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The unofficial warmup

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

I co-supervised this thesis, but that doesn't mean I have an exact understanding of it. Here however are some reasons why it's worth a closer look. I lead into this by some early questions and theories that turned out to be bad questions, and over-simple ideas.

One early orienting question, that the thesis didn't answer, is: why do some areas of design still not use computers? Is it because we still don't know how to capture, or even support, in software the creative processes some designers use? This is a deep HCI question: what is the important essence of interactivity for designers as users? and how could it be supported?

Another simplistic starter question is: is there an important difference between 2D and 3D design (e.g. between creating a painting and doing sculpture, designing a web page and a piece of jewellry)? If so, then perhaps the difficulty in creating software to support the best creative design in 3D media is due to inadequate interactive devices. This work came early to the view that that too is the wrong question.

Still, when you see someone (or yourself) bending a piece of wire, or shaping clay to see what comes out that is interesting, you get the intuition that there is something important inherent in exploring the medium directly. This is quite different from thinking up a shape in your head and then creating it; from plotting out a novel and then writing it. What is it, this intuition of emergent creativity from immersing yourself in a medium? Can it be unpacked and described more clearly? This thesis makes a considerable attempt at this.

A widespread idea is that there are two modes of designing and creating, that I will call here top down and bottom up (the official abstract calls them formal vs. concrete). Top down is pre-planning made pre-eminent: working systematically from the desired end state or requirement, down through ever more detailed plans, which are finally carried out to create the artifact. A bottom up process goes in the opposite direction, and works by emergence rather than pre-planning. It starts by establishing and advancing what is practical and possible, and defers discovering where this can get us. It makes discovering the possible primary. One of the contributions of this thesis is to compare at length the hitherto largely separate literatures on design processes in "design" i.e. architecture and other "art" fields, in computer programming, and in writing. All three fields have their version of the top down vs. bottom up idea. It has also become clear in all three fields that there is not one best way of doing design, but that you can observe considerable numbers of designers (or children) employing each of these two modes. Thus in writing, if you attempt to impose a "top down" approach e.g. require children to write essay plans first, then write the essay, this is helpful to some, but others never do it: with enough pressure they will write post hoc plans to describe the structure that emerged, but it is just to shut you up: for them, but unlike some others, it did not play a real part in the design (i.e. writing) process.

Thus another wrong preliminary question is "what is the one best way to carry out design?". Wrong because what is observed is that some people do do it the approved way, but many others never adopt that approach. Designers show fundamental variety in their approach, and in their relationship to their medium; and this doesn't just apply to the best and most creative designers but to all of us; and applies in apparently diverse fields of design, from writing essays in school, to designing software, to making jewellry.

And a basic idea that has emerged repeatedly is, that there is a universal axis (called here top-down to bottom-up) along which designers (and writers and computer programmers) may be placed in describing a fundamental variation between their personal approaches. However this simple idea is not enough. For instance some programmers (when they are not worried about seeming to conform to conventional ideas on proper "method") may say they favour a "middle out" design approach, in which they create a simplistic but working version of the whole program and then progressively improve each aspect of it from that first working version. This is different from bottom up, where separate pieces are created and only made to work together very late in the process.

The main business of this thesis is to examine the multiple ways in which designers actually differ in their preferred approaches, particularly in their different relationships with their media; and so to examine the intuition that for some designers, ideas emerge from direct exploration of a medium, and not just from playing in their imaginations. It does so not only by comparing ideas from three different literatures, but also from studies of designer-makers (jewellry makers in this case) and from some "digital artists" who have made a digital rather than a traditional concrete medium the arena in which they create artifacts.

".. science .. is nothing else than a 'strange hankering after differences'". Herman Hesse Narziss and Goldmund ch.4

Discussion questions

Questions tickled, but not resolved, by the thesis: (discuss these in your book group or journal club):
  1. Why isn't there a single best method for design?
  2. What's special about actually trying stuff out with your hands?
  3. If that is special then why do so many (other) designers obsessively and promiscuously sketch things all the time? Is sketching special? The hallmark of all "true" designers?
  4. Why are 2D sketches so often useful in designing 3D things?
    Why are 2D plans (mindmaps, indented hierarchical lists) so often useful in planning a piece of writing which is 1-D?
  5. Discover what is beautiful and practical but no-one imagined
    OR articulate what you wish for and enforce what you imagined on the world through technical skill?
  6. Starting from what you have, what is real, what is actual
    OR starting from what you want, from ambition, wishful thinking.
  7. Learning from yourself, or learning from the actual world.

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