Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Design is as design does

For a brief period of time after I gave up on Ceramic Engineering as an undergrad major (I had no idea it involved so much Chemistry - not my favorite subject), I seriously considered Industrial Design. Something about form and function, aesthetic and technical really appealed to my nearly even left/right brain split, but the pragmatist in me thought that getting a formal Engineering degree would open more doors, so off I marched towards the Tech Quad...

I never lost my interest in ID (not to be confused with my current day job, Instructional Design), and still get a great kick out of the thumbing through magazines like
I.D. in my local mega-book store.

The latest issue of
Fast Company (Oct '07) is focused on Design of all shapes and sorts and is a really interesting read (IMHO). One thing that struck me as I browsed the pages was a minor realization that although it wasn't an intentional goal (and certainly isn't as classically 'tangible' as other types of design), my interest in software, technology, and their hooks into learning have led me into the broad field of Design in a way that I might have experienced if I'd followed my heart rather than my head as a 19 year old.

Just how different is Instructional Design from Industrial Design, at its root? Just how far can you push the question (Software Programming vs. Interface Design vs. Architecture) before the differences begin to outweigh the similarities? Are there some fundamental commonalities that run, like a thread, through them all? Is it as simple as the urge to 'create' something?

The lead/cover article is on Yves Behar, the creative spark behind the much lauded XO-1 of Nicholas Negroponte's
One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, among other things. In that article, he shared an insight that kicked the question above into gear for me:

"The simplest definition of design is how you treat your customer. If you acknowledge their intelligence, and treat them well from an environmental, emotional, and aesthetic standpoint, you're probably doing good design." By that standard, he says, few CEOs come close. "They just don't know how hard it is, and what it will take on their part. There's a pain in transformation, pain when you have to do things differently." Most execs hope skillful marketing will make up for design shortfalls, or that word of mouth around an occasional well-conceived product will float the rest of their wares. Such rosy thinking overlooks the tensions that arise when design gets factored into a big business. "Marketing people are incented to come up with great ideas," says Mitch Pergola, fuseproject's vice president and general manager. "Engineers are incented to drive out costs." To resolve those conflicts, somebody at the top has to make the Solomonic calls. "If you want to be design-driven, " Behar says, "the question is, Who's driving?"

Although he is speaking of the design of physical objects, much of the sentiment he captures could just as well apply to Instructional Design (or Software Design, or...). At its core, good design requires some recognition and respect for your customer/audience. In training terms, acknowledgement that your (adult) learners bring something to the educational table, based on their background and experience. They are NOT blank slates that are poised to be filled with the blessings of the wisdom that has been deemed necessary for them to imbibe. Time and time again, when ID's step off their artificial platform of being the fount of knowledge and assume a position of being an enabler and facilitator of information exchange, everyone is richer for it.

Good design isn't window dressing on some more important, underlying core. It is an equal at the table of required elements for success.

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