The Matrix

All that stuff that Jeff mentioned in Tuesday’s lecture about the sort of dialectic analysis that structuralists employ actually reminded me of something from my design workflow. It’s an ideation technique that an Industrial Designer friend of mine (“Dale”) showed me when we were collaborating on an museum exhibit design a few years back, although it can be used for just about any kind of design project. Dale called his technique creating a “design matrix” and here’s how it works …

Whenever he starts a new project, like any good designer, Dale begins by defining the deliverable(s) of that project through a process that consists of describing what to create, as well as what not to create. As you may have already observed in your own experience, this stage of the design process can be the most daunting, since you engage in it at a point when you are relatively unfamiliar with what you are going to create. Here, Dale would take a clean sheet of paper and on one the left-hand side of it write down words describing the qualities he wanted the finished product to embody. The words could be nouns, adjectives or verbs and they could come from his research, client specifications, his own imagination – whatever. Then, on the right-hand side of the sheet of the same sheet of paper, but without looking at the left-hand side, Dale would write terms that similarly described what the finished product should not embody. It sounds simple, but it works amazingly well to flesh the contours of a new project, allowing you to “see” the finished project in early abstract, often revealing unanticipated aspects of its final personality.

Aside from its similarity to the structuralist dialectic, the design matrix concept echoes parts of our Bill Buxton reading as well, since it is basically just a form of sketching done with words instead of images. Otherwise though, it’s more or less the same thing. We sketch visually, using point and line with an intentional inattention to detail, defining form and counterform until a creative purchase emerges. Same thing with Dale’s matrices. And, like any good sketch, a good design matrix can even be used recursively in the ideation process as the re-examination of one matrix informs the creation a new iteration, often with happy, emergent results.

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