The impact of balance in design

Balanced rocks

Designing is balancing.

I have written previously about balance. I proposed that one can model a situation as a set of forces (economic, technological, societal, etc.) that balance one another, and that if the current situation is not coincident with the balance point, then their difference represents a perceived need.

Design plays a pivotal role in this model as the means by which imbalances are addressed by trying to move the current situation toward the balance point. As such, I think of designing as more balance-seeking than problem-solving.

In this post, I want to examine some of the implications of this for design thinking and designing as a human activity.

Defining “Designing”

Firstly and most obviously, let’s look at the simple matter of defining the term “designing,” which I take to mean the overall activity of creating a design. In many disciplines, designing is tied to addressing perceived needs through some sort of creative problem solving. This places needs ahead of technology, especially in fields like product design and engineering design.  For instance, the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board entrenches this primacy of needs over technology directly in the rules governing the accreditation of Canadian engineering programs.

But as I have written previously, I believe designing can be motivated by sources other than just needs. So saying that designing is how we respond to a need is at best a partial truth.

There are some “classic” definitions that are much more consistent with the notion of balance, perhaps the most often-quoted of these being Herbert Simon‘s: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

Simon’s notion of moving to preferred situations doesn’t quite commit to the notion of needs being privileged forces in designing.  I take “preferred situation” here as it is usually meant in the technical disciplines, which is more objective and global than “perceived need,” which is more subjective and local.  While one could think of preferences belonging innately to a human agent, it could also be the result of nothing more than the action of physical laws; for instance, statistical likelihoods can be thought of as nature’s preferences.  I suppose one could argue that there is a universal perceived need – to achieve preferred situations – but that’s more at the meta level. In specific instances, perceived needs are not primary, I think, in Simon’s vision of designing.

My notion of designing as balancing is quite consistent with Simon’s in that preference for some state (or situation) is based on its differences from the current state. I like to think of it as riding a bicycle. There’s all kinds of forces trying to unseat you – gravity, bumps in the road, wind, etc. You constantly adjust your position, speed, and direction to keep yourself upright against those forces and moving generally in the right direction. When you manage to do it, you’re balancing.

Similarly, every design constitutes an adjustment to the situation in which the design is implemented, keeping it as close to the balance point as possible, in the face of all kinds of forces that try to unbalance it. Also, one may constantly tweak the design itself during a design process, because the imbalance may be so dynamic that it changes during designing.

And every once in a while, the bike rider needs to swerve or do something equally dramatic to keep upright – just as every once in a while, a rather dramatic new design comes along, or a dramatic change occurs to a design in mid-development.

Designing writ large, then, becomes a continuous and dynamic act of tweaking forces to improve balance, at once responding to, and making changes in, the current situation.

Design Analysis

The only way a designer can address an imbalance is to truly understand it. I really cannot see how anyone but the designer can determine precisely what the imbalance is. If the designer is an agent of change, then he must see the current state as clearly and completely as possible. And if a designer is to respond to an imbalance, then I believe it’s his ethical responsibility to at least agree with other stakeholders that the imbalance is properly defined. To do that, the designer must conduct his own analysis to at least verify (and understand) the imbalance as defined by others.

This brings up an important point about designing. Too often in the literature and in practise, designing is distinguished from analysis. Analysis is sometimes described as convergent thinking, whereas designing is juxtaposed to it as divergent thinking. Analysis is seen as objective and rational, whereas designing is seen as subjective and creative. Thus, some argue, analysis is not part of design.

I humbly beg to differ, at least insofar as analysis is not part of designing.  The designer must be able to analyze in order to design, because design is driven by analysis.  If the designer must analyze a situation to understand an imbalance, then analysis is an essential component of designing, just as essential as the creativity of finding new ways to address the imbalance.

So, I maintain, there is analysis in design. It may not use the usual tools of analysis in the sciences and engineering, but it is analysis nonetheless.

But wait!  There’s more!

There’s much more to designing-as-balancing. More than I can cover in a single post here. It disrupts the notion of design as problem-solving; it undermines the practise of fixing requirements (aka a design brief) before designing starts; it promotes design co-evolution; and makes more evident the role of the designer in society.  I will write more about this over time. But the bottom line is this: our current understanding of design is fractured over dozens of disciplines and still lacking the kind of foundations found in most other, more established disciplines. I can’t help but think that putting design on a more rigorous disciplinary footing will in the long run help designers design more effectively and efficiently. And maybe this idea of designing-as-balancing can help make that happen.

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