Monday, February 24, 2014

Awe by Design

Design theory provides new opportunities for considering the art of wonder. That is to say, it is possible to take the very romanticized and subjective notion of awe and subject this to a process by way of design theory.

Design is a diverse and cross-disciplinary field, inheriting and combining the pragmatic and aesthetic from fields like engineering and graphic design. Design overlaps with the fields of psychology and cognition, rhetoric, marketing, and entrepreneurialism. Design is informed by a growing body of theory about creativity which conceives of it in terms of processes of discovery, communication, and collaborative problem-solving.

Design Thinking
As shown in the five-step process of design thinking in this graphic, design follows an iterative strategy by which ideas are proposed and tested. This involves a combination of divergent and convergent thinking processes, using various methods to "think outside the box" before proposing and testing specific models.

Some of this divergent thinking requires moving outside of traditional modalities. For example, one does not "brainstorm"; one "bodystorms" -- which refers to physically interacting with a group of people and with things like post-it notes tacked to a board where they can be rearranged and discussed with others.

Another way divergent thinking is achieved is by iterating / translating among different kinds of media models. In proposing a new object to be made, one might create a textual "brief," a rough sketch, a rough physical prototype, a computer aided design model, or a functional prototype -- these each differ in how they represent a given idea and thereby appeal to diverse modes of thinking. Edelmann and Curanno use Bruno Latour's concept of "cascades of media" to suggest that an array of just such diverse representations be used to re-represent and re-conceptualize a given problem or its solution (63-64).

Application to Awe
What does all this have to do with awe, wonder, or the sublime?

Design theorists, taking note of the effectiveness of these design processes, identify a pattern of "Experiencing Eureka Moments ("Ahhh!)," a "moment of excitement and recognition" that occurs when teams co-craft solutions through this methodology. This is not mere emotion; it is a clear signal that a kind of viable vision has taken place through collaborative evolution of design ideas. This is awe that can be taken to the bank. It is reproducible, commodifiable awe, insofar as one follows the outlined procedures of the design thinking process. It is not guaranteed, but it is more likely, that moments of creative awe will result from following the design algorithm's steps.

Application to Literature
Design thinking is not a kind of literary theory; however, I will treat it as such. As a formula for discovery, interpretation, and creation, design thinking can be applied to the creation or analysis of anything. And to make it more specific, I will apply it to the current research that of one of my students.

Tara Pina is investigating moments of wonder associated with reading. Such moments, shy hypothesizes, have turned people into lifelong readers. Is this merely a matter of finding a book that connects with an individual reader, or could there be a process for inducing that life-changing moment of awe? Is the awe merely the product of good writing, or could there be conditions surrounding the reading that allow for its awe-inducing possibilities to work their effect?

Design thinking doesn't compare well to reading literature. It is problem-based, not enjoyment-based or school-based. It is collaborative, not essentially individual. And while design processes and reading can both be creative or imaginative, the burden is not upon readers to ideate and iterate. Readers follow the script dictated to them by the author. These are essentially different activities.

But what if teachers introduced books to students not as things to be understood or enjoyed, but as resources available to them --as groups -- in solving problems those groups identified? This is not the normal way through which one introduces literature to children, but it might just aim them toward a more substantial kind of relationship with books.  In the spirit of design thinking, I will sketch out here a prototype lesson plan that applies design thinking to literacy.

Prototype Lesson: Literacy by Design
Purpose: Get children to be actively committed to reading as a source of lifelong learning.
Method: Application of design thinking processes.

This lesson presupposes that students have already done independent reading and that they can identify at least one example of some reading they have enjoyed.

  1. Define the problem
    Instruct the children that other children junior to them or less experienced than they are as readers are not invested in reading. (Essentially, help them take ownership of their own problem by thinking of it in terms of others' needs). 
  2. Needfinding / Benchmarking
    In small groups led by student leaders, have the children decide what would constitute successfully turning people into lifelong readers. This may require some instruction to familiarize the students with examples of people who have done so and the benefits that have accrued to them.
  3. Ideate (brainstorm / body storm)
    In small groups led by student leaders, have the children brainstorm how they could convey to others their own love of books. Follow suggestions for physically interacting from design thinking literature (including an activity where they write on post it notes and discuss their ideas as they rearrange those on a common board). Encourage diverse thinking through media cascades (see above), by which one can understand reading differently. For example, have them find or draw pictures of reading, or have them act out short segments from the plot of a given book -- diversify how they represent reading to themselves to get them thinking about what reading is and does in different ways.
  4. Prototype
    Have the students select from among their ideas and compose a specific plan for engaging others less committed to reading to being more committed to reading. Encourage them to think of different media or occasions by which they could pass on their enthusiasm to others.
  5. Iterate (test)
    Arrange for the students to try out their plans with other readers.
  6. Repeat
    Have the students reflect on the process, evaluate successes and failures, and then let this become step one in repeating the process (this time, more specifically defining the problem based on their testing experiences).

Works Cited

Plattner, Hasso, Christoph Meinel, Larry Leifer, eds. Design Thinking: Understand -- Improve -- Apply. New York: Springer, 2011.

Meine, Christoph and Larry Leifer. "Design Thinking Research" in Plattner et al. xiii-xxi

Edelman, Jonathan and Rebecca Currano. "Re-representation: Affordances of Shared Modles in team-Based Design" in Plattner et al. 61-79.