Reflections on the semester

Bringing some fresh design process thinking into my publication design teaching at Monash

Over the last few years I’ve seen some of the design approaches which I’ve learned through my permaculture practice creeping into my publication design teaching at Monash, in particular the regenerative frameworks I’ve been exploring with my community of practice at Making Permaculture Stronger. In this post I’ll identify and reflect upon the approaches I’ve found most useful in this second semester of 2020. In hindsight, bringing these frameworks into other disciplines seems obvious — they are simple, universal and powerful ways of thinking. And it’s all design, afterall.

Apart from reinvigorating my teaching practice, these frameworks have helped me describe, make conscious and hone many of the approaches I’ve been using subconsciously for years. The third year students are working on very open, self-defined projects over a six-week period, so it’s vital to have some processes which help them write their own briefs, avoid clichés of design and frame how we critique each-other’s work each week. At this stage, I can’t tell if the quality of design is much better, but it is already obvious that the students can speak about the intention of their design with greater clarity and eloquence. And this in itself is very helpful: the greatest ideas will never float unless they can be articulated clearly.

Design Context
Defining a clear context for each student’s publication has become the primary focus of the design brief I give to the students and of our discussions for the first two or three weeks of the project. Christopher Alexander describes the context as the real life situation which surrounds whatever you are designing — the constraints and forces at play. For a self-defined publication project, this can be explored through questions like: Who is the publisher and the intended audience? How will the publication be distributed? And most importantly, Why is the publication being made?

Once defined, the context can be visualised as a field of forces surrounding the design, guiding and constraining it. The more detailed the context, the clearer the design becomes. As the project progresses, I ask the students to explain and distill their context each week before we discuss their progress. This serves to bring everyone back to considering the design as a whole and avoid getting side-tracked by insignificant details. According to Christopher Alexander, the design should emerge from the context through a process of gradual stiffening — through a continuous modification process of seeking to remove the tensions in the design.

In defining the most important aspect of the context — why the publication is being created — I’ve been encouraging the students to explore this question using the five whys technique. This is an iterative questioning technique which allows you to explore a question at different levels to find a root cause or, in the case of a publication, a higher purpose or reason for creation. I learned about this from Bill Reed of Regenesis who uses it to identify common desires of people who seem to be locked in direct opposition.

Another line of thinking I brought to some of the student projects was the idea of essence: considering the unique qualities of the subject matter and of the student creating the publication. Based on their unique experience of the world, what can they uniquely bring to the exploration of this subject? This is, of course, a difficult thing to identify intentionally — it should emerge naturally. The discussions we had were mostly about giving the students the confidence that their own interpretations of the subject matter are relevant to the design. It aligns with the idea that the best designs arise when designers are immersed in and feel a sense of ownership over the content they’re designing.

Publication as process
Another thought experiment we employed during the conception stages of the project was to consider the publication as an unfolding process. For example, the publication might be a process of leading the reader through information to a new understanding; of inviting the reader to understand something differently; of allowing the reader to reach their own conclusions; of informing, convincing, educating, inviting the reader to reflect. Seeing in process introduces time, and hence evolution, to the way we think about the process of communication. The publication can be considered a journey of the reader through the information — the way their understanding and mental priming evolves as the design unfolds. Framing the publication this way allows its design to be considered independently of form — to see it as a verb, rather than a noun. The cultural default is to jump straight into the physical realm — the format, the colour palette, the binding. If these decisions can be delayed, the ideal form of the design can instead emerge from the clarity of the context and the process you’ve defined.

From patterns to details
All of these approaches are about delaying decisions about details until we sufficiently understand the design as a whole. Deal with the broadest patterns first, the minor details last. Although the process is far from linear (a procedure) the basic pattern is to start by understanding the context before moving on to the broadest, most global aspects of the design — editorial decisions like the scope and order of content and design decisions like the overall tone, page size, binding and margins, use of space, image treatment, type selection, paragraph articulation. These are the decisions which have flow-on effects throughout the design — the DNA which must be established before the final details such as widows and orphans can be resolved.

Using your gut
The same pattern applies when critiquing each-others’ designs: start with the whole then work from patterns down to details. By default, we tend to do the opposite. We point out the unambiguous and objective — a typo, a misaligned text block — ignoring the elephant in the room, the grey, slippery, subjective tensions in the design which ultimately have a far greater bearing on communication. This semester I’ve been trying to open up this other way of perceiving each-others’ work, encouraging the students to try what Dan Palmer refers to as getting, rather than thinking. This involves using your gut and your heart, rather than your brain — more sensing and receptive than critical inquiry. Does the context seem plausible? Can you visualise the proposed publication? Do you understand why it’s being created? Do you sense any tensions in the idea, in the design? If you can let go of need to reduce things to rational, black and white details and trust your instincts in refining the grey areas instead, this can be a natural, enjoyable and satisfying process. These areas which are open to cultural interpretation are where the life exists in the design. And there’s always an opportunity to catch the concrete details later on, once these broader, more fundamental design concepts are established.

Generate, don’t fabricate
This is a fundamental part of Christopher Alexander’s thinking and the Field-Process-Model defined by Jascha Rohr & Sonja Hörster in which the designer is considered to be inside the design process as it unfolds through time, being transformed themselves (evolving their understanding) through the act of designing. In essence, it’s about avoiding a masterplanning approach. Don’t think you can see the whole design before starting. Don’t define the format and colour palette and typefaces at the start. Don’t collect all of the text before embarking. Instead, make a start, follow your nose, respond to what you learn on the journey.

Rather than wrestling with large quantities of content, I encouraged the students to stay agile and make a deep exploration of a couple of spreads using an iterative approach: design something, see how it feels, mock it up, be open to abandoning cliches and first ideas, reflect on how it feels within the context you’ve defined. Refine. Repeat. This process is an efficient way to establish a DNA which can then be rolled out through the remainder of the content.

Website 1.0

Garden V5.11.01

I wrote most of the text for this site about two — no, three months ago. I laboured over the words, drafting and redrafting. I wanted to have it all nailed down and ready to go. But now, as I finally come to build the site, the descriptions already feel outdated — they don’t quite capture where I’m at. I am already pruning parts and grafting on new thoughts.

And so, as I open this blog to begin exploring and sharing my new living, evolving design practice, I am contradicting my proposed approach at the very first step. I unwittingly fell into a fabrication process — the cultural default (and somewhat inevitable when using a templated site). I attempted to conceive the whole site before starting — to make a masterplan — when I should instead have generated it. I should have started with the simplest thing that could possibly work, tested it out and continued to adapt it from there.

A static site can’t help but feel like a snapshot of the past. In a month’s time my thinking will have evolved, my practice will have evolved, the world with which it exchanges will have evolved. You, dear reader, will have evolved. Time moves everything along. Old thoughts die and are replaced by new ways of thinking.

If we see the website as a process which records, distils and shares my current thinking and services with the world, it clearly needs to be a living thing. It should be a flow of ideas — a succession of my latest thoughts — both growing new and shedding old. Fresh leaves exchanging energy before reaching their useful life and falling away to decompose into nutrients.

And so a blog seems the most living format for the site. A time-based document with ideas time-stamped so that we can see how they have aged. The act of writing is a clarifying process. Some posts will be succinct and refined; others, like this, will be looser, more rambling streams of thought — making connections, capturing fleeting ideas around the edges.

Designing a garden is the same, of course. You can fabricate something — write a wishlist, have it designed, have it installed. You can even buy advanced plants to save yourself the wait. An instant garden, just like the plan… for a month or two, at least.

But a truly living garden is never static. Have a look at a photo from a year ago: how things have changed! You can take a snapshot, but in a month’s time you will not be able to return to that moment. Nor in a year. You can prune things back again but the stems will be woodier and the surrounding world (which you cannot prune) will be different… you’re busier, it’s drier, the kids eat more and no longer show interest in that expanse of lawn. You and your life will have moved on and your garden needs to be brought along on the journey.

Whether a website or a design for a garden, if it is to thrive it must be continually evolving — supported with an ongoing culture of observation, nurturing and adaptation. This is where my new practice comes in.

Here we are now and here’s where we’re going. Welcome!