Design, Mathematics
and The Simpsons
Sometimes I think design challenges can be divided into two categories (*). The first is about designing and shaping products and services whose outcome is very clear beforehand. A logo, an interior, a building, things like that. These are the design disciplines that have determined what the world around us looks like. Nothing wrong with that, quite the opposite.
This video paints a nice picture of how form and function play important roles in architecture and thus design.
is about designing for wicked problems. Under the label Design Thinking, design has made a huge leap. From designing things, designers now also work on difficult social issues. Sustainability, climate, (youth) care and liveable cities, to name but a few.
A similarity between the two categories is that you never know beforehand what the end result will be. And yet there is a fundamental difference.
P vs NP
And then I read about P vs NP, a mathematical challenge to which nobody has the answer. Super interesting and perhaps a topic that we as designers can learn and benefit from.
In the year 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute  introduced the Millennium Prize Problem:
“The Millennium Prize Problems are a set of seven problems for which the Clay Mathematics Institute offered a US $7 million prize fund ($1 million per problem) to celebrate the new millennium in May 2000. The problems all have significant impacts on their field of mathematics and beyond, and were all unsolved at the time of the offering of the prize.”
One of the seven Millennium Prize Problems is about P vs NP, about whether polynomial time type problems are equal to non-polynomial time type problems. Huh, about what? Exactly!
In a nutshell, it comes down to this:
P-type problems are relatively easy. They are reasonably quick to solve and the outcome can be checked quickly. They involve addition and multiplication. Challenges that computers are very good at.
And then there are the NP-type problems. These seem much more difficult. But what makes them interesting is that the outcome is very easy to check. A Sudoku puzzle is a good example of this. Solving it can take some time. But once you have solved it, it is very easy to check whether you got it right or not. The Trade Traveller’s Problem is also a good example of an NP problem.
Be sure to watch the video below to get an even better grip on the challenge. Very inspiring, but the subject is certainly not simple.
What does this mean for designers?
That’s the question I asked myself. What does P vs NP mean for our challenges and how we deal with them? Isn’t there a parallel to the dichotomy in design I made earlier? To learn from?
Sometimes I think we designers are not so aware of the differences. Most of us who now design for wicked problems are trained as graphic, product or spatial designers. Designing on social societal challenges is mostly a logical career move. Individually and for studios. IDEO is a good example of this. They were originally an industrial design firm and today the prime example of a strategic design studio. They have played a pivotal role in broadening our horizons, there is still much work to be done. By all of us (designers).
What I’m hoping for is for us to make a leap. From P to NP. Starting with fixing these (at least and for now) four challenges:
Design Thinking is, unfortunately, still widely seen and applied as a management tool. The steps in the design process are central so as long as you follow them, you’ll be fine. The culture of design is not discussed very often; care, attention, trial and error, not knowing and being okay with that.
Instead of broadening the field, there seems to be a great need to be more specific, to make design smaller. Human Centered Design, Life Centered Design. Service-, Social-, Social Service-, Strategic- and (inter-(!)) Systemic Design. Take your pick!
Happy as a puppy we are because we passed the Coalition Agreement. ‘Designers have the knowledge and skill to show the possible future and alternatives with imagination.’ Super nice of course, but whether this really gives us a seat at the table? I’m afraid not. Designing is not an addition to the political machine but an alternative.
in the more complex issues. A WDCD design challenge or a hackathon gives a lot of energy. But really understanding a challenge in a few days or weeks is not realistic. The world is too complex and dynamic for that. unravelling issues is not something you just do on the side.
So what then is this fundamental step we need to take? I think we need to identify our NP – type issues even better.
I think we need to get a grip on NP-type problems. Challenges that are very difficult to get a grip on beforehand. And to solve. But which are hugely obvious afterwards. Nothing fancy. Working youth care? I’m sure it can be done. It should! Livable cities where people can grow old happily, where talking is a given. Are we going to get out.
And so?
I hope we designers have gained enough experience in the first category of design. Designing for people through design suits many of us very well. Good listening and watching. Care and attention. Precision and accuracy. Being able to make choices. Check. All important attributes of design.
Understanding why a design challenge is so difficult is perhaps more important than that it’s a difficult challenge in the first place.
Where we can still grow is in figuring out, unravelling issues. If you look at the examples of NP-type problems, therein lies not only the difficulty, but also the strength. Understanding why an issue is so difficult seems more important than the fact that it is a difficult issue. Just as the route to the solution seems more important than the solution itself.
Something where a new design discipline, or a revised model or process, is not going to help. What will? I do have some ideas but prefer to show. So more on this topic soon.
(*) There is also a third category; design as art. For now, I have left that one aside.
Design in
the service
of people