Wrong by Design

While working with colleagues Azu and Ilya in Barcelona on an on-going project with school children and food we revisited a strategy to continue to creatively misalign specific ideas with a set of broad problems centered around food awareness and design. Our intention was to examine the results of intentionally misaligning products, trends, objects etc. with a new set of associations.  Something here was both distant but very familiar.

Back when I was teaching I once took a group of American design students to Toronto ON.  My goal was pretty straightforward, get these students to think about displacement, physically and figuratively. Using their foreignness as an asset they were to tackle issues of design and development within Toronto through acute observation. My colleague and mentor at that time, Jeffrey Kipnis was having a series of intriguing conversations with a rising design rebel and provocative thinker, Bruce Mau.  If you are savvy enough you’ve already placed the date, it was more or less around the debut of his pinnacle book Massive Change.  Jeff casually mentioned “you should make some time to stop by Bruce’s office”.  Well I did, and it changed me.  What I mean is it propelled a line of thinking, correction, multiple lines of thinking that design was strategy. Better yet a creative thought process ingrained in finding pathways to accomplish useful and powerful reconsideration, or what today is called innovation.

I recently walked over to my bookshelf and did a quick scan for that silvery brick, Massive Change. Once I began flipping through it I recalled a comment that Bruce made during that visit which changed me as a designer, he said “don’t worry about being right.”  Uh – Huh, OK, What’s up? Shut up! was pretty much my response it also happens to a very catchy chorus to a pop song, but his simple comment demanded some thought.  The goal of being correct, delivering answers in almost game show style quickness and efficiency is part of our culture. It begins in our early years in school, having identified the ‘know it all’ student, or the race to raise one’s hand complete with the oh oh oh sounds emanating from the majority of classrooms. What is the value of all those correct, well established answers? Did it make the teacher ever pause and say “hmmm thats interesting”.

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Faced with problems that seem intent on outpacing known solutions, what if one purposely proposed the wrong answer. Wrong by Design. Yes, doing it wrong – to get it right.  I think I first realized my inclination to experiment with taking perfectly fine and well working things (and processes) apart when I was a teen. Partly, I was interested in the inner working relationships among the tiny parts. But once the tiny parts are all exposed, lying there in happy disarray they begged me for new arrangements, “I know this is wrong but,” I have to be honest I love this moment as my colleagues will tell you,  “I just want to see this”.  “Look at this new arrangement, the emergence of new relationships capable of, well I’ am just not sure yet but look, its one of those pathways.”

Our key observation is: pathways lead innovation and discovery, and its observation of new and in some cases imperfect patterns that illuminates the pathways.  Enter our own interest and expertise in data – both fun and intimidating all at once it is well established that data provides enormous insight for future design.  However contrary to common trends, data also illuminates weak signals, dormant patterns lying in wait that possess the untested capabilities for real impactful change.  Traveling down pathways opposite of those clearly defined patterns may appear counter-intuitive but then again what makes insight and design so impactful is indeed its ability to penetrate problems in new and highly effective ways.  Ultimately we think it allows us to better understand rather than simply index.

Special Thanks to Azu for collaborative banter on the subject!

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