online: 27 september 2004
modified: 14 october 28 november 2004

22 september 2004

1.2 discovering that there were other people in this invisible subject

a conference and a book - when a new occupation becomes collective

10:43 22 September 2004 thoughts on waking:

I woke a few minutes ago after sleeping discontinuously for about 8 hours. Fairly pleasant dreams. Shadows of my writing fingers move over the paper as I hold it close to the little desk light that is now on the bed. The other light has broken.

I realised as I stood to prepare breakfast that today is the time to restart this new writing of 'in the early days' as a connective addition to softopia, as being in (and no longer outside) design research (detached from imagination as that's become). But now as being the early days of what could happen in the world. Yes. So now to do it if I can... The digital diary is visiting the collective imagination, as it was and as it can be...

...I hope and trust that this intention will provoke and direct a flow of words of interest to everyone... So now to continue the story.

Today I've been re-reading the proceedings of the Conference on Design Methods that took place in London in 1962. It ended on 21st September, exactly 42 years ago (I wrote this on the 22nd). It was the first conference of its kind and enabled everyone who had an interest in 'systematic and intuitive methods' on design to get to know of each other's existence. It began when Peter Slann invited me to speak to students of aeronautical engineering about the work I had been doing in Manchester. After my talk I told him of my wish to organise a conference of people who shared this interest and he agreed to provide a place for it at Imperial College, London where he was a protege of someone who gave him freedom to experiment in the teaching of design. His patron was Professor D G Christopherson (by then the Vice-Chancellor of Durham University) who gave the opening address to the conference.

Peter and I sent out a long questionnaire to everyone we knew to be interested, asking them to suggest further names of people who might wish to speak or just to attend. We also asked them to suggest topics. I remember sending the questionnaire to Thomas Maldonado at Ulm. I was sorry that he didn't come himself but I think he sent some names and ideas - of for instance Anthony Froshaug who presented a paper. There were many people with a great diversity of interests - industrial design, architecture, building science, regional planning, engineering, painting, art criticism, cybernetics, operational research, philosophy, psychology and creativity - and a few who had actually begun to devise new methods of design - the most notable being Christopher Alexander who was introduced by Bruce Archer. He arrived at the last minute and we re-arranged the programme so that he could present his mathematical design process for an Indian village which afterwards became his first book Notes on the Synthesis of Form

I could write thousands of words about this conference for I remember every speaker and most of their papers became parts of my mind without any effort. To me it was an historic moment in which I fancied that the world of design and with it the future on earth was eventually going to be a better place than it was because of big (and I supposed beneficent) changes that could come of a change of method throughout the design professions... Ah, but that didn't happen. What a disappointment! The story of what followed is far less inspiring than that and it led me into all sorts of unexpectedness - but still I am waiting for this dream to be realised - in ways that were not possible at that time but which may be more timely now.

link to a miniature version of the conference...

Professor Feichin O'Doherty said that the atmosphere was 'Athenian'.

I don't think any of the many design research conferences that happen now have this (necessary) variety - and I don't think they include the integration of intuition and rationality, practice and theory. Their language is mostly abstract and academic, detached from ordinary life as we all live it, as ordinary people outside our paid roles. That is what I find 'inhuman' - to treat ourselves and others as abstractions, not as people... each one of us being more than any specialised role or rational description can encompass...

Behind this remark are the reasons why I seemed, in the early 1970s, to repudiate and to leave design and even design methods... painful memories, but I didn't stop - I kept on designing and researching in ways unrecognisable to some, beyond the reach of organised life perhaps?... but now I am attempting to connect the inner with the outer, the past with the future, the present... (unfinished)

The book Design Methods came about as follows:

After the conference Bruce Archer wrote (in Design magazine, 1963-64) an article in 12 parts called Systematic Method for Designers. In it was a very rational design method that he invented, inspired I think by operational science. It was indeed effective - it enabled him and his colleagues to design a new hospital bed that was much better adapted than were previous designs to a host of practical requirements. The bed is now, so Bruce told me recently, still in use in 85% of National Health Service hospitals. But at the time Bruce's was perhaps too complicated for others to use or to understand, and to me it seemed not to give enough scope for imagination.

The editor of Design, John Blake, had received letters asking for something more easily understood than Bruce's 12-part series. He asked me to write such an article and I enjoyed doing so. In fact I wrote 2 articles - reviewing briefly the most useful methods I knew of. When this had been published, both John Blake and his chief Paul Riley suggested that I expand it into a book - and with some difficulty I did so. Many publishers refused the synopsis as they got bad responses from professors of design to whom they showed it. Eventually I found a publisher's editor, Mike Coombs at John Wiley and Sons, Chichester, who was willing to trust his own judgement. Without him the book would not have been written.

Writing the book took 4 years, from 1966 to 70. During that time the revolution of the 1960s took place. I emerged having written a long book while having missed that historic moment. But I guess the book reflected the same discontents that provoked the protests and cultural changes. And it is perhaps longer lasting.

I began the book as an account of my own experiences and ideas about design processes but I became dissatisfied with that. So I started again at square one - a place I know better than any other!

Instead of limiting it to my own ideas and methods I decided to describe and explain those of others. This took much effort, especially as many methods were described by their authors in abstract academic language. I tried to describe each in ordinary language and in an understandable format that would be the same for each method: aim, outline, examples, comments, application, learning, time-and-cost, references. That took about 2 years of part-time effort.

When I sent the completed manuscript to Mike Coombs he said they wanted to make it a coffee table book and could I provide about 80 extra illustrations? Reluctantly I accepted this request. I decided to avoid photographs of products as they date quickly much more quickly than ideas and processes. I sketched most of the illustrations myself and include a few photographs of a poetic character. That took another year.

When I thought it was finished Mike sent it to Stafford Beer for review on the publisher's behalf. He praised the book but said that it lacked an overall view. So again I had to rethink. With great reluctance I started to look again at what I'd written and to make notes for a unifying chapter.

In the end I was glad of this demand for it led me to re-see designing as three interacting processes which I called by names borrowed from mathematics: divergence, transformation and convergence. It seems that other people find this unifying chapter helpful and quite often quote it... Yes, the book was much improved by Stafford Beer's criticism.

I could write many more memories of those early days but that will do as a beginning...

...I want to turn now to design research itself and to ask some questions about the past and future of this once-new activity that has fallen so far below my expectations!

But I jumped now to the 5th part of this writing: 2.1 early days of the future

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