How the illustrated cross-sections of a building, and the assemblage of debris from a violent accident, exemplify the emergent practices of designing for complex problems.
When I was a kid I was a faux-vegetarian for about 6 months. I absolutely refused to dissect that darned frog in biology class, and knew that the only way I could get out of it was to lie—hence my fabricated disdain for meat. As a result, my teacher informed me that instead of partaking in the dissection exercise, I would have to reconstruct the innards of the frog using plasticine. He wanted to ensure that even though I wasn’t poking and prodding my way through the biology of a real frog, that I would still be able to understand the underlying and interconnected systems within its body. He saw value in pushing me to look beyond what my eyes could see.
My creative inspiration for this project, was Stephen Biesty’s book, “Incredible Cross-Sections”. His intricate, heavily detailed illustrations, which were guided by architectural renditions and engineering constructs, transports his readers inside the walls of real buildings, ships and machines. The human interactions within the drawings shows how the reader can relate to the space, while simultaneously leaving room for explorations into the realities and practicalities of that place. They serve as chronologies of complex ideas, that we had previously perceived to be solitary artifacts. What you had once seen as a castle, morphed into defense systems, food storage rooms, stables, cannons, priests, guards, etc., where each detail unravels the narrative of that larger artifact. The castle no longer stands alone as one entity.
Today, I see this cross-sectional approach to narration as an opportunity for design. We often speak to scalar thinking, and the importance of design considering both the details and the larger picture within which we find those details. As a tool, cross-sections give us the capacity to stretch and shift ourselves across disciplines and make room for conversations about the fluid parts that make that problem a reality on a scalar, or a non-scalar level. It highlights the intangible parts of an idea, and translates them into feedback systems, and reinforcing loops that affect the way that problem works. The implications have tangible and intangible effects.
On the morning of February 1st, 2003, NASA’s orbiter Columbia began its ascent into the earth’s atmosphere. During this process, pieces of material tragically flew off the orbiter and subsequently impacted its left side. As it neared the earth’s surface, it began to rapidly disintegrate, scattering debris across a vast stretch of land between eastern Texas to western Virginia. As questions about the cause of this tragedy began to unfold, it became apparent that in order to understand the problem, the team was going to have to reconstruct the orbiter.
Using different colors of tape the Project Reconstruction Team plotted out a grid on the floor of a hangar, and created a life-sized outline of the Columbia orbiter. Materials experts from all over came together and began the daunting task of identifying, characterizing and placing the pieces of debris from the shuttle in their corresponding location on the original orbiter. Upon placement, and theoretical reconstruction of the orbiter, the engineer team began to generate answers with regards to what went wrong. They had a visual, tangible map of where the problems could be found. The systems of the orbiter became intelligent.
In this case, the Reconstruction Team knew that by deciphering the system of the machine, they could begin to understand their problem, and perhaps apply those revelations to future projects. They drew upon their capabilities and capacities as designers, and worked towards generating a cohesive and integrated solution through tangible research.
For the designer that deals with intangible parts, and doesn’t have the luxury of physical artifacts to pull apart, this process of dissection becomes more ambiguous. How do you map that which you cannot see or hold? How do you pull apart an idea to see what it is made up of? How do you create a solution without relying on the trade-based knowledge of how that artifact works? How do you decide where the best point of inflection resides?
The solution in most design studios, is to create a mind map—you find a marker, and start drawing and narrating the conversations that you are having surrounding that overarching concept. Connections are made between the parts, and the outliers find their places within the system. The result is a visual outline of information, networks and relationships. What stands before you is the dissection of the internal mechanisms of the problem. The frog is no longer just an exterior entity.
I can’t help but think that this mapping technique is only the beginning of this cross-sectional approach to design. We need to start to concretize this method, and give it a more conceptual and well-thought out process. We need to build a foundation for this method of surveyal of the complex problems we are being asked to break down. There are many hands in the pot, and we need to figure out how to uncover the folds between these different narratives, and break away from the assumption that there is only one solution to any problem.