Thursday, February 2, 2017

Archer's Systematic Method for Designers

L Bruce Archer's Systematic Method for Designers was published 1964 by the  Council of Industrial Design in London and published serially in Design magazine in 1963 and 1964, revised, with additional material.

It is an impressive work, comprising seven sections, described in 13 pages;

1) Aesthetics and logic
2) The nature of designing
3) Getting the brief
4) Examining the evidence
5) The creative leap
6) The donkey work
7) The final steps.

Each section is loaded with the wisdom and advice of a seasoned practitioner, organized with the rigor of an academic mind.

In the introduction, Archer comments about the tectonic shift he saw under way in the design profession;

"The most fundamental challenge to conventional ideas on design, however, has been the growing advocacy of systematic methods of problem solving, borrowed from computer techniques and management theory, for the assessment of design problems and the development of design solutions."

With regard to aesthetics Archer observed that "as soon as two people start to talk abut design, misunderstandings arise. Some... are due to over-leaping vocabularies, such as those of the engineer and the architect, where the same term can mean slightly or completely different things. Many misunderstandings, however are due to fundamental differences in value and logic."

"Some of our most successful designers have been able to draw a line between sense and sensibility, logic and intuition, function and aesthetic, which needs neither analysis nor justification. They probably think that there is a deal too much talk and not enough action. Others, however, remain racked with prejudices which make them lash out at words like 'analysis', 'logic' and 'method' - or even at words like 'good taste' and 'style'. It would probably do them good to talk about design a bit more."

Phase 4 - Develop Prototype design(s)

The arc of Archer's thinking shifted over the years, as he struggled to close the gap between thinking, feeling and doing as foundations for a grand theory of design. After many years pursuing the idea that computers could help manage the immense complexity of a process which filled 13 pages, had 228 steps, plus five pages of accompanying arrow diagrams, embodies in six phases;

1) "Receive the brief, analyse the problem, prepare detailed program and estimate.
2) Collect data, identify and analyse subproblems, prepare performance specifications.
3) Prepare outline specifications.
4) Develop prototype designs.
5) Prepare and execute validation studies.
6) Prepare manufacturing documentation.

This detailed, top-down approach dovetailed nicely with the well organized planning methods being developed in government managed military and aerospace at the time.

Note that some of the arrows in the diagram point left, indicating some recursion in the process flow. (This is also true of the other five phases.)

 Archer's Eight ways an idea can be expressed

In Part five: The creative leap Archer states; "When all is said and done about defining design problems and analysing design data, there still remains the real crux of the act of designing - the creative leap from pondering the question to finding a solution." Several paragraphs later he observes; "...there can be nothing unscientific about the traditional reliance on intuition and inspiration in design." Confronted with the then recent discoveries of the Transactional school of perception, he concluded; "We are thus brought face to face with the reality of the need for rich, wide and fruitful experience among designers, as well as the capacity for flexibility and fantasy in thought." Archer also asserts that this leap is something which the designer must do alone, although I suspect he was referring to the idea that our thinking occurs within our individual minds first, rather than a collective, shared consciousness.

For all his process rigor, Archer understood the value of cut-and-try. He wrote; "In some industries - furniture, for example, it is often quicker and cheaper to build a prototype and submit it to user tests than it is to carry out extensive detailing and stress calculation. The advantage of suck-it-and-see (cut and try? -df) methods is that however subtle the variables, a direct measure of the overall success or failure is possible. The chief disadvantage is that so many problems of construction must be wholly or partly solved before performance testing can even begin."

Archer's family donated 34 boxes of documents to the Royal College of Art in 2007. The RCA's website states; Different stages of Archer’s model for the design process would later be understood in now-familiar terms such as ‘quality assurance’ or ‘user-centred research’, Unfortunately, access to the documents is limited due to their not having been converted to digital formats.

He did use the phrase "design thinking" on page 1 of Systematic Method for Designers, in context it reads; "Ways have had to be found to incorporate knowledge of ergonomics, cybernetics, marketing and management science into design thinking. As with most technology, there has been a trend towards the adoption of a systems approach as distinct from an artefact approach."

I'll leave it to the reader to determine if they think Archer was referring to a formalized method of design in that statement. My read is that he was speaking of the way designers think, as opposed to a formalized method - and, based on his work, writings and teaching, he clearly was interested in developing an expression of a repeatable design process.

Contact me for more information on Archer's work.

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