Design’s relationship with space is complex and well documented in the literature on architecture, interior design, and product innovation. The relationship with time is much more complicated particularly with the rise in popularity of the concept of design thinking.
The discourse on design thinking largely focuses on applying the cognitive patterns and creative techniques more common within the design disciplines to new areas like business, education, and social innovation.
Among the central features of design thinking as it is discussed in the literature is rapid prototyping. The concept builds on various forms of brainstorming and ideation and is aimed at providing a reasonably unfiltered look at ideas and then quickly assembling mock-ups of these ideas to achieve some form of working model to test.
Design group IDEO and its leaders past and present like David Kelley and Tim Brown have done much to advance this perspective. Design scholars and practitioners like Jon Kolko at AC4D have furthered this thinking into specific methodologies used to train designers and social innovators.
I spent much of June touring Italy and Finland, two major global centres of design and came away with many reflections on the role time plays in all of it. In doing so, I realized how ill-considered time is when discussing design thinking.
A read through most of the popular works on design thinking or to view documentaries or reports on design thinking finds great emphasis on the use of rapid, quick-burst ideation and development. To be sure, this is not the only way to proceed, but it is certainly given the lions’ share of attention. This makes sense in a world where communications and product development cycles are increasingly moving faster.
Applications of design thinking to product (or service) development often employ a model based on the charrette, a concentrated workshop-style event that can last between a half day through to many weeks. Having participated in, facilitated and convened many of these in my work I can attest that the majority of such events are closer to the half-day version than the 7 or 8 day one that is favoured by the National Charrette Institute when employed for social planning.
The argument is that people are busy and the pressures to come up with immediate responses to problems are high. It is the quintessential argument of our time — the present shock that Douglas Rushkoff writes about — that we need to act now, and do it fast. But both Italy and Finland are testaments to what happens when you spend considerable time in developing ideas and models rather than seeking fast solutions.
Thinking to my last post on floods, I was reminded of the situation of Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome arena, which is in need of serious repair at a time when its main tenants, the Calgary Flames hockey club, is seeking a new building. The Saddledome was built in 1983 and was already being viewed as near the end of its run before the June flood hit that city. In Rome I visited the Colosseum (above) , still standing after more than 2000 years despite earthquakes, neglect and many wars in between. It was built to last.
Another impressive architectural highlight in Rome is the Pantheon, another architectural gem that illustrates longer-term thinking in the design, construction and maintenance of a structure. It has been re-purposed different times and still looks incredible despite being built around 125 AD.
True, these Italian landmarks were built in different times, with different materials, but the idea of building to last and working with history is something that permeates Italian design culture today. Speaking with architects and designers in Italy it was clear that the thinking — the design thinking — that goes into developing, restoring or transforming things today builds time into the plans differently than is visible in much of the popular discourse. That translates in Italian design to taking the time to know history, know places, and understand the context in which a design in implemented.
Yet Finland, a far younger society, has also managed to do this in a different way by anchoring its design and architecture to its natural environment. The Finns take great pride in building structures and environments that fit with the land they call home and the lifestyle they wish to lead.
Consider the image below of the pedestrian underpass built in the heart of the city of Helsinki. Where in North America we do things like the Big Dig in Boston for cars, here they have done something similar for pedestrians and cyclists. Why? Because the Finns value nature and being able to engage the outdoors enough to warrant thinking about how to build that into their cities. One could argue that Canadians have the same interest in nature, but we haven’t managed to translate that into design.
This isn’t meant to argue cars vs pedestrians, rather the way that time and connection to the space around us plays in design. While cities like Toronto build enormous glass skyscrapers that look gorgeous (sometimes), their half-life might be measured in decades – creating a slow-motion failure of design.
The place for rapid thinking is assured for design thinking, but perhaps it is time to spend more energy on considering what other types and amounts of time might be useful if we wish to build things to last, not just to address Ruskoff’s present shock.
The examples presented here are from architecture, but the ideas of thinking longer and taking the time to understand things in a deeper way still resonate. In future posts, this issue will be explored further.
In the meantime, take some time to consider what good design, healthy design and innovative design mean to you.
Photos: Cameron Norman