Design’s Invisible Century

Design has entered its invisible century. This does not mean that design itself has become invisible; quite the contrary….But the great discoveries in design in the 21st century will come not from the design we can see, but rather from that which we cannot.

it was in the first decades of the 20th century that Einstein and Freud made their path-breaking discoveries, revealing what Panek calls “hidden universes” that opened up whole new areas of understanding and activity in the “invisible” world of the subatomic particle, space-time continuum and human consciousness.

What Einstein and Freud achieved bears directly on design practices. And in fact the two scientists had much in common with designers. Einstein and Freud were both spatial thinkers, using thought experiments as the basis for most of their discoveries. Einstein imagined being in an elevator traveling at 32 feet per second squared, which is the force of gravity, and he realized that in such a situation, he could not tell whether the elevator was moving or at rest, which meant that acceleration and gravity were the same thing. He then imagined that if a light beam entered the moving elevator on one side, it would strike the other side of the rising elevator slightly lower, appearing to bend — which meant that gravity, too, bent light.

Freud used spatial analogies to describe the unconscious as well. He likened the subconscious to the submerged part of an iceberg or an island to convey the extent to which the subconscious lies below the surface, invisible to us. Freud also described how the physical world takes on metaphorical meaning in our dreams, representing connections we may not be conscious of while awake. The role of the psychoanalyst, like that of a designer or a critic, involves the interpretation of people’s dreams in search of the meaning that we give to the world around us.

Like the best designers, Einstein and Freud each displayed deep empathy; they were able to imagine the world from the perspective of others. Einstein’s discovery of the equivalence of energy and matter when traveling at the speed of light squared came about from his ability to see himself not only as a physicist looking at a particle, but also as the particle itself, imagining what the world would look like from that vantage point. Likewise, Freud’s discovery of the subconscious repressions of his patients hinged on his willingness to sit and listen to them struggle to resist and ultimately open up to his non-judgmental questions about their lives.

Both Einstein and Freud made imaginative and metaphorical use of Wilhelm Röntgen’s late 19th-century discovery of x-rays. Much like the ability of architects and designers to conceptually slice through objects to understand them in plan and section, Einstein and Freud analogized their accomplishments as the equivalent of seeing beneath the surface of things to perceive what had surrounded us all along but never before been visible. As Panek writes, what Einstein and Freud “wound up discovering wasn’t new evidence but a new way of looking at old evidence … a shift not in perception … but in conception.” [3]

And also like designers, who envision objects and environments that do not yet exist, Einstein and Freud took a speculative approach to their work. Unlike many scientists, they didn’t draw their ideas from experimentation, but instead, as Panek writes, “they hypothesized, and then, as need be, depending on the evidence, they revised, until the hypothesis matched observations.” [4] In other words, Einstein and Freud made creative leaps, as designers do, and then tested and adjusted an idea in an iterative way until it aligned with reality.

Einstein and Freud set out to explore their hidden universes because science some hundred years ago left too many paradoxes unexplained and too many ideas unchallenged. Einstein questioned the old assumption that, while we can alter space, we cannot alter time, just as Freud overturned the accepted notion that to catalogue the symptoms of mental illness would be to explain it. And in both cases, they wrestled with paradoxes that others ignored, such as how energy or ideas moved without any intermediary substance like the ether or without connecting neurons to carry them.

Like science at the turn of the last century, design now faces its own unchallenged assumptions and unquestioned paradoxes, and it too has its own hidden universes to explore. Why do we assume, for example, that design primarily involves the creation of physical products or environments, when we know that every human activity has been “designed” in some way? Why have the countless processes of design, which pervade and inform almost all that we encounter in our daily lives, remained so invisible to most people? And what does design have to contribute to the seemingly invisible systems, services and flows that have begun to fail us because of their poor design? Because so few people have any education in design thinking, they often do not understand or know how to employ the design process — the iterative, critical examination of possible scenarios that has proven so effective in the physical world in anticipating likely failures or unintended consequences that need correction before a design becomes a reality. And because most designers rarely have the opportunity to apply this process to the invisible world of processes and procedures, we all suffer as a result.

Design thinking enables us not only to create things that work well, but also to anticipate what could go wrong and to prevent that from happening as much as humanly possible

we need to begin applying design thinking to this invisible universe of processes, policies and procedures as thoroughly and as rigorously as we have to the visible world. This will entail two fundamental shifts in how we think about design itself. First, it will require a change in education, in which the design of physical products and environments would be just one among several possible ways to use this knowledge — and just one among a range of careers for designers. Legal education went through such a transformation in the 20th century, when law schools began to emphasize not only trial law but also legal analysis and thinking, and in this way expanded the application of legal skills to encompass the fuller range of career paths now available to lawyers, many of whom never set foot in a courtroom. For design education, this means a much greater emphasis on the epistemology of design — on how designers think and on how the design process works — and a much greater acceptance among educators that applications of this knowledge will extend well beyond those currently emphasized in most design schools.

Eric William Carroll, Time and Space (left) and Space and Time (right). [From the series G.U.T. Feeling]

Second, it will require a rethinking of design as a fundamental skill with which all educated people should have some familiarity and even facility. We accept that this is true for other disciplines — for examples, we are all expected to have some understanding of mathematical, scientific and historical models of thinking; but design — the one form of thinking that assesses the world not as it is or was, but as it could be — hardly exists in primary, secondary or even post-secondary education. To address this lacuna, design educators and practitioners need to develop new structures for collaboration with teachers at all levels in preparing design curriculum modules for primary and secondary education, and also to intensify our partnerships with other disciplines in applying design thinking to the many wicked problems we face.

These two shifts might seem contradictory. If we educate everyone to think like designers, will we need designers anymore? The answer, of course, is yes. We still have mathematicians, scientists and historians, even though most educated people have some ability to understand how these disciplines think and proceed. We also still have law schools, even though legal thinking has penetrated many aspects of our lives. The design disciplines, too, will remain important fields unto themselves, and many practitioners will continue to design objects in the physical world, just as many scientists after Einstein and Freud have continued to discover new things about the visible world. But as in these other realms, design thinking will become more powerful in its ability to improve the quality of our lives as it becomes more pervasive in our educational system and more prominent in the design of the invisible world.

The examples of Einstein and Freud suggest how we might do this. Just as their discoveries produced paradigm shifts in our understanding of reality, so too could designers apply the ways in which we think and see — “with x-ray eyes” as Panek said of Einstein and Freud — to phenomena far beyond the physical forms and spaces we now focus on. This shift will almost certainly lead to new discoveries, if for no other reason than that the invisible realm of design remains so largely unexplored by the design community itself. And with it will come whole new professional roles. Science’s invisible century launched fields such as atomic physics, psychoanalysis and human genomics, to name just a few, and the invisible century of design is already beginning to spawn new career tracks with names like service design, experience design, public-interest design and geo-design.


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