Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Seek Understanding, Not Answers

August 8, 2006

My articles are not for everyone. Some of what I write is downright maddening to some of my readers. I regularly hear from many of you taking me to task, not for the subject matter or for my opinion, but rather for the way I leave much unexplained and unquantified. There is a reason for my making observations and not often explaining them in-depth. And if you don’t understand why, it’s time you should.

I’m not writing for everyone in the design community; only for a few specific individuals. And no matter who you are, I’m not trying to teach you. I’m not here for that. You are. You are there to help you, and you’re the only one who can. You are the only one who can make you a better designer. If you believe otherwise you’re in good company, so to speak, but I fear you’re not in the best of company.

My view and approach stem from the fact that for many aspects of life, design included, I recognize and champion the value of questions over the value of answers. I believe that any informative interaction should spark questions, not simply give birth to answers. An answer is an end, a conclusion, where things stop. A question, on the other hand, can lead to a highly informative and rewarding search for understanding.

That search that you conduct on your own inevitably leads to loads of information you’d otherwise not have been exposed to. That search should lead not just to answers, but to more questions, giving birth to even more questions. The value of this process is defined by your own effort. That is how an education is fashioned and fostered; not by teachers, but by us. People with specific knowledge or understanding or insight can point the way, but they can’t “educate” us. We have to steal the education for ourselves. If we don’t make that effort, we suck as students.

Design does not need helpless individuals. Those who possess the capacity to become competent and formidable designers (or architects or doctors or carpenters) have to bring with them that capacity.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that my role here is educator. I’m not saying that I believe I’m possessed of such skill and understanding that I’m somehow qualified to offer a design education to others. I do not teach anything here. Rather, I believe that each of us should help to shape our environment and culture and expand our understanding and the understanding of our peers by exchanging ideas and observations.

I want to be a participant in that sort of ongoing community discourse. I see ideas expressed by others that should be supported and I see vacuous ideas that need to be exposed for the harm they perpetuate, so I write about those things. But my aim here is to inspire questions, not merely to define answers that relate to precisely what someone should design or how. Answers, or at least the manner in which answers are offered, in many ways create barriers to understanding. Questions bring us closer to our designer nature, where a deep understanding of many things is a requisite quality.

You might recall that little design understanding test I offered some months back. I supplied the answers, but not the explanations for why those were the answers. That was because that entire test was simply an effort at inspiring questions. It was an effort at inspiring in worthwhile and formidable individuals a search for understanding. Those who received some inspiration and acted on their questions have likely found far more in their quest than I could ever have offered by way of explanation. That’s the point.

My views about education are also shaped by my experiences in learning and teaching and by my observations of the effect certain forms of teaching have on individuals. I also take into account the specific qualities of individuals in these contexts. As a result, my efforts here are not aimed at the masses, but rather at a narrow and specific audience.

Remember, I’m not trying to teach you. I’m not here for that. You are. You are the only one who can help you. I opine and provide observations from a specific point of view. If those observations help you, that’s you helping yourself. If you stop at my observations and take them as conclusions, you’re not helping yourself very much.

I will not spoon-feed things I know to others, nor should anyone. Spoon-feeding is a worthless practice that teaches laziness, cultivates poor habits and irresponsibly coddles helpless individuals. Design does not need helpless individuals. Those who possess the capacity to become competent and formidable designers (or architects or doctors or carpenters) have to bring with them that capacity. It cannot be given to them. Those without the capacity to become competent designers surely have the capacity for something else. But all the teaching and information in the world will not confer upon them any significant understanding of design.

My efforts are aimed specifically at formidable individuals. I don’t dumb-down my language for helpless people, I don’t spoon-feed information so that it can be slurped up and swallowed without chewing and my conclusions are offered to spark questions, not capitulation. I am here to contribute to my community and culture. I am not here to teach you. I’m here to say, steal your own education and seek out understanding through your own efforts. No one can do that for you. Don’t seek answers, seek understanding. Seek understanding that leads to the most questions possible.

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