11.26.10 | Ideas
Picture an industry where an average work-week is sixty to one-hundred hours long. Projects last an intense four to eight months, and on any given day you can be either in a rat-infested sewer or in a 22 million dollar home. This is the ‘magical’ land of film production. ‘Magical’ is often how it’s described, but personally, I didn’t get to see much magic over the 10 years that I was there. The only rabbits that came out of hats were computer generated images created by a team of twenty to thirty visual effects artists; landing alien spaceships were painted plywood, lowered in with cranes in the back parking lot of a Home Depot after; and action heros are often scared of heights. I’m not stating these facts to ruin the fantasy, but rather to draw attention to the amount of blood, sweat and tears it takes to create the dream-scapes we all love to retreat to. In this world of false fronts and special effects you would never know I played a part in your experience unless you sat through the credits at the end. Not seeing what happens just beyond the camera’s frame is what keeps the audience entranced. It maintains the illusion that the world you are watching is a believable alternative. I enjoyed participating in these fantasies, but eventually I grew interested in helping to shape something more real.
Now as I move through the Transdisciplinary Design program at Parsons, I have become increasingly aware of the expectations people, outside of design, may have for ‘design thinking’. I’m a little concerned that I’m still responsible for holding the rabbit and landing the spaceship; that somehow with a few weeks and a stack of Post-It notes, my skills as a designer can be applied to almost any problem. As the field of design begins to expand into new areas of investigation and strategizing, transparency may be just as crucial as the final deliverable. There are often dozens of collaborators involved in any given project, but if that interdisciplinary process is not made transparent, the credibility of the work may be lost on face-value judgements. Where my labors were once shrouded in a veil of secrecy, it’s now important for me to disclose what it is that I do and how I do it. My audience is now part of my experience and the greatest challenge might be communicating the journey.
Design, for me, has become an opportunity to work on real-world problems – understanding what’s behind the curtain in order to intervene. The problems I am interested in engaging with are so complex and interdisciplinary that it would be completely counter-productive to confront them alone. In fact, the more others weigh in on my projects, the more successful they are likely to be. This is a completely different process than I am used to, and it’s taken time for me to adjust. But maintaining the work ethic I developed in film and merging it with the collaborative nature of design has led to interesting opportunities to help shape the world I live in. The more I open the doors to what I do, as a designer, the more likely my concepts are to succeed. But more importantly, the more I let people into my process, the better they will understand what I am capable of and where my limitations may be. To say nothing and adopt the personification of ‘design thinker’ is to set myself up, and those I work with, for disappointment; the disappointment of being unable to meet unrealistic expectations. I’m not selling answers: I’ve got a truck full of tools, a curiosity for the un-imagined, and a commitment to playing well with others.
My battles are not won through Illustrator or Photoshop, however designers today are expected to be little more than warriors of the pen tool. If these are the only signifiers of designers, I believe I’m not owning my full potential, as the design process is capable of so much more. The more transparent I become, the more honest value I may have. It would be naive to think that design could solve every problem. However, the analytical skills that designers strive to hone can reach much further than addressing many immediate problems we are presented with. If we can demonstrate and articulate our analytical skills in the same way we often demonstrate or display the final design, it may serve to reinforce the value of design while bridging a gap to those who provide us with the challenges we have yet to address. Through understanding the method by which designers unearth both problems and opportunities, one can better understand and appreciate the potential design has to study, scrutinize, then develop viable and sustainable interventions into a variety of scenarios. Much of the beauty in design can be found in the visualization of process. The mess and chaos involved in searching for solutions is often mapped out, illustrated, documented and relatively easy to navigate. This process provides the opportunity for involvement, input, and discussion. Fresh eyes can usually get up to speed quite quickly and offer an opinion or even a leg-up over an obstacle. It is this transparent nature that can help expose the unseen leverage points in a problem and the potential opportunities.
Although the hours are only slightly shorter and I am currently not welcome in many million dollar homes, my career in design is providing me with much more than an opportunity to simply fool the eye and entrance the mind. I can help make real changes and improvements to our world. I can help create a better and more affordable experience for my parents should they ever need an extended care facility. I can help develop a text messaging device for those suffering arthritis. I can rethink the way my best friend travels to work every day to help to reduce his carbon footprint. All of these opportunities involve participation and transparency. Understanding and recognizing the true opportunities for design to improve people’s quality of life is important in developing a discipline which is mature and sustainable. ‘Design thinking’, unfortunately, sounds like the next ‘smoke-and-mirrors’ magic trick in problem solving. But this is only because it is poorly understood, and designers have not yet helped people to understand it better. Once people fully appreciate what design is capable of, hopefully they will see that there is room for all of us to participate in the creation of our shared reality.