How I found design

Rocks & Puddles

Reflection requires experience.

A student of mine, apparently taken by my enthusiasm for design, once asked me how I had come to the field. This gave me pause, because as I tried to formulate an answer, I found myself pushing further and further into my memory. Finally, I told the student, “It’s a long story,” because I realized it all started when I played in my parents’ gravel driveway as a child.

I think the story is interesting, not because I love talking about myself, but because of how natural a progression it was.  It suggests to me that we really are a blend of our basic individual natures and what experiences we’ve had.

When I was a child, my parents’ house was in a rural setting, miles away from any other children. As an only child, I often had to amuse myself with whatever was around the house.

One day, playing outside with our pet dog, I noticed an odd-looking pebble in my parents’ gravel driveway – odd because it was blue. I looked at it carefully; it was definitely a rock, but unlike anything I’d ever seen in my life.

I started looking for other odd rocks in the driveway. I found pink ones and black ones, glassy ones and dull ones, lumpy ones and flat ones. I would eventually learn their names – chalcopyrite, granite, feldspar, quartz, mica…. I even found what I’d eventually learn was a trilobite fossil.

My dad encouraged my curiosity, taking me often to the Royal Ontario Museum, which had a fantastic rock and mineral collection, and buying me books and even rock samples for my collection – a collection I still have.

Eventually, my interest in rocks led me to geology. You can’t really learn anything about rocks without learning about the earth’s structure and the processes that operate in it.

This was all happening during the time of the Apollo moon missions. And one of the big ticket items of those missions was bringing back moon rocks.  I was also a fan of the original Star Trek, which I remember seeing in first run.

It didn’t take long for me to jump from an interest in the Earth to an interest in the planets and the solar system.

The Sun is just a star, I learnt, only much closer to us than all the other stars we see at night. Eventually, astronomy became my passion. I was even a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for several years.

But I kept asking why things were the way they were. Why were there galaxies?  Why did black holes form?  Why was there an apparent end to the universe?  Why did the Big Bang happen?  These aren’t things that astronomy dealt with.

So I found my way to cosmology. I entered my grade 8 science fair with a presentation about the Big Bang, black holes, and what were quaintly called white holes. I didn’t win because the judges didn’t believe I understood what I was saying.  By the end of grade 10, I had read Einstein’s Special Relativity (which I must recommend because it is extremely well written).

By the time I’d reached grade 13 (yes, there was a 13th grade back then), I’d hit a wall. I couldn’t figure out what all this knowing was good for. I asked myself, somewhat naively, what’s the point of knowledge that doesn’t let you do something?

Doing stuff with science – that’s engineering. So I was very comfortable entering engineering school at the University of Toronto.  Again, my dad supported my choice, even though he always thought I should have gone into journalism.

Unfortunately, engineering school started off as mostly science – exactly the stuff I was trying to get away from. I spent most of my second year of university in the weirdly named Spaced Out Library (at the time, and possibly still, the only reference library for science fiction and fantasy in Canada -now called The Merrill Collection) reading stories about how science would either save us, turn us into something else, or screw us over royally.  My grades took a precipitous dive.

After second year, I made possibly the wisest decision ever: I took a year off under an internship program offered at the University. For 16 months, I worked at the DeHavilland Aircraft Company of Canada. Besides earning enough money to let me move out of my parents’ house, I actually saw what real engineers did for a living. And that was a revelation. It was nothing like what I’d been led to believe by my high school counsellor (who, incidentally, was related to the famous actor Raymond Massey and, yes, Massey as in Massey-Ferguson) and university professors.  The most important thing I discovered at DeHavilland was that engineering was much more than just the “book knowledge” I was learning at school.

I also noticed that the engineers at DeHavilland seemed to be in a permanent problem-solving mode, like they had an extra sense that only detected problems.  And, in opposition to my academic experience, most of their time was spent trying to figure out what the problem actually was, rather than solving it. In engineering school, the problems were always given to us, all detailed and precise; all we students had to do was solve them.  But reality, it seemed, was full of sadly under-specified problems. The best engineers – the ones with office rep – were the ones who could quickly see the problem, not necessarily the ones who could solve them.

Another thing I noticed was that the best engineers didn’t rely on math as much as they relied on physics. That is, the best engineers were the ones who could size up a problem “by inspection” and come up with a good guess of an answer in their heads, just reasoning things out qualitatively instead of running back to their desks to work out the answer with pen, paper, and calculator.

Finally, I learnt was that “management” was the enemy, more for their general incompetence than for any malevolence on their part.

I went back to engineering school reinvigorated after my internship: I’d seen real engineering, and I liked it.

I managed to get my grades back up to a respectable level, and was looking forward to getting a “real” job.

Unfortunately, I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1985, at which time there were far more engineering graduates than there were jobs.  Basically, I couldn’t pay people to hire me.

So I decided to do a Master’s degree. It was just two more years, and it would put me further ahead than my classmates with only one degree. (As it happened, I did get a job offer – from DeHavilland no less – the day after I registered for my Master’s program, having spent the entire summer grovelling to get back into the U of T. I wasn’t going to waste all that perfectly good begging, so I declined the job. Heaven knows where I’d be today if I’d accepted it.)

I chose to do my Master’s with a professor who specialized in aerospace stuff (after all, I was the guy who wished he could be Scotty and not Captain Kirk). I was figuring I’d spend two years getting good at engineering aerospace systems, then get a job at Boeing or someplace similar. (It’s okay, you can laugh.)

It turned out that my Master’s thesis involved trying to solve a single equation. Definitely not what I thought I’d be doing. So my Master’s too turned into quite a slog.

But two other things happened during my Masters. First, I discovered Unix, which was light-years ahead of every other operating system we had at the time. It was, by comparison, blindingly easy to use, and I grew to have immense respect for it’s developers, not because of their technical expertise, but because of their effort to make something that was usable.  Thus was born the technogeek standing here today.

The other thing that happened was that I met a professor who had an interest in design. From him, I learnt the name of the thing I was looking for, the thing that came before all the analysis and math, the thing that gave us the stuff that everyone else in school seemed so keen to analyze, the thing that explained why the engineers at DeHavilland were such problem-solvers, the thing that was all about creativity and use.

I also learnt from that professor that an academic’s life was pretty damned good, largely because I could work in peace without being surrounded by idiots.

So I got into design. I finished my Masters, but didn’t want a job in aerospace because I knew I’d end up as an analyst sitting in a cubicle, being a code monkey. I didn’t want to analyze.  I wanted to create.

Enter the PhD program. I got into it completely and spent the happiest four years of my academic life learning about design.  I also became a system administrator for my department’s computer network, so I could earn a meagre but fun living.

We haven’t quite reached the end of the story; there’s one more step. When I first started my doctorate, I was concerned with defining products formally. Indeed, my doctorate was on the use of formal set theory as the foundation of product modelling. I showed that it was possible to use set theory to describe what a product is (from a typical engineering point of view), how it functions, and so on. (I’ve since discovered that there are far better logics than set theory for this.)

My plan was this: if there was a logic for products, then we could start to think more logically about how those products are designed. Someday we might even build a logic for designing itself.

I still think that this is possible, but it will take a while because too many other design researchers think (a) that designing is an activity not bound by logic and (b) that “creativity” exists. I believe neither of these propositions is true, but I can’t prove it (yet).

(And one other pragmatic concern: it seems impossible to find graduate student candidates who are both willing and able to continue my work on design logic.)

This is pretty much were I got to in 2000, soon after I started working at Ryerson.  I’m still trying to make the formal logic thing work, but in the meantime, I’m looking at how people design, and how we can make tools to help them design better. This is a distinctly less formal way of doing things, but it’s letting me make some progress. So far, I’ve learned that:

  1. There is a general design process that spans every kind of designing whether it’s architecture, graphic design, engineering design, or anything else. A general theory of designing will come from the study of that process.
  2. Systems thinking is fundamental to design, and every designer should understand the systems paradigm to design successfully.
  3. Engineers are horribly wrong to focus on “product” to the exclusion of the impact of the product on the rest of the universe. (This is slowly changing, but most practising engineers – and many academics – still haven’t understood this point at all.)
  4. Engineers are right, however, to ground their design work in external reality. That is, too many non-engineering designers let their work be motivated, guided, and controlled by their own internal, subjective, and inherently flawed senses.  This is totally wrong. Design occurs in service to others. The designer must be as selfless, and objective, as possible.
  5. Diagrams are far better than plain text (and even pictures) to communicate non-mathematical design information.
  6. Design is one of the most fundamental tools humanity has at its disposal.

Even these are contentious ideas. But at least it’s reasonable to think I can do something about them before I kick off.

So there you are, and there I am, and that’s how I got here.

To close, let me come back to my point about nature and nurture.  On the one hand, this progression from pebbles in a driveway to professorship in design seems completely natural; I honestly can’t see my life having turned out any different. Given the same circumstances, I’d’ve made exactly the same decisions. That’s the nature part.

But it’s the circumstances that gave me both the need to make choices, and the alternatives from which I had to choose. And the circumstances – the context of the decisions – are set in many important ways by other people and by various random factors. What if DeHavilland had been more insistent to hire me after I’d finished my Bachelor’s?  What if my dad had tried to influence my career choices more?  What if the University of Toronto had hired a different professor instead of the one who eventually became my mentor?

What if my parents had paved their driveway instead of covering it in gravel?

This is certainly not to say that my life is defined only in terms of what others did to and for me.  Still, it is clear that even the tiniest variation could have led me down an entirely different path, not because I’m defined by my environment but because I am quite literally the product of my nature and my environment over time. My environment sets up circumstances and, by my decisions, I change my environment. I change too, of course, but not, I think, in a fundamental way. My experience gives me the raw materials I need to change how I think about things, what I believe, and what I think is important. But there is something constant about me that contributes to the decisions I make as much as anything else.

Not that I believe in some metaphysical spirit or soul. There are far simpler explanations. I’m sure there were experiences that led me to be attracted to that blue pebble in my parents’ driveway. And I’m sure that, if I could trace my life back with sufficient detail, I would find a suitable explanation for this. It could all trace back to my birth. Before that, I experienced things in the womb. And the decisions my parents took during my gestation would have affected my neural development, which in turn helped define “me.” Indeed, even their decision to marry and have a child would have set some of the basic structure on which everything else I am is built.  Obviously, my genetic structure is essential to this; it is necessary but not sufficient to explain me.

Of course, at that point in my development, I had nothing to say in the matter.  Eventually, though, I matured enough to start influencing my environment with intent. Up until then, I couldn’t exert any control on the feedback loop that existed between me and everything else; I participated in my own development as much as a dog does in its own development.

But once I could exert any intentional sway over my environment, I think the nature of that feedback loop changed. Now, my intent could guide me to affect my environment to my own will, needs, and desires. As such, those decisions could be such that my basic selfness remained unchanged. And from that point, existence became a balancing of the constant self and the ever-changing environment.

My way isn’t your way. But if there’s one thing that I truly believe is the same for everyone, is that we are largely defined by the choices we make. A choice is a combination of three things: a chooser, a set of alternatives to choose from, all in a context including the chooser’s entire and unique history.  And we can understand and change who we are only by understanding our choices and why we make them.


2 thoughts on “How I found design

  1. Great article! Thanks so much for sharing your path to design. (I ended up here because WordPress decided my recent article was possibly related, and in it I talk some about my own path to design and engineering.)

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