Taking shortcuts

Paul Epp

Paul Epp

The workings of the design mind

When we set out for a destination, and we know our terrain well enough, we may be lucky enough to be able to avail ourselves of a shortcut. There is something very charming and satisfying about this prospect: it’s a bit like a secret and we may even want to keep it that way. In my neighbourhood, I know the back lanes and it gives me a certain pleasure to be able to both leave and return by the back routes, unlike the uninitiated. It is also efficient. We attain our objective with less effort, and more quickly when we use our shortcuts.

When we designers talk about design, we are likely to describe a design process. Sometimes we will even put that into capital letter: DESIGN PROCESS, to underscore its importance. There are almost as many different descriptions of this procedure as there are designers, but we have a common ground. We all move through a series of phases, usually beginning with an exploration, which leads to an understanding and a definition of intent. Ideas are sought, evaluated, developed, prototyped and so on. Decisions get made. And this all will result in some kind of resolution in a communicable form.

The mind expands, then contracts

If we think about this process long enough, we will recognize that there is a pattern of cyclical expansions and contractions. We open our minds, expanding them to embrace as wide a range of possibilities as possible. And then we make decisions, contracting our options as we select the best results. Each set of decisions can set off another round of searching for opportunities, within the newly defined constraints. One tidy description of this is the double-diamond, with the diamond shapes suggesting both the expansion and contraction that we experience as we move through our exercise.

Another level of understanding about what we are doing is that we are shifting, sequentially, from left-brain to right-brain activities. We do one (defining/left) and then we do the opposite (exploring/right). And so we proceed.

An even deeper level of understanding will show us that we may also deviate from this pre-determined formula and use shortcuts. I will use the definition of intuition to describe what I mean by this: the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning. Sometimes when we design, we seem to jump ahead and arrive at a tidy conclusion, without all of the intermediate steps.  It’s easiest to describe this as occurring through intuition.

It just feels right

It can feel a bit like magic. It’s as if we received some help from an unseen source. We may even choose not to talk about it, as though we cheated, or were caught out as lazy. But it can also feel very satisfying, just as it does in knowing where the shortcut is.

Culturally, we may have some misgivings about what occurs subconsciously. We tend to privilege that which occurs consciously and rationally. But we also know that what is unseen can also be powerful. Politicians are prone to describe their de-cisions, when the chips are down, as going with their gut feelings. However unattractive the description, we know what they mean. They are trusting their feelings.

I think that it might not be quite as mysterious as it sounds. We prepare our subconscious to both look for and to recognize useful things. We might call this spontaneous activity a form of pattern recognition. When what we are looking for matches up with what we have found, when the shapes correspond, we have a sense of immediate arrival.

I doubt that we are born with much intuition. Rather, I think that it is more likely to be the result of a significant amount of self training. We may not know we are doing it, but if we are interested enough in something, and pay enough attention to it and built up a large enough lexicon (getting to know the terrain), we are more likely to have what is called intuition.

There is danger here, though. All departures from the rational ought to make us a bit nervous. When we leave the well-known path for the scramble through the bushes, we may end up being unpleasantly surprised.

But in design, I think we all tend to take shortcuts when we can. We may not admit it, but we do. And so we should. If we’ve done our work, by paying attention, we’ve earned this option, and it can be very efficient and very satisfying.

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University  and chair of its Industrial Design Department.

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