Design: Art Applied to Productivity
I just read an interview in the Spanish daily ‘El Pais’ in which the Spanish designer Manuel Estrada said: ‘El diseno es una suma entre la economia y el arte, es el arte aplicado a la activitidad productiva.’ I would translate that in the sense of ‘Design is Art Applied to Productivity.’ I immediately saw the link to IT, while Estrada is an industrial designer who works for businesses, museums and on consumer objects.
So why can that perspective be applied to information technology? Simple, because we have many design tools and people who call themselves designers. The same applies to management and economy, where we have process and business designers. SAP call their latest architectural concept: ‘Business by Design.’ Is that really design work or is it a misuse of terms again like ‘Business Intelligence’ for statistics or ‘Knowledge Management’ for a full text database? Is Papyrus Designer a tool for an artist? If you create quality customer documents with it, it certainly is. Can drawing UML diagrams or process flowcharts be considered design? Most certainly, but who could create good designs with them?
In good design ‘form follows function.’ The designer has to understand the function of his design. Therefore one can not expect that someone can design outside their domain of understanding. That is most probably the reason for the many really poor IT designs. In nature we find mostly very complex forms and functions but they are always beautiful, efficient and economical. Art applied to productivity. So is there a DESIGNER for nature? Ouch! We are right in the middle of the religious ‘Intelligent Design’ debate. I will not get involved, but let me just say this: Even if everything in nature emerges though evolutionary progress there still could be a supernatural power that designed the principles behind those natural laws. There simply is no sensible argument for or against a responsible deity. It is a matter of choice and should be left at that and simply be respected. By those for and those against!
I happen to believe (my choice to be respected) that there are forces of evolutionary emergence at work for natural designs. WHY is a silly question. Because it is an iterative progress and the designs are not decomposable into building blocks (which makes the concept plausible), only those designs that are the most efficient in providing a certain trait or reach a valuable goal survive. So what works better: a natural river in its bed or a concrete canal? A no-brainer. But some might say that the yearly floods of a river are too dangerous and costly. I think that is a short-sighted perspective, because the floods have a purpose and we should simply accept their appearance and build accordingly. Ever saw the stilted huts the natives build along rivers or close to the sea?
What is more efficient overall? A perfectly flat wall or a slightly warped one? Depends. Creating a perfectly flat surface is more expensive, but cleaning a crooked one maybe more difficult. Building with wood and stone is less energy consuming than the maintenance-free aluminum and glass facades. These types of facades have different insulation qualities and impact heating/cooling cost. Simpler designs are mostly more efficient, but not necessarily effective. So nature gravitates towards the most efficient way of working things. Simple does however not mean simple geometric forms, as some designers show who understand the use of natural forms.
The late Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser wrote: ‘Die gerade Linie ist gottlos.’ I translate that as ‘The straight line is blasphemous (or wasn’t created by God).’ We are back at the religious subject. Yes, I will dogmatically defend my faith that God didn’t create the world with flowcharts!
Good designs are not just about looks, but about enabling people in new ways. Good looks don’t hurt, however. To be focused in design on the cheapest way to build something, will seriously impact many other quality aspects. For business applications, ‘Design for change’ has been recommended by Forrester Research many years ago, but it clearly comes at a cost. And change by whom, how and to what extent? The criteria will be quite different to design a car for an expert race driver on the racetrack or for an everyday driver on the road. So why should that be different for IT? If you use Java UML or BPM flowcharts then you empower engineers, but if you want to do it for the business user something quite different is necessary. Which is why I agree with Mike Gualteri on ‘Java is a Dead-End for Enterprise App Development’.
But are we not talking now about a META-level of design principles? Yes! We are talking about what tools to use for business design. With IT we are in this unique, virtual reality world and can create anything we want. We are omnipotent! Unfortunately human inertia might not allow us to use that power. Applying old style manufacturing thinking to human processes is as wrong as applying it to business applications. For IT to design abstract coding or process patterns without looking at business needs won’t work. Perfect IT design would require an omniscient deity! Thus we need to reconsider the design process itself.
I propose we must consider how nature designs and try evolutionary emergence. The ‘crowdsourcing’ idea is just that. The counter argument is that it takes too long, it can go wrong and therefore is too expensive. True, and the well designed IT projects didn’t fail? Social BPM is a nice try, but it is still mostly for IT despite social features during design and execution. But what if we GUIDE the iterative design process between customers, executives, management and process owners with a learning process infrastructure and allow them to grow into it? One has to consider ALL aspects for process not just one – Outside-In, Top-Down, Bottom-Up and Inside-Out – as they provide different perceptions, goals and targets which together will guide the creation of processes. Technology now enables us to utilize the natural concepts of emergence to evolve designs for our business processes. Sounds amazing? Too good to be true? Then what is holding us back? IT people who can’t grasp that the world is evolving … and who will rather try to subdue the river than to build a few stilted huts.
To empower people to ‘Apply Art to Productivity’ in their own domain of knowledge in real-time is the new design paradigm!