fctry ^ 2

Design and Discovery

A few days ago I (jokingly) said in a conversation:

“Instagram was discovered in 2010”

And when I thought about it for a moment I realized it actually didn’t sound as wrong as I meant it to. “Invented Instagram” sounds a little odd, it’s not as if the cameras, phones, cell networks, GPS network, color LCD screens, and every other component wasn’t already there waiting to be used. “Created” or “built” seems like the verb that we usually would use here but neither of those say much about the much more interesting aspect of Instagram which is the way that people use it and the information that they use it convey. So did Instagram invent that behavior or did it discover it? Typical usage has discovery being a latent phenomena which is uncovered. Ohm discovered the relationship between current and resistance in electricity, Newton discovered gravity, Fleming discovered penicillin, Roentgen discovered X-Rays, and so on. All of these are gross oversimplifications of the science and the communities behind these discoveries but please forgive that. None of this assumes that they in fact created these things, these are natural phenomena which exist irrespective of whether humans are aware of them or not. Typical usage has invention as the making of a completely new shape or form which did not exist, something which was, to some significant degree, unimagined. The steam engine did not exist before Thomas Newcomen created one, there was no battery before Alessandro Volta stacked zinc and silver plates atop one another, these things are seen as formulations which simply were not fathomable in the form that they took. People had wanted to generate power using heat, people had wanted to harness and store electricity, but until these inventions took shape, ostensibly, no one had ever posed this solution to that problem. We can see the traditional lines drawn between science, e.g. exploration, and engineering, e.g. problem solving. Phenomena have to be discovered before they can be leveraged in an invention. Typically we do the science first, then do the engineering. Discover that penicillin breaks down Staphylococci and then chemically engineer ways to produce it en masse. As a designer I cannot help but wonder where that leaves design and designing things.

Design tends to draw its lineage from engineering, from problem solving within well established bounds, and so designing things often seems like “inventing”. When designing the user experience of MacPaint Bill Atkinson needed a way to highlight a rectangular region for a user that would be visible even over top of complex imagery. To solve this, he designed what later came to be known as “marching ants”.

Marching ants

Subtle, but eye-catching Was that an invention or was it a discovery? Did that solution expand the bounds of what was possible? Or did it locate a new way to think about something which was already possible, which was there latent and awaiting, and which happened to fit precisely with a problem? Did it uncover an affordance which allowed him to fit the way that a user might look at a screen and perceive a selection area with a thing that was already possible given the tools with which he was working and that the user would possess? This might seem to be a bit of a semantic quibble but it asks a very particular question of what designing is and doing design means. Human centered design is observing an aspect of the human being and tailoring a feature to that observed aspect. This suggests that using HCD as our model of design is more a process of discovering how someone both thinks and acts and also is capable of thinking and acting than it is inventing new ways of thinking and acting. When we’re making things with and for humans we’re always building upon extant knowledge. Models of action or models of thought derive from things that have already been done or already been thought. You don’t simply “start speaking Cantonese”; you learn some words, then with those words you start to learn some grammar, then you learn more words, then you learn to compose sentences, and then at some point you start to do something that looks like “speaking Cantonese”. When designing something we’re discovering how models already possible, known, and understood can be used to do slightly different things. We’re uncovering how a technology to which we have access can be used to fit a thing that a human already understands.

Discovering is the attitude of designing because it keeps in mind that making things work better is a process of finding things that already exist and improving them or re-purposing them. What good design does is discover latent capabilities and capacities. Co-creation, that most human centered of design activities, is fundamentally a discovery exercise. Maintaining this attitude towards designing maintains the human-centered orientation of the Human Centered Design process. The heroic iconography of the invention and the upsurge of corporations filing design patents for design inventions makes it tempting to think that designing is inventing but that obscures the fundamental character and an important fact about making things: it’s a process of discovering what things actually are and how they might actually be used in the world. We’re looking at things which exist at the level of the recombinatory and exploratory rather than the non-existent. We’re looking at our invisible assumptions and facilities and the behaviors that those assumptions and facilities enable.

I’ve mentioned the term “HCD” here quite a few times and I want to be clear that I think that designing as discovering is not just a part of the somewhat foggy practice of human centered design as practiced within disciplines other than those traditionally associated with design. Design as discovery is a fundamental aspect of designing a service, a business, an interface, a physical object, a logo. These things are not inventions, they are the synthesis of many discoveries about the way that humans and weird complex systems like economies, governing structures, communications networks, operate and interact with one another. When we stay in the discovery mind-set we stay curious about the world and what we can uncover within the way that humans move in it rather than myopically focusing on problem-solving. “Instagramming” really was discovered. Or, put more in a more humanistic fashion: the fact that “Instagramming” is a way of communicating that people find meaningful and engaging was discovered. Making a service or interface or object that fits well within the world is really discovering things about human beings and about how they engage with the world given the tools to which they have access. As our tools change and our worlds change, the potential for discovery renews itself as well. As the pace at which the technology to which we have access changes so does the pace of discovery and the possibility of leveraging those discoveries in good or bad ways.

Thoughts? Leave a comment