Friday, April 27, 2007

Design as enlightenment

Joe Kendall and I presented our theory of design this afternoon; it's a triangular space between Functionality, Aesthetics, and Value that grows and then shrinks in time (so it's really two tetrahedons joined at the base, a shape for which I swear there's a name I'm not thinking of) along with a series of names and ways to move within that space. The talk was inspired by our trip to the Osaka competition in January and grew out of our frustration at not having an adequate vocabulary to talk about design with. We're reworking our talk for Expo, and I'd like to write a paper on it to see if we can solidify the theory we've come up with, maybe even do some research on it.

It seems so... fuzzy. And fuzziness is not necessarily a bad thing. It's a difficult, complex field we're talking about. To claim we can solidify terms at this point would be to dismiss the richness of the design terrain. This is where we need to be, wandering in a fog of ideas and absorbing and appreciating the haze while still moving forward towards a hill we can see things better by.

As a student who once dreamed of being an art major - and still does sometimes - I have a love-hate relationship with "artsiness." On the one hand, it's a wellspring of meaning and creativity. Personal expression, sublime beauty, raw emotion, precise articulation. On the other hand... "shininess" is not strictly necessary for functionality. And the engineer half of my brain says, "why bother?" When Eric Munsing talked about how Ben Linder reminded him to fine-tune the font on his resume, half of me went "yeah, noticing those details is great!" and the other half blanched and thought "what a waste of time."

"Well, you have to think about those sorts of things," Eric explained, "because designers - they make every little thing mean something. They don't just wake up in the morning and put on clothes. They look at what the clothes say, what the font says about you. And it's not that they're obsessed with [surface] appearances, but they're aware of it."

"So part of being a designer is being aware of things, being able to be in the present moment," I said, before realizing I'd heard those words before. "It's like this weird western consumerism form of zen meditation." Eric nodded. "Capitalist zen." And it is, if you look at it a certain way. We've combined Western-style intellectual analysis frameworks with an Eastern-style depth of now-awareness. It's a connection I'm going to keep an eye out for, this idea of design as zen.

In other news, I'm definitely sick (nope, the sore throat on Monday was not just dehydration) and having to blow my nose every few minutes is making it hard to write my papers. Whee. The routine is "write a few sentences, blow nose, drink water, cough, write, sneeze, repeat.

In other-other news, I'm starting to find a happy place in social science research - it's an entire fleld where everybody, the whole point, is to be meta. The more meta you are, the better work you do. You collect data, then analyze it, then analyze your analysis, then analyze the analysis of your... it's tons of information, all going around, whirling around, looking for small places to build solidity from, but it's like walking in a swarm of idea-butterflies and thought-leaves, rippling through your hair in a way that's just exhilarating. It's stretching the boundaries of my mind in a way that engineering alone isn't doing at the moment - I get more depth out of engineering if I approach it from this oblique angle of the social sciences. It's almost as if engineering has become too orthogonal, too algorithmic... too oversimplified. I wanted to say "too easy," but that would be dismissive of a tremendously difficult field that I love and respect a great deal, and hope to do more work in someday. It's just that I want to understand around engineering for a little while, not plunging straight into it yet. Yet.

I want to learn more sociology. I don't know very much about it, but I'm really sparking up on what I've experienced so far and I want - maybe to go to grad school and do social science research on engineering education, even. Get a doctorate in that before I get a doctorate in engineering. The current degree-wishlist stands at one master's in product design, one doctorate related to education (either education, sociology, anthropology, psychology, cognitive science, technology in society, or something that will allow me to study engineering education) and one doctorate in either engineering or computer science. With the route I'm headed in, I think I'll need all three to do what I want to do - partly for the credentials they'll give me, but mostly for the depth and experience in the formal field that I'll need to get if I want to change that field itself.

It's the old argument, right? Sell out a little if you can remember who you are, because change comes from within... you have a bigger impact if you can change a system from the inside. You need to grok what you want to transform, you need to become part of it and have it become a part of you, and then transform yourself - and that is how you really change the world.

No comments: