So one of the greats of design thinking, Don Norman (Design of Everyday Things, The Design of Future Things, etc) has really kicked over a design anthill. Last month (I think, the essay isn't dated) Norman published an essay entitled "Technology First, Needs Last." (image: Tim Brown)
Essentially Norman asserts that: "I've come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs. I reached this conclusion through examination of a range of product innovations, most especially looking at those major conceptual breakthroughs that have had huge impact upon society as well as the more common, mundane small, continual improvements. Call one conceptual breakthrough, the other incremental. Although we would prefer to believe that conceptual breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs, especially fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the design research community, the fact is that it simply doesn't happen."
Whoa. OK. Pause. Reflect.
Bruce Nussbaum published a reply to this essay (so Norman's must've come out in December 09) - the response isn't I think very powerful but some of the comments are; including one by Norman himself.
Norman makes some good points but in his comment on the Nussbaum piece, exposes an argument that I think I fundamentally disagree with. He (Norman) asserts that "People's needs come after the technologies exist. The need for cooking came after the taming of fire (animals don't cook their meals). The need for communication devices (telegraph, telephone, radio, cellphone, internet, postal mail, email) came after the technologies made them possible. People 1000 years ago did not have a need for email, or not even for the telephone: it took the existence of technologies to make these activities possible, which then slowly determined the need. (Remember, when the telephone was first introduced, few people could conceive of why they would want it. Hotels resisted it. Etc.)"
Um, I don't think so. People had a need for cooked food prior to taming fire. Less disease, ability to store food, warmth, ability to dissuade predators, fear of the dark - these were all needs that pre-dated the technology-else why pursue the technology? We may not have been able to fully articulate what the needs were but we humans saw something in the fire-we had felt its warmth, seen its light, etc-that convinced us to tame it.
We have also had a powerful, driving need to communicate with each other. Why else have humans been driven to crush berries and figure out which dyes would best stain a cave wall? Did we really have no need to share written information before the invention of the written language?
So let's leave that aside for a minute (and because I think I'm right) and focus on the real question here: can thinking about design, absent any new technology, produce revolutionary, innovative leaps? I don't know, would you consider Jules Verne to be a design thinker? Asimov? Heinlein? Arthur C. Clarke? They all envisioned radical, revolutionary leaps forward and did so in spectacular fashion w/out the technology existing that they envisioned.
So maybe there is a dialectic here between design and invention. Some of the comments found in other articles detailing this battle (1, 2,) discuss the flow involved in bringing an invention to the fore and working it in such a way that it actually has impact - in essence move from invention to innovation.
So for #lrnchat, what is the question(s) we could draw out of this for discussion?
- What is the role of design thinking in designing instruction?
- What do we see as the interplay between technology and design?
- How do invention and innovation relate to/impact what we do?
- Can we envision a need for which a technology does not yet exist?
- Are we as dependent on the technologists, the engineers, the inventors as Norman suggests?