Explaining Design to Non-Designers

Yesterday's trends have empowered the individual to become connected with the tools to learn and solve just about anything they can question. Today's local and global communities are being pressed by tomorrow's problems. The issue of sustainability and the need for peaceful coexistence in a highly interconnected world is forcing individuals to re-imagine the communities they inhabit (Design Research for Sustainable Social Innovation by Ezio Manzini). This sets the stage for designers to engage with communities with multiple stakeholders. We, as designers, need to act as facilitators and teachers of design methodology to these individuals that are envisioning the social changes of tomorrow.

A step in the right direction is facilitating dialogue with non-designers. One possible form of charting their way into the design realm is to give them a road map while also acting as a guide. It would be futile, let alone morally problematic, to monopolize on design via a culture that excludes all others (Manzini, Action Research and the Practice of Design by Cal Swann). Visionary community members will attempt to become the facilitators for multiple stakeholders. Depending on their experiences with group dynamics, they will or will not approach the conflicts that arise with the correct framework. As opposed to managing conflict by pacifying it, one should accept it as a natural part of group life (Paradoxes of Group Life by Smith and Berg). A complex issue I've also been struggling to wrap my mind around.

These visionary community members may fail the first few times, and either they're going to get it right or they'll never try it again fearing future failures. I think designers should be present in the process to guide these individuals and their communities. In part, designers will be reminding these individuals of their available resources and help them think through problems. The end result will be far richer, both for the community and the designer. However, reminding the community of its resourcefulness requires the designer to clearly explain the design process to non-designers. I feel that this task has been surfacing for myself because I want to be able to succinctly articulate the role of a designer to anyone that asks.

I've had to confront explaining what I'm learning to my own community: explaining to friends and family the methodology I'm learning. I tell people I'm learning design, and their preconceptions of design history obfuscates where design is going. They assume I must be learning how to creatively design products for a consumer. I tell them that it's both true and false. I then go on to explain that design is not limited to products. It's a process that can be applied to find and solve problems, this process can include topics from ethnography and anthropology to the digital medium and politics. It leaves room for change, which I think is key to discovering complex and complicated problems and successfully innovating. In the initial phases of a design project, it can be tempting to settle with a single problem. Struggling with this temptation and remaining open to new information will allow one to see how other issues affect the problem that's being defined.

Problems can be interconnected, and several issues that seem unrelated at first could have the same root. Solving the root will result in a kind of domino effect where the problems connected to the root will also be solved, partially solved, or create a new context to understand the connected problems. Mapping problems out and attempting to draw connections between them will create a branching structure, much like a tree. These connections capture cause and effect relationships between problems. This causal tree is a map that can aid the designer in showing the community the relationship between problems. It is a way to begin chipping away at the community's complex situation.

Determining the causal relationships between each problem is a bit tricky because the designer will only have a hypothesis of how the problems are connected. Setting up some experiment is vital to determining the strength of connection between problems. For example, going into the community, the initial problem may be to solve the lack of safety for children at parks. Then, upon further exploration and interaction with the community, the designer may discover that the true problem is to confront the members of the community about their refusal to engage in constructive dialogue. The designer will then have to determine whether or not the latter problem is causally connected to the first problem. This is discovered through further interaction with the community, prototyping different solutions, and gauging the community's reaction.

My personal engagements with friends and family – non-designers – worry me that they don't see the value that's added in having an outsider within the community. A designer is an expert facilitator of information. Designers innately drive themselves to absorb as much information as possible and to understand the circumstance or challenge before them. Eventually returning this information to the community, restructuring it in new and compelling ways, will allow the community to look at itself from the outsider's perspective. The more self-aware a community is about its operations and activities, whether they're economic, political, organizational, etc, the better odds the community has at solving the problem and meeting the needs of all its members. Designer's don't necessarily solve the problem, they set the stage for the community to gain a better understanding of itself and its resources. Designers show the community opportunities. It is now the responsibility of the community to respect its members and create a solution that enriches everyone's life.