I finished my previous post on why designers should be interested in John Boyd with the recommendation to read his essay “Destruction and Creation”. I thought I’d share the bits I highlighted in my copy. It is part of Osinga’s Science, Strategy and War, to which the locations below refer.
Location 3176 – Boyd introduces a very simple but fundamental reason for why we should care about decision making:
… a basic aim or goal, as individuals, is to improve our capacity for independent action
Location 3183 – the same applies to design and designers. We do not want to be controlled by our circumstances. Boyd was talking to a military audience, but the description below is true of any social situation, including the design practice:
In a real world of limited resources and skills, individuals and groups form, dissolve and reform their cooperative or competitive postures in a continuous struggle to remove or overcome physical and social environmental obstacles.
Against such a background, actions and decisions become critically important.
To make these timely decisions implies that we must be able to form mental concepts of observed reality, as we perceive it, and be able to change these concepts as reality itself appears to change.
Location 3195 – designers are asked to do nothing but the above. The succes of our designs hinges on our understanding of reality and our skill at intervening in it. So the question below is of vital importance to us:
How do we generate or create the mental concepts to support this decision-making activity?
Location 3196 – in the next section of the essay Boyd starts to provide answers:
There are two ways in which we can develop and manipulate mental concepts to represent observed reality: We can start from a comprehensive whole and break it down to its particulars or we can start with the particulars and build towards a comprehensive whole.
… general-to-specific is related to deduction, analysis, and differentiation, while, specific-to-general is related to induction, synthesis, and integration.
… such an unstructuring or destruction of many domains – to break the correspondence of each with its respective constituents – is related to deduction, analysis, and differentiation. We call this kind of unstructuring a destructive deduction.
… creativity is related to induction, synthesis, and integration since we proceeded from unstructured bits and pieces to a new general pattern or concept. We call such action a creative or constructive induction.
Location 3227 – here Boyd starts to connect the two ways of creating concepts. I have always found it gratifying to immerse myself in a design’s domain and to start teasing apart its constituent elements, before moving on to acts of creation:
It is important to note that the crucial or key step that permits this creative induction is the separation of the particulars from their previous domains by the destructive deduction.
… the unstructuring and restructuring just shown reveals a way of changing our perception of reality.
Location 3237 – so far so fairly straight-forward. But Boyd gets increasingly more sophisticated about this cycle of destruction and creation. For example, he suggests we should check for internal consistency of a new concept by tracing back its elements to the original sources:
… we check for reversibility as well as check to see which ideas and interactions match-up with our observations of reality.
Location 3240 – so this is not a two-step linear act, but a cyclical one, where we keep tuning parts and wholes of a concept (or design) and test them against reality:
Over and over again this cycle of Destruction and Creation is repeated until we demonstrate internal consistency and match-up with reality.
Location 3249 – in the next section, Boyd problematises the process he has proposed by showing that once we have formed a concept, its matchup to reality immediately starts to deteriorate:
… at some point, ambiguities, uncertainties, anomalies, or apparent inconsistencies may emerge to stifle a more general and precise match-up of concept with observed reality.
Location 3257 – the point below is one I can’t help but iterate often enough to clients and coworkers. We must work under the assumption of mismatches occurring sooner or later. It is an essential state of mind:
… we should anticipate a mismatch between phenomena observation and concept description of that observation.
Location 3266 – he brings in Gödel, Heisenberg and the second law of thermodynamics to explain why this is so:
Gödel’s Proof indirectly shows that in order to determine the consistency of any new system we must construct or uncover another system beyond it.
Back and forth, over and over again, we use observations to sharpen a concept and a concept to sharpen observations. Under these circumstances, a concept must be incomplete since we depend upon an ever-changing array of observations to shape or formulate it. Likewise, our observations of reality must be incomplete since we depend upon a changing concept to shape or formulate the nature of new inquiries and observations.
Location 3301 – so Gödel shows we need to continuously create new concepts to maintain the usefulness of prior ones due to the relationship between observed reality and mental concepts. Good news for designers! Our work is never done. It is also an interesting way to think about culture evolving by the building of increasingly complex networks of prior concepts into new ones. Next, Boyd brings in Heisenberg to explain why there is uncertainty involved when making observations of reality:
… the magnitude of the uncertainty values represent the degree of intrusion by the observer upon the observed.
… uncertainty values not only represent the degree of intrusion by the observer upon the observed but also the degree of confusion and disorder perceived by that observer.
Location 3308 – Heisenberg shows that the more we become intwined with observed reality the more uncertainty increases. This is of note because as we design new things and we introduce them into the environment, unexpected things start to happen. But also, we as designers ourselves are part of the environment. The more we are part of the same context we are designing for, the less able we will be to see things as they truly are. Finally, for the third move by which Boyd problematises the creation of new concepts, we arrive at the second law of thermodynamics:
High entropy implies a low potential for doing work, a low capacity for taking action or a high degree of confusion and disorder. Low entropy implies just the opposite.
Location 3312 – closed systems are those that don’t communicate with their environment. A successful design practice should be an open system, lest it succumb to entropy:
From this law it follows that entropy must increase in any closed system
… whenever we attempt to do work or take action inside such a system – a concept and its match-up with reality – we should anticipate an increase in entropy hence an increase in confusion and disorder.
Location 3317 – it’s important to note that Boyd’s ideas are equally applicable to design plans, design practices, design outcomes, any system involved in design, really. Confused? Not to worry, Boyd boils it down in the next and final section:
According to Gödel we cannot – in general – determine the consistency, hence the character or nature, of an abstract system within itself. According to Heisenberg and the Second Law of Thermodynamics any attempt to do so in the real world will expose uncertainty and generate disorder.
Location 3320 – the bit below is a pretty good summary of why “big design up front” does not work:
any inward-oriented and continued effort to improve the match-up of concept with observed reality will only increase the degree of mismatch.
Location 3329 – whenever we encounter chaos the instinct is to stick to our guns, but it is probably wiser to take a step back and reconsider our assumptions:
we find that the uncertainty and disorder generated by an inward-oriented system talking to itself can be offset by going outside and creating a new system.
Location 3330 – creativity or explorative design under pressure can seem like a waste of time but once we have gone through the exercise in hind sight we always find it more useful than thought before:
Simply stated, uncertainty and related disorder can be diminished by the direct artifice of creating a higher and broader more general concept to represent reality.
I believe we have uncovered a Dialectic Engine that permits the construction of decision models needed by individuals and societies for determining and monitoring actions in an effort to improve their capacity for independent action.
the goal seeking effort itself appears to be the other side of a control mechanism that seems also to drive and regulate the alternating cycle of destruction and creation toward higher and broader levels of elaboration.
Location 3347 – chaos is a fact of life, and as such we should welcome it because it is as much a source of vitality as it is a threat:
Paradoxically, then, an entropy increase permits both the destruction or unstructuring of a closed system and the creation of a new system to nullify the march toward randomness and death.
Location 3350 – one of Boyd’s final lines is a fine description of what I think design should aspire to:
The result is a changing and expanding universe of mental concepts matched to a changing and expanding universe of observed reality.