For a brief few days at the recent a2ru Emerging Creatives conference in Gainesville, I was able to participate in a perfect example of interdisciplinary design process at work. Throughout the course of the conference boundaries between faculty and students dissolved, opening up space for some profound exchanges of ideas and experiences. I found myself to be both witness and participant during the course of planning sessions, as teams grappled with complex problems and explored possible solutions.
Through unplanned lunch conversations, walks across campus to the library, breaks in the sun on the patio outside the gallery, the bus ride out to Sweetwater Wetlands, observations on the boardwalk as Coots and Gallinules paddled by… This is where we became both teachers and learners. We shared experiences, thoughts, and questions. What we all had in common was a love of the natural world and a desire to find some way to make meaningful work—whether as artist or designer, natural or social scientist— and a passion to share information and explore innovative and creative approaches to understanding critical ecological issues.
From my viewpoint as a designer, the power of this type of teamwork is less the actual solutions (although many of these were wonderfully inventive and intriguing) and more the process. I was one of the faculty at large circulating around the library dropping in on group sessions. As an observer, I saw my role change with each group dynamic. One group had hit the ground running and, while working through a technical issue, generously shared their process but clearly needed no outside intervention. Another group when asked how they were doing, shared that they felt they had reached a standstill. I thought they were getting lost considering possibilities for a public awareness activity without a focus and helped them break down the larger issue of water conservation into smaller problems to address. We talked about the importance of empathy as a way to connect with an audience, giving them a tool to move forward. Another group was making beautiful objects, but hadn’t fully addressed how to engage an audience. A simple question open this up for discussion.
All were playing some role in the design process: breaking down large complex issues into smaller problems. We often launch into a solution without taking time to ask enough questions to better understand a problem: why is this important? how does it function? how does it connect? what do we want our audience to do? Act? Think? Both? Good design process is asking good questions, and then doing good research. There are no “right” or “best” questions just as there is normally not a single solution to a problem. In Gainesville we saw a perfect example of how each team, with a unique mix of experiences and areas of strength, had a unique way to address a very complicated problem of over-consumption and poor management of limited water resources. It requires multiple approaches and solutions to tackle such a large problem.