My dad is a retired ceramic engineering professor. He is what many people would call “extremely left-brained”. He is the kind of guy who stays up late into the night doing math puzzles for fun. Engineering has always been a core part of his personal identity, even after he became a professor. For him teaching was a process of making new engineers. His job was to take unformed high school graduates and transform them into good engineers, capable of tackling the toughest problems with knowledge, ingenuity, tenacity and a dash of principled impishness.
Like many highly analytical people, my dad tends to view design as a mostly subjective domain, dealing with aesthetic taste and feelings, as opposed to the kind of objective problem-solving engineers do.
This misconception of design is not uncommon. It is especially prevalent in engineering-led organizations. And since designers spend much of their time collaborating with engineers this misconception has practical consequences.
So changing my dad’s view on design and its relationship to engineering seemed like an interesting challenge, and one that might even help solve some tough real-world problems.
I tried several approaches. I talked to him about theory. I explained human-centered design methods. I told him stories about projects. I tried to convey to him what I find fascinating and frustrating about design problems. None of it stuck. So, I backed up and reframed my communication challenge as a design problem. I knew if I wanted him to adopt my concept, I would have to make it intuitive, which meant connecting it to his own experiences and using as much of his vocabulary as possible. Here is what I came up with:
Back when he was teaching, some of the most important classes he taught were on material science. His students learned the properties of different kinds of ceramics under varying conditions, such as heat, pressure, stresses of various kinds, etc.), and how to apply this knowledge to solve engineering problems. Because good engineers build systems out of well-understood materials with predictable characteristics.
I explained to him that designers face a similar situation, except our systems include not only physical parts, but also human participants, which we, like engineers, need to understand thoroughly in order to solve the kinds of problems designers are hired to solve. Our problems involve getting people to respond in some particular way to what we are making. Insights into how our human participants think, feel and behave in different conditions helps us develop systems that inspire the right kinds of participation in our systems. Participation might be nothing more than noticing some artifact and forming a positive impression. It might be adopting a tool and using it skillfully. Or it might be actively engaging and actually using a service.
Yes, aesthetics, taste, feelings and subjectivity are an important part of our job, but we are interested in how they coalesce into a person who will experience what we are making and respond with feelings, thoughts and actions that support the overall system we are developing. And that system is made up not only of the participants, but also non-human parts — the parts engineers build.
So, to summarize: design research is the material science of design. In material science, the goal is to understand the rules that determine behaviors of materials, so that when an engineer uses them in a system they predictably function as intended; in design research the goal is to understand the factors that influence certain types of people to feel, think and act, so if someone of that type encounters a design they will predictably respond as intended.
This seems to work well enough for its intended purpose. But unexpectedly, it started working on me as well. Since conceiving design and design research this way, the logic of the explanation has taken on a life of its own, and it has begun to change my own understanding of what design essentially is.
(To be continued.)