A Canadian design strategy? Not anytime soon.

Recent talk of developing a Canadian “design strategy” won’t happen till we decide what we mean by design.

I noticed a couple of recent articles that seem to focus on developing a Canadian design strategy – whatever that is. A strategy is a long-term plan of action to achieve a goal. So what’s the goal? How does design help us achieve the goal? What special place, if any, must design occupy with respect to other strategies? Oddly, I’ve not seen that goal stated, ever. We can, however, usually infer it from the strategy itself.

One article I’ve read is by Sara Diamond, President of OCAD. I know Sara, and I have a great deal of respect for her work, including her presidency of the College. But I have to wonder about some of the statements in that article. Even the very first line is worrying: “Canada houses the third-largest design capacity in North America.” Wikipedia informs me that North America contains 23 countries and 18 dependencies, but if you look at the list of countries, you’ll see that – well, coming in third in this cohort is nothing to write home about.

Reading the article, it is evident that Sara sees design as fundamental to virtually every aspect of society. This is troubling to me, for two reasons.

First, if design is everywhere, then it essentially becomes nothing. We can only distinguish things by comparing it to other things. We can’t tell that something tastes like chicken if we’ve never tasted anything else, because everything tastes like chicken. This also hides the still very distinct and often fractioned “disciplines of design” (architecture, industrial design, graphic design, engineering design, etc) which tend to lead people to work at cross-purposes.

Second, as posited by Sara, design overlaps significantly with many other enterprises: business, sustainability, economics, manufacturing, and so on. Some would take this to suggest that designers are trying to “co-opt” these other domains, and nothing good will come of that.

The real problem is that there is no clear sense of what design is. Too many people think design is what’s done by oddly-dressed, self-absorbed half-wits on television.

Back to the business of strategic goals. What goal that we can meet with a design strategy might we infer from Sara’s article? The only goal I can see is to build a better, healthier, safer, happier, and thriving country. But that kind of goal doesn’t only apply to design, so now design becomes a paradigm in competition with every other paradigm that advertises similar goals. And that will distract all the participants from the goal itself, which again is not good.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe design is both essential to our future and utterly ignored in Canada. Something’s gotta give. But we need to think more about what design is before we can start talking about national strategies.

A second article I read is by Peter Jones: What is the contribution of Design in a national economy? Here, the tone is clearly targetted to the financial, though based on Sara’s article. Peter zeroes in on one of Sara’s thoughts in particular: the notion of STEM-D – science, technology, engineering, medicine, and design. There’s a lot of talk about STEM these days as a super-structure of disciplines that is somehow particularly important to humanity. Sara seems to have borrowed the notion of STEM-D (regular STEM + Design) from – of all sources – Microsoft. (Thankfully, a quick Google search reassures me that STEM-D didn’t originate within The Evil Empire.)

Again, I have to worry when I read things like “…the diverse and diffuse discipline of design….” Diffuse? Diverse? This could sound to some that design is as fluffy as the latest new age fad. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Peter also writes about the importance of spotlighting “design thinking,” but this term is just as vague as “design” itself. If you look at what Wikipedia has to say about design thinking, you’ll see some interesting morsels, but nothing that will help you do design thinking. And there are problems there too; for example, the process that Wikipedia suggests what design researchers often refer to as systematic design, where designing is set forth as a process consisting of roughly sequential stages. While such a process may soothe the easily ruffled feathers of management and beancounters, it doesn’t really represent designing as it happens in vivo.

Back to design strategies. Strategies are for achieving goals, but the goals ain’t clear. And we don’t know (really) what design is. So it’s going to be pretty hard to develop a design strategy – let alone a Canadian design strategy – till we get these other things sorted.

Indeed, I would argue that understanding design has to come before strategizing. A design strategy would lay out how designing can be used to achieve a goal. But how can you strategize without knowing the tool by which that strategy will be implemented? Wouldn’t it be much easier to figure out what goals we can attain through design, and strategize on reaching those goals, if we knew what design is?

So it comes back to defining design. And that’s a big, thorny issue in itself. Put 10 design experts in a room and you’ll likely get at least 10 different definitions of design out. To amuse myself, I try to track various definitions of design and designing that I’ve encountered in my readings of the literature. Even a quick review will make it evident there is no consensus yet. (Note that most of the literature I read comes from the technical side of design – even so, the breadth of definitions is bordering on the absurd.)

Some people are scared of definitions. I was once told by an eminent researcher that the need to define terms is some kind of bad habit of the bourgois that was intellectually terminated in the 17th Century. I still can’t figure out what that means. The arguments that I do understand tend to relate to a fear of prescription – the assignment by fiat of the will of a few members of some elite group upon the rest of the people. Of course, that’s not really what a “prescription” is, but that’s how some people seem to take it.

Personally, I take a descriptive approach to definitions. That is, I see a definition as a description of what a thing is, as perceived by an appropriately representative audience. The general approach that I like best is what was used to establish the Oxford English Dictionary. That process is described wonderfully in Simon Winchester’s book The Meaning of Everything. Basically, the OED is based on deriving the meaning of a word from how it is used in the living language – how a word is used leads to its definition. This is definitely not a prescriptive way of doing things.

This way of defining things is intimately tied to practise, as opposed to research or teaching. David Sless has written very nicely about the importance of evidence-based work, which includes studying how things are actually done, and how things were done in the past. I might summarize the notion with a quote of George Santayana: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

This hasn’t been enough to allay the fears of my colleagues that definitions are bad. To overcome this, I’ve gone as far as trying to define what design is not, by looking for boundaries between designing and other activities.

For example, many people would describe designing as a kind of problem solving. But clearly there are some problems solved by non-designerly methods. For instance, finding the maximum stress in some element of a truss, or finding the roots of a quadratic equation are both typically described as “problems,” but their solution does not involve designing. So somewhere between designing and problem-solving there is a boundary – or more specifically, a boundary layer – where things change from being designing to being non-designerly problem-solving. Personally, I think the boundary layer between problem-solving and designing is marked by so-called wicked problems. Designing is, then, problem-solving for wicked problems. If the problem ain’t wicked, then you don’t need to design the solution.

If we proceed with all the other activities that designing has been likened to (planning, creativity, specification, etc.) and find the corresponding boundary layers, then we can draw a border – a rather thick border, but a border nonetheless – around design. Then whatever is inside the bordered region constitutes designing. The boundary layers themselves constitute those grey areas where it’s hard to tell if designing is happening. We can then merrily explore the bordered region and try to figure out what designing actually is, knowing at the outset what it isn’t.

Once we do that, we’ll be able to construct a proper design strategy.

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2 thoughts on “A Canadian design strategy? Not anytime soon.

  1. Fil – a well reasoned piece, and I agree with most of what you’re saying about Sara’s article. But I think you completely misread my contribution. My intent was to compare US and Canadian policy strategies, not to define design in these policy contexts. Being a short blog post, I was not intending to define all my terms. But you misrepresented design as diverse. Of course it is – there is no single discipline called design for one thing. It is like saying science is a single clear discipline. There is very little in common between fashion design, landscape design and interaction design. Let along systems, engineering, and social-organizational design.

    So when I said “I’m wary of enshrining the diverse and diffuse discipline of design in a policy world. The Federal government is too large, and the economic incentives are too tightly tied to other Federal goals.”

    Doesn’t it make sense that I am maintaining that design disciplines should not be constrained to a policy definition? This may have been a quick retort on my part, but I think you are using my response as a strawman. We ought to talk first! I’m in Toronto …

    • Peter,
      It’s been a while since I wrote this. I had to re-read it to make sure I understood your comments!
      I apologize if I took your post the wrong way. I’ll have to go back and re-read that too.
      I DO think that there is a single thing called design, rather like “mammal” – there are many species, but they all share some (very important) things.
      Anyways, yes I’d be happy to meet and chat – as soon as classes are over.
      Best,
      Fil

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