For the last two years, I've been doing to designers what they
usually do unto others. Which is to say, I've been observing and
studying them, asking a lot of questions and trying to discern
patterns. Here are a few things I've learned along the way.
To be more specific, they ask what Bruce Mau calls “the stupid
questions”—the kind that are actually profound, but can make you
look stupid because they address fundamental issues. When designers
ask the powers that be, “Why are you doing things this way?” or
“What are we really trying to accomplish here?” or “Does it have to
have four wheels?” it can seem as if they're bogging down the
business meeting. But they are actually cracking open the door to
real innovation and progress.
It's a gift designers have that I'm not sure they fully
appreciate: the ability to recognize that the present reality is a
temporary and changeable condition. (To the rest of us, reality
looks like reality, something to be accepted with a shrug.) I think
all of this is captured nicely in the joke some designers tell
about themselves. How many designers does it take to change a
light bulb? Answer: Does it have to be a light bulb?
In these times, with so much in need of reinvention, we need
people who know how to ask stupid questions. And who are actually
willing to ask them—because it does take a certain amount of
courage to question the fundamentals. Or, to put it in the pithy
words of George
Lois, “You gotta have guts to be the person in the room who's
asking 'why' while everybody else is nodding their heads.”
When I first began visiting designers' studios and workshops, I
noticed a lot of hoarding going on: five-year-old magazines,
sketches on the wall from long-ago projects, lateral drawers filled
with hunks of plastic and scraps of leftover cloth. I have
relatives who engage in this kind of behavior for no good reason,
but designers actually have a reason: They are master
“recombinators.” They can take a bit of this and a piece of that to
form something completely new.
Designers can do this because—as you probably know, and as RISD
professor Charlie Cannon informed me—they are born and trained to
synthesize, to take existing elements or ideas and bring them
together in creative and coherent ways. The beauty of this, from
the standpoint of anyone who happens to be involved in creative
endeavors of any kind, is that it shows you don't always have to
invent entirely from scratch. To quote the designer John Thackara
(who coined the wonderful term “smart recombinations”), most of us
who are out there trying to create or innovate “are needlessly
constrained by the myth that everything [we] do has to be a unique
and creative act.” But the good news is, somebody already invented
the wheel—all the rest of us need do is design new ways to combine
it with other stuff that already exists. (Example: Put wheels on an
alarm clock, as designer Gauri Nanda did, and you've created the
to rouse you in the morning because you must chase after it to turn
off the alarm.)
When it comes to ideas, most of us humans are all talk. But
something I learned about designers is that they very quickly give
form to their ideas. Ask a designer about a notion he/she has and
immediately that designer starts sketching it out for you on any
scrap of paper that's handy. At that point the idea exists, even if
only on a napkin. Whatever form a rough prototype may take—a carved
piece of foam rubber, a cut-and-paste collage or a digital
mock-up—it represents a level of commitment that most people aren't
willing or able to make when it comes to bringing a young idea into
the world. Here again, the designer is showing guts—because when
you commit to an idea early, sharing it while it's still tender and
imperfect, you open yourself up to criticism. You hand people
something that is tangible enough to be torn apart.
But you also give them something to pass around, and to build
upon, and rally around. The designer Brian Collins has a wonderful
phrase he uses: “Design is hope made visible.” Designers can show
us a better future, can present us with all kinds of new
possibilities so that we can decide: Is this what we want?
Before any of that can happen, though, the designer must first
commit—by taking what is just a faint glimmer in the mind's eye and
giving it shape and life.
This is not always a good thing, and can, in fact, be annoying.
Designers obsess so much about their work that it's a wonder they
ever let any finished project out the door. And they're just as
tough on everyone else's work. As I discovered, if you let
designers read what you've written about them in advance, they will
try to finesse every word. They can't help but notice all
the imperfections in the world around them, even when they ought to
have other things on their minds. (Once, when Michael Graves was in
the midst of a medical crisis, he reportedly said from his hospital
gurney, “I don't want to die here—it's too ugly!”)
But if it's true that designers sometimes care about things that
don't matter, it's also true they care about things that do:
homeless shelters, better hospital rooms, better voting ballots,
mortgages that can be understood, prisons that actually might be
livable, social services that actually might work. Designers are
tackling all of these challenges and more, and they're not doing it
for the money—because the money is in making the next iPhone.
They're doing it, I think, because they can't help noticing that
things around them are more imperfect than ever these days. And
because they can't stop themselves from stupidly asking, “Why?” and
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