Very Rapid Learning Processes

Very rapid learning processes (VRLP) is an approach and practice that makes the designer able to enter new areas for design in both a humble and courageous way

VRLPs are conducted by designers who use SOD to deal with complexity. It is a technique to learn a new field very fast so that one is informed sufficiently to know how and when to depend on experts and what limitations are in one’s current positions and knowledge bases.

In 2012 it was unlikely that a sexual assault centre would undertake a design project. Improving social services was still not regarded as a task for designers. Since then, much has changed. The project, Design for Dignity in a Sexual Violence Respons System, by Manuela Aguirre Ulluoa & Jan Kristian Strømsnes, was done in collaboration with the Sexual Assault Centre at the Legevakten Emergency Hospital in Oslo.

The methods that make VRLP possible are a design oriented approach to learning, gigamapping, collaborative gigamapping, co-creation, building expert networks and other dialogue-based approaches. The rich design space allows for the immediate access and socialisation of large amounts of information, and redesigning information in the gigamaps allows for the internalisation of this information.

VRLP has been proven to work in many cases, and its relevance has been confirmed by a long list of partners conducting SOD research. Among them, we find the SAC at the emergency hospital in Oslo (Legevakten) TPG, Attendo, Medema, Beyond Risør and others.

Can Designers Design Anything?

About Very Rapid Learning Processes

This is a version of a short article that was originally featured in the 2012 AHO yearbook.

Lately, there has been a double movement in the field of design. On the one side, design has diverged into new areas and specialities. Still, on the other hand, design has converged into a generic field where special subdomains of design blend into each other and the boundaries blur. This double action is best seen in the expansion of design. Designers are moving into more and more new areas. This happens as more or less defined models from specific traditional design fields, such as product design or graphic design, are blended and adapted into new fields. Models and perspectives migrate to other professions because designers tend to take on almost any challenge. Think of it this way: design thinking has long made its way into management and planning, and designers are moving into new fields such as policy and organisation design. Though these fields are not new by themselves, they have not been an arena for design thinking or designing to a large degree yet.

This thriving of the design field has unsurprisingly provoked some people. Both design thinking and its simplified and branded version have been heavily attacked. Also, there is a growing irritation about the willingness and confidence of designers who are moving into new fields and claiming they can design anything. Some of this criticism comes from design scholars, most of whom do not have a background in design. Design theory and research are peculiar in that they are densely populated with non-designers who make careers in the academic area of design. Some of them integrate well and bring valuable perspectives to design research, while others never understand the features of design and use the field to establish themselves as authorities in design theory and defend their territory. It is from the latter side that the criticism has been the loudest.

On the other side, some professors and professionals with a design background claim that designers can design anything – design has general features successfully applied to any case, issue or field. This claim has not been argued convincingly yet.

With the debate still raging, the question of if designers can design anything is not easily answered. It has many aspects to it, and this essay will only polemically scratch its surface.

Let us examine the claim by applying the same question to other research-based professions.

Can doctors heal anything?

The question is absurd. We all know they cannot.

But designers are not doctors. The fields are very different: doctors are reactive, responding to health problems, while designers are proactive and generative, creating new things. So designers, to a much greater degree, create their criteria and conditions. At the same time, they need to involve an ever-greater number of given dynamic parameters that inform the design. For the doctor, the criteria for success are quite clear. For designers, the criteria are relative and debatable.

But what if we put a little twist on the question: Can doctors heal anything better than non-doctors? The question is yes. Though many people would claim that others also heal, there is next to no scientific evidence that they are better than doctors or that they actually can heal anything at all.

What about designers? Can they design anything better than non-designers? This is much harder to answer. We have neighbouring professionals such as engineers or stylists who also seem to design. The term design is used in many fields and many ways. We do not need to bring in these definitions for the moment; we only need to state what we mean by designers. For the moment, let’s explore the issue by simply talking about those designers who graduated from a design school.

This leads to another difference between doctors and designers. Doctors have a knowledge fundament that they share, and then they become specialists in clearly defined areas or develop into generalists, which is a well-defined role. Designers have far less well-defined fundaments, structures and specialisations than doctors; as mentioned before, the specialisations are eroding and transforming.

Despite this convergence that indicates that many designers are moving between design domains, are they so homogeneous that they can jump between all the design specialities and design anything? Maybe they could but obviously not with great success. I know an architect who entered the field of software design, but this was based on personal interest and developing skills outside of the speciality of architecture; this resulted in quite a long learning curve.

So even within the boundaries of what can be regarded as the professional area of design, a designer can only design anything in this field with limited success. But can they do it better than non-designers? Some basic skills and approaches are applicable across the design field: visualisation skills and an ability to integrate and synthesise solutions from tasks where there is no wrong or correct answer. The doctors can be measured far easier. Either the patient gets better or not. There are grey- zones in between there too, but the goal is defined. Ideally, the patient returns to a healed state. In design, there often are no such ideals or given goals, only better or worse resolutions of ‘wicked problems.’ The designers generally have developed a skill to reach such resolutions based on complex and fuzzy inputs. Also, the current fluidity of the design fields has led to the development of adaptive skills. Designers learn the software needed to resolve a task on the fly. They acquire the knowledge required to solve a new problem. The answer here, then, is yes, a designer can design better than a non-designer in any given situation within the domain of design, even when crossing the fields of specialities.

Finally, returning to the principal question reformulated:

Can designers take on any task and design for any situation with relative success compared to non-designers?

This can be addressed in two ways: Because designers are the ones who design, they can design for any situation in the same way doctors can attempt to heal any illness. Can designers design successfully for any situation? Obviously not, and this is exactly the same as doctors often being unsuccessful.

So the final answer to the question is something like the following:

Designers are fully justified and, even to a certain degree, qualified to design for any situation. Are they successful in this? Sometimes, but often not.

The issue designers should really be criticised for is not the self-confidence to design for anything but the nonchalance they tend to show when designing for new fields. While design has migrated into new areas, design education has been sleeping. We have underestimated the processes designers must go through when moving into new fields and establishing new specialities. We also have underestimated the need for learning to cope with very rapid learning processes when designing for singular new challenges where establishing a speciality is not feasible. Designing for any new field requires an intensive learning process and the development of adaptive expertise. The new phenomena where designers teach themselves new software when needed or dive into unknown knowledge fields are not taken up by the design schools as a new pedagogical perspective. This is not new but resembles the concept of the adaptive expert very much. We need to take on this challenge and change design education so that designers can adapt quickly and design anything in a more connected and informed manner.

Designers need to be both self-confident and humble when entering new fields. They should be self-confident because designers indeed can do great things in areas where they traditionally have not been. But without being humble about these fields, their inherent knowledge and skills and the need to learn rapidly and depend on insider knowledge and expertise, these designers run the risk of having their results be hilariously superficial. And this lack of humility and willingness to empathise and respect knowledge has rightfully been criticised.

Systems-oriented design is a framework to make designers better at designing for complexity and to make them able to learn very quickly, becoming adaptive experts in the field of design. This has resulted in many exciting outputs where master’s level students have demonstrated very rapid learning processes that allowed to jump into new design fields.

The problem with designing anything is the lack of information, knowledge and skills specific to the area. To address this problem, we have developed a very fast learning process conducted in a designer-oriented way through what we call gigamapping. These learning processes help designers achieve an overview and define insufficient knowledge where support from insiders and experts would be needed. To illustrate this, we will shortly present two cases, one where the designer crosses between design fields and one where the designer opens up a new area and organisation to design.

The seemingly simple case of a porcelain lamp

The first case is a product design master’s student collaborating with a newly graduated student with the same background; here, they migrated into the field of ceramics. Their goal was to design a porcelain lamp. In the case of the lamp’s design, the problem was the material: the porcelain. The designers had no prior experience with the material, and the ambition was to finish the lamp within a time frame of three months. This was an impossible task, said the expert. Porcelain is a very difficult material that takes years to learn. With the rapid learning process and the expert network in place, the designers succeeded within the time frame. This is an example of a designer under certain circumstances and with a targeted process and suitable approach crossing specialities in design.

STORY Porcelain Lamps – a systems approach to a rapid learning process of materials and production, by Ida Noemi Vidal, 2010.

Entering new areas for design

When entering new fields where the designer, and sometimes even the design field at large, would not have any prior expertise, patterns or best practices to rely on, the task is even more challenging. In the project Design for Dignity in a Sexual Violence Response System (Ulluoa & Strømsnes, 2012), the students approached an emergency hospital for sexual assault victims and wanted to investigate what designers could contribute to this organisation; previously, designers were limited to design the facilities and artefacts and never had a role directly involved with the organisation. It took a whole process to convince the people at the hospital to let them in. The project started with a very intensive inquiry that included gigamapping, conversations, fieldwork and workshops for co-designing and information mapping. The results were three systemic interventions on different scales. The response was very positive and showed that designers could enter a new area, gain the needed knowledge and overview, as well as the needed interaction with experts, to produce innovative design interventions and open up an organisation or field to design.

Rather than quarrelling about the question, we intend to demonstrate an approach and practice that makes the designer able to enter new areas for design in both a humble and courageous way. If we manage to develop this expertise further and our processes become sufficiently good and flexible, we might reach a point where we truly can claim that:

Yes, designers can design anything.


Rich Design Research Space

Rich Design Research Space

The rich design research space is an inclusive methodological framework and scaffold for research by design. The rich design research space especially addresses the issue of richness in the design processes and design-led research.