Turning Ideas Into Data

Turning Ideas into Data: Decision Making and the End of Creativity

I noticed what was happening long before I had a name or explanation for it: some very smart clients would use a process that seemed to respect creativity but was in fact a way to strip subjectivity from design.

Key to the maneuver was the project brief: the inquiry started with a download from the designer to the owner, ostensibly to ensure the client fully understood the parameters at play. These well-educated clients would then play back a ‘restacked’ version of the designer’s own words as a brief. The words made sense as words; they were grammatically sound and syntactically cogent. They seemed to describe a plausible goal, with built in limits and guidelines for evaluating results. Plausibility is the cloak under which these often impossible (or simply inadvisable) briefs were obfuscated.

Effectively ideas were being digitized, converted to data to allow the smart client to level the playing field with an experienced designer. The initial download request cleverly put the data on the record…minus the experience, talent, creativity, insight and innovation that, in fact, is the reason to work with a designer.

The data set allows a subjective process to be objectified. The data that begins as a corollary of experience and insight turns into a framing device when replayed, describing a boundary so tailored as to wring all lateral thinking out of bounds.

Digitizing information was, in the hands of Claude Shannon and other 20th century geniuses, a way of taking the immeasurable (telephone conversations, for example) and giving them a common scale of measurement. It doesn’t imply that reverse engineering can create a telephone conversation, just as a cost analysis of a building design can’t be reverse engineered into to building itself.

The clever appropriation, of course, is the understanding that to control the brief is to control the solutions. We designers know that when we present ideas to clients we often skew the brief (redefining the problem) to make our solution appear more inevitable. And so, apparently, do our smartest clients.

This is not, btw, to imply that digitization is not indispensable to making things, as clearly it is our most useful tool. But until algorithms can generate metaphor, generate lateral solutions and find inspiration in mistakes, look at art, embrace unique POV transformations, and collect a lifetime of experience to act as a backstop to the next new thing, we should be clear about how the future is made:

By us.