Computational design is a perennial practice

(First version originally published on LinkedIn Pulse)

Back in March, John Maeda published the 2017 edition of the Design in Tech Report, along with a very useful executive summary on LinkedIn. His key points are music to my ears, notes in a melody of cognitive consonance that I wish to hear all around the digital industry.

The report highlights the rise of computational design, as distinct from classical design and the more business-oriented design thinking. Computational design is the craft of those who produce conventions, applications or communities of practice in the digital space. The report itself references statistics and specific companies, but here I am commenting on the greater cultural shift that it documents.

One of my favorite takeaways is that there now seem to be more designers with a background in engineering. Conversely, I would add that more engineers seem to be influenced by design cultures. For example, I reckon that projects such as Google’s Material Design slowly make their way into the semi-conscious prototyping habits of application developers, who may set higher ergonomical standards in their new projects from the outset.

In any case, it now seems to be more widely accepted that designers and engineers need to work together and bidirectionally. At any point in a product development process, if any team member has correctly worked out an important piece of the system by considering domain needs and has iterated on that piece, then that should become part of the design.

In industry events and conferences lately (e.g. #WAQ17), I see new design cultures gaining momentum. UX work is poised to enter more conversations, and I believe it will succeed best in organisations where it is recognized as a legitimate way to express computational concepts. In fact, computational cognition is everyone’s affair, from scientists to engineers to artists, since all groups diversely act as users of computational artifacts.

The human mind is the original computer

Computational cognition is old. It did not appear in the Twentieth century; in fact it goes as far back as the beginnings of formal science. Similarly, Web-like cognitive artifacts have existed for a long time, leaving us solid examples of design that stand the test of time. However, in terms of establishing the prime role of design in technological artifacts, we are just getting started. As John Maeda puts it in his executive summary:

When a technology matures, that’s when design becomes especially relevant as the differentiating factor. That time, for tech, is now.

This means aligning the tech industry’s work towards people. As users and agents, we need to equip ourselves in ways that respect our aspirations, as well as the beautiful complexity of our networked acts. We are to be served by tech – that’s why businesses call what they offer services. As the complexity of our networks rises more and more, dignifiying the actions and relations that actually matter to us, as cognitive agents, matters all the more. Let me put it differently:

Computational design might as well be called cognition design, if we consider it in light of its finality towards ourselves as cognitive agents. It allows us to harmonize logic and craft.

Along with that must come a fresh approach to how tech and computing are introduced to young learners. With young people, happily there is no false dilemma between engineering and design mindsets. In my experience, young practitioners will spontaneously look for the techniques and useful norms that allow them to reach a design goal. Ideally, then, when young students are introduced to coding or computational processes, they should be encouraged to build something like an art portfolio from the projects they tackle. It makes sense to them to present and share their work that way, which is great news for the future of our digital society. I would summarize it so:

Young practitioners have great creativity and they also demonstrate great logic: constructive forms of logic that naturally build sound mental models around empirical experiences.

Design is for communities

Starting with design means starting with a vision of the common good we are aiming for and keeping it in sight. In that sense design is commensurate with architecture: it is the practice according to which others are apportioned in order to build something appropriate for a greater finality, just like e.g. urban planners do.

Personally, I am at the stage of choosing the communities where I will invest my energy in order to advance design cultures, both professionally and socially. Right now, I have two organizations in mind where I know I can contribute significantly and grow along with the community: the TeX Users Group and the Interaction Design Association. These are just two examples in a sea of goodwill. So many groups exist where design-driven people can work for the common good; it’s up to each person to inquire and see what makes the most sense to them. Being part of such groups provides nurture and encouragement, so that it will then be easier to promote design culture in one’s main workplace. Conversely, what we bring with us from the workplace enriches our other communities.

Choosing a digital home

For current and aspiring practitioners of the diverse digital crafts, it’s important to surround oneself with the positive influences and empowering voices that dignify one’s unique practice. The above-mentioned TUG and IxDA are two of my favorite examples, and another important haven for digital creatives of all kinds is the WordPress community.

When I began nurturing an active Web presence, I used my favorite product comparison tool (Wikipedia of course!) to choose a blogging platform. That was at a time (2012) when parts of the mainstream had yet to realize how much social interactions would change because of mobile and the emerging platforms, so at that time starting a blog was a natural move – for a graduate student as I was then, I would even say it was an obvious choice.

WordPress appealed very much to me back then, and now I would say it appeals to me even more! So here I am today, with a blog that has become a professionnal turntable and a business journal, as I like to say. The transition was very natural, precisely because WordPress caters to ‘both sides of the brain’ and to all kinds of people. The emerging recognition of computational design is – not without coincidence since John Maeda works with WordPress – exemplified by the way products and services such as WordPress remove barriers to entry and development in the digital economy.

Of course, as has been repeated so many times already, we are living in a world of micro-interactions and short item lifecycles. All the same, there is still an important place for platforms such as WordPress, which are more deliberately paced and can help one grow intellectually and socially. In fact, because of some very special alignments of trends and events in the current digital economy, I believe a resurgence of deliberate, authored communication is in order in some segments. Helping people create such a (re)surge of quality communication for their community or brand is a great passion of mine, and the reason for this site’s existence. This is my way of computational design.

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