[Thinking Through Design] Understanding its significance
MANILA, Philippines - If you’ve ever ridden the MRT in Metro Manila, you will have noticed two pairs of arrows painted on the platform where commuters wait for the train. These arrows intend to direct the flow of commuters getting on and off the train in an orderly way: the arrows suggest that passengers who need to get on the train should enter around the edges of the doorway while those who need to get off the train should exit through the center.
And if you’ve ever ridden the MRT, you will also know that the arrows almost never work. The moment the train pulls into the station, any orderly lines that do form quickly dissolve.
But urban commuters are experts at dealing with crowds. They face crowds all the time in their other roles as pedestrians and shoppers. Commuters know how to angle and reshape their bodies to squeeze into the tightest spots. They use bags and umbrellas as extensions of their bodies to block access to better-positioned spaces so that they can get ahead of other commuters. They know just how much they can push their way through a packed train compartment before someone protests loudly or, worse, rudely.
The arrows are an example of a design solution: someone saw that people had a difficult time getting on and off trains, thought that one way to improve the situation might involve some visual guides, and then had arrows painted on the ground. But is it a successful design solution? It’s not clear. What is apparent is that this particular solution doesn’t seem to take enough account of the deeply-established habits of the people who are supposed to benefit from it. The arrows seem to overlook the fact that not only are commuters accustomed to dealing with crowds - they expect them.
Perspective of design
This is a column about design, written by Filipinos such as myself and my colleagues, who have devoted their careers to engaging with the world from the perspective of design. But what is design? It’s a fair question, and a difficult one to answer. An individual who expresses a passing interest in the subject might cite examples of what George Marcus has identified as the “objects that surround us - the clothes we wear, the products we use, the vehicles that we ride in, the media that communicate with us graphically.”
Indeed, in the Philippines, conversations around design tend to revolve around particular production-based disciplines and industries: fashion, industrial design, graphic design, publishing, architecture. But some of the most interesting, exciting, and important conversations around design are happening in areas such as urban planning, transportation planning, digital technology, social media, information management, social development, civic engagement, and environmental studies. The courses offered at the d.school at Stanford range from Designing the Teaching Experience to Designing for Extreme Affordability.
We can get around the thorny question of what design is by looking at what design does.
Design tries to approach problems with fresh eyes. Designing begins with seeing, hearing, and feeling the world in multiple and possibly unusual ways. This process of sensing helps designers perceive what Karl Ulrich has described as “gaps in people’s experiences,” and these gaps spur designers to plan how to fill in those gaps.
In the organization I work with, we employ a particular approach to solving problems that involves an iterative process of sensing needs, planning our strategy, gathering and analyzing data, creating test solutions, and evaluating our solutions. Our approach is inspired by those of older design research organizations such as IDEO and the d.school, but adapted to the realities of the Philippine context. What we share in common is the priority we place on openness, play, rigor, and interdisciplinary thinking. In the coming weeks, my colleague Pamela Cajilig will be writing about our design research process.
Design requires conversations across disciplines. In 1999, the American design firm IDEO was challenged to redesign a familiar object: the shopping cart. Over the course of two days, a diverse team composed of an engineer, an MBA graduate, a linguist, a marketing specialist, a psychologist, and a biologist came up with a strange but surprisingly sensible version of the shopping cart. The reimagined shopping cart was easier to steer, safer for children, and harder to steal; it even allowed shoppers to skip checkout lanes.
Design completely surrounds us. Pause for a minute and take a look at what’s around you. Everything around you that was made by humans was designed. Every curve and line that defines every single human-made object around you has been the result of a design decision. Unless you are reading this article in, say, the middle of the forest, you might find it dizzying to contemplate the extent to which your immediate environment is the consequence of human design.
In a recent forum on designing solutions to climate change and sustainability jointly organized by Tink Tank Studio, the National Climate Change Commission, Co.lab xchange, and Curiosity Design Research, designer Rina Malonzo pointed out that people are usually oblivious to the depth and complexity of the designed environment until designs break. A train derails. A bridge collapses. A dam leaks, with disastrous consequences. It is often only when a design is bad that we are reminded that it was even designed at all. Tragically, we can expect to be reminded of design more frequently than we would want during this typhoon season.
Design emerges in everyday activity by ordinary people. We’ve all used products in new and unexpected ways. For instance, some bright person desperately in need of a way to watch videos on his phone found a way to refashion a paper clip into a phone stand. This is a kind of design, and researchers who study the discipline of design differentiate it from the kind of work that Serious Designers do by calling it everyday design. At the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University, researchers who study everyday design are looking at ways to purposefully design objects that can be hacked, appropriated, and used in ways that still escape the imagination of the researchers themselves.
This study of “designing for appropriation” is important because we do it all the time. Just to take one example, ATM cards can be used in a dizzying number of ways such as opening locked doors, organizing electric cables, stabilizing broken headphones, or drawing straight lines. (I’m sure you’ve used your own ATM card in all sorts of creative ways that your bank never intended.) Creativity is a crucial component of design, and whether or not you might think of yourself as artistic, you are undoubtedly creative.
Design interacts with a complex and changing world. Design doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and any number of things can influence how designers work. The availability of infrastructure that can support the production of goods and services, the decisions made by the gatekeepers of culture and power, and that ineffable thing we think of as the spirit of the times (the zeitgeist, if you need a word to impress your nerdy friends) can all radically influence what is considered good design and what is not.
This is a column about what design is and what it can be. And what design can be is a platform for inspiration, solutions, and social transformation. This is the essence of what I and my colleagues hope to bring across by sharing our experiences with design, design research, and social innovation. But more importantly, we would love to see you - the reader - lend your opinions, solutions, anecdotes, photographs, and other creative work to this conversation. Design is collaborative and embedded in everyday life, and it must involve multiple voices. Yours is one that matters. - Rappler.com
Train station platform photo from Shutterstock.