Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary by Dan Hill is all about defining what strategic design is under the context of product and its frame of reference and how to oscillate between these two states in order to come up with better solutions. This seems fairly straight-forward, but it’s not quite the whole story of all strategic design can be. Hill writes about dark matter, all the intangible, messy politics that allow things to function the way they do – which, of course, usually exist right above a designer’s head. Still, to be an effective designer you must recognize these elusive things as a necessary part of the “design challenge” for they allow you to draw a wider net around a problem as well as give you as much insight into the question as the solution.
I found this all very interesting yet I was more personally captivated by ways to explore/think about strategic design which Dan Hill would later present.
“Design as a cultural act,” for example, are words that stuck out for me. This idea that design is most valuable when synthesizing disparate views and articulating alternative patterns of living, is the reason why I am in design and not some other product adjacent field like engineering or even merchandising. Beyond that, I have always been aware of the potential for change design has so I was further enthralled when Jonathan Ive’s perspective was unpacked.
“[…] it privileges the viewpoint of the designer, suggesting that the designer has perhaps the fundamental position in reorienting the world, that all things are design challenges.”
Ive’s way of viewing design doesn’t just create privilege, however, there is an enormous sense of accountability and responsibility that goes with it. You can see this in the examples of failure not being chalked up to the absence of attention but strong design decision-making, mostly when financial interests trump everything else.
There I was nodding my head as I read, when Hill decides to play devil’s advocate via “the characteristics of self-organizing systems!” He references David Korowicz, who argues things like that global economy are beyond our ability to understand, design and manage. Furthermore, he presents examples on algorithm-driven trades, which I have minimal knowledge on, but I do know that these are codes humans in fact wrote and can no longer read. Still, at this moment I cannot give up on Ive’s arguments for design, yet as I question to do so Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary asks what I’m thinking, “what are we supposed to do? Helplessness is not a happy place.”
Overall, I do not think all design lives in a middle-ground between the two arguments, it perhaps looks more like a spectrum, but it is likely most design has the potential to live in a space of impact under systems we don’t fully understand. As the text says, “with this more investigative view of design, there are no claims to having a clearly prescribed course of action with a straight line to the ideal solution. Yet we can still see the world as malleable.”
Transitioning off of that the article, Strategic Design vs. Tactical Design by Joe Johnston compliments the previous reading because in my mind it positions design right into the middle-ground emphasized by Hill. Johnston talks about two different approaches to design problem-solving. Where strategic design is focused on the “big picture” via systemic challenges that should inform product in order to have unabridged solutions; tactical design centers on iterative and adaptive solutions that through feedback loops are able to make way for more accurate questions as well as solutions. Similar to Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary the best outcome might just come through combining tactics as both are needed and important in their own right.