Wicked Constructivism

One of the core tenets of humanity, it seems, is a nearly obsessive urge to solve problems. It doesn’t matter whether these are your problems, somebody else’s, or if they even need to be solved in the first place. We just can’t help ourselves. Most of us cringe at something as benign as a crooked picture frame, and some of the more demented of us even seek advanced degrees in mathematics. This urge is what drives us to improve ourselves and our world, but the larger problems facing the world today come in all shapes and sizes with cultural, economic, and political influences that are constantly in flux.

This is, perhaps, to be expected; the vast majority of issues we face are man-made and the worlds of man are ever shifting. Centuries of colonialism and globalization have made our sociocultural systems increasingly tangled and complex. As a result, the problems that arise within these systems are based in a web of ephemeral connections that is perpetually unstable. These problems are what designer Horst Rittel famously dubbed “wicked problems:”

a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing (Churchman).

If you add to this the very real limitations on time and resources facing most design projects, you have a situation where, unfortunately, these wicked problems have no perfect solutions—only better or worse ones. A project whose aim is to bring electricity to off-grid villages in rural Africa might require 10 years of research and development but only have the resources for 6 months; a project to create housing for the homeless in urban cities might conduct a successful design charette but never gain traction in the community. And so, the products of design are often compromises between what is necessary, what is possible, and what is plausible.

Designing for this unstable world is like trying to rearrange a spider’s web without breaking it. The practice of design must be exceptionally dynamic if it hopes to perform surgery in these twisted strands. To even begin to approach these problems in a lasting way, “we need to pursue design practices which weave themselves through the social fabric without damaging it” (Douglas). But this is still not enough; to cause real, systemic change, design must not only be able to weave itself through the social fabric but must also be able to grow organically within that fabric as part of the same entity. To extend the metaphor: only a spider can change its web.

It may be helpful here to think about design in terms of an organ transplant (gruesome as that may be). If a sick patient needs a new kidney, it is possible to transplant one from another source. However, if this exogenous kidney is not totally compatible with its new host body, the transplant will be rejected. Design works in much the same way: when exogenous design is introduced into a culture, if it does not perfectly weave itself through—and become one with—that social fabric, it risks being rejected by its host culture.

So, how can designers spark systemic change from within cultural systems? This can be a difficult problem—but not one beyond solving. The solution is likely found in the relationship between the designers and the stakeholders affected by design. For the most part, this relationship is one of inherent separation. Rarely do designers design for themselves. More often this relationship is unilateral, with design being projected at users from exogenous sources. When designers become involved with someone else’s problems, we make an unspoken assumption that stakeholders are not capable of solving their own problems, an assumption which tends to infantilize users and position designers as saviors of these otherwise hapless locals (Tunstall 235). This mindset not only reeks of colonialism but (like most of colonialism) reeks of ignorance, as well.

We all have preconceived understandings of the world, but these understandings are inherently limited to our own knowledge, experience, and resources. While it can be just as difficult for designers as anyone else to put aside these preconceptions, by working alongside the stakeholders of design we can expand our available knowledgebase and the range of possible (and plausible) solutions.

As a species of problem-solvers, we can be sure that wherever people face adversity there will be attempts to overcome it. We are incredibly adaptable, and no one understands how to navigate the byways of cultural systems better than the people who are living within those systems. It is logical, then, that designers should benefit from tapping into local knowledge and experience wherever possible. As design theorist Christopher Crouch writes, “collaborative design principles, where problems are addressed by designer and user together, are often the way forward in dealing with complex design problems” (Crouch 16).

To grow design from within tangled cultural systems, we must re-position designers not as the authors of change, but as facilitators which enhance the users’ ability to bring about change for themselves.

Complex systems are shaped by all the people who use them, and in this new era of collaborative innovation, designers are having to evolve from being the individual authors of objects, or buildings, to being the facilitators of change among large groups of people (Thackara 7).

Put simply, the role of the designer must shift from someone who designs at the user to someone who designs with the user. This, of course, implies a release of control which naturally makes designers at least a little uncomfortable. However, the benefits of this are potentially manyfold: Not only would the products of this collaboration be more culturally sustainable, but enabling locals to engage in formal design practices themselves would position designers as the influencers of cultural experience—a much loftier goal that would allow the work of design to continue beyond the scope of project deadlines.

To borrow from Sir Walter Scott: Oh, what tangled webs we find when first we practice to design. The strange and tangled social webs we have woven for ourselves grow more chaotic by the hour, but it is within these frayed filaments of cultural systems that we may find the true potential of the designer—not as a mere meddler in other people’s problems but as an enabler of better, more egalitarian, futures for all humanity.

The Truths That Bind Us

The things we design hold different meanings for different people, and—whether across country lines or county lines—these meanings are all forged in the social constructs of people going about their daily lives. These meanings are culturally relative, dependent upon a wide array of geographic, historical, and political contexts.

Consider something as innocuous as a cup of tea and the enormous cultural weight it brings to bear. For some, tea is a distinctive cultural art form; for others it is a symbol of colonialism; for others still, it might conjure memories of staying home sick in bed as a child. Though the cup of tea remains relatively the same, the meanings we place on it change based on our experiences and whatever communal agreements surround it. Social constructionists like Ken Gergen tell us that “whatever there is makes no requirements about how we talk about it,” that a cup of tea is exactly what it is despite our understanding of it—and yet, there are no value-neutral objects, only those which are defined by their cultural characteristics (Gergen).

The characteristics we use to define value differ—sometimes drastically—from place to place and people to people. Some cultures stand for things others find immoral and vice versa. So, how do we reconcile these differences in cultural perception? “How can we exist with multiple realities and conceptions of morality and value” (Gergen)?

Hindu Swastika
The Swastika has been used as a symbol of good luck in Eurasian religions since ancient times—
with very different connotations than that of its contemporary Western usage. (Reuters)

Foucault tells us that any declaration of what is true, once it becomes true for you, will begin to have power over you—that you will become its host body. A cup of tea is different things to different people because of the communities that agree upon (or host) these meanings. Design works within this same formula, influencing our social perceptions by embedding values and meanings into objects within our communities. Because of this, it is especially important for designers to recognize the possibility for multiple moralities and to think critically about the cultural consequences of design: are designers providing culturally relative design solutions or (perhaps unknowingly) are they shifting cultural perceptions by embedding their own values?

To question this, we must begin to question the methods used in design practice with a critical eye toward cultural relativity. As anyone with a design degree will probably lament, a huge part of formal design training involves the process of having one’s work constantly critiqued by one’s peers. Design itself should not be excluded from this process but “should be self-critical and open to debate” (Poggenpohl 14). It is by questioning and iterating the methods we use that we can improve our practices.

The most prominent methodology in use today, Design Thinking, has been repeatedly touted as a one-size-fits-all workflow that can be used in any situation; and, in a way, this might be true—which is precisely what makes it so problematic. Design Thinking is itself an iterative process that revolves around designers empathizing with users and then brainstorming and prototyping possible solutions. It is a highly valuable workflow for encouraging designers to collaborate with each other, but—in practice—it lives mostly on Post-It notes in the studio, where designers gather around a whiteboard to speculate about the needs of their users. What is missing in this equation is the opportunity for users to create their own solutions. In the end, Design Thinking is a top-down approach that counterintuitively insulates designers from people’s everyday lives (Jen).

Graphic designer Natasha Jen, in her infamous talk, Design Thinking is Bullsh*t, speaks about the importance of criticism in design and the “complete lack of criticism” in the Design Thinking process. She regrets that design practice has been reduced to a defined sequence of steps and suggests that “real designers surround themselves with evidence.” She goes on to challenge designers to share the evidence they produce so that it might be critiqued in a way that progresses the methodology and the discipline as a whole (Jen).

If we examine a typical chart of the Design Thinking process (like the one below from the Stanford D. School), we may find that there are several fundamental steps that seem to be completely missing: steps which enforce the need to “Connect,” “Collaborate,” and “Empower.”

Wicked Constructivism
the traditional Design Thinking model
Wicked Constructivism
an updated, collaborative model

By omitting the needs to collaborate with and empower stakeholders, Design Thinking limits its scope and shows a general disregard for local methods. What this dynamic tends to generate is design solutions which fit the designer’s process rather than the users’ needs.

Traditional design thinking focuses on form and structure. Problems are ‘‘decomposed’’ into smaller steps, and these are prioritized in lists. Actions and inputs are described in a blueprint or plan—and other people produce or implement it. This is a top-down, outside-in approach. It doesn’t work well now because complex systems, especially human-centered ones, won’t sit still while we redesign them. A sense-and-respond kind of design seems to work better: Desired outcomes are described, but not the detailed means of getting to those outcomes (Thackara 213).

Design is “of a moment” and “will always be context-specific—responding to the needs and wants of a population, situation, or geography that is current and contemporary.” (Allen 2) Because the cultures in which we design are constantly evolving, the design process must evolve as well.

Theorist Richard Buchanan claims that design problems are not only “wicked,” they are also “indeterminate”—because design itself is potentially universal in scope (Buchanan 16). He claims that design problems are not singular, vague preconceptions waiting to be clarified, but rather are an unlimited (an indeterminate, a potentially universal) number of possibilities waiting to be discovered.

Because of the infinite nature of wicked problems, designers should not go in with preconceived notions about what the best path to a solution will be, as the problem itself may be subject to change. Buchanan also notes that “what many people call ‘impossible’ may actually only be a limitation of imagination that can be overcome by better design thinking” (Buchanan 19). In other words, we must consider not only that preconceptions may lead to irrelevant design, but that limiting oneself to these preconceptions might be what prevents us from achieving the impossible.

The Once and Future State of Design

If we consider Design to be the act of planning an object, system, or activity, this suggests that the purpose of design is to premeditate some manner of change. Design that changes nothing is useless—like a bird which never leaves its nest—and when we talk about the ‘products of design,’ we are not referring to useless objects but rather those which hold the potential to affect this change. If we contrast this with a discipline like Cultural Anthropology, where the purpose is to study people and the cultural meanings found in societies, then we see a fundamental rift in the way these two disciplines have traditionally operated. Anthropology has been traditionally focused on information-gathering in order to better understand people, and Anthropologists have tried very hard to minimize the impact they have on the people they study. Design, we see, has the exact opposite agenda.

The separation between designers and their users is symptomatic of a long and hegemonic history of colonialism in Western thought. Most of the ‘canonical’ history taught in Western design schools is limited to predominantly European styles, creating the false notion that these are ‘universal’ styles which apply to every situation. This is a close-minded (and frankly imperialistic) approach that limits the designer’s available knowledgebase to a relatively small sect of world culture and forces those Eurocentric values into places where they may not be compatible. The prevailing belief seems to be that since Westerners established Design as a discipline, they must have also invented Design. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The General absence of Indian, African, Asian, Middle Eastern, or any other non-Western knowledge… reflects the disregard for local knowledge and the intention to supplant it with Western design thinking as the dominant methodology. … Bringing design thinking and other nonnative principles to India, Africa, or China… risks becoming another form of cultural imperialism (Tunstall 236).

How, then, might we reconcile a cross-disciplinary collaboration between two disciplines which are fundamentally opposed? This is the rift which the emerging field of Design Anthropology attempts to bridge. Wendy Gunn, one of the more prominent voices in this field, writes that:

…culture and design are not separate analytical domains or extensions of each other. Rather they are deeply entangled, complex, and often messy formations and transformations of meanings, spaces, and interactions between people, objects, and histories. (Gunn)

By incorporating Anthropological methods, designers can an attempt to shift the focus to broader social contexts and to emphasize the cultural aspects (and effects) of design. What that usually means is not just making assumptions about what people want or need but interacting with them on a personal level that allows them to show you what they need.

I should clarify here that I do not mean to criticize all of contemporary design practice as being divorced from user collaboration. Rather, I am specifically criticizing attempts to design in ways which are divorced from user collaboration. In so doing, I am proposing methods to bridge this separation.

The perils of overly designer-centric methods can be seen perhaps most dramatically in recent attempts to address the refugee crisis. Over the last decade, there have been a slew of design companies who apparently perceive this crisis as an opportunity to exhibit their own skill in designing innovative objects, rather than designing innovative experiences.

At the 2017 Dutch Design Week, a panel of designers and humanitarian experts took a critical look at this trend, saying that:

Designers should stop proposing gimmicky solutions to the refugee crisis such as shelters, apps and emergency clothing… ‘micro solutions’ such as backpacks fabricated from life jackets were unhelpful. Instead, designers should focus on removing the physical and non-physical barriers that prevent refugees from travelling and integrating. (Fairs)

In other words, refugees do not need to be detained; they do not need tents that fold up into backpacks; what they need is opportunities to re-integrate with society and rebuild their lives.

Wicked Constructivism
Refugee Fashion – Angela Luna
Wicked Constructivism
Wicked Constructivism
The Sky Shelter – Damian Granosik

Many “design for good” projects falter because they fail to address the deeper concerns facing users, instead opting to focus on a range of micro solutions which treat the symptoms of a problem as they relate to the designer. This is, ultimately, antithetical to the purpose of design. Creating micro solutions which do not affect positive change is to create useless design. Useless design is, at best, counterproductive and, at worst, damaging to the fabric of culture. To quote pre-eminent design theorist Victor Papanek: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few.”

So, to prevent the potential damage caused by those designs which initiate change from inappropriate motivations, designers must learn to question their own motivations and practices. In the early 1970s, the discipline of Anthropology experienced a so-called “reflexive turn” which questioned the cultural biases of anthropologists and greatly altered the methodologies behind anthropological field research (Uddin). Building upon the pioneering work of anthropologists like Franz Boas and James Clifford, modern anthropologists now conduct their research through a lens of cultural relativism, studying diverse cultures as unique iterations of the human condition, rather than as ‘savage’ iterations of Western society (see Cultural Holism).

Anthropology has remained relevant by changing the way anthropologists perceive the people they study—not as curiosities to be exploited but as human beings which possess knowledge and experiences beyond that of the anthropologist. Design, as a discipline, experienced a similar critique at this time through the writings of critics like John Christopher Jones and Victor Papanek—but these critiques had a much smaller impact on design practice, and many hegemonic undertones persist to this day.

While contemporary proponents of Design Anthropology are attempting to address these biases by urging a shift toward a more human-centered agenda (see Decolonizing Design), the writings in this field can be a bit murky concerning the ways practicing designers might actually enact this shift. Ethnographic studies for design can be prohibitively resource-intensive and do not always include the studio element found in Design Thinking—an element which is highly effective for prototyping design solutions. While the critiques of many design anthropologists are certainly well-meaning, they often fail to consider the time and resource constraints of design practice. Most designers simply do not have the resources to mount full-scale ethnographies and qualitative analyses of cultural context. So, design continues its isolating, studio-based methods.

Alternatively, design firms like IDEO, Frog, and IBM have produced several illustrated toolkits and field guides championing Design Thinking as a one-size-fits-all solution to any design problem. This buzzword battle has made Design Thinking into an overly prescriptive process that discourages self-criticism. “Trust the process,” writes IDEO, “even if it feels uncomfortable” (IDEO 13). This dogmatic mindset limits discovery and innovation. While these firms have done well to condense Design Thinking into easily referenced toolkits, their methodologies are overly designer-centric and fall short of the true potential of design to inform cultural experience.

The obvious conclusion, then, is to hybridize these workflows, giving designers complimentary methodologies through an expansive toolkit that modularizes design into a dynamic process grounded in user collaboration. By de-linearizing and expanding Design Thinking, designers would gain the freedom to pick-and-choose human-centered methods to fit the contexts of their design problems. This would alter the purpose of design itself away from that of an object-driven practice and toward that of an experiential activity undertaken by the designer and user as mutual collaborators (Allen 3). By emphasizing user engagement and collaborative design, the role of the designer can begin to shift from that of an exogenous creator to that of an enabler of cultural growth.

Herbert Simon defines design as “courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon 111). It is this type of engagement that I hope to encourage with the following Field Guide to Design Anthropology. By including users in the design process, designers expand their knowledge and resources while allowing the experience of design to grow organically in communities, creating lasting impact where it is needed most.

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