April 23, 2005

Designer as Moral Agent

Notes from discussions on ethics, politics, and organizations from Dick Buchanan's organizational design class:

The first formal discussions about ethics in design were in the mid-90s, but ethics has become a matter we just can't not discuss. It's how we can distinguish between well-done design and design that shouldn't be done. It's about what can be done when we're asked to do work that is questionable. It's about consequences; if there were no consequences to what we design, there'd be no need for ethics.

In discussing ethics, we need to make the distinction between preferences and values, although this can be very difficult. Preferences reside in us. They are personal choices that range from whether one likes chocolate ice cream to whether one believes in the death penalty. Most of the things we run into in the world are preferences, and they have their roots in psychology and culture. Values reside in things in the world. Values spring from two sources: faith and reason.

This of course, brings us to the problem of pluralism. We know there is a pluralism of preferences, but is there a pluralism of values? Is there one truth with many ways of saying it?

Values and preferences gives rise to judgments, and design is about making judgments. Not judgments after the fact, but before. To be a moral agent means to make choices informed by ethics. Thus, designers should be moral agents.

There are four parts to being a moral agent as a designer:

How does one talk about or evaluate a moral act? By looking at three things: the nature of the act, the circumstances of the act, and the motives for the act. Motives can be personal or ethical.

How do designers deal with the clients they serve? Do designers adopt the client's preferences? Nazi design was both exquisite and horrible. How then do we relate to clients and the organizations that hire us when we have a responsibility to create a world that is better and does less harm? There needs to be a balance between the designer's personal ethics and the company's ethics. And if a balance cannot be struck, a designer may have to change the values of an organization.

One of the roles design can play is to draw out operating values. Designers can encourage conversations that help identify what values the group really holds. When a value is held collectively, it's no longer a preference. How do you find the common values between people? You can do what designers do: visualize them with diagrams, images, words. Seeing them makes people less cynical and can help facilitate the workings of people.

Ethics is about how we deal with emotions in the workplace: how we handle our own emotions and the emotions of other people. What emotions are appropriate, and when and why. Emotions are a central part of our work.

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February 20, 2005

General System Theory

In the past, there was a school of management thought called Administration Science, made up Operations Research and Decision Sciences. Operations Research gave managers quantitative information about the resources (or parts) of an organization, then the managers used decision science to make decisions based on those parts/resources. ("If we have three tons of steel, we should make some cars.") System theory rose an an alternative to this.

General System Theory says that there are properties common to all systems, regardless of specifics in a particular subject matter (biology, chemistry, sociology, etc.). It is a comprehensive notion of a system ("The Meaning of General System Theory" by Ludwig von Bertallanffy). Others (such as Fremont E. Kast and James E. Rosenzweig) refute this idea, saying there are different types of systems, not one general system, that different phenomena need to be discussed in different ways.

There are two types of systems: closed and open. Closed systems will gradually decay if left alone. Open systems are affected by outside environments. It's hard to tell the boundary of a system; you need wisdom to do it, lest you exclude data based on personal preferences and prejudices. But for the purpose of analysis (and design) you have to treat open systems as closed.

It's important to remember that however broad system theory seems to be, it remains in the context of resource usage; individuals and groups (except as resources) play little part in systems thinking. It's a distinct type of thinking about organizations, rooted in materials. However, systems thinking and chaos theory are growing in importance to Design.

But although system theory has significance, Dick Buchanan says it is a stretch of imagination to see how some of it applies to the problems designers face. It takes us out of the things we experience day-to-day and gives a high-level view of the situation--sometimes too high-level. It can be too big; it's often more helpful to find and understand the pathways through the system on a human scale because you can easier design for those. Go to the human experience and let design thinking restructure the system as a whole.

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January 16, 2005

The History of Design

Dick Buchanan: There are two great currents of design thinking that come out of the ancient world:

An organization is defined as a group of people seeking a common goal through a structure of divided and coordinated activities (a form), supported by various resources (artifacts, tools, rooms, information, etc.).

From these two great currents emerged Three Great Design Practices:

Each type of practice is fragmented, but all three are starting to coalesce. In engineering, natural science (physics, math, chemistry, and recently biology) define its foundation. Management has coalesced around the social and behavioral sciences: sociology, psychology, and economic. The foundation of design proper is art and has been for centuries.

Design firms are no longer finding their work confined to producing one type of product. Recent design practice calls for people who can more and more cross over traditional design disciplines and even cross into the other two practices, engineering and management. As Clement Mok says in the "Time for Change" article, maybe we should rethink the fragmentation of design itself. Instead of defining ourselves by what we make, think instead about the problems we solve. It's not about the medium we work in.

Dick suggests we reorganize design into The Four Orders of Design:

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October 29, 2004

Chaos Theory for Sustainable Design

John Body, assistant commissioner for information management for the Australian Taxation Office and CMU School of Design research fellow, gave a really interesting talk on understanding design through chaos theory yesterday. I'll summarize his thoughts.

The discipline of design is changing its face because design thinking is being applied to more complex challenges, challenges with multiple intents and many stakeholders that have to deal with experiences, products and services, processes, technologies, and people. The bigger the system you are dealing with, the more design needs different tools and techniques.

There are currently several ways of working with this complexity: strategic conversation, systems thinking, systems mapping and modeling, management theory, complexity theory (systems of many agents), and what John discussed: chaos theory. Chaos theory really began in 1961 with Edward Lorenz and really took off thanks to computing. Computers could run the many simulations and iterations that chaos theory requires. It could be shown over time that small changes have large consequences to systems (the famous butterfly effect).

There are four principles of chaos theory:

So what does this mean for design? Here's some lessons that came out of the discussion.

By understanding chaos theory and its implications, you can design so that the system continues to be successful, not just one product of the system. Chaos theory helps us understand how you can sustain a system over a long period of time: by getting the right balance of order and chaos, by working with attractors, by looking at multiple levels of the project, and by expecting the unexpected.

We can use chaos theory to support what we already know. But we can also use it to add something extra. In all systems, there are a whole lot of elements working randomly, but somehow all working together. Everything is interconnected, therefore unpredictable things happen.

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