There are a great many people whom have influenced how I think about design but there are two people whom I think have influenced me more than anyone when it comes to what design is rather than how to think about specific problems.
Victor Papanek, introduced to me by John Paulin in a class on accessible software, has given me the notion that as designers we have a moral imperative to make the world better.
One story about Papanek that forever changed my thinking is about car bumpers.
In the 1950’ies a lot of people died in traffic accidents due to poorly constructed cars. Someone would drive into a tree and the bumper would just fold and the people in the car would die. Congress held a hearing with the car manufacturers asking them to improve their cars to bring down the death toll. Congress got answers along the lines of “no, can’t do that”, “it is impossible to build a bumper that will withstand more than 15mph for a price that won’t make cars too expensive” and similar explanations playing on congress’ fear of curbing this booming industry. As the congress and industry people were leaving the building, walking down the stairs, a car came driving up on the pavement and slammed front first into the side of the building. Out got the driver, Victor Papanek, unhurt. Congress men stormed over to see this perculiar sight and learned that Papanek had built a bumper of 2 layers of 10 cent cans that could withstand a crash, as it just did, of 25 mph. The congress men turned around, went back into session and were a lot less lenient on the car company representatives.
I haven’t been able to actually verify the story, but nonetheless, it taught me that as designers we should never accept commonly held beliefs and it is our role to show the world what is really possible. We change the world by making and showing.
For my thesis my professor, Peter Carstensen, suggested I read Donald Schön’s book The Reflective Practitioner. This was a mind opening book that shaped how I have come to think about design as an activity. We learn by having what Schön calls a ‘dialog with the material’ a phrase I have adopted and used many times to describe the design process.
In design we do not just iterate. We step into the problem and work in the problem, then we step out to gain perspective, challenge the problem and our assumptions and then step into the problem again with a fresh perspective and work in a changed direction. This is also why the practice of design crit is so fundamental to design. It is a help from peers to pull you out of the inner workings of a design to gain a new perspective, new insight about the problem before you dive back into the glory guts of the details.