Sam and his pale ale sat across the table from me, my cider, and my guitar cases at a Capitol Hill bar. "I agree," he said. "Our undergrad program wasn't very playful." I spun his words around my finger to remember for some future point. This morning that point occurred, and I've been unraveling them all day, just enough to feel bloggable.
Since intersecting with the improv theatre scene a few months ago, I’ve felt inspired by another friend Chazz's insightful distinction (for which he takes no personal credit, other than passing it on) between Discovery and Invention. I've also come to feel a little disgusted at myself for the arrogant approach I maintained toward design work in my University of Washington undergrad program.
Who was I to think I'd just go out there and invent or create some revolutionary, society-altering gizmo or concept on my first—or eighteenth—try? What real value did working toward a display of my in-class work on the hallway wall bring my projects? Why did I bash my head against that ego-bruising wall for three years?
To be honest, I've had the worst time justifying one aspect of the design process to myself: multiple iterations. It's hallowed ground, I know. I can parrot back the designers we've studied, or my teachers' cajoling. But I didn't actually understand the need for multiple iterations until yesterday as I verbal processed in the shower (pretending I was lecturing a sophomore design class) on the discovery process connected to learning a new skill.
My rhetorical example came from a project Ioan Butiu and I collaborated on in a class I had no business taking—Industrial Design Studio 1. Everyone else in my Interaction Design cohort was taking Typography, but the industrial design class required no prerequisites and I still fancied myself more of an ID/IxD hybrid, so I made life miserable for everyone in fall quarter proving I didn't belong in that world.
Ioan and I teamed up on the bathroom project. We had to make something to improve the bathroom experience for our chosen constituency. We kicked the tires on several quirky ideas, and finally chose a modular wall-mounted storage and display system for small bathrooms, using a large board pierced systematically with holes for removable dowels to be arranged as the owner desired, between which hung specialized containers of various shapes and sizes, above which perched shelves, under which hung towel pegs, among which hung bathroom appliances like blow dryers...
It was pretty cool. Its innovative wall mounting system was both elegantly minimalistic—just two screws, top and bottom—and hassle-free, requiring only one wall stud. It looked interesting enough to warrant flexible, customizable layouts. And it pretty much fit the bill for the assignment. But once we drilled it, sanded it, painted it, mounted it, and photographed it just a few hours before our presentation was due, we DISCOVERED (that's an important word I'd like you to notice) a few miscalculations which would have significantly affected our product if we'd hit them earlier.
We didn't build time for DISCOVERY into our process. We languished in la-la land for a really long time before buckling down to make the thing; even after we selected a modular wall storage unit as our target, we spent most of our time drawing it before putting material under the blade. At that point, DISCOVERIES became obstacles and disappointments rather than exciting opportunities for innovation and exploration.
This morning, I realized that's what DISCOVERY is: a double-edged sword cutting one way toward criticism and frustration, and the other toward revelation and advancement. Here's where it gets fun. DISCOVERY is, according to my definition within the Bayesian brain theory of cognitive science, the means by which everyone everywhere learns everything all the time.
Previously I described this process as "failure". Look at it this way: the human brain is a prediction system. It creates a schema—an internalized and more-or-less organized pattern of behavior-driving thought—for every situation it encounters, trying to comprehend the entire perceived universe within its own cohesive narrative. Any time an experience falls outside the parameters of its predicted schema, the brain registers an error message. "Whoa, pay attention," the brain whispers, nudges, or screams depending on the severity of the error.
Once things mellow the brain adjusts its schema to account for the error, integrating it within new parameters, and setting up a new prediction for future experiences. If our experiences fall within those parameters, no errors register, WE LEARN NOTHING, and move on.
An error can be called failure if we want. Failure of the predictive model, failure of the existing schema to account for a new experience. That failure can be considered a very human condition. Some people call it a flaw, declaring humans to be inherently flawed because we lack omniscience or omniexperience or something. That's how I've been referring to it for a few months, since meeting Marc Malmdorf Andersen in Aarhus, Denmark over dinner where he described it for me in sufficient detail and politely small words I now arrogantly consider myself something of an expert on it compared to how little I knew beforehand.
It's a moment of unbalance. We realize our model of the world doesn't fit our most recent experience of it. We feel an emotional reaction to that unbalance—in my brain it's often shame, because I live with a "Do it right the first time" voice in my head, but in others' brains it might be something else—and a flurry of cognitive activity and perhaps even a physical response depending on how inadequate our prediction proved to be.
When we feel prepared to encounter error messages, our responses often feel more exciting than violating. When I say "I'm going to meet a new person today to ask them questions about their life for a paper I'm writing," I hope to encounter errors. Otherwise our meeting will feel boring and my paper will too. But when I say "I'm going to the bathroom in the dark, in the middle of the night," the last thing I want is an error message. Of any kind.
That's the thing about DISCOVERY. If we prepare for error messages, they can result in powerful, exciting, uplifting learning which leads to new predictive models which can lead to new actions and new opportunities for DISCOVERY and, ultimately, growth as a person. If we prepare for the absence of error messages—"I've got this," "I don't have time to mess this up," "Do or do not; there is no 'try',"—we get pretty upset when they arrive.
And they don't always show up. When we play it safe, they're minimized. When we do nothing, we numb them. When set our expectations low ("Whatever happens, happens—I don't care") they do little to shape our predictive schemas. But when we're engaged, curious, and deliberate about making space and time to invite them, their appearance feels like a breath of fresh air or a shot of adrenaline.
That's what play does. That's what design's iteration process is for: to play. DISCOVERY is built into the invention/creation process us deliberately, sensitizing us to error messages. When we design a game for instance, we build in time for playtesting—that's where the DISCOVERY process lies. "Gosh, I didn't anticipate those cards all ending up in one player's hand. Oops." "Why did their game take an hour? They were taking turns just as fast as everyone else." "The female playtesters really enjoyed the art. The males seemed to ignore it. Why?" In Theatre, that’s what rehearsals are for, if the director is competent and the actors inspired. “I didn’t read THAT interpretation in the script—brilliant! Keep it!”
When my final presentation is due in three hours, the words "Oops" and "Why?" feel like failure. But when I don't have anyone breathing down my neck, or when paying my rent doesn't depend on the absence of those words, they can feel humorous and intriguing, provocative and curious, delightful and engaging.
Designing from delight, through discovery, is what I didn't learn in my undergrad program. During our senior year Sam and I expressed frustration to each other over our stress level, the pressure, our inability to meet professors' expectations, and our own increasing dissatisfaction with ourselves as future designers. If we'd entered the program with an attitude of curiosity rather than criticism, or studied in an environment of permission rather than production, I expect the past three years would have gone differently for both of us.
This is what I want to offer other designers, and myself. Iteration is important because that's where the fun is, the play: the uncovering of mystery, the revelation of truth, the DISCOVERY of something new. It's the rehearsal process in theatre, the mucking around in the kitchen to concoct a new recipe, the tinkering in the basement to build a new robot. You can spend your time thinking or even drawing, but you don't learn until real life pushes back against your expectations.
So make space for it. Invite it to surprise you. Build 30% more time for it into your production schedule at the cost of initial research or fit & finish. And if no surprises appear, that just means you're playing it too safe and need to stick your neck out farther. Failure and discovery come from the same experience, but failure makes us quit; discovery propels us forward.