The “material science” of people

My dad is a retired ceramic engineering professor. He is what many people would call “extremely left-brained”. He is the kind of guy who stays up late into the night doing math puzzles for fun. Engineering has always been a core part of his personal identity, even after he became a professor. For him teaching was a process of making new engineers. His job was to take unformed high school graduates and transform them into good engineers, capable of tackling the toughest problems with knowledge, ingenuity, tenacity and a dash of principled impishness.

Like many highly analytical people, my dad tends to view design as a mostly subjective domain, dealing with aesthetic taste and feelings, as opposed to the kind of objective problem-solving engineers do.

This misconception of design is not uncommon. It is especially prevalent in engineering-led organizations. And since designers spend much of their time collaborating with engineers this misconception has practical consequences.

So changing my dad’s view on design and its relationship to engineering seemed like an interesting challenge, and one that might even help solve some tough real-world problems.

I tried several approaches. I talked to him about theory. I explained human-centered design methods. I told him stories about projects. I tried to convey to him what I find fascinating and frustrating about design problems. None of it stuck. So, I backed up and reframed my communication challenge as a design problem. I knew if I wanted him to adopt my concept, I would have to make it intuitive, which meant connecting it to his own experiences and using as much of his vocabulary as possible. Here is what I came up with:

Back when he was teaching, some of the most important classes he taught were on material science. His students learned the properties of different kinds of ceramics under varying conditions, such as heat, pressure, stresses of various kinds, etc.), and how to apply this knowledge to solve engineering problems. Because good engineers build system out of well-understood materials with predictable characteristics.

I explained to him that designers face a similar situation, except our systems include not only physical parts, but also human participants, which we, like engineers, need to understand thoroughly in order to solve the kinds of problems designers are hired to solve. Our problems involve getting people to respond in some particular way to what we are making. Insights into how our human participants think, feel and behave in different conditions helps us develop systems that inspire the right kinds of participation in our systems. Participation might be nothing more than noticing some artifact and forming a positive impression. It might be adopting a tool and using it skillfully. Or it might be actively engaging and actually using a service.

Yes, aesthetics, taste, feelings and subjectivity are an important part of our job, but we are interested in how they coalesce into a person who will experience what we are making and respond with feelings, thoughts and actions that support the overall system we are developing. And that system is made up not only of the participants, but also non-human parts — the parts engineers build.

So, to summarize: design research is the material science of design. In material science, the goal is to understand the rules that determine behaviors of materials, so that when an engineer uses them in a system they predictably function as intended; in design research the goal is to understand the factors that influence certain types of people to feel, think and act, so if someone of that type encounters a design they will predictably respond as intended.

This seems to work well enough for its intended purpose. But unexpectedly, it started working on me as well. Since conceiving design and design research this way, the logic of the explanation has taken on a life of its own, and it has begun to change my own understanding of what design essentially is.

(To be continued.)

1 thought on “The “material science” of people

  1. Stephen, Another excellent post! I couldn’t agree more with your comparison of material science (understanding how the properties of material components will perform in various encompassing systems) and design research (understanding how the properties of human participants will perform in various encompassing systems).

    Someone who thought along very similar lines is Herbert Simon, one of the founders of the science of design. Have you read his book, “The Sciences of the Artificial”? It should have been entitled “The Sciences of Design”. Has your dad read it? If not, I think, as an engineer, he would really enjoy reading it, and after reading it would understand much better what you do. The book takes a very engineering/science PoV on design, but nonetheless distills key aspects of design that span disciplines.

    Simon describes the focus of design on the very same relationship you highlight: the relationship between the inner environment of an artifact and the outer environment which which it interacts via an interface. It doesn’t matter whether that relationship is between a ceramic knife and what it cuts or between an iPhone app and who uses it:

    “The artificial world is centered precisely on this interface between the inner and outer environments; it is concerned with attaining goals by adapting the former to the latter. The proper study of those who are concerned with the artificial is the way in which that adaptation of means to environments is brought about and central to that is the process of design itself.”

    By seeing design so abstractly (designing interface between the inner environment of the article and the outer environments so as to attain a set of goals), he saw the possibility of unifying many disciplines that partake in design:

    ‘If I have made my case, then we can conclude that, in large part, the proper study of mankind is the science of design, not only as the professional component of a technical education but as a core discipline for every liberally educated person.’

    I highly recommend chapter 6, “Social Planning”, which comes closest to human-centered design thinking. Here is a perfect example of why we need to design practice that considers the human “components” in an “artifact”:

    ‘A few years ago, the State Department was troubled by the congestion that affected its incoming communication lines whenever there was a crisis abroad. The teletypes, unable to output messages as rapidly as they were received, would fall many hours behind. Important messages to Washington were seriously delayed in transmission. Since printing capacity was identified as the limiting factor, it was proposed to remedy the situation by substituting line printers for the teletypes, thereby increasing output by several orders of magnitude. No one asked about the next link in the chain: the capacity of officers at the country desks to process the messages that would come off the line printers. A deeper analysis would have shown that the real bottleneck in the process was the time and attention of the human decision makers who had to use the incoming information. Identification of the bottleneck would have generated in turn a more sophisticated design problem: How can incoming messages during a crisis be filtered in such a way that important information will have priority and will come to the attention of the decision makers, while unimportant information will be shunted aside until the crisis is past?’

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