Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How to Start a Design Conversation*

1) Ask a question. The best and most interesting conversations are usually about the things we don't know. To start, it's not necessary to have an idea about something, it may even be better to have no idea about something, and want to know more.

(Topics can come from all over the place. Design thinking is inherently inclusive, and the participants at these events so far have had pretty diverse backgrounds. Among other things, these conversations have been a chance to come along as people follow their own curiosities and obsessions in strange directions, ending up with unexpected connections, overlaps and resonances. Start anywhere.)

2) Bring it back to basics. It's useful to think about these things in the simplest possible way. How would you describe your interest to someone else? This could be in a way that's specific enough for them to know what you mean, but open enough for them to use and discuss in ways you might not expect.

(Some of the Design convos have had just one-word topic titles that can be read in several ways, like 'Food', 'Tools', or 'Waste'. Others, like 'Vacant Baltimore' or 'What's your Plan?' are direct enough that little other explanation is needed. More mysterious titles, like 'Cultural Containers' or 'Start Thinking Small' can reflect the curator's own uncertainty about the basic concepts in a way that presents an open question.)

3) Think out loud. Sometimes you don't know what you're going to say until you say it. Talking out things with other people is a good way to refine your own interest in the issue at hand, and a way to get others interested in it, too.

(The best way to see if you're onto something interesting is to find out if other people are into it, too. These events are built around conversation, and conversation is a good way to create and curate a topic for one. Talking about it with friends and strangers will help you clarify your topic, build energy and assemble the participants.)

4) Not an answer, but answers. A good talk is one we don't want to end, a discussion with a conclusion is over. If we give up using conversations to arrive at a destination, we can use them instead to explore a territory.

(Curating material for a conversation around a topic can be about giving up on preconceived end results. If you think you already know what's important about a topic, then inviting others to share their experience and interest is going to be redundant and frustrating. Accept at the start that things will go in multiple directions. This will allow everyone to find what they need in the discussion, and sketch out other threads to follow later.)

5) Frame it. Take a position, define a boundary. The larger the space is, the more important it becomes to know where you are, even if only as a starting point, for reference, variation, and disagreement.

(Accepting multiple answers doesn't mean that it's a good idea to remain totally neutral and relative all the time. This is a process that begins and ends with a kind of curious, energizing uncertainty, but in the middle it's useful to be confident and direct about where you are, and what you think is important.)


*The Baltimore Design Conversations are monthly events held the first Wednesday of every month in the Windup Space (12 W. North Ave.) at 6:30 pm. These events are open to the public and are loosely curated by volunteers around a series of topics related to design, art, architecture, cities, and whatever else is on your mind. Please join us. Cash bar and A/V hookup available.

For more information, visit the D. Center Baltimore flickr page and facebook group.