We’ve been busy – which is nice, just not for the timely capturing of what we’ve been thinking. But busy times mean busy minds and we’ve managed to reflect and capture a theme that has emerged across all of our recent experiences. Namely; battling, defending, immersing and reflecting in between the black and white into the most useful, dare we say it, nifty shades of grey.
(See, the title isn’t just a play on the literary zeitgeist : )
As revelation often does, its inception began when we weren’t thinking about anything in particular except workshopping with clients to get to the heart of the problem we’re trying to solve. Drawing out from them in conversation, in diagrams, in hand movements, what they know they know, but also what they don’t know they know. We talked about what people firmly believe, the models that have such resonance, that even if they’re wrong they just won’t budge. We covered the practitioners comfortable dealing in ambiguity and those firmly ensconced in rules, process and XXBOKs. We talked about the influence of the theoreticians who prefer conceptual discussion and strategic musings, and the realists who favoured discipline, certainty and pragmatism. But these divides were only useful for drawing out difference.
In practice, we all knew we just couldn’t accept this black and white view. And then Justin drew up the following:
If he was better at writing sideways you’d see the middle connector word says ‘anecdote’. It’s anecdote, and myth, and conversation, and misinterpretation, and informality, and dialogue that connects (and separates) the abstract from the concrete; the divergent and the convergent. The black and the white. It represents the grey.
Whether it’s about services, about strategy, about (little-p) policy, about direction, it’s that middle bit (in whatever informal way) that helps you get into understanding the hearts and minds required for change to stick and, effectively for design and innovation to occur.
For us it means that without critical thinking, without the challenging questions that designers are so good at posing, these anecdotes can become powerful, and even true, if not for the balance they can also create. It was also a turning point in our workshop because we knew we now had a language for the design team to reflect in the messy middle, and be okay with the grey.
Not long after this Justin was asked to MC and Moderate AIESEC’s Leadership and Convergence Conference at ANU. AIESEC is a fascinating university student association – placing students in work experience situations all over the world through reciprocal placements with sister clubs. The Leadership Conference was a way of generating some excitement within the membership group and the student body more widely. It was an “…attempt to make sense of the complexity in the modern world by exploring the connections between economic, social, scientific, environmental and moral dimensions of issues affecting Australia.”
The speakers were as diverse as you could imagine. Everything from Global Peace Index and foreign aid, mixed up with Neuro-linguistic Programming and surveys on CEO behaviour. The conference finished with a panel featuring six members with a potential for wide divergence. Amazingly, despite vastly different experiences and subject expertise the panel members dove into the grey; exploring the similarities, themes and patterns that were relevant not only to them but to their audience of aspiring leaders. What black and white there may have been on paper disappeared in genuine critical ‘thinking out loud’.
Now we’re pretty keen social media users – we love twitter. We watch and occasionally engage, but as avid tweeters we’ve viewed with interest some of the black and white ‘discussions’ on service design, and on the state of government (and indeed design in government) in Australia.
More and more we struggle with black and white being the dominant (expected) behaviour on Twitter. It manifests in people feeling comfortable making sweeping statements on behalf of a discipline; in ‘conversations’ that are little more than artificial debates designed to present a personal ‘brand’; and hasty judgements about anyone who dares question or explore the concepts being discussed rather than simply agreeing or disagreeing.
It’s certainly a big ask to make a case for or against important ideas in only 140 characters or even in a series of tweets. Crazy idea but perhaps twitter isn’t the place for case-making at all! That said, while important ideas are being thrown out there – especially about a practice and profession we care about – we feel ok about occasionally grey-ing up the black and white rhetoric.
DARK MEDIUM GREY
Speaking of important ideas, we were recently introduced to the notion of ‘design for services’ when we spoke on a DESIS panel, by Cameron Tonkinwise down in Melbourne.
The diagram we used when we were talking with Yoko. Our scribbles, our take, Mel’s hand.
The concept came up again later in a conversation with Yoko Akama from RMIT and DESIS.
While we’re still mulling what our view is on the concept (immersed in the grey) of ‘design for services’ v ‘service design’. Our anecdotal response is that both approaches may in fact have the same risk. The theory of design for services that we’ve dipped into takes the refreshing view that design can be for a noble outcome of ‘enabling’ the service, not ‘engineering’ it. The service design theory we know well dictates that process and discipline are important and a vital differentiator between service design and simply ‘design thinking’.
In design for services, from what we understand, there runs a real risk that the designer is seen as an experimenter – a dabbler who possesses some gift for insight that isn’t necessarily connected to rigor or may in fact be disconnected from the people who are utilising the outcome for the design, or that the services that are designed require a level of capability that just doesn’t exist yet. In the social outcome business all of the above would very quickly see practitioners not invited back.
We’re still mulling in a state of grey, and our thoughts are definitely not trying to fan some faux ‘practitioner v academic’ debate. We do not favor one view over the other but continue to critically think about both. It occurs to us that those who may evolve both of these fields – who choose to talk not do, who pose and don’t get their hands dirty, and those who will always think their black or white should be everyone’s run the biggest risk of us seeing more articles entitled “X Design is Dead – Long Live Y Design!”.
Indeed, in the evolution of the service design discourse we are seeing a drive towards commoditisation and methodology. The risk we see is that the process becomes the obsession – that designers try and package themselves as the guardians of some ‘magic’ methodology that has everyone’s answers – and that more effort is put into trademarking terms like ‘Intent’ than being true to it.
Finally, a quick reflection on the DESIS panel itself. If ever there was a positive, shining example of the niftiness of grey this was it. We were chuffed to be asked to mix it with a range of academics – Yoko Akama, Cameron Tonkinwise (Parsons New School for Design and Carnegie Mellon University), practitioners (us) and social innovators - Kate Archdeacon (VEIL) and David Hood (Doing Something Good) and the content and vibe was more than worth the trip to Melbourne. We hope to keep up contact with the panel members and audience and making many similar trips into the future.
So it’s been a big couple of months. In amongst all of this navel gazing we’ve continued on our ‘sticky step’ way with some great clients. We’ve been lucky enough to create some seriously good service design outcomes that had the added bonus of starting to change the culture at one client in a way that we are particularly proud of. And we get some pretty fantastic opportunities with some pretty fantastic people. Our job is to ensure that in these interactions we stay ‘nifty’ and keep the ole grey matter in working order.