have a fairly robust population of design researchers with a keen interest in experimentation.  We need to foster that research as much as possible - more than we do now.  The research will drive changes in both practice and education.
We also need to find new ways to study how design organizations actually work.  These days, it’s virtually impossible to do this because product development processes are treated nearly universally as geese that lay golden IP eggs.  Companies will simply not share that information.  But without it, the research cannot move forward.
We need to break the moulds of departmental “silos” because product development cuts across all the “classic” disciplines and fields.

Most importantly, though, we need to stop thinking about design as if it were real life.



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The Trouble with Normal...: Design is like thermodynamics
Design is like thermodynamics
The Trouble with Normal...
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