At CMU, and especially in the design department, we pride ourselves on being interdisciplinary* – in the approaches we use, in the people we work with, and in the results we produce. However, I constantly find myself struggling with this claim. Not only do most students not venture out of their department to take classes (partially due to the excellent plethora of classes offered within the department), but when they do they feel a sense of discomfort.
Designers on the whole have learned how to cope with situations of discomfort because they have conducted user research and done some amount of ethnographic observation, going out into unknown circumstances and interacting with people, products, and services to understand how to best serve them. However, this is also a two-way street. I sat in on a Transition Design Seminar class taught by Terry Irwin and the concept of “transition conquistadors” came up. These are designers (or expert professionals of any sort) that swoop in and attempt to “save the day” by telling people exactly what they are doing wrong, without actually understanding the reasons for their actions. I think as much as we might deny it, it is a risk grounded in reality for designers. And while there is no solution to it, being conscious of our footprint (socially, environmentally, economically, etc) is a step towards resolution. Having receptiveness in the other party is also key, but how to create motivation and receptiveness also seems to encourage a level of manipulation inherent in the change.
So as designers go into different disciplines and spaces to conduct research, I’ve realized there is an emotional process that happens (at least applicable to me) repeatedly and recursively:
1. Projection. Designers project what they know, ranging from schemas to design concepts to bias, on the situation. They may not take any visible actions or make any outright statements, but it’s a mental process for them to understand their surroundings. I believe that much of this is grounded in ego, as humble as the person is. Especially within design there is a sense of entitlement about our skill sets (depending on the background we come from and the experiences we’ve had).
2. Breaking of the mental model. After immersing yourself in this new disicpline or situation, there comes a point at which frustration strikes. This frustration stems from not having the common language to talk about the same problem or a hinderance of communication in what two parties are saying. It can also come from one party outwardly showing resentment or indifference toward the other.
3. Buildup and re-entering. Here is when the designer / person picks him / herself back up and reengages in the discipline or research. They recognize that there is value in the other party to be provided. This is where I think resilience and persistence vary per individual and per designer. This process can easily be extrapolated to any individual attempting to create any kind of change, but this is also the part in the process where many people give up. As quoted by a classmate from Cameron Tonkinwise, this is where “cultural capital” comes back into play as we re-acknowledge the inherent value of a person, product, or service.
4. Learning and engagement. I believe learning happens at a deeper level than just sitting in on a class for an entire semester or year. The designer / student has to truly engage with the material and apply it. This comes from a build up of confidence (from the last step) and the actionable motivation to carry it out. Here is where the designer starts forming a new lens.
5. True Immersion. The lens continues to form and develop here, solidifying. Stockholm syndrome is a prime example of the existence of this stage.
6. The Return. The designer goes back to their original research supposition with the knowledge they acquired from their adventure. A mini version of this whole process happens as the designer re-orients him / herself. The person spends a significant amount of time reflecting on the whole experience but also piecing together what parts of the experience can help them on their quest to create a solution to the problem they have posited.
In many ways, this mocks the design process that currently exists, perhaps by simply using different terminology and descriptions. However, it is then our responsibility to ask when it is it occurring? Shy does this process occur? How can I expedite or aid this process to become smoother (or rougher in some circumstances)? Harnessing and developing an understanding of this process is a critical part of being a designer.
*There is a wonderful paper by Daniel Fallman that actually goes into the specifics of trans vs. multi vs. all kinds of disciplinarity.