Essays & Articles


The Design Dilemma: Dismay vs. Delight

I frequently find myself in a state of simultaneous dismay and delightful admiration about the end product of designers. Let me explain.

This state can be described by contrasting the way a designer and an engineer would solve the same problem. Designers evoke great delight in their work. Engineers provide utilitarian value. My original training was that of an engineer and I, too, produce practical, usable things. The problem is that the very practical, functional things I produce are also boring and ugly. Good designers would never allow boring and ugly to describe their work: they strive to produce delight. But sometimes that delightful result is not very practical, difficult to use, and not completely functional. Practical versus delightful: Which do you prefer?

Designers approach the world with charming naiveté coupled with artistic elegance and the art of examining issues in novel, unconstrained ways. Their solutions provide a graceful elegance and new insight—perhaps because of their lack of knowledge, their naiveté.

What causes this mix of dismay and delight? Designers are trained as craftspeople, without any substantive knowledge of the content areas in which they do their work. My dismay comes from their lack of understanding and by the confidence with which they proclaim masterful solutions to the world’s problems. They often produce innovative, clever solutions, but with no evidence that they have actually addressed the most critical parts of the problem or that their solutions actually work. They are often unaware that others have toiled with those issues for decades, that the problems are deep and profound, and that no single approach, no matter how brilliant, will suddenly solve all the issues.

On the other hand, this very lack of knowledge can produce profound insights that lead to advances in understanding, hence my delight. Having too much knowledge can lead to following the failed footsteps of those who preceded you.

Example 1: A Radio

Here is a trivial example. I was examining the results of a student exercise to design a radio. This is a standard problem given each year to students in a design course at the department of industrial design at KAIST, in Korea. One design caught my attention: a radio designed by Heejeong Huh, one of the students. The radio, shown in Figure 1, consisted of a flexible, extended stalk with the mechanics of the radio hidden in the base. My emotional self loved it. My rational self rebelled at the quality of sound that would come from an unenclosed, tiny speaker being held in the air. But when I pictured the way that I, knowledgeable in acoustics and psychoacoustics would have designed the radio I imagined a big squat box. Ugh. Sure, this might produce great sound, but it would be ungainly, inelegant, and ugly. Dismay and delight.

Figure 1. Radio designed by Heejeong Huh while a student in Industrial Design at KAIST, South Korea. The brief: Design a radio.

Now consider how an engineer might have designed the radio. I’ll select a random person: me. My design would follow rational, engineering principles: a radio that performs wonderfully, with superb sound, but that is a large, ugly hulk. Ask an industrial designer, especially one ignorant of the technical issues, and the result might be a lovely, playful piece like the one shown in Figure 1. Sure the sound is tinny, but the visual delight is wonderful. An engineer would have felt so limited by the constraints required to get good audio performance that the imagination would have been constrained, unable to conjure up inspiring possibilities. But when the imagination is free from the constraints of too much knowledge, wondrous things can result.

Now, in the real world radios have to produce good sound. But why can’t we combine the best of both approaches? Why not start off with a wide range of unconstrained ideas, then together with the sound specialists, refine the result to be both graceful and effective? I am pleased to note that many audio companies have done just this. Their products combine both aesthetic visual qualities with superb sound. But to get there, we need the designer’s creative spirit that is willing to explore outside the constraints of conventional wisdom.

Example 2: Illustrating the Tensions between Specialists and Generalists

Here is a second example. I have been thinking about the role of generalists in a world of ever-increasing specialization. In universities, expertise in specialized academic disciplines is prized. But in industry, products and services require generalists who are able to incorporate the wisdom of the many specialized disciplines. I had long used the illustration shown in Figure 2 to illustrate the issue, with the specialized disciplines being represented by deep, narrow vertical rectangles and generalists being represented as a shallow, broad horizontal rectangle. A perfectly functional diagram.

Figure 2. My illustration of how discipline specialists and design generalists interact.

I was describing this problem in an email discussion group to which I belong. One of the participants, Dave Gray, responded with his own illustration of the concept: the graceful basket of Figure 3.

Figure 3.Spines and connections. Dave Gray’s wonderful drawing of the contrast between specialists and generalists pictured as a basket constructed by weaving together the spines (disciplines) with horizontal connecting threads. Reproduced with permission. Original at Flickr.

Here is how Gray described his drawing:

“The spines are the various disciplines, which must necessarily diverge as we attempt to understand a universe where the unknown always exceeds the known. Each spine has a path forward, an advance into the unknown.”The horizontal weaving strands are the threads we weave as we attempt to connect the various disciplines. We find language and weave the disciplines together to make the knowledge useful and meaningful.”Without the weaving the spines just lay flat on the ground and radiate out. And without the spines the basket is just a coiled garden hose on the ground. But together they hold each other up and create structure.”It’s the spines and connections together that give the basket its utility, that makes it able to hold things and so on.”

Gray’s reconceptualization is brilliant, both in its graceful visual form and in the metaphor that drives it, one that provides a rich description of the interaction between the two different ways of understanding the world and the necessity for both to coexist and work cooperatively.

Contrast my pedestrian drawing of Figure 2 with Gray’s graceful reconceptualization of Figure 3. Now consider what kinds of skills are necessary to be able to create Figure 3: certainly not the skills of engineering.

The Design Dilemma

The point of this article is to illustrate the difference between the way that non-designers (or engineers like me) conceptualize the world and the way that designers do so.

Designers have a special way of seeing the world. Their ignorance of specialized content areas is their strength: they are not trapped by traditional thinking, they can apply new insights, new metaphors. The designer utilizes great representational skills along with a human-centered point of view. No other discipline trains its practitioners with this particular combination of skills. This unique point of view coupled with the specialized craft training in thinking and drawing is what leads to the power of great design.

Still, designers are mostly unschooled in the content areas in which they work. It is this combination of great insight and ignorance that produces my simultaneous delight and dismay. I wish that design training could overcome this dilemma. I struggle with an attempt to develop a new educational paradigm for designers (and for engineers, as well). Design education in most design schools puts the emphasis on craft skills. That is good, but insufficient. This has to change to accommodate the modern world. (I plan to address this issue in a future essay.) Meanwhile, I want everything: creations that are functional and usable as well as insightful and pleasurable.