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Emergence: revelations, percolations, bunnies & unicorns

6 August, 2011

There are three notions my design mind oft returns to:

  1. ‘Time’ in the service design context – time taken, time spent, time saved (both from the design process and within the delivery of a service)
  2. Design evaluation – what is it, how do you do it
  3. What’s different about design in business that makes it of value (as design, not as a business method) – I guess this one is really “why is my vocation design-in-business, and not just ‘design’ or just ‘business’”

I appreciate these three things/notions/concepts/imps are inarticulate but I choose not to question or delve dedicatedly, until such time as the gods conspire to prod me by laying a morsel connected to one of the notions. One such morsel was laid before me on Friday, 22 July 2011. And the prod-ee was number three.

Sabine Junginger visited where I work. She’s a lecturer in Product Design and Design Management at Lancaster University. What pricked my interest happened when Sabine mentioned ‘emergence.’

The context in which this came up was when she was talking about the principles she applies to her design research work. Nothing different from what most designers either explicitly or implicitly follow so I wont repeat them, but if you want to look further they’re informed by John Dewey and Richard McKern writings (can’t find any apparently appropriate reference for Mr McKern).

The principles, broadly speaking, cover (my descriptors):

  • method (we do this)
  • assumption (because we assume this)
  • so what (in order to achieve this)

One of her principles in the ‘so what’ category was:

“allow focus on emergence to new possibilities”

Emergence(?!) What’s this – just a way of saying ‘emerging’? I’m intrigued. From the minor discussion that followed, and may I stress at this point that this was not a key topic of conversation, 60 seconds max but it did earn an asterisk in a circle on my notes, this is my interpretation and extrapolation, filtered through nerdy excitement and minor research.

‘Emergence’ is the process of coming into being or prominence. For design, emergence is the ‘connection of possibilities’ from ‘what didn’t exist previously’. Reads as poor English, reads better as a formula. It means emergence is the point where patterns and meaning come out of the multiple interactions of information, and from this new possibilities can suddenly appear. It’s like when you have a mass of information and you’re making sense of it, different voices in the room (or your head), different life experiences applying their thinking, and something new starts to emerge – a better way of understanding the information, a new angle, a better idea. That’s emergence. It’s not an ‘aha’ moment. It’s cooler, it’s the ‘hmm, hey…” moment. It’s the point of possibility.

Sounds like a bunch of esoteric arse? Well, no. I don’t think it is. To me it’s calling out that intangible value of design and the thing I love about it. This notion of emergence captures how the design process (super-broadly: research – analyse – synthesise – define) isn’t the steps alone. Design activity/thinking/whatever tangible-ises the bits in between. If, as we collaborate, iterate, discover, explore, we converse (and I use ‘converse’ in it’s broadest sense as a device for engaging at a human level), design makes value of the conversations, which lead to some form of capture. It encourages and facilitates those conversations. It brings the right people together to have those conversations – creating the circumstance for emergence. And then it has the means to visualize, capture and represent concepts. In this way it differs from analytical processes because the conversation is a crucial part of the work (as opposed to simply the means to an end). Design needs the divergence and synthesis, where analysis may seek to converge and refine as soon as possible because their parameters can be clearer (remembering design is concerned with experience and fuzzy human elements like that).

I’ve always been interested in ‘the process’ of design – I can even track it back to previous posts: Memory lane ramblings (ep #1) and the postscript musings (ep #4) and how designers think and what I call percolation. In a funny way, this post is the result of emergence for me – when my brain went “hmmm, hey…!” during Sabine’s talk. It’s not the end point, or the answer, it’s the revelation of deeper understanding.

So what does all this rambling mean? Well, in terms of the value of design in business, and as a change approach:

  • Design captures the bits in between the traditional notion of work and does something with those bits (makes visible, facilitates conversation, explores, etc)
  • As for the notion of emergence, it calls out that there is a point connection to what didn’t exist before occurs. The process of design seeks this out and makes value of it. As designers, maybe consciousness of this could mean greater possibilities emerge.

Well, that’s my take anyway. If I’m wrong (and do set me right if I have it all wrong) then I’m sure the Germans or Japanese have a word for what I’m on about. I still need to percolate on it, but I feel like a designer who’s approaching a breakthrough! And now, because there are an awful lot of words up there, here’s some pretty.

Emergence is not the unicorn framed by the rainbow.
It’s the thought running through the bunny’s mind before she
acknowledges that it is indeed a unicorn she sees before her.

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