Perspectives on method from design and other disciplines

the-thousand-islands

This post was originally published as part of the Unpacking Social Design blog, in answer to the question: Should design be integrated with other disciplines and methods to enhance validity and impact, or does that fundamentally disrupt what design has to offer?

 

“What passes for theoretical generalizations are really only context specific insights produced by particular discourse communities.” Stephen Brookfield

We live in a world where disciplines and expertises are understood as crucibles of knowledge and authority. Deep disciplinary expertise has helped solve many of the ‘problems’ of the 20th century. It would be hard to imagine putting a man on the moon without long-term investment in a select number of brains and institutions becoming deeply expert in aerospace engineering. The term ‘rocket science’ exists because we think there are some things that a lay person has little hope of understanding.

There have been critiques of disciplinary and professional authority. Political ones, that suggest the boundaries constructed around expertises and professions serve to reinforce a particular world order, and that the ‘problems’ of the 20th century have been so-defined by the powerful. And more practical ones, that suggest silos of expertise may not suit all problems equally. Interdisciplinarity is required. Hannah Arendt has a lovely phrase about training the mind to ‘go visiting’ in other disciplines. Nate Silver’s theory of the failure of prediction draws attention to the value of ‘foxes’, who know many things (as opposed to ‘hedgehogs’, who know one big thing and cling on to it fiercely). Being open to more than one way of understanding allows ‘foxes’ to entertain and evaluate a broader range of possibilities. The kind of knowledge that is useful also depends on the kind of problem in question: it’s hard to apply ‘knowledge’ to new or emerging problems. Interpreting such complex problems* through the lens of single disciplines or professions will almost always lead to a sub-optimal outcome.

In the last year or so, consulting with a community of ‘QI’ (Quality Improvement) experts in health and care, but coming from a design perspective, I’ve been wondering whether the same critique would apply to method. In a literature review of theories of ‘implementation’, Nilsen (2015) finds around 60 different theories, models or frameworks for making change happen in health care systems. 60 different ways that people have codified, and sought academic authority for, a way of proceeding. This is ‘method’ as something to be developed, tested, evidenced, and enshrined in the knowledge system of higher education institutions – and then advocated to other people so they can replicate it. I’ve noticed that people with this worldview can be quite defensive about ‘their’ method being the best or right one.

By contrast, at Uscreates where I work, (an agency that to date has built a practice on a blend of service design, participatory design, behaviour change techniques and innovation strategies) I think we see methods as something more malleable – never definitive, relevant only according to how useful they are in the moment of need, and the choice of method is the selection of one out of many ways of proceeding. To appropriate a social science term, we have I think a kind of inventive practice: constantly designing the way in which we are going to address the problem. This means we are fairly agnostic about method, often splicing things together and borrowing from other fields. More interested in experimenting quickly to see what happens than seeking out pre-existing ‘evidence’.

These two beliefs about method are somewhat at odds. The first sees the second as lacking evidence, reliability, authority, and bound to produce imperfect results. The second sees the first as inflexible and unable to respond to new challenges, and seeking perfection as a fool’s errand. One way of overcoming this chasm is to say that each is useful for a different type of problem. Sometimes there is a known optimum approach to dealing with a problem, and creativity is unwelcome. Not everything needs to be worked out from first principles. But being inventive with method is probably the only way of tackling messy, complex, emerging problems.

But perhaps this is still to mask a deeper epistemic chasm: between an understanding of knowledge as something that is extractable from situations and people, and an understanding of knowledge as intrinsically linked to the ‘know-how’ of an individual or group. The second position would see the idea of creating a knowledge bank of 60 codified ‘methods’ as pointless – because what matters is the ability of people to respond creatively and manage challenges in their own contexts. So, to return to the opening question, it may be impossible to integrate design with some other ‘methods’, because of fundamentally opposing underpinning epistemologies. Rather, there is much to be gained from an ongoing productive dialogue between the two.

*Complex problems are described by Reos Partners as ‘social’ (involving diverse range of actors with different perspectives), ‘dynamic’ (enmeshed in systems that make it hard to relate cause and effect), and ‘generative’ (constantly changing and leading to new situations)

Thanks to Tom Ling for pointing me in the direction of Nilsen, and Alan Boyles for comments on this draft.

Read other responses to this question here.

 

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