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American Society for Cybernetics
Remarks to the American Society for Cybernetics Conference
Hugh Dubberly asked Peter Esmonde and me to comment on the nature of the design conversations in my education and career.
My earliest conversations about design actually happened where we are meeting today, at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Jack Stauffacher was a Regents Professor here at that time. He introduced me to design by way of typography and the history of the book. Further, when Jack recommended that I continue my education in Basel, Switzerland, I did just that, without knowing much about what I was getting myself into. These early conversations, and all the design conversations I will speak about were, of course, real conversations between people. As I remember the conversations, I think not only of their persuasive logic but of the rapport I had with the people with whom I was engaged, of the emotional content of our talks, and of the sights and sounds of those places where we met. All these aspects of human connection are evoked when I remember our conversations. What we spoke of was never "dry data" (as Jack says). It was a lively and passionate sharing of ideas and experience.
In Switzerland, the graduate program in graphic design was taught primarily in English. But it was not uncommon to hear my teachers speaking in German, Swiss-German, Italian, and French as they worked with students who had come from all over the world to study in Basel. The design conversation, the teaching conversation, took place in the context of the traditional studio method. Our teachers would circulate around the studio having one-on-one dialogue with each student. The focus was primarily upon the formal aspects of our work, be it a poster, a letterform, or illustration. Whatever theory there was came to us by way of the craft of graphic design and the observations and instructions related to making visual things.
In my early career, most of the conversations with clients were around formal issues and the communications requirements for graphic design, signage, exhibits, and other such projects. These conversations included some discussion of the business and marketing needs of the products and services we designed for, but our concern was still principally around aesthetic quality and clear communication. I did notice during this period that a great deal of my time was taken up by conversations, in meetings, on the telephone, and so on. At first, I thought that this conversation was a distraction, an inefficient use of my time. Eventually, I began to appreciate that it was an essential part of the design process.
In the more recent period of my career, I have practiced design in the field of interactive media and software, in addition to brand development and traditional graphic design. Designers working in interactive media have become more aware of the importance of the whole environment in which designed products must function. Conversation with clients, with end-users and with other concerned stakeholders around myriad technological, social, cultural, and psychological issues is now common in all stages of design and development. In addition, we have begun to take more seriously the responsibility we have for intervening, through our design work, in these social systems.
Finally, conversations in my recent career have convinced me that process models from the traditional design professions have something to offer the larger world of organizational management. When managers begin to think, speak and act as designers, a profound change can take place. When they accept that what they are about is changing existing circumstances to preferred ones (as Herbert Simon says), and when they begin to adopt the distinctions of design conversation, and some of the methods of traditional design practice, new possibilities for collaborative work become available. I have seen this kind of organizational transformation in the Integrated Tax Design process at the Australian Taxation Office over the last couple of years.
Based on this and other recent experience, it is my belief that a new articulation of design conversation for collaborative work in large organizations will offer powerful new ways for people to accomplish their collective purposes. That is the conversation I plan to remain involved in for the remainder of my career.
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