design research

Waves, frozen in time

I flew back to Sydney last night from an out-of-town client workshop. As our plane banked over Botany Bay, I noticed for the first time that while the waves on the water’s surface were clearly visible, they looked perfectly still. The ocean looked like a piece of textured glass, frozen in time. It took a moment for me to realise that from our height and orientation, I could see the waveforms themselves, but without the right combination of magnification and reference points (e.g. landmarks), I couldn’t see that those very obvious waveforms were propagating across the water’s surface, largely intact. So from a particular perspective, a very obvious kind of movement had been rendered invisible.

Flight from the Fire

Image: Evan Leeson, Flickr

This got me thinking about how we do social research (whether it be “design research” or any other kind): without the right framing that emerges from a combination of control points and our sense of scale, we might totally miss a vital kind of activity. Something that we think is without movement might actually be very active. Maybe a quick “zoom calibration” (push in and pull out, just to see whether you’re at the right social magnification) might be all it takes, or angling your vision slightly to find the nearest landmark. Or maybe just wait until those things naturally happen — as my plane banked over Brighton Le Sands and I saw the sand of the beach, a control point was revealed: I could see the waves ripple and break as they approached the sand. So if you keep observing just a bit longer than you’d originally intended, you might experience something like an anamorphic moment, and have your whole system of mental coordinates rearranged.

What are the frozen waves in your research landscape?


Outlines, scaffolds and wearing your structure on the inside

Bamboo scaffolding in Hong Kong

Image: Ioan Sameli (Flickr, CC)

While working on a client presentation over the weekend, a fellow designer and I angsted a bit over the relative merits of presenting work in progress to clients in a descriptive form that left our thought process in the open, versus showing a more streamlined, emblematic package. We didn’t have the luxury of deciding which to go with, but in any case, our angst reminded me of a great passage from Martin Nicolaus’ introduction to Karl Marx’s legendary Grundrisse (literally, “Outlines”), which was basically Marx’s rough draft of Capital:

The inner structure [of Capital] is identical in the main lines to the Grundrisse, except that in the Grundrisse the structure lies on the surface, like a scaffolding, while in Capital it is built in; and this inner structure is nothing other than the materialist dialectic method. In the Grundrisse the method is visible; in Capital it is deliberately, consciously hidden, for the sake of more graphic, concrete, vivid and therefore more materialist-dialectical presentation. (Source.)

It’s a cool observation that lets us honour both stages, and yet also get somewhere different. I think this transition — from obvious scaffolding to a more implicit structure via a “more graphic, concrete, vivid” presentation — also represents our awesome challenge as designers. To be true to each step in the design process, but end up with something that’s more palpable to people than a piece of “mental sausage” in a process diagram (no matter how sexy that might be at the time!).

In the Hegelian philosophy that Marx “inherited”, the term for such acts of transition is Aufheben, a German word which has no English equivalent, but that can simultaneously mean something like “abolish”, “preserve” and “transcend”. It’s easy to fold this kind of terminology into a predetermined idea of “conservative destiny” — Hegel himself did this, by all accounts, and my sympathies have usually been with philosophies that emphasise horizontal guerilla tactics instead of some grand, upward motion. But these days I’m getting a vibe from “Aufheben” that’s far more alive, less predictable and full of friction and transformation — faithful to our earlier steps, but not as some kind of veneration. Moving on, but not necessarily in an obvious direction. (This was no doubt Marx’s intention: to use Hegel to move on from Hegel’s own limits, rather than be properly “Hegelian”.) In terms of my own practice, this means having more arguments, more productive friction, and to avoid making the design process one long line of steps towards a predestined end point. Hebt auf, designers!