Design as Simple Complexity

In 1963 Buckminster Fuller introduced the Design Science movement. The movement was largely abandoned within a decade because science (as we know it) does not explain design well. Horst Rittel's explanation of "wicked problems" and the methods approaches of Bruce Archer are more useful explanations with better outcomes.

Our current scientific method (called hypothetico-deductivism) makes predictions and then tests those predictions. If a prediction is not disproved enough times then eventually it becomes theory. The problem is all those experiments take time and control over the variables.

The more time taken to research increases the likelihood of feedback where effects loop back and cause changes to the thing being studied. In an area like design, feedback loops can be extremely quick; an Internet Meme can rise and fall in a matter of days. Science cannot always move fast enough and even if it does the conclusions reached might no longer be applicable as the feedback loops increase. Once research is published then it too feeds back into the system - stimulating differentiating rebellions and copy-cat self-fulfilling prophecies.

Science can explain things like Universal Aesthetics because the feedback loops are less problematic. But there are only a few such areas of design with this property. Science can be like trying to explain boxing by examining the posts and ropes because they are not as complex as understanding events inside the ring.

Science typically assumes that a problem can be broken into small parts which can be solved individually (reductionism) and the conclusions reassembled. This works if the relationships between the parts is simple and well understood - the variables can therefore be easily controlled. But relationships between design elements is complex so that controlling variables too greatly results in studies with narrow conclusions.

What are narrow conclusions? Research seeks the simplest theory that explains the most. Narrow conclusions are where a study is so focused, the variables controlled so tightly, that conclusions are not easily generalizable. A very narrow study might examine just one design (e.g. one app or a website). The outcomes of narrow studies are probably useless to somebody who isn't facing a near identical problem.

Since hypothetico-deductivist science has problems explaining design due to feedback loops and narrow conclusions then what might be a good approach? Surely there has to be something more rigorous than connoisseurship, visual intelligence or intuition? It turns out that there might be; Complex Adaptive Systems Theory is improving techniques towards a Science of Complexity. This area fits quite well with what Rittel and Archer were articulating.

Complex systems have agents that signal each other via relationships. Feedback loops are just natural parts of the system. There is also the property of emergence - where very simple interactions create the appearance of complex behaviour by the whole system. A complex system is more than just the sum of its parts.

Designers know about the dangers of mindless deconstruction and that design is synergestic. The whole is greater than the parts. Here’s a word play; make deconstruction = reductivism and synergy is emergence. Complexity science seems to be a good fit.

Computer based tools for working with complexity are improving beyond what Rittel and Archer had available. Design could now be treated as an applied domain within complexity science. Complexity is not a silver bullet (or golden hammer) but it could produce insights with a rigor that our intuition-based methods alone cannot provide. What might we do with such understanding? How about better design education and better design software.

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