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#108 It's a process
"Unconferences" and more ⏭
This week’s Design Lobster is zooming in to the design process itself. We’ll examine what’s really happening when a design solution “suddenly” comes together and explore why a conference with no speakers might actually be the best kind. Enjoy! ⤵️
This week I also want to share another fantastic newsletter about design. It’s called Considered and is written by Jared Gordon and Kevin Kelly. Each issue dives deeply into artefacts as varied as Crossword Puzzles, Henry Hoovers and the Rubik’s Cube. I love it, and I think you might too.
Question: What is abductive reasoning?
Probably the most mysterious (and sometimes controversial) part of the design process, is the moment that a solution comes together. Often it’s hard even for the designer themselves to explain exactly how they’ve have arrived at an idea, which makes the whole process feel like a kind of magic.
In fact, what’s often going on is a particular kind of reasoning. Many of us have heard of deductive and inductive reasoning, which make logical inferences based on the information contained in their premises. Abductive reasoning works a bit differently and can be thought of as the argument to the best explanation – where we bring our understanding of the situation and our past experience to draw conclusions about what might be going on. Thus, a surprising design idea might spring up, apparently out of nowhere, because the designer has extrapolated (possibly even subconsciously) from the original information provided.
In this paper, designer and educator Jon Kolko talks about the power of this form of reasoning with design problems. What he calls Design Synthesis is abductive reasoning working within the constraints of a design problem to uncover novel solutions.
Design takeaway: How might abductive reasoning open up possibilities in your design project?
I was re-reading Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth recently. One bullet point in it refers to an intriguing conference held by art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in the 90s which featured all the peripheral activities of a conference, but no actual talks or speakers. In Obrist’s words:
The meeting I organized at the Jülich research center for “Art and Brain” had all the constituents of a colloquium except the colloquium. There were coffee breaks, a bus trip, meals, tours of the facilities, but no colloquium.
—Hans Ulrich Obrist, in conversation with Robert Fleck in 1995
Reportedly, the conference was a great success and spawned a great number of new collaborations. Bruce Mau uses this anecdote as a reminder that we often make progress in the interstitial spaces outside of formal “work” activities. Chaining ourselves to our desk is often less conducive to finding a creative solution than having a conversation or even going for a walk. Ideas need space to develop – and that space is often found in unscheduled moments outside of your formal “process” – the intellectual equivalent of a coffee break between talks.
Design takeaway: Are you giving yourself the space to come up with a truly creative solution?
Quote: “There is no direct path between the designer’s intention and the outcome. As you work a problem, you are continually in the process of developing a path into it, forming new appreciations and under-standings as you make new moves.”
– Terry Winograd, Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University
This quote comes from one of the pioneers of software design, who is still working at Stanford University d.school. His 1996 essay collection Bringing Design to Software is well worth a read. Terry’s quote captures how each stage of design work can lead to an entirely new understanding of the original problem – a great reminder to keep your thinking and assumptions flexible as you progress through a project.
Trust the process this week!
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