So I just finished a weekend with excellent students from Moratuwa University who are in a seminar course on urban design.
At the end of the weekend they showed me about 60 slides of graphics they prepared to depict data they've collected on a long-term project for a master plan for the UNESCO World Heritage Galle Fort. Some of the graphics were excellent. Some not so much. My criterion: did they tell a story or did they confuse?
At the end of the "show" I was asked "so professor, how should we organize these slides for our 20-minute presentation next week?" Sixty slides in 20 minutes? A month's worth of work on nearly a dozen sites explained in this time, with each graphic's legend recited and explicated by the speaker? Nooooo!
Over the past couple of days we've been discussing ideas like "design is an iterative process" and "less is more," concepts that make less or more sense to the students depending on the moment and a moment's language proficiency. But one thing we've clarified is that design is a process. A process of uncovering and decisionmaking that includes moments of frustration and clarity by turn. One frustration is that all the students have questions about the theme of the conference "urban coherence" and what that can possibly mean.
So I asked the students to think about this. Here they had worked for a long month, throwing themselves into a project they had to learn from scratch. When they came to Galle Fort they were clueless about the place or about what they had to learn. So they used their best powers of observation and collected the data depicted in their powerpoint slides. Strangely though, over the course of the weekend, as we took many walks together and engaged in endless conversations, they hadn't spoken with me about what was in their slides. They talked about movement, connectivity, sun, shade, and human striving. "So we need to sift through our data and come up with a presentation from that, right?," is the question I was eagerly asked.
"Not exactly," was my reply. "All the stuff you talked to me about this weekend? None of it was even in your data."
What happened is this. The process of design research provided something better than answers--more effective than "solutions." It led to a whole new set of questions. Design is an iterative process where new questions are generated, new pathways of inquiry developed, and new insights gained as the process moves forward. This time around it took the students a month to come to this stage in their inquiry. Next project it will take a week. It's this process I'd like to see the students present to their peers later this week.