Sometime in 2011 a younger version of me, with bangs I’d cut myself, was standing in front of a class of fellow design students and saying: “My favorite definition of design is by Herbert Simon – everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” And today, though having a much better haircut, it is still my favorite definition of design.
By using it as a guide I’ve learned to frame much of my work as a designer as a matter of seeing the present and imagining the future. Seeing the present seems quite simple, but it is one of the more difficult and vulnerable things we can do. Mostly because it involves admitting that we’re wrong, and have probably been wrong for a while. This is a humbling and truly irritating feeling, trust me – I’ve been wrong a lot (and not just about the bangs).
We all possess an innate shortsightedness. There are habits we pick up, ways of speaking, seeing and understanding that are so deeply embedded that we don’t realize they’re affecting our view of the world, and way we work, until – one day we do. And that’s when we feel humbled and irritated. The struggle to overcome this shortsightedness is a defining feature of a designer. We have to be able to see the present clearly. We cannot plot maps to an imagined future if we are lying to ourselves about where the starting point’s at.
I’ve lived in Trinidad and Tobago for most of my life. The capital city of Trinidad and Tobago is Port-of-Spain. I’ve always known this. The sky is blue, the capital city is Port-of-Spain, my eyes are brown. Simple and uninteresting fact. I don’t remember who pointed out to me as a teenager that ‘isn’t that weird?’. And it actually was weird that the capital city of an independent republic would still be called by…not even a name really, but by a straightforward mark of ownership to another country. And I was humbled by my own shortsightedness, and I was irritated. The irritation was mostly that I hadn’t seen it first, that I had never questioned it all on my own. But sometimes we all do need a bit of help understanding just how compromised our vision really is.
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Seeing the present is calling out the obvious plainly, and often painfully. It’s being honest about where we’re falling short, where our processes are flawed, or about the fact that our well thought out processes are leading us in the wrong direction. It is difficult work for both ourselves as designers, and for those we are designing with and for. It is acknowledging reality without compromise. Without ‘but that’s because this is how we’ve always done it’ or ‘but I sent an email about that a while ago and no one replied’. It’s humbling to acknowledge our shortcomings. And irritating to have them pointed out. But it is necessary to the work of seeing.
There’s a (by now quite famous) occupational safety procedure used on Japanese trains called pointing and calling – which is a satisfyingly self-explanatory name. When the doors are closing the train driver will point to the doors and call ‘good closure’, before departing a station he’ll point to the time on the timetable and call out the departure. It’s a method that’s meant to direct attention, so that the workers on the train don’t slip into doing things automatically (and thoughtlessly) and thus – making mistakes. Calling out our existing situation is a designer’s way of drawing our attention, so that we don’t slip into old ways of seeing and doing. It’s the first step in the process of changing our existing situation into a preferred one.