Archive for March, 2010

“When Matisse created an image it was often only a starting point,” The Economist explains in their review of “Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917” at the Art Institute of Chicago. For instance, sophisticated technical analysis of one of the artist’s masterpieces reveals that “the canvas was wiped clean more than two dozen times before he was satisfied.” In contrast to popular notions that such works leap fully formed into reality, these revelations about Matisse’s way of working will come as no big surprise to many artists and designers. This process of learning from what we create with our hands – in the form of sketches, models and prototypes – is the basis for interaction and discovery that results in better decisions.

Donald A. Schon and Michael Schrage have each contributed illuminating perspectives regarding the hands-on iterative process. Schon has written about “design as a reflective conversation” and Schrage writes that “Quick and dirty prototypes can turn clients into partners.”

The slide show above captures aspects of our thinking-doing-thinking process.

-Sharon VanderKaay

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What happens when we place as much emphasis on the quality of our interactions as the quality of our products? And to take this notion a step further, what would we expect an all-time best design experience to look like?

To begin this investigation, let’s ask ourselves what kind of interaction is at the opposite end of the spectrum from a Fountainhead-inspired journey of clashing wills? What’s the alternative for innovators who find themselves struggling to defend their ideas in a seemingly hostile or indifferent world? How might clients and other stakeholders actually enjoy—rather than endure—their roles as responsible contributors to the built environment?

In our way of thinking, the opposite end of the interactive spectrum from clashing agendas is a transformational experience. These experiences enrich the lives of everyone at the planning table; they raise our spirits and expand our horizons. In contrast to traditional interventions that aim for buy in, we’ve seen the benefits of a mutual quest to raise the bar to new heights. This mutual quest banishes the assumption that the designer must carry on a valiant, one-sided campaign to address quality of life design issues.

Wrestling with the impact of a project together with stakeholders instills a sense of joint stewardship. Wise use of project resources and opportunities becomes a shared responsibility with the architect, rather than pursuing “us versus them” interests. Reliance on fancy presentations or charismatic persuaders is less important than knowing how to tap into the innate human desire to do something extraordinary.

By focusing on quality of interactions, designers can be catalysts for breakthroughs—experienced as transformational, aha! moments—in design and planning. These revelations and great leaps forward are built on a shared, expansive definition of each project’s purpose, opportunities and constraints.

Tight, mechanically-inspired processes are woefully self-limiting when compared to designing transformational experiences that appeal to hearts and minds. It should also be noted that this level of engagement goes far beyond faux-facilitation methods that skim the surface of obvious options.

Designers sell themselves short when they describe their fundamental role as problem solvers. For one thing, research by Ronald Lippitt indicates that “listing and solving problems depresses groups.” Also, the term problem solving creates the impression that designers engage primarily in reductive thinking.

Designing shared transformational experiences is where exceptional value is created. The above chart illustrates the shift from transactional to transformational design.

– Sharon VanderKaay


Over the past few months we’ve been attempting to capture our design thinking process in some sort of graphic. Part of the reason for setting out to create this diagram was my reaction to Roger Martin’s depiction of “The Knowledge Funnel” in his book “The Design of Business.” Although I’m a huge fan of Martin and his two latest books, the funnel seems a mismatch with his views on expanding possibilities via integrative thinking.

So I started sketching how we actually move through our design process, searching beyond easy answers, leading to co-created solutions. The diagram that emerged looked more like a liquid arrow.

In the back of my mind, I’ve been wondering since I first saw the funnel if I was the only person who had reservations about it. But recently, in Paula Thornton’s post “Design Thinking in Stereo: Martin and Brown,” she also questions the funnel saying “For me, the funnel detracts from the original concepts, as the funnel forces something that was once fluid and unidirectional into a very linear concept.”

So I was inspired by Paula’s thoughts to post our current snapshot above for your feedback.

-Sharon VanderKaay




  • About The Nature of Innovation

    We see our collaboration with clients and colleagues as providing a living lab for enriching the creative process. Farrow’s built work has been internationally recognized for leadership in human-centric design. This is where we come to discuss our ideas as they hatch and our experiences as they happen.
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