EXPLORATION: Design + Humanities = ?

Tom Scheinfeldt and the Local Action Team are working to develop a Design + Humanities process that showcases Newport’s rich historical and cultural assets to advance collaborative efforts across disciplines and sectors. Below, Catalyzing Newport strategist and facilitator Kathleen Shannon shares ideas they are exploring to create this process.

Design + Humanities = ?

Design and humanities is an interesting coupling of words. They are two words that are often challenged with misperceptions in today’s society. They are also two words that are evolving and becoming essential to problem solving in an increasingly dynamic and complex world.

Often we think of “design” as an aesthetic or the last phase of development, i.e., a pretty product or packaging. However, where does design begin in the process of discovery and innovation of an idea, product, or solution? Humanities are commonly referred to as the more traditional set of academic disciplines (e.g., History, Philosophy, Literature, Religion, etc.) that are struggling with academic and societal relevance in a technology-driven economy and increasingly STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) focused educational system. Unfortunately, people often miss the real expertise developed by the study of the humanities: critical thinking, interpretation, writing, empathy, etc. Because the study of the humanities is not commonly perceived as forward-looking, (rather an examination of the past), it is mistakenly undervalued in society.

It is true that good design does render beauty to the beholder, and that the fields of the humanities do understand a lot about our past. But it is also very true that design and humanities thinking – their methods and understanding of experiences and human behavior that shape us and our future – are essential in any approach to discovery – whether it be for high costs of healthcare, growing poverty, impacts of climate change, or an aging educational system. Design + Humanities = a pathway to discovery and innovative solutions – a creative, human-centered exploration and discovery process.

We can be seen as a one-click society – demanding tangible and measurable outcomes within seconds of inquiry. Our patience, appreciation, or value for process of exploring the question or answer is minimal. We don’t exercise our own intuition, but often abandon it for a quick fix, a band-aid, because commercials, data, or Internet results are easier. Our sense of curiosity and wonder is lost with lack of confidence and fear of time and failure. Solutions become more tactical and less strategic or even human in their approach. The real failure is lack of willingness to work hard and deeply understand the fundamental problems to secure real solutions.

It is time to re-introduce the principles of the design process and the humanness of the humanities to tackling the biggest issues facing our communities and our institutions. These are intricately tied together. A humanities-design process becomes conscious of the deep understanding needed and complexities surrounding societal challenges. Coupled together, this process can innovate, produce, and build value for the world we are shaping, the history we are living. Design + Humanities process can provide a framework to begin to answer complex questions with resilient solutions.