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Jorge Arango's

No. 23
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The “right” way

Interacting with students is one of the privileges of teaching design at the graduate level. These budding designers are open-minded yet seriously focused on their chosen area of practice, a mindset that offers many opportunities for teaching and learning.

Many questions students ask are about the “right” way to do particular things. What’s the right way to diagram a system? What’s the right way to design an interaction? What’s the right way to present this? Is this how a conceptual map is supposed to look? Etc. My reply is often disappointing: There isn’t a “right” way to do it; it depends.

This answer seldom satisfies. But what’s the alternative? There aren’t right/wrong answers in design, only incremental approximations to improved conditions, some of which are preferable to others. Ambiguity comes with the territory, especially at the graduate level. (It certainly does when dealing with clients in “real-world” conditions.)

One of my aims is to help students realize that I’m not there to judge what's wrong or right; they must develop this sense in themselves. What I can offer is a set of tools and practices that allow them to develop a particular skill: thinking-through-making.

Thinking-through-making is how a diverse group of smart people can come together to solve complex systems problems. These aren’t problems you can solve in your head or by talking with others; you must build models that allow you to externalize your understanding. The act of making the model prompts insights that won’t emerge otherwise. Doing so with others allows the entire group to tap into — and build — their pooled cognitive capacities in an incredibly powerful way.

Thinking-through-making is independent of any particular discipline; it’s evident in architecture, graphic design, interaction design, etc. The feedback loop at the center of the design process is a characteristic shared by all design disciplines. The designer facilitates this feedback loop.

Given the increasingly complex and multi-disciplinary challenges we face, it behooves us to think about design independently of our particular areas of practice. We can leverage our individual expertise in service to bringing diversity to the team; of proposing alternative approaches that may have otherwise been missed. But at the core is design, a way of solving problems that doesn’t offer on-the-spot “right” answers but evolves incrementally towards better.

Designerly Ways of Knowing

If you’re intrigued by this notion of design as a meta-approach to problem-solving, a good book on the subject is Nigel Cross’s Designerly Ways of Knowing. Prof. Cross is one of the key figures on this subject, and this slim volume is a compilation of his lectures and publications on the matter.

Designerly Ways of Knowing posits design as a third way of knowing the world, alongside science and the humanities. The book offers the following aspects of designerly ways of knowing:

  • Designers tackle “ill-defined” problems.
  • Their mode of problem-solving is “solution-focused.”
  • Their mode of thinking is “constructive.”
  • They use “codes” that translate abstract requirements into concrete objects.
  • They use these “codes” to both “read” and “write” in “object languages.”

Design isn’t just a way of making things; it’s a way of thinking that works through making and testing/reflecting on the resulting products. As a result, designers have much to contribute to organizations and societies beyond their individual design disciplines.

Considering the practice of design at this more abstract level frees designers from the constraints of particular disciplines. It opens a broader scope of action for designers — and value for our stakeholders and clients.

Buy it on (Alas, it’s out of print and therefore expensive.)

The Informed Life Ep. 2: Gretchen Anderson

Episode 2 of The Informed Life podcast features my friend Gretchen Anderson. Our conversation focused on how Gretchen wrote her new book, Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive.

One of the interesting aspects of Gretchen's workflow is how she moves between digital and analog information environments:

I am a real analog person. Even writing, I find that that motion of the hand is what gets my brain engaged. And so even the first time I make an outline, I'm often doing that by hand. And I love whiteboards because - again, I like to be able to fit everything in one canvas that I can take in at one time. And I don't think I'm alone in that. I've designed robotic surgery suites and I've done genetic analysis equipment. Like I've done really complicated things, but I think the goal is: you should be able to grok the system in one go.

I'm aiming to make incremental improvements to the show with each episode. The big new feature with this one is a full transcript, which should aid findability. Hope you enjoy it!

The Informed Life Episode 2: Gretchen Anderson

Other things I’ve been thinking about…


Upcoming Workshops


February 22 —Zurich
Information Architecture Essentials

March 13 — Orlando,FL
Information Architecture Essentials

About Living in Information

Living in Information book coverThe book's description and table of contents are on its web page. If you want a succinct overview, my presentation at UX Week 2018 is a good introduction. You can buy the book from... 

... and other fine purveyors of the printed word.

“The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”

— Sir Winston Churchill

Thanks for reading!

-- Jorge

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Copyright © 2019 Jorge Arango, All rights reserved.

Jorge Arango
P.O. Box 29002
Oakland, CA 94604

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