Going back to design’s first principles in problem solving with some words from the Eameses

Wikipedia does no justice to the legends that are Charles and Ray Eames, especially for those who navigated the obstacle race of the multi-stage admissions process at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India. For those of us who studied design more than 25 years ago, before our markets liberalized and a thousand design schools bloomed, the Eameses were akin to the gods of creativity themselves. To explain, I’ll have to take a detour through a bit of history.

In the 1950s, in the early days of independent India, our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had the foresight to think about the design needs of a newborn nation seeking to develop industrial and production capacity, as well as solve the myriads of problems facing her underserved population. He invited Charles and Ray Eames to visit the country, travel around for months, and then write the design plan for meeting India’s creative and problem solving needs.

We have been asked by the Government of India to recommend a program of training in the area of design which would serve as an aid to the small industries. We have been asked to state what India can do to resist the rapid deterioration of consumer goods within the country today.

A pioneering act of knowledge and creative economy policymaking. It was called The India Report and delivered in April 1958.

In the light of the dramatic acceleration with which change is taking place in India and the seriousness of the basic problems involved, we recommend that without delay there be a sober investigation into those values and those qualities that Indians hold important to a good life, that there be a close scrutiny of those elements that go to make up a “Standard of Living”.

Before I proceed to add two more paragraphs from their introduction, I’d like to pause at this point where they recommend understanding the end users (the citizens of India); their hopes, dreams and aspirations; their needs, and the gaps in the system as observed in their operating environment. That is, the Eamses were recommending a human centered approach to problem identification through user research; the precursor to much of what we call design planning or human centered design today.

FastCo has an interesting snippet on their forward looking thought-leadership from 60 years ago:

Charles and Ray’s biggest contribution was conceptual: They showed that “design” could be an art of manipulating ideas, not just materials. They were master communicators, not fabricators. “We don’t make art; we solve problems” was a favorite maxim of Charles […] “Design thinking” and research strategies […] owe a debt to the Eameses philosophy of what one interviewee in the film calls “selling ignorance.” […] They hired the Eameses for their process of discovery, of admitting that they knew little, and taking that “beginner’s mind” approach to finding design solutions.

And hidden among their vast and visible legacy is their framing of the problem of India:

The change India is undergoing is a change in kind not a change of degree. The medium that is producing this change is communication; not some influence of the West on the East. The phenomenon of communication is something that affects a world not a country.

That, gentle reader, was written in 1958, before the advent of this even more globe shrinking, context collapsing communication technology of ours, the one that lets me speak to you directly, here and now. Imagine how much more critical these words are today. And, I cannot help but wonder, how much more relevant this problem framing would be for the challenges facing the African continent.

I wonder whether professional fulltime futurists ever realize just how much design planners and problem solvers must, out of necessity, ponder the future? And, in some ways, given the nature of the explorations during discovery, they are able to envision the as yet unforeseen with some greater degree of prescience? As the Eamses wrote in 1958:

The nature of a communication-oriented society is different by kind – not by degree.

All decisions must be conscious decisions evaluating changing factors. In order to even approach the quality and values of a traditional society, a conscious effort must be made to relate every factor that might possibly have an effect.

Security here lies in change and conscious selection and correction in relation to evolving needs. India stands to face the change with three great advantages :

First: She has a tradition and a philosophy familiar with the meaning of creative destruction.
Second: She need not make all the mistakes others have made in the transition.
Third: Her immediate problems are well defined : FOOD, SHELTER, DISTRIBUTION, POPULATION.

This last stated advantage is a great one. Such ever-present statements of need should block or counteract any self-conscious urge to be original. They should put consciousness of quality – selection of first things first – (investigation into what are the first things) on the basis of survival not caprice.

And so, when the National Institute of Design was given form, based on the recommendations outlined in this report, the philosophy of the programme was to instil in us the skills of the industrial designer as framed below:

We would hope that those leaving the institute would leave with a start towards a real education. They should be trained not only to solve problems – but what is more important, they should be trained to help others solve their own problems. One of the most valuable functions of a good industrial designer today is to ask the right questions of those concerned so that they become freshly involved and seek a solution themselves.

And that little nuance, is, I believe, what distinguishes the human-centered approach to problem solving from the creation of artefacts and apps. Mind you, the words human-centered had not yet been ‘invented’ but we have gone back, in this article, to first principles. And, by their very nature, first principles very rarely are instantly recognizable as their mainstreamed descendants.

User centered design originated from the increasing introduction of technology into daily life – UCD’s roots are firmly in software and computers. The “user” is othered by the creators and the developers, to be observed, and tested, and taught through friendly interfaces how to intuit the designer’s intent. Empathy is the ongoing struggle, and is also considered at times, a dilemma.

Empathy is a noun that means the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Without respect for the other, is this even possible?

And, that is the nuance embedded in the Eames Report, which begins with a prayer from the Gita, and which has somehow gotten lost in the process and methods of design as it sought to apply itself to solve the world’s most wicked problems.

It is respect that frames the industrial designer’s task as one that merely assists others to solve their own problems, rather than assuming that one can solve their problems for them.

And, it is respect, that frames the problem as an opening of the door, to a whole new perspective on a challenge; refining the lenses by which to perceive, and thus, to conceive, of solutions, rather than shoving someone through that doorway into a neatly designed solution.

Is it not so that the most successful products are those where the end users have themselves discovered myriads of different uses than that originally conceived by the designer?

Invention is not innovation, said the late John Heskett, in the classroom, until, and unless it is adopted by the endusers. And, he liked to add, there’s no such thing as “The Designer”, or “The User”.

It seems to me, then, that if I am to be true to my own teaching, and to my own principles (niti in sanskrit) then my task is not to design solutions per se, but the tools that can be used to solve problems. And, it may so happen that the tool could be as simple as a well framed question.

Design, I once wrote, is first and foremost a philosophy, a system of values. And this pondering today helped me see how design can empower the end user by letting go rather than “empowering” them through prefab solutions or predefined problems.

I will end this here now as this insight is one which I’d prefer to explore in teh context of where design planning meets international development.

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