Bridgette Engeler Newbury shares her thoughts on “preferred design” in this blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
I recently returned from a conference in London – three days with a few hundred people in design management theory, practice and research from across the world. Design management was an area of professional practice for me for many years, and along with strategic design, it’s one of the areas that pulled me to foresight and futures inquiry.
The conference gave me the opportunity to consider my hypothesis – and existing theories – that futures thinking and design make good bedfellows, if not soul mates. For starters they’re both about problem-solving, and both are fundamentally about human need and lived experience. Both can build capacity to cope with uncertainty in decision processes, and help people make sense of competing demands. Theory, research and practice in both domains tend towards highly interdisciplinary and even trans-disciplinary application and implementation.
It was a great three days. I got to play – not lead or teach – the Polak Game in a ‘Future Worlding’ workshop. I got to listen to discussions about redesigning the PhD, see presentations on building sustainability into design practice and management, and hear Richard Buchanan (the guy who really got design thinking connected to wicked problems) talk about the broadening of design from what he calls the first and second orders of design into the third and fourth orders of design. I ran a workshop introducing design practitioners to Harman’s Fan; I gave a paper about why design thinking isn’t ‘the answer’ and asked if it has yet to reframe the question. And still, stuff got in the way. Stuff that I increasingly sense hangs over the potential of these two disciplines when they get together. Here are a few thoughts:
Trust me, I’m a designer. Believe me, I’m a futurist.
In the design and foresight domains many people have deeply-held beliefs about their respective knowledge, skills and expectations, and about what their ‘customers’ and users want. It seems there’s a lot of what either group might consider unchallengeable facts.
Like a common belief that ‘the future’ is an indisputable fact, there is common belief that ‘good design’ is always ‘sustainable’ or equal to ‘sustainable design’. This belief often assumes that ‘good design’ and ‘sustainable design’ are understood and valued, and are unchallengeable facts that then frame thinking about the future.
Bias and assumptions? Who me?
Bias affects how we think about uncertain and complex events, and can limit opportunities for inquiry, learning and understanding. People rely on their mental models and world views, and fall back on the cognitive barriers that have always supported them. So yes, there is a need to guard against the bias of preconceived ideas – but this is as true for the futurist as it is for the designer, design thinker or human who wears neither label.
A premise of design thinking is to gain the input of diverse stakeholders and foster divergent thinking so that new and different potential pathways for addressing a particular problem can be considered (along with the longer-term consequences of different options). This doesn’t mean that participants in a design thinking process are without strong normative preferences, nor that these preferences are easily discarded, or should be discarded. But bias and preferences can determine that a particular pathway is accepted as the right or only way to go.
And I’ve got a great idea for…
So often, what is labelled and sold as design is a nice creative solution to a problem that hasn’t been defined, let alone addressed in that solution. And so too a foresight process can support ideas aligned with particular interests or outcomes.
The good, the bad and the…ethical?
Many disciplines are undergoing change and facing ethical challenges. Design is one – and foresight is arguably not exempt from this phenomenon. After all, both disciplines are implicated in the imagining, generating and materialisation of much of the world we live in and the worlds we anticipate. Design as a mode of thinking has been instrumental in forging new human relations and connecting human to non-human, non-sentient, non-living and mediated objects, environments and technologies, affecting behaviour, culture and outcomes. Foresight too enables this crossover in theory, thought and practice.
If the designer is an ethical subject implicated in modifications to natural environments, then so too is the futurist. Is there such a thing as ethical practice? Who defines it? And how? What constitutes ethical practice in design or futures work? And who decides? What is good or right is not a clear material judgement or manifestation. If design and foresight are indeed ‘friends with benefits’ then one of the contributions of exploring their relationship is that it may offer up ways to consider new and emerging modes of ethical practice and even practical ethics.