So I was talking with my partner last night. She'd just read the most recent Vita Activa post (A Contentious Vocabulary) and she was still trying to figure out what I meant by "design" and "craft." So we sat and talked for half an hour or so, and I'm taking another crack at it today. This is the iterative process that designers always talk about, but anybody worth their beans does it all the time, regardless of profession or hobby.
When we're creating something for use (I'm still sticking to my differentiation between art and craft for this discussion), it seems to me that we're actually doing three things. To use the academic terms, we could call them design, craft, and research. But I think those are analogous (maybe synonymous...stay tuned) to the words plan, do, and test.
Here's an example from the profession I understand best: conducting ethnographic research. I spent about a year designing/planning my biggest research project before going off to do fieldwork. That entailed the conceptual literature review, the methods literature review, the coordination with the host site, the calendaring of research tasks, the writing of the proposal, and so on. The work of "research design" (a very common term in academic circles) was intended to both frame the problem to be resolved -- our misunderstanding of teenagers' spatiality -- and to create an appropriate plan for resolving it.
Then I went off and actually did several hundred questionnaires and dozens of formal interviews and a few thousand hours of direct observation and all the writing and puzzling and sorting and transcribing that went along with it. This stuff, the everyday doing, was the actual craft: taking the plan and making something real out of it, hopefully with care and attentiveness.
The final step was the evaluation of the work, testing whether it did indeed adequately address the original problem. This was (at the largest scale) the peer-review process whereby a fair number of experts, both known and anonymous, reviewed the work to understand whether it a) was competently conceived, b) was competently conducted, c) led to a new understanding of teenagers' use and conceptions of the physical world, and d) represented a productive change in our thinking. To use my earlier definition of "research," the question my reviewers had was to learn what was true about the specific circumstances (in this case, the book and the intellectual field it lived within).
Plan. Do. Test.
When I play pool, I have a much more constrained problem -- a tame problem, Rittel & Weber would say. I have to plan how to move the cue ball to accomplish three things: make the object ball I want to make, have the cue ball end up in a location that will allow me to sink another object ball on the next shot, and have the likelihood of being able to productively move the cue ball to another good spot for the subsequent shot. I'm thinking two shots ahead, usually; someday, I'll be good at this, but for now, two is what I've got. So I have to plan the angle, speed, and spin I need to impart in order to get these problems solved.
Once the design is in place, I chalk up the cue, lean over, go through my pre-shot routine, and stroke the ball. That's the craft. Once everything stops rolling, I assess whether I solved the problem appropriately, which in this case is easy to discern: I did or did not pot the ball I wanted to pot, and the cue ball did or did not stop where I wanted it to stop.
Plan. Do. Test.
Now, it's easy to understand all of this at the biggest scale. I spent a year planning my big research project. I spent a year and a half doing it. And I've spent the last eight years evaluating it. But the fact is that I was doing all three of those things on the small scale every few minutes. I'd be hanging out at school between classes, and I'd see something happen that seemed to me to be a useful thing to explore ("useful" meaning that it applied somehow to the bigger problem, which I was redefining every day as I learned more about conditions in the field). So I'd figure out how to spend the next few minutes asking about that event I'd seen: manufacturing questions on the fly, testing their utility by thinking about the answers I was getting, and creating new questions in response to my evaluation. It was plan, do, test at the finest grain, over and over and over again.
When the iterative work is that rapid and reflexive (and that sequence lies behind every good conversation you've ever had), it seems as though it's all one thing. But I think for our purposes, it's important to remember that there are three unique acts going on, because they have different ends and therefore different terms of critique.
So what about architecture? And more to the point, what about my partner's questions from last night? Design is the process of framing the question, making the question complex and difficult (and thus worth answering), and developing a plan for resolving the question. For instance, good design doesn't answer the question "How should I make this school?" It answers the questions "How should we educate these kids? What does it mean to be educated? What does it mean to be an educator? And how can a building (or perhaps not a building) help answer these questions better than we do now?" And lots of other questions as well, having to do with budget and energy and legality and safety and so on.
Once we have the plan, we embark on the crafting of the response. We draw and model and add and subtract and turn and separate and combine and select materials and change those materials. Eventually, we have the object for which we are responsible: a construction set to give to the contractor. And then we turn to research: does my product (the CDs) appropriately resolve the questions we raised? Does the ultimate building foster education in the ways I planned for it to? What do the kids and teachers and administrators and test scores say? Are there new questions to turn to for the next design? Or do I need to rethink what I did this time in light of its lack of success?
That's design-craft-research at the big scale. What does it look like at the small, day-to-day scale?