On Post-Technical Design
Think back to your Foundation drawing class. What did you learn? Was it about how to use a pencil properly, or the best ways to smudge your charcoal stick? No, it was about learning how to see. How to use the tools of seeing—in this case pencils, charcoal and newsprint—was a part of the discussion, but that was not the point of the class. The drawing class is there to get you to learn how to translate what you see with your eyes into an interpretation on paper. Very little time was spent on examining all of the different kinds of pencils, and the best way to sharpen them, or what the ideal size of your pad of newsprint was. Drawing class was post-technical: it was not about teaching the tools, it was about teaching the ideas the tools allowed you to explore.
This is not to say that tools should be ignored. Knowing how to use the tools allows for the ideas to come forth with less friction and less “noise”—garbled transmissions of ideas to realizations. The less you know about how to use technology, the less you can exploit it for your own purposes. Understanding the tools allows you more freedom in getting what is in your head out for other people to see. However, I think it is important to not make the tool the core idea. Pencil technology has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. This is partially responsible for why a drawing class is post-technical: the technology is generally a static variable.
Design technology changes monthly. Remember Quark? PageMaker? Publisher? Rubylith? Aldus? Letraset? Linotype? Therefore designers spend a lot of time chasing technology—the newest tool, the best workflow. I think it is time for our attitudes towards design to also become post-technical. The computer is no longer new, it is now just another tool of design that you know will be a part of your conversation, like a charcoal stick in drawing class. The point of learning design is not to learn the tools, but to learn what we can do with the tools. Much time is spent talking about software, doing tutorials, debating what program is best for this, and what technique is best for that. This takes time away from what is important—and far more difficult to learn—ideas, concepts, process and discovery.
Using the computer is—and will continue to be—a part of every design curriculum. As it should be, since virtually all design today makes a stop inside a computer at some point. My questions lie in how we can take a post-technical attitude towards the computer both in and out of school. Is there a more effective way to synthesize the tools of design with the ideas of design? Something I have been trying with my Foundation students is taking a “figure it out” approach to technology. Rather than sitting them in front of the machines and doing a step-by-step tutorial, I introduce a quick software overview and then assign a short workshop assignment with specific goals. The students are asked not to wait for me to explain every mouse-click, but to figure it out for themselves. This results in a much more engaged classroom, as well as empowering students to learn how to learn. My experience has been that they end up retaining far more knowledge about the tools than if I had told them exactly what to do.