On Thinking, as a Way to Build the Future

On Reflection

On the Third Annual Phil Patton Lecture, Natasha Jen, partner at Pentagram in New York, gave a talk about The Designer as Critic. She argued that designers should not be critics, for most of them already strive to be critical of, yet remain too close to their work. Instead, designers should be skeptics. The word opens up possibilities for designers, who are “obsessed with prescriptions,” to explore the possibilities beyond existing understanding of the field and its methodology, a.k.a. Design thinking.

I agree with her perspective, and it pointed out the difference between the critique on the quality of work and the reflection on the way we work. Reflection is important to designers because it gets us closer to the “possibilities removed” by the process of brainstorming, research, etc., even though we don’t know what we don’t know.

To an extent, designers’ trust and reliance on methodology resemble people’s trust and reliance on technology. Methodology promises abundance (of “ideas”) and excellence; technology (and consumerism) promises simplicity, freedom, and individual choice. Both could be deceptive. Our world is becoming increasingly complex, and people, including designers, have trouble navigating within it. Meanwhile, designers keep releasing inventions with vast implications into the world.

In the 1960s, Christopher Alexander, architect and design theorist, described designers’ unique role, which is summarized in Architectural Intelligence (2017):

Alexander argued that the designer was designing for an increasingly complex world in which it was impossible to keep in one‘s mind all of the inter-meshing systems with all of their details. “In spite of their superficial simplicity, even these problems have a background of need and activities which is becoming too complex to grasp intuitively.” The complex systems of which he spoke sat within a growing ecosystem of other pressures, whether social, cultural, or informational.

The reflection on how we engage in and create with technology is critical in the present world.

One could argue that it must and can only be done by designers because 1. they contributed more or less to the growing complexity of the world, and 2. they are more capable of “thinking out of the box” and recognizing the cognitive bias involved and deliberately used to construct the complexity.

On Thinking

Looking back on Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think (1945), many of the promises of technology became true today, but we are still confronted with a confusing world.

On the one hand, compared to fifty years ago, it is beyond our cognitive abilities to find answers to many systemic and global challenges that exist today. In New Dark Age (2018), the artist and writer James Bridle commented:

We don’t and cannot understand everything, but we are capable of thinking it. The ability to think without claiming, or even seeking, to fully understand is the key to survival in a new dark age, […] Technology is and can be a guide and helpmate in this thinking, providing we do not privilege its output: computers are not here to give us answers, but are tools for asking questions.

On the other hand, it is essential to examine if technology fulfills its promise as “intelligence augmentation.” To put simply, does technology help us think better or not?

In my last year at the undergraduate IxD program at CCA, I would try to answer this question. Many arguments and counterarguments could be made here, but without a focused and analytical approach, we will end up in spiraling fruitless discussions, which we’ve had too many before in this world.

We have to move forward, and it won’t happen if our ability to think is threatened.