Essays

Provocation as praxis

Considering the role of design in asking questions, not just providing solutions.
Last updated 5 min read

Ask fifty different designers what design means to them, or what they consider the purpose of design, and you’ll get fifty different responses. This is unsurprising, given that the term designer is about as specific as ‘creative’. What can we agree upon? All designers generate either physical or digital artefacts—products, tools, services, experiences, what have you—that serve a purpose that benefits the world in some way.

But that doesn’t quite cut it.

Many years ago at a design conference in Cheltenham, a panellist was asked a question along the lines of what he considered to be the best example of design in history. He said the AK-47. Cheap and easy to produce and maintain. Holds up well in harsh conditions. Requires little instruction to use. Point, press the trigger, kill. No doubt the revolutionary believes their Kalashnikov benefits the world in some way, but the families of those on the receiving end of such a ‘solution’ would no doubt disagree.

Considering that term ‘creative’, I recently stumbled across a phrase that seemed to all too tidily disregard the equivalence between design and art: “Art asks questions; design provides answers”. Despite the condescending undertone, this pithy statement seems self-evident. Artists don’t profess to provide answers with their art, whilst many designers sell themselves on their refined ability to come up with solutions to problems. To answer the question, respond to the brief. There is perhaps no better symbolic manifestation of this idea than the double diamond ‘design thinking’ process.

Discover the problem; deliver the solution. Get the job done.

Design-as-vocation depends upon outputs that effect change, however trivial, in the world, and designed artefacts are to an extent defined by the fact of them having been designed. In other words, to have been designed is distinctly not to have been ‘stumbled upon’. That said, it feels like my personal design practice is little more than a series of managed stumblings.

As a UX designer and researcher, a big part of my job is asking questions—mapping the problem space. The answers come later, in the form of solution proposals. But, as Sheryl Cababa argues, there is something fundamentally unsatisfactory, even dangerous, about the term ‘solution’. Much like ‘answers’, their implied finality can be misleading:

“It feels arrogant to assume that the singular way in which you are engaging in problem-solving will lead to a solution that will never have repercussions, nor require change.”

A solution sounds like the destination, the end of the journey. It is a senior partner at the firm of Progress, Inc. And all too often, the tidiest, most attractive solutions are those that remove the most friction. Lower barriers to entry. Save time. Eliminate clicks, curtail load times, and reduce ‘noise’. This seems like a truism for any UX designer working in the wake of Steve Krug’s clarion call not to ‘make him think’, but what Krug’s foundational text mistakenly omits is the importance of identifying when it’s important to make people think.

And it’s at the altar of this pursuit of seamless usability that so many of us stumble.

Mindless interaction

Too often, in the world of tech especially, the obsession with reducing friction in everyday experiences is emblematic of a reduction of friction in the ability to critically predict or assess the effects of such actions.

Take for example Infinite Scroll, a seemingly simple interaction pattern so powerful that its impact on society has caused its creator, Aza Raskin, to regret its invention. Or the insidious introduction of cookie banners that have spurred ways of conning users into consenting to aggressive data harvesting practices just to ease the friction such banners introduce in the first place. Forms and purchase flows in general provide an excellent example of how the zealotry of friction-reduction can go too far. How many of us have accidentally signed up for a service or signed over our personal information due to the slipperiness of a ‘highly usable’, friction-free experience?

Friction can be can be both friend and foe. Good design reduces unnecessary friction, as it introduces necessary friction.

The purpose of introducing necessary friction is more immediately apparent outside of the context of digital design. Consider the building of dykes and sea walls, seat belt alarms, or the grip tape on skateboards that literally provides the friction necessary to perform most tricks. That isn’t to say there aren’t alternate approaches to how friction is applied (airport security, I’m looking at you), and that is certainly where the designer may excel, but it’s essential to recognise that effective design necessitates both introduction as well as reduction.

The practice of provocation

Art certainly introduces unexpected friction. An example that springs to mind is Marina Abramovich’s provocative Imponderabilia, in which she and Ulay stood naked in a false museum entrance constructed so narrowly that it forced the public to face one of the nude artists in order to squeeze sideways and pass through. With the arrival of the police after three hours, it was apparent that some didn’t agree with the necessity of such friction. And yet the piece continues to be discussed and was recently restaged, over forty years later.

Whilst art introduces friction that encourages its audience to ask their own questions, the designer must ask for whom they are reducing or introducing friction, and why. Here lie ethical dilemmas. Whilst defensive architecture like the barbed unkindness of anti-homeless spikes is reported to reduce ‘litter’ and improve ‘safety’, it denies a small spot of shelter for people who have been disregarded by the city and society. In such instances, the reduction of friction for some appears to necessitate the introduction of friction for others; these ‘solutions’ serve the powerful only to introduce unnecessary friction for the poor and disenfranchised.

But it need not be a zero-sum game, and it is the task of designers to demonstrate this.

Sheryl Cababa, in Closing the Loop, her book on systems thinking for designers, argues that so much of the necessary mindset for systems thinking involves reframing, and that “a big part of that reframing is using the creative methods of the design practice for provocation”. In other words, “design as a way of asking questions rather than providing answers”.

Fall in love with the opportunity, not the solution. Rewrite every brief in the form of a question or provocation. Do not design a way to way to stop homeless people from sleeping outside office buildings, but ask instead how the occupants of the building can help support homeless people to find safe shelter.

Good design is that which not only asks questions but critically considers what are the right questions to ask in the first place, and recognises the inherent biases held by those asking the questions. Designers must continually question their role, challenge the extent to which they need intervene in the first place, and interrogate the value judgements placed on the artefacts that their design practices introduce or remove from the world.

The AK-47 may be one of the greatest solutions designed to remove the friction of killing, but what if it had been designed with the introduction of friction in mind instead?

In a time when rapidly improving artificial intelligence threatens the future roles of designers, engineers, and ‘creatives’, it is worth remembering that until the machines develop the capacity for introspection, our jobs remain to some extent safe.

Further reading

  • Cababa, Sheryl. Closing the Loop: Systems Thinking for Designers, 2023, Rosenfeld Media.

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