Imagine yourself sitting behind your desk, it is 2 AM. Darkness is surrounding you. In front of you there is a lonely post-it on a large piece of paper. You feel tired. Doubt and uncertainty fill your mind. A different kind of darkness. Where is this feeling coming from?
Designing in the dark is an umbrella term for everything that is unclear at the beginning of a project. Who are you designing for? What is the purpose of your design? And what kind of future are you designing for? These questions seem to be easy to answer, but when we throw in a little more uncertainty, which is commonly introduced when talking about the future, one can only guess who and what they will be designing for. You are left with darkness. However, there is no need to be afraid of this darkness. It should be seen as an invitation, an invite to imagine. When we do not worry about consequences or needs, our creativity can flow freely, resulting in unexpected and sometimes amazing outcomes. We will never know exactly what the future will bring, what perspectives need to be taken or what blind spots we might have missed, but designers will always find a way to navigate through this darkness.
designers will always find a way to navigate through darkness
Every IDE student is familiar with design processes. In many of these processes there is a phase where you do research in order to learn more about a specific problem. In this phase we contextualise and describe the problem, often referred to as framing. Problems situated in different contexts call for different solutions, so framing a single problem in multiple ways can result in varying solutions. How we frame issues depends on our perspective. People tend to choose perspectives they are familiar with, simply because it is easier for the mind to process. By filling in what we do not know, the mind makes a beeline to form the bigger picture. For this reason, designers sometimes make the mistake of assuming things that are not true. We can for example only judge situations by similar situations we have experienced, making it easy for the mind to jump to conclusions. When trying to contextualise a problem outside of our experiences, it gets more difficult to understand the problem, sometimes resulting in wrong design decisions. In those cases, it is unknown what exactly we do not know, making it hard to accept a different perspective, let alone to frame this perspective.
the mind takes a beeline to form the bigger picture
Situations in which designers overlooked things they did not know, resulted in products that are not used to its full extent. Such things can happen if you would, for example, design something to make life easier for students but did not bother to investigate student culture. You design something that automates the making of multiple cups of coffee for example. You gift your invention to all student households you know, but then come to the realisation that your invention is not used as much as you would have liked. Is it because you did not review the usability of your invention? Or did you not know students do not actually drink coffee? Probably neither of these are the case. You did, however, miss a common tradition that the youngest person in the house makes coffee for the older ones, them not wanting to simplify the process of coffee making for their younger housemates.
Even though this is a silly example, overlooking certain aspects during research is often related to culture. In the case of the coffeemaking invention for students, the outcome would not be so disastrous. Unfortunately, there are cases where wrongly executed research process had much worse impact. Take for example Alfred Nobel’s famous invention: dynamite. It was invented to make the transportation of the highly explosive Nitroglycerin less dangerous, but ended up becoming a regularly used weapon of mass destruction. It was not at all the intention of the product, but turned out to be something that was not foreseen. The question is: Where did he go wrong? Did Nobel not do enough research and testing, or did he simply forget to look at his solution through different perspectives?
This is a problem that we come across often during the design process. We are still humans and humans have the intention to start to care for their own creations. We all have had this product or concept that we put our heart and soul into but ended up not getting the results we wanted. At first there is anger and disbelieve, the product was so perfect. Then we take a step back, evaluate the design and review the feedback. They might have been right after all; we might have overlooked some very important details in the process. For the sake of the design, it is therefore very important to not only test your designs and to make a critical analysis of the user scenarios, but also to keep exploring the darkness in order to find the unknown unknowns.
This term, the unknown unknown, was firstly introduced by two American psychologists. They distinguish four types of ‘knowing’: There are the things we know we know (the known known), the things we are aware of we do not know (known unknown), the things we understand, but are unaware of (unknown known) and finally, there are the things we do not know exist or even can exist (unknown unknown). This distinction was made to use in a psychological tool, known as the Johari Window. In this table of four quadrants, self-knowledge and lack thereof are crossed with what others know and the absence of what they know. Putting characteristics in the quadrants helps to identify blind spots in the design process. Instead of categorising characteristics of an organisation or product, you would categorise subjects by how familiar you are with them. If you find that the information you gathered is very one sided, you have probably been biased by your known knowns. Try to expand your knowledge by talking to other people, gathering more information and creating a new perspective. This way, you will be expanding your upper left quadrant, making the bigger picture more and more accurate. Not every designer will be willing to spend time doing this, but exploring this unknown unknown will lead to better frameworks in the future.
It does, however, lead to a very pessimistic view on design. We must look at our designs with a critical eye in hopes of not only improving the design itself, but also to prevent bad scenarios from occurring. This is a tough thing to do, but also a necessary one. It is our duty as designers to come up with helpful new solutions, while foreseeing every possible outcome of them. Sometimes we offer solutions to problems we did not even know were important and still we must evaluate if the consequences will be ethic and in the interest of the client. In a sense, this makes designers doomsayers. But if taking a little more time to evaluate possible outcomes, rules out wrong ways to use a product, or bad purposes for a product, it is worth it.
This is also making designers fortune tellers. We have to map out what the future will hold, and how we must design for it. This is of course a very difficult task. What the future holds is still unclear, which makes framing for this unknown unknown even harder.
humans have the intention to care for their own creations, not seeing it’s flaws
In order to foresee the future, designers often use a trick, called trend analysing. By looking at upcoming trends, we paint a picture of the near or distant future. With this insight we can create a space we want to design for, the frame. These trends are helpful, because it takes time for them to catch on: People do not accept novelty very easily, they need time to get used to new things in their lives and to incorporate these into their routines. The time they take to adjust to new trends gives designers time to do testing and research with their new products. If designers time it well, the products hit the market at the exact time the demand for similar products rises. This means that when we use trends while designing, we create a frame in the near future, but the designs are used in a much more distant future.
Many past trends fit into our normal life now. Think about flex working and a sharing economy. At one point these things felt insane and they were not seen as something that would actually happen. Little by little, they integrated into our culture and have been the standard ever since. The same can be said about upcoming trends, like choosing experiences over possessions or the fact that mental health will be playing a much bigger role in the coming years. Right now, these things seem utopic, or very new and exciting, but in a few years, these will be our new standard and new things will find their way into our lives.
While designing a solution for a problem there are a lot of unknowns: unknown perspectives, unknown futures and unknown unknowns. In order to navigate this uncertainty, loads of design methods have been created. With the right amount of time and effort, we will get used to asking the right questions instead of trying to find the answers to the initial questions. By learning to ask the right questions, the darkness can be uncovered, and we will learn how to get comfortable in with it.
Note: this is a preview