The problem with communication is the illusion that is has occurred. -G.B. Shaw
I recently had the chance to work with a non-profit agency. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity at the start. My experience in the field was exactly what they were looking for, they said. Speculations around a possible thesis subject even came up. It was a big break for a new kid in town, looking to get his foot in the door. I was keen to impress and eager to get started. I wrote briefs, framed the scope of my work, and detailed clear outlines of what I was prepared to do.
Describing what a transdisciplinary designer does, or can do, is actually a challenging task. Make it too complicated and you confuse your audience. Make it too simple and you nervously wonder if you’re understating your skills. In this case, I chose to emphasize what they were looking for: a needs assessment. I offered to help map out the explicit and tap into the tacit knowledge of their clients. Through action research and precedent studies I was going to help an organization expand; to grow into a bigger and better version of their current selves in a way that focused the needs of their clients.
The stage was set and my research methods were in place. Group exercises were strategized then set in motion. Trust between me and my subjects was established and nurtured. The information I was requested to seek out began to flow in. Unexpected insights valuable knowledge quickly filled my note books and clip boards. Week after week, I returned to the location, building honest relationships, growing more and more invested in my work. I was looking forward to meeting with my client, finally having the opportunity to share both the information I had uncovered and what it would imply for the direction of the organization. My focus was on demonstrating the value of a design methodology; hoping to set a good example for what it meant to have a transdisciplinary designer involved in a project.
In all of my eagerness to impress, however, and my enthusiasm for showcasing a ‘transdesign approach’, I missed something. It wasn’t in my research methodology. It wasn’t a lack of documentation. It was, in fact, having too much information. It appeared that not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for what extensive research will unearth. My insights uncovered more holes than the client was looking to fill. I had never even thought to filter my reports, to minimize the opportunities for improvement, or to just sit quietly and observe. But, that’s exactly what happened.
Transdisciplinary design is an exciting and progressive branch on the tree. As it remains challenging to define or impose limitations on, we, as students run the risk of reframing a problem to one which had hoped to remain anonymous. Sometimes clients are only looking for answers they already had. This was the situation I was in. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t made clear what I would be doing or how I would get there. It was, I believe, a misunderstanding of what that could mean. My client was not interested in how flawed the system was, but instead, just the things they could fix. I had assumed that pointing out the issues first then selecting actionable tasks was the right thing to do. Maybe it was, but it also put me in the ‘issue’ pile.
From this experience, I’ve learned to keep it simple; not to give it all up until the waters have been tested. As I continue to be surprised by what a transdisciplinary approach is capable of, I should remember that others will be too. Some have a difficult time understanding the difference between an interior designer and an architect, let alone inter-, multi-, or transdiscipline design. As I continue to move forward, steadily improving TransDesign elevator pitch, I will also remember that it’s a difficult formula to use, often causing unexpected results. As always, communication is key and remembering who your client is helps to shape the message.