Algebra – the bane of existence for countless secondary school students. And for many, algebra is a source of entertainment in the way of puzzle solving for many others. I fall into the latter category. Engineering was my undergraduate academic path perhaps in part because, at least from my perspective, the path to problem solving was more prescribed than not. By this I mean we were taught algorithms and formulas to use when solving the myriad of problems we might encounter. When we were faced with a new problem, our creative latitude was bound by the constraints of mathematics and science. We were in a sense always guided by rules in our pursuit of a solution.
Later in my career I was involved in computer coding of moderate complexity at best to automate repetitive computational tasks. While I had creative license to derive the solution, I was nonetheless limited by the rules of logical syntax – and yes, even algebra. Any computational line of code using variables to store numbers is, by definition, using algebra.
Contrast that with what we refer to as ‘design’. Perhaps not the textbook or mainstream definition, I would not be for off in tendering a definition of design as something that is bound only by the limits of human imagination and can arouse strong and enduring human emotion. Design is manifested in so many parts in our lives: architecture, furniture, appliances, automobiles, technology and yes, even – dare I say especially – literature.
Design is what it is because of what it evokes in us. That is perhaps its most significant distinction from algorithmic problem solving. Other than a transitory personal victory, (“Yay, I got the right answer!”), algorithmic problem solving is not evocative in the way that design is. Emotional reaction to design is a highly personal matter. And since we are all different from one another, successful design can be especially challenging. It requires a level of creativity than goes far beyond the creativity required to overcome challenges of the situational and physical environment.
Building a structure to withstand the demands of its environment offers few creative options; all bounded by the rules of physics. Designing something, on the other hand, to move people emotively is to operate without rules and its limits extend all the way to the expansiveness of the human mind. Similarly, writing a collection of words to entertain or otherwise maintain engagement of an audience is one thing. To write something that shifts the way a person sees the world and how they operate in it is another. As I have suggested, there are no rules in design. There is however, a necessity in understanding and contextualizing humanity’s common denominators – whatever they may be.
My point in opining on this is personal and poignant. I am (for better or worse) in the throes of trying to bring – yet again – a new idea to the marketplace and thus into the world. It is relatively new and the even the sense of need itself requires no small amount of effort to create. At this stage, there are no rules, no sets of formulas or equations to arrive at an answer – other than a few known fixed costs. The answer is not known. The answer itself is being created by constantly moving forward. And that is a paradigm I am not used to. I am extremely grateful for the support and contribution of a few friends without whom I wonder if some days I would be overcome by otherwise feelings of despair.
I close with a quote from Charles Kettering, the famed inventor and head of research for GM. “A problem well-stated is half-solved.” Perhaps design and problem solving are two sides of the same coin. We solve for x and we design for y, or z, or p, or q, or r, or…
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