Is there room for deconstructionist design in technology any longer?

Recently, I saw this piece cut into Twitter:

It’s attributed to Dan Mall (@danmall) and at first blush, I’m like “Hell Yeah!” Much of what Dan is articulating is directly related to the rules of sketching that Bill Buxton (@wasbuxton) describes in his great book, Sketching User Experience. In particular about roughness and speed with the goal of multiplicity. However, in that same book, Bill warns designers about the funnel approaches of starting wide and getting narrower that engineering practices are more known for.

The first 3 rules I actually like almost unequivocally. It is in the first paragraph that a question starts to arise for me because this sets up the mindset for how you approach the 3 rules themselves. This approach is very common in engineering and is known as constructivist thinking. In this approach you can design parts before designing the whole. With this system the mindset is that the whole is made up of parts. The parts can be more easily resourced across a wider team, validated separately, and be collaborated on more easily than bigger components that are actually made up of smaller components.

In many parts of the design world though, this doesn’t map against the more deconstructionist methods of many designers (not all, just many). Deconstructivist approaches require that first you design the whole and then deconstruct it into its parts as a form of sculpting the experience. Starting with more and letting “just right” emerge from the “too much”.

David picture above was said by Michelangelo to emerge from the marble, and set free. This plays into cutting-away to get to good, instead of building towards it.

The reason this concerns me is actually about a concern I’ve mentioned in other writings about “false positives” that can happen in customer vetting/validation systems that are many times parts instead of wholes. It does not acknowledge that seeing things in context and with full aesthetic fidelity can create different results (positive and negative) from just seeing something in pieces.

The quote above makes so much sense in a contemporary “best-practices” product lifecycle system within the technology community right now. The “Minimum Viable Product” and the idea of delivering continually in order to learn continually are touted as the best practice of our day. However, there are issues here about designing in an engineering-centric world and as I’ve noted elsewhere, design not meeting its potential for providing value, and honestly the assumption that iterating forward works any more consistently than just working the way we have always worked before. Further, do these methods work in all contexts, especially those of different scale, complexity, and distribution of value chain.

In the end I am not interested in either “old ways” or “new ways”. I’m interested in making sure that we don’t lose design’s value as we advance other parts of product lifecycle management. This may even mean changing how designing is done in the future as much as holding onto the important pieces from the past as well. It is forging that balance that will probably be most necessary, but we can only find the balance if we understand the “old ways” and intentionally create the “new ways” based on that understanding against the backdrop of the evolving eco-system of product lifecycle management.

The basic rules of Gestalt psychology suggest that the parts never equal the experience of the whole. So, how do we use a system like the one above and still call ourselves experience designers, or at least invested in the design of good experiences? When I use the term “designer” I use it to mean everyone involved in the delivery of experiences. Does a system like this create products that really care about the humans who end up using them?

Author: Dave Malouf

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