UID Interview - Harold G. Nelson

Harold Nelson

Professor Harold G. Nelson, has been visiting professor at UID between April and June 2012.

Have you had a chance to get an impression of UID yet?

- Yes, and I like the school a great deal. There´s a lot of good people here, who are deeply interested in design, in their hearts. They are highly accomplished in the traditional fields of design, and well respected. They are at the top of their class. I´d like to tag along to discover new fields and areas with them as they continue designing their own future.

What is design?

- Design is a way of looking at and engaging in the world. In my talks nowadays I often mention that our understanding of design is changing a lot. We´re entering an age of design, where the effects of human activity, particularly design, will be high on the social agenda. The negative effects of human activities, like global warming, have people's attention but it is also important to know what can be done about these issues, which is where design comes in. Sustainability is a big issue and good design is sustainable fundamentally.

- Design is now redirecting evolution because it is recreating the real world. We live in a created world that defines who we are and what we experience as our lives. We´re not just surviving, we have choices. For instance, we can design what sort of economy we want. Design is about answering big questions - what do we want to do with our lives for example? And it´s a big responsibility, to make life better, by design.

- Design is inquiry for action, unlike research that primarily describes and explains the world. It´s what people want nowadays - improvements through carefully considered actions-new governments, new policies, education … all that is design. It´s important that design should be pro-active and not reactive. We must investigate people´s desires and imagine what can satisfy them. We must ask "Where do you want to go?" and help them to get there. The whole point of design is to do something for the right people for the right reasons.

- And it´s also about relationships and systems. We need to know who is involved in our design projects and figure out how they are connected to one another and their environment - and what´s in the spaces 'between' them. If we don´t do that, design's not a sustainable activity. What are the relationships? What´s going on between people, things and their environments in their life journeys? That´s a systems perspective.

- For design to work, we need a culture around us as designers that understands what we do and why. Some people including businesses are beginning to understand that it´s not just about creating products or services but about designing a way of life. People who create the real world in all its complexities are designers. That´s what they´re up to.

You were first trained as an architect. What do you think architects and designers can learn from each other?

- When I worked as an architect, I faced challenges that my background didn't prepare me to meet. I found that design challenges cuts across all traditions and disciplines. Often people focus on certain professions when they think of design, but for me it covers a much broader field. Architects, designers, graphic designers, we are all designers in common. What we can learn from each other is what design is in a more comprehensive way. As we talk about it together, it will hopefully merge into a more unified concept in people´s consciousness. To that end we need to build a common vocabulary to understand each other better.

In your opinion, what´s important to educate the best designers?

- The students must understand that they are always working for a client either explicitly or implicitly. Are they learning ways of talking with clients including future generations? That´s important. Also, the students need to be prepared for working with very different types of people in teams and on projects. And they need to learn how to ask themselves: How do I find out what ought to be made a new addition to the real world and how do I take action to make it so?

Professor Nelson´s book (together with Erik Stolterman) is published in a new edition in July.

The Design Way
Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World

Second Edition, MIT Press (2012)
Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman

Harold G. Nelson

Professor Harold G. Nelson is visiting professor at UID between April and June 2012. Nelson is trained as an architect, with a PhD in social systems design at Berkley under the supervision of the
famous C. West Churchman. Nelson is one of the most internationally recognized thinkers and scholars today when it comes to design practice and research. He has published many articles and the seminal book "The Design Way - intentional change in an unpredictable world" which will be out in a second edition this coming summer with MIT Press. Nelson is one of the co-founding Directors and President of the Advanced Design Institute and is a past-president and a trustee of the International Society for Systems Science. He is a part time Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. In 2009-2010 he was the Nierenberg Distinguished Professor of Design, School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University. Furthermore, Nelson was for ten years the Director of a highly successful MS program in Whole Systems Design at Antioch University, Seattle.