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.


"The Quiet American" - History as a Love Story

Spoiler alert. Read the book (1956) and/or watch the films (1958, 2002) first.

All I remember about my first viewing (some years ago) is being quite confused about why Pyle and Fowler acted strangely in both their relationship with each other and their dealings with Phuong. This confusion ruined my enjoyment of this well crafted film. I watched the movie again today and have a new appreciation for its genius.

Since my first viewing I have walked many of the Saigon streets in the film so the whole movie felt much more familiar. I have also learned a little more Vietnamese history from the 1950s. I have not read Graham Greene's book or seen the 1958 movie. I accept that a 2002 interpretation by an Australia director (Phillip Noyce) made a couple of decades after the Vietnam War will have a different spin. Here is my opinion.

The relationships between the characters are parallels to the global forces they represent. Pyle is the USA, Fowler represents old Europe, Phuong the hope of new Vietnam and her sister the practical cynicism of old Vietnam. Old Man Europe and new Vietnam are happy lovers but old man Europe cannot fully commit to new Vietnam because of prior commitments outside his control. USA offers a marriage to new Vietnam and old Vietnam approves. The sister works directly for the Americans once the marriage between new Vietnam and the USA is arranged.

Phuong's character is never fully developed and this represents the hopeful possibilities of new Vietnam. Her name means Pheonix which is a western symbol for rebirth. She is largely controlled by her sister and we learn that she was the daughter of a professor. Phuong’s background is not one of naiveté. Van Mieu; the Temple of Literature in Hanoi (an old University) is nearly one thousand years old. Phuong’s emotions are either enigmatically blank or joyful - except when she was lied to about a marriage with Old Man Europe. It was no accident she proudly took the letter to her older sister who then told her the truth - this was old and new Vietnam realising it needed new allies.

The scene where Pile proposed to Phuong while Fowler looks on seems crazy. What man would let or encourage another man to propose to his lover? The whole relationship between Fowler and Pyle tolerating each other's affections for Phuong is nuts. How could a man be so forgiving of another for taking his mistress from him? Fowler's agreement that she would have a better life is nothing more than a platitude. This scene (and many others) make no sense until you realise this is America and old man Europe courting the new and hopeful Vietnam.

Bill is the powerless colonial ex-pat. His manners are poor even by his own country's standards but he tolerated in Vietnam provided he spends money. Bill is wrapped up in his own concerns and is oblivious to the world around him. Always drunk. His home country is sick but there is nothing the ex-pat can do. Vietnam is where he feels important.

At the film’s end the new and hopeful Vietnam happily embraces old man Europe and they forge a new future together. I'm told that in the book Fowler finally gets permission to marry Phuong. This is not made obvious in the 2002 movie - which probably reflects the passage of history.

With that lens, The Quiet American starts making sense to me. It is a way of metaphorically communicating a complex history through the familiar mode of a love story.