Reclaiming Design as a Tool for the Masses
In his 2012 book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer points out that when a class of 7-year-old children is asked if they are creative, about 95% of them will answer, “yes.” Within 3 years, that proportion drops to 50%. By the time they are 14, it will have decreased to 5%. What’s happened here? Do only 1 in 20 children retain the ability to be creative, or do only 1 in 20 retain the belief that they have that ability?
I strongly believe that it is the belief that is the problem, not the ability. This may be because “creativity” has been hijacked and appropriated by a small subset of self-identifying creative people who have a psychological and economic incentive to lay claim to a particular type of talent. These folks may indeed excel at creative thinking, but creativity runs along a spectrum of “quite creative” to “very creative.”
Indeed, imagination – the essential ingredient of creativity – is, as close as anything we can define, what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Imagination is not just another capability to add to the list of human virtues; it is the very essence of humanity, at both the individual and societal level. If you read the books of Yuval Noah Harari (as recommended by the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Gates), you will recall his thesis that the rise of our species can be attributed to our imagination and, specifically, our ability to conceive and believe in stories – both of which transcend objective reality. As Harari explains:
The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively. This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money, and human rights. Yet none of these things exist outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, and no human rights – except in the common imagination of human beings. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories. – “Power and Imagination”
Yet rather than seeing imaginativeness and creativity as universal human traits, we are more likely to think of it in binary terms: “She is creative. I am not creative.” How does this relate to design? Without even needing to resolve the semantic question of the relative definitions and distinctions between creativity and design, the two are intimately connected. Creativity is an intrinsic component of design, and someone who does not self-identify as creative is very unlikely to feel they are a competent designer. Again, we divide ourselves up into those (few) who are worthy of being labeled “designers,” leaving everyone else, by definition, as “non-designers.”
In truth, the defining feature of design is: The act of doing or creating something purposeful where the solution is
not already predetermined. As humans, we do this just about all the time. We are constantly doing things with a purpose and making things up as we go along. Seen this way, every conversation is an act of design (it has a purpose, but it has no script); so is every piece of work we do that requires thought, consideration, and decision making. Every time we use our imagination, even if not thoughtfully, deliberately, or even consciously, we are conceiving something that is not simply a reflection of reality. Every act of imagination is a brief act of unfulfilled design. As Victor Papanek, the visionary designer and educator, wrote:
All men are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act toward a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process. Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the fact that design is the primary underlying matrix of life. Design is composing an epic poem, executing a mural, painting a masterpiece, writing a concerto. But design is also cleaning and reorganizing a desk drawer, pulling an impacted tooth, baking an apple, choosing sides for a backlot baseball game, and educating a child. –Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (1985)
Why is this important, beyond just having a semantic debate over the meaning of a word? There are two reasons to reclaim design from the exclusive purview of designers. The first is that when people feel that they do not possess a certain ability, they naturally avoid applying it. This results in many thoughtless and unnecessarily poor experiences in life. The second reason is connected to the first: When people do not believe in their own design abilities, they miss many opportunities to improve. If you believe you’re not a designer in the first place, then it’s not something you are going to try to improve on.
An example of a design skill that is intuitive but would benefit hugely from more conscious and deliberate application is empathetic thinking – that is, simply thinking about the perspectives of those being “designed” for, whether those people are the readers of the email being crafted, the children whose homework habits are being encouraged, the spouse whose mood is being altered, or the foreign state being influenced. The single greatest habit of designers is imagining things from the outside in, taking the perspective of the user or recipient and placing themselves in the shoes (and minds) of the “other” while in the act of creation.
This is, of course, a natural human ability – it is not exclusive or rare. As we evolved from our simian ancestors, empathy came hand-in-hand with our ability to stand upright. It was empathy that enabled us to cooperate successfully, and it was cooperation that underpinned the development of our societies and the benefits they brought. There is a neurological basis to this also; it is mirror neurons that give us the ability to imagine and identify with the subjective experiences of others. All of which is to say that empathy is not a rare biological or mental capability possessed only by accredited designers, but rather a skill possessed by all humans. It is a capability that is ours to use if we choose to.
How much more successful and productive might we be if we recognized design for what it is and acknowledged that we are all, in fact, designers? The next time you have a problem to solve, stop for a second and act more like a designer. Who is this email, motivational plan, emotional reassurance, or foreign policy for, and what is their perspective? What is it like to be them? Now, go design.