Designers are Metaphysical Mathematicians
There are probably as many definitions for ”design creativity” as there are people who have knowledge of the concept. However, it seems that a large portion of the descriptions I’ve seen–which also forms much of the boilerplate on “creativity” by the companies claiming to “have it”–could be summed up as ”Mystical flashes of insight from the mental void.”
In my experience, it sure seems that the ’spark of insight’ which initiates the process of creating something new can seem to strike my mind as if it were a “bolt from the blue.” However, I think there is much, much more to a good description of insightful innovation than simply regarding it as ”a mental miracle.” I think that the cognitive process which enables that spark of innovation can be described better and–this is what makes this goal so important–could potentially be taught and learned.
I think designers, good designers, are exceptionally strong conceptual thinkers. I think it is their understanding, explicit or implicit, of the conceptual nature of human thought which enables them to be so creative. By this I mean to say that designers can step back and observe a design problem at a more abstract conceptual level than most people. By doing this, they have a much broader view of the problem and can see far more avenues to solutions. But how do they do this? What is the cognitive process which enables them to do this?
People often think of themselves as either “left-brained” or “right-brained.” “Logical” or “intuitive.” Mathematician or artist. But is there really a dichotomy between the mathematician (rules, laws, concretes and the definite!) and the creative work of the artist and designer (inexplicable flash of genius from the mental beyond)?
As different as the two disciplines of ‘mathematician’ and ‘designer’ may seem, I think these two disciplines do share one thing in common: a love of variables.
Mathematicians, of course, love variables in the form of algebraic equations. One instance of their use of variables is in the simple equation of a line; a specific example might be: y = 0.5*x + 3. The variables in this equation are x and y, the numbers ’0.5′ and ’3′ are constants, and a unique value for x defines a unique value of y and vice versa.
How do the variables in the mathematician’s algebraic equation relate to the work which designers accomplish? Can the seemingly ‘purely intuitive process’ of ideation relate to the rigid world of mathematical proofs? I believe so! In creating concepts to answer a problem which is presented to them, creativity is enabled by a designer who regards concept features as variables. During the conceptual phase of the design process, designers are constantly tweaking the metaphysical features of their concepts–”adjusting their design’s variables”–until their concept fits the demands of the client.
An example can help to clarify what I’m stating here. Suppose two people are given the same task: “Build a chair.” The first person considers his definition–his concept–of chair and then just immediately proceeds to build a four-legged platform for seating. But the second person, a designer, does not immediately proceed to replicate his concept of chair. The designer first considers his concept of chair and then engages in an inquisitive and iterative process which alters the features (variables) of his concept of chair, in order to come up with something completely new. His mental process might go something like, “A chair typically has four legs and supports a person in a seated manner. But can the number of legs be varied for a more effective solution? Can the legs be removed entirely–a chair suspended from the ceiling? Add or subtract armrests? The material of the chair can be varied–which material best suits the customer’s demand? Or has the customer not identified what he really wants yet? Perhaps the customer’s values are not clearly identified, which makes the problem definition itself a poorly defined variable in this project? Will the chair’s environment change? Will it be used indoors or outdoors–and how will this affect form and material selection?” In the mental process of this designer, I’ve italicized the terms which emphasize that the designer’s inquisitive and iterative mental mindset is the process of varying the metaphysical features of his design. The ideation process is essentially an endless process of “What ifs?” “What if we varied the material? What if we varied the number of legs? What if we adjusted the form of the chair? What if we rearranged the components? What if we wanted to seat more than one person?”
The designer is, indeed, a metaphysical mathematician–a master at identifying and adjusting the metaphysical variables which are relevant to his design problem. I do think it’s important to recognize the latter part of that sentence: if designers get a little too carried away with the idea that “anything can be changed!” then they’ll run hard up against some primary facts of reality (i.e., runaway philosophical subjectivism will crash a plane that must fly right into the side of the mountain), as well as potentially angering the client with an attitude suggesting that what he really wants is completely arbitrary: ’anything goes!’ Nay, there is not much value to be gained by a designer supporting the mathematician’s stereotype of us: ’Arbitrary Anarchists.’ Far better for us to identify what can be changed in the design, and then make the change if the alteration adds value for the consumer.
This constant, inquisitive process of asking ’what if?’ should happen at all steps of the design process, but it is especially important in the early stages, when defining the problem which the customer wishes to solve. As suggested in the last few paragraphs, even the ”constants”–the customer requirements–which form the context of the “design problem equation” can be variables if they are poorly defined initially. I think a crucially important capability which good designers have is the ability to draw out and define what the customer wants–to understand and give voice to what the customer’s values really are. This process, too, is achieved by the same conceptual process: regarding the customer’s goals and values as a variable–but just in the sense that they are currently poorly defined and must be fleshed out through good communication. “Do you really wish for us to just design ’a chair’ for you? Or would a more flexible piece of furniture be more valuable to you–perhaps a chair which can morph into a bed, or adjust to seat more people?”
In the final analysis, I think designers can have just as much–if not more–of a mentally challenging job as a noted professorship in a prestigious university’s mathematics department. At least mathematicians will typically have the variables in their equation defined for them… The big challenge in design is that the problem’s variables often have to be identified by the designer in the first place–and that’s just the prelude to the large amount of work which goes into the conceptual iteration / “varying the variables” phase! But, on second thought, do the best mathematicians not do this same process as well?
So this, too, is true: anyone who aims to create something new–whether it be a mathematical theorem or a revolutionary new product–is readying themselves for this ”conceptual algebra.”
I’d love to hear what anybody who stumbles across this thinks of what I’ve written here… Does this description of “the creative cognitive process” accurately describe the ideation process which you go through, when designing?
- Justin Ketterer
Addendum: This write-up is an overture to an essay I plan to write on epistemology and design; I could even see it developing into a book. The implications for helping people clearly identify the mental process which enables creativity are BIG… More people who are more creative will enable an increase in our own well-being! If more people are made aware of the thought process which can enable them to be more creative, then we’ll have a vast increase in the number of people who will be creating ‘valuable mechanisms’ in every discipline imaginable–and in disciplines not yet imagined(!).
I should note that the analogy of comparing the process of concept-formation to algebraic mathematics is not of my own invention–it is the central idea posited by Ayn Rand in her Objectivist philosophy’s theory of epistemology.
Yes, Yes… I’m aware that the mention of that name may polarize and repel some people who read this. The polarizing effect which Rand’s name has on people is largely due to her stalwart defense of laissez-faire capitalism… Her arguments for that socio-economic system were based on her thoughts on ethics, which were consequential to her thoughts on epistemology.
I think it’s very unfortunate that most discussions of Rand’s ideas focus strictly on her polarizing views on ethics and politics–while largely not discussing her thoughts on epistemology (the latter of which formed the basis for this essay). If, up to the point where Rand’s name was mentioned, you were entertaining the ideas with relative equanimity, please continue to do so. Leaving aside the reaction which the idea’s origins may engender in you, please let me know what you think! This blog is about the design and engineering of products; I wanted to share the remarkable parallels I’ve noticed between my experiences in design and Rand’s theory on concept-formation… What do Industrial Designers, Mathematicians, and Ayn Rand have in common? It seems that there is quite a lot!
Please, I’d rather leave nasty debates on “the merits of capitalism” for other forums :-\…