Designing, tame and wild

In Chapter 19 of Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman1 uses an argument that is useful to us in answering the question what is designing?

Kahneman’s aim is to show how people often misinterpret accounts of other people’s success. We may see a successful outcome of a long series of random events, and assume that the people associated with that success are more capable, or endowed with some special power, even when we don’t really have sufficient evidence to make that association. Kahneman argues that this demonstrates the halo effect in action – one of the most powerful cognitive biases. He gives the example of the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Delving into the history of Google reveals that its success is founded more on a continuous series of lucky events, combined with persistence, not genius. Considering things statistically, they are one of many other start-ups from the early days of the web. But they are the one that, through almost random actions, survived and thrived. The others were less lucky. Page and Brin’s most important attributes were persistence and an almost irrational acceptance that they could easily fail at any time.

If we zoom out of the exceptional Google story, to see the bigger picture, things look less rosy. Google’s success is the tip of a massive, messy, wasteful iceberg of failure. That’s Capitalism. A massive pile of waste with a diamond on top distracting us from the real story. In the long term this is not sustainable. We need to get beyond the halo effect. Designing is, I argue, our only hope.

Kahneman uses a metaphor to amplify an important distinction. Google’s journey, he argues, was like white-water rafting: hurtling down an unknown river, steering reactively. Google was the raft that didn’t get wrecked. They get to the finish line, and we think: wow, those guys are special. Which they are. They survived randomness. But for Kahneman, there is a different kind of journey possible – one that balances risk with control, and gives due credit more rationally.

So, what does Kahneman’s argument tell us about designing and designers?

Designing is what we do to go beyond the halo effect. Designing doesn’t simply pick out what seems to have worked (through luck), it aims to understand why something is successful (or not), and use that knowledge to amplify and extend the likelihood of success. But is also adds another equally important ingredient: imagination. Not simply what do we know based on the past?, but also, what might be different in the future?

Designers design predictable reliable robust systems – products, services and practices that behave as expected within a wide range of situations. They imagine the possible situations in which those systems may be used, which may involve a high degree of unpredictable wildness, and design for those possible situations. Designing therefore requires a synthesis of imagination (concerning the future), knowledge, experience (basing the future on the past), and skill.

Following on with the white-water rafting example, we know in reality that sport isn’t simply a matter of luck. Great rafters prepare their systems, based on technologies and techniques, knowledge of how the river has behaved in the past, and imagined projections of how it might behave in the future. They are designers.

But designers may also go further than that. They widen out their designing to control more of the environment in which designed things operate. They design environments or platforms in which future events happen in more predictable, safe, ways. The danger is that this broader-scoped designing eliminates the randomness through which fresh value may be produced. Who would want to raft down a completely human designed river? At this point the interface between the tamed and the wild is the key – and whatever we think, designers must admit to the role of luck in getting that right and sustaining it over time. As Google becomes a fully fledged platform, rather than a simple search engine, understanding and designing the interface between what they could control and the completely uncontrollable world of the internet became key – at which point the halo begins to look rather wobbly, and success much less certain.

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1Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel prize winning psychologist, celebrated for his work on cognitive biases – the unconscious patterns of thinking that bias the judgements people make when rapidly responding to events, rather than carefully and slowly engaging in rational thought.