Design as a citizen

Not Problem/Solution, but Form, Context & Fit

The work of Christopher Alexander implies an iterative model, where you posit a form to fit a context, and then, if the form is a good fit for the context, it enables emergent activities, which gives you a better understanding of the context, and which in turn enables you to imagine forms that are a better fit for the context.

As such, we can (and usually will) place a form without fully understanding the scope of the context for which it is fit. Placing the form enables us to learn, by the observation of emergent activities, more about the scope of the context for which we are designing!

This is the heart of iterative development, of course. But this framing also brings an extra insight: instead of your iterative development sticking to some constant purpose — “achieve the desired outcome” — we are called upon constantly to examine the importance of activities that arise out of the context, so that our search for an adequate solution is matched by a search for an adequate problem to solve.

The Team—Inside and Outside

I had the thought — what if the primary output of a project is not the product, but the team? And what if the product were merely a secondary output?

This would mean that the product is there to serve not only the user, but also the team — both to inform the team about its domain, as in all modern product development methods, and also to make the team more capable; a better fit for its domain.

This in turn would mean that the product has at least two surfaces: team-facing and user-facing. And it’s a small stretch at most to see that any product that a team builds is a doorway connecting the inside — the team, its purpose, its efficacy, its knowledge — to the outside — the context, the centres, the creatures and their activities.

Design as a citizen

This leads us to understand that one can take two different views on how a product is designed.

The first, and conventional, view, is that the user exists “outside” in an objective context, that is more or less well understood, and the designer’s job is to better understand the context so an appropriate solution can be found. The assumption that the designer can be separated from the context leads to an assumption that there is a “right” solution to the problem, and the ability to find the “right” solution is a function of the designer’s capability and understanding.

But what if, instead, we think of the designer and the user existing together in a shared context? What if we removed all separation between the designer and the context? The designer, then, is a citizen, just one actor in an intersubjective space that envelops those who have the need, and those who seek to meet it.

This humbler framing invites a new openness and field of possibility into the designer-context relationship, allowing for things to be designed that meet needs that were never apparent, or even intimated, at the beginning of the process. When the designer behaves as a citizen, rather than an all-seeing god-king, the solution takes on a deliberate new role — rather than just solving the design problem, it joins the system, creating fertile conditions for emergent phenomena that will inform the team on its way to finding fitness.

This kind of openness, this citizenship, is exactly what we need in this time, when we are overburdened with a suffocating pile of digital frippery and media tumult, and our biggest problems yet go unaddressed, and in many ways unacknowledged.