Does design = Control?

Logic+Emotion published a fictional story called “A Tale of Two Architects” by Ed Lee. The story is about two architects who design kid-friendly playgrounds and their reaction when kids start playing and reinterpreting the playgrounds. I believe it will apply to all designers regardless of the area of interest. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

“Dick and Jane are professional architects, both are excellent at what they do—though they have very different working styles. One day the Mayor of Chicago invites Dick in Jane to participate in a new park program where each of them will be commissioned to design a children’s playground environment and given cart blanche to do whatever they want. The Mayor encourages Dick and Jane to buck traditional convention and come up with something “innovative”. The only requirements are that the playgrounds be kid-friendly, accessible and encourage play, socialization and recreation. In other words a positive and sustainable experience.

Dick and Jane go to work. Each of them designs—yes DESIGNS a playground environment that is unique, useable, differentiated and just plain cool. Though each of their designs is different—both encourage meaningful play, interaction, socialization, and recreation. The Mayor is thrilled as he and his team evaluates the prototyped models of the designs. He approves both of the designs and production/construction begins immediately.

At the opening of both playgrounds, hundreds of city kids swarm the amazing new playgrounds in delight. Both Dick and Jane are invited to the events to see their playground designs come to life.

But both designers have different reactions.

As Dick watches the children test out every object, climbing crawling and investigating he finds himself “wincing” inside as he witnesses children interacting with his creation in ways he didn’t predict and doesn’t really approve. Though he doesn’t want to admit it—it makes him uncomfortable. A little voice inside his head is quietly saying “no, that’s not how it works—please don’t do that” and “that’s not how it’s meant to be used”. Dick smiles along as he watches the children enjoying themselves while deep down inside, he’s disappointed that his creation was not interacted with “appropriately”. He walks away with mixed feelings.

Halfway across town, Jane is observing the children playing on her playground. She also experiences a similar phenomenon, but reacts to it very differently. The children are sliding down things she didn’t design for that. They’re gathering in areas that were meant to support only small groups. Jane is surprised, but pleasantly at how the children are playing in her environment. She begins to take notes. She’s inspired. She gets ideas about how facets from this design could be used in some of her other projects. Though the outcome is different from what she planned and anticipated—she’s thrilled.

“design” is inherently about control.

So, is design inherently about control? Maybe to Dick it was. Maybe for him the validation that he’s a good designer is underscored by people interacting in his environment the way he envisioned them to. For Jane, it’s the opposite. She understands that people are unpredictable and she feeds off of the unexpected results. It makes her better at what she does and inspires new ideas and creativity. She thrives on it. Jane would make a good conversation architect.

“design” is inherently about control.

Are we really so sure that conversations can’t and shouldn’t be “designed” Does design = control? What would the developers/designers of Twitter say about their application which has evolved into something that goes beyond answering “What are you doing?” Are they not designers because their application is used in ways that maybe were not predicted? Sure baking soda can be used to keep refrigerators smelling fresh, which was maybe not the original intent—but somebody conceived, invented and created baking soda.

Each and every “2.0″ application is architected, designed and developed. Many of these digital experiences facilitate dialogue which manifests itself in different ways. We the people, the users, the consumers, co-creators and mashers then become the “children” who decide how we want to play and socialize. We do what comes natural. But that doesn’t mean our playground was never designed in the first place—it was, we just do what children have always done. We play. We investigate and interact with our environments. We improvise and adapt.

“design” is inherently about control.

I’m not so sure that it is. And if design is about control, then maybe I shouldn’t be a designer.”

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