In design, we often need to take distance to provide a balanced evaluation of a project brief or exploration. Outcomes are similarly derived after careful consideration from multiple stakeholders in order to provide a holistic solution; not just for the end-users but also for all other parties.
In this regard, designers often innovate by jumping across the 1st and 3rd person, putting ourselves into the shoes of the users and stakeholders while also allowing ourselves to leverage on our expertise to think from the macro perspective. This aids in drawing inspiration from our experiences, knowledge, and everyday happenings, while balancing those with the research gathered.
Perhaps this particular manner in which designers approach opportunities could be augmented by the Solomon’s Paradox — the idea that one can think more sensibly about others’ problems than one’s own.
The notion of taking distance — to observe oneself through the lens of another stemmed from the psychological scientist, Igor Grossmann’s publication from the Journal of Psychological Sciences on the nature of human wisdom.
King Solomon was the third king of the Jewish Kingdom of Israel. He was widely known as the wisest king who ever lived, with many traveling great distances to seek his counsel. Yet, his personal life was notoriously in shambles, where his greed and womanizing ways led to the eventual demise of his kingdom. Nearer to the 21st century, Chief Judge Solomon Wachtler was famous for writing judicial options that set the standards for spousal abuse. He was equally as famous for harassing his ex-mistress and threatening to kidnap his own daughter — eventually spending 11 months in prison and ending his illustrious judicial career.
Grossmann defines wisdom as pragmatic reasoning that helps people navigate life’s challenges. Such wise reasoning requires transcending one’s egocentric point of view. In his own words, this means recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge, acknowledging others’ perspectives, and seeing circumstances in flux — all of which allow for a more complex understanding of social situations.
Igor Grossmann coined the term after his social experiment involving the study of couples in long-term relationships. They were both provided with questionnaires with two sets of contexts. One where their spouse cheated on them and the other where their best friends were being cheated upon. Unsurprisingly, they were able to make wiser decisions when they take distance and view these same issues through the lens of the 3rd person.
Asking from the 3rd person
Similarly, as designers, we often have to take this 3rd person perspective while working on our briefs. We are often taught to take our users’ perspectives while designing, understanding their needs and goals; and just as importantly, we also need to be able to take distance from time to time in order to look at the bigger picture. This allows us to remove preconceived biases we have or may have formed while working on our briefs, reducing the impact that egocentric reasoning may have on our works.
Maybe we simply need to imagine watching ourselves in our own movie. This deliberate distancing forces us to see things from the lens of another and expand our thought processes to consider from multiple facets, offering a macro perspective.
Fly on the wall
A method often employed by design researchers is the ‘Fly on the Wall’ technique. This is used commonly to collect user data which requires the researcher to be completely unnoticed by participants, silently observing and recording the participants’ behaviours — thus the term ‘Fly on the Wall’. The value comes from not imposing any biases on participants in any way and allowing them to behave in the most organic manner, helping uncover subconscious user behaviours that researchers can hence tap on to discover opportunities for innovation.
By actively observing from the 3rd person, the researchers, in this scenario practice Solomon’s Paradox by removing themselves and their influence from the participants’ activities. At the same time, they remain aware of the surrounding factors that may influence the behaviours of participants they are observing.
Story of the physalis
Looking back, I see myself subconsciously applying this to some of my works. I once worked on a brief during my time in University where the task was to design through the biomimicry of fruits — a physalis in my case. I remember the first assignment given by our professor was to break down our fruit as if it were an industrialized product. He gave us this stellar example written by Bruno Munari in his book, Design as Art (1996).
This object is made up of a series of modular containers shaped very much like the segments of an orange and arranged in a circle around a vertical axis. Each container or section has its straight side flush with the axis and its curved side turned outwards. In this way the sum of their curved sides forms a globe, a rough sphere.
All these sections are packed together in a container that is quite distinctive both as to its material and its colour. Its outside surface is fairly hard, but it has a soft internal lining that serves as padding between the outer surface and the sections packed inside. The material is in origin all of the same type, but it is suitably differentiated according to its function.
Each section or container consists of an envelope of plastic-like material large enough to contain the juice but easy to handle during the dismemberment of the global form. The sections are attached to one another by a very weak, though adequate, adhesive. The outer or packing container, following the growing tendency of today, is not returnable and may be thrown away.
The form of each section exactly follows the disposition of the teeth in the human mouth, so that once a section has been successfully extracted from the outer container it may be placed between the teeth, and a light pressure is enough to burst the envelope and extract the juice. Apart from juice the sections generally contain a small seed from the same plant that produced the fruit. This is a small free gift offered by the firm to the client in case the latter wishes to start a production of these objects on his own account. We draw your attention to the fact that while no economic loss is incurred in this gift, it gives rise to an important psychological bond between producer and consumer: few if any of the consumers will actually start growing orange trees, and yet this entirely altruistic concession (the idea of being able to do it if he wishes) frees the consumer from his castration complex and establishes a relationship of reciprocal trust.
The orange is therefore an almost perfect object in which one may observe an absolute coherence of form, function and consumption. Even the colour is exactly right. It would be quite wrong if such an object were blue.
The only concession to decorativeness, if we may say so, is the highly sophisticated material of the outer container, treated as it is in such a way as to produce the ‘orange skin’ effect. Perhaps this is done to remind the consumer of the juicy pulp to be found inside the plastic containers. Anyway, a minimum of decoration must be allowed for, especially when as justified as it is in this case.
With this as a reference, I deconstructed the physalis, breaking it down to its form, shape, colour, construction, origins, usage experience, etc. This exercise helped expand the lenses in which I viewed the physalis. It helped me draw inspiration from the interaction between the outer husk and physalis fruit as it ripens, noticing that the husk dries up and crumbles as the fruit matures.
This formed the natural allegory of duality — of life growing from death, forming the denominator for my exploration. With this as my anchor, I chanced upon a newspaper article that talked about the dying rattan weaving trade in Singapore. This provided me with the ‘Eureka!’ moment that helped inform the rest of the project, where I seek for new opportunities to revive the craft of weaving through imbuing it into modern technology and materials.
By allowing myself to take distance in uncovering the core allegory of my physalis interpretation, I was able to use it as an anchor to jump between the narrative, material explorations, and happenings in life that helped form the seemingly unrelated connection. During the process, I asked myself, “How would a traditional rattan weaver weave modern technology? What if the practice of weaving could be imbued into modern living?” — thus giving birth to Wv.
A common phrase I often hear my designer peers say is, “I’m stuck.” Applying the Solomon’s Paradox, rather than being trapped in a loop that appears to be going nowhere, try taking distance and imagine yourself as the designer commissioned to your own work. Ask “Why is he/she where they are at, what/where else did he/she not consider?” rather than “Why I am not progressing?”
Thinking of self through the lens of another, as the one providing advice to your own project - perhaps this could provide designers with renewed clarity that comes with distance.
The purpose of the DesLens series of articles is to serve as thought experiments on various lenses that designers can put while exploring their works or life. These thought experiments seek to seed questions for designers, to continuously build upon our approach and may come from a variety of different fields such as psychology, sociology, architecture, etc. It complements the multifaceted exploration lenses that designers look through in order to connect the dots that are uncovered along the way.
Original Publication — https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0956797614535400
Bruno Munari, Design as Art — https://amzn.to/33mPbAd