Blog All Kindle-clipped Locations: Destruction and Creation

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.

Loca­tion 3190

Against such a back­ground, actions and deci­sions become crit­i­cal­ly important.

Loca­tion 3192

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.

Loca­tion 3207

… gen­er­al-to-spe­cif­ic is relat­ed to deduc­tion, analy­sis, and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, while, spe­cif­ic-to-gen­er­al is relat­ed to induc­tion, syn­the­sis, and integration.

Loca­tion 3216

… 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.

Loca­tion 3225

… 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.

Loca­tion 3230

… 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.

Loca­tion 3274

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.

Loca­tion 3304

… 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.

Loca­tion 3340

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.

Loca­tion 3341

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.

John Boyd for designers

The first time I came across mil­i­tary strate­gist John Boy­d’s ideas was prob­a­bly through Venkatesh Rao’s writ­ing. For exam­ple, I remem­ber enjoy­ing Be Some­body or Do Some­thing.

Boyd was clear­ly a con­trar­i­an per­son. I tend to have a soft spot for such fig­ures so I read a high­ly enter­tain­ing biog­ra­phy by Roger Coram. Get­ting more inter­est­ed in his the­o­ries I then read an appli­ca­tion of Boy­d’s ideas to busi­ness by Chet Richards. Still not sat­is­fied, I decid­ed to final­ly buck­le down and read the com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of his mar­tial and sci­en­tif­ic influ­ences plus tran­scripts of all his brief­in­gs by Frans Osinga.

It’s been a huge­ly enjoy­able and reward­ing intel­lec­tu­al trip. I feel like Boyd has giv­en me some pret­ty sharp new tools-to-think-with. From his back­ground you might think these tools are lim­it­ed to war­fare. But in fact they can be applied much more broad­ly, to any field in which we need to make deci­sions under uncer­tain circumstances. 

As we go about our dai­ly lives we are actu­al­ly always deal­ing with this dynam­ic. But the stakes are usu­al­ly low, so we most­ly don’t real­ly care about hav­ing a thor­ough under­stand­ing of how to do what we want to do. In war­fare the stakes are obvi­ous­ly unusu­al­ly high, so it makes sense for some of the most artic­u­late think­ing on the sub­ject to emerge from it.

As a design­er I have always been inter­est­ed in how my pro­fes­sion makes deci­sions. Design­ers usu­al­ly deal with high lev­els of uncer­tain­ty too. Although lives are rarely at stake, the con­tin­ued via­bil­i­ty of busi­ness­es and qual­i­ty of peo­ples lives usu­al­ly are, at least in some way. Fur­ther­more, there is always a leap of faith involved with any design deci­sion. When we sug­gest a path for­ward with our sketch­es and pro­to­types, and we choose to pro­ceed to devel­op­ment, we can nev­er be entire­ly sure if our intend­ed out­comes will pan out as we had hoped.

This uncer­tain­ty has always been present in any design act, but an argu­ment could be made that tech­nol­o­gy has increased the amount of uncer­tain­ty in our world.

The way I see it, the meth­ods of user cen­tred design, inter­ac­tion design, user expe­ri­ence, etc are all attempts to “deal with” uncer­tain­ty in var­i­ous ways. The same can be said for the tech­niques of agile soft­ware development. 

These meth­ods can be divid­ed into rough­ly two cat­e­gories, which more or less cor­re­spond to the upper two quad­rants of this two-by-two by Venkatesh. Bor­row­ing the dia­gram’s labels, one is called Spore. It is risk-averse and focus­es on sus­tain­abil­i­ty. The oth­er is called Hydra and it is risk-savvy and about anti-fragili­ty. Spore tries to lim­it the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of unex­pect­ed events, and Hydra tries to max­imise their pos­i­tive consequences. 

An exam­ple of a Spore-like design move would be to insist on thor­ough user research at the start of a project. We expend sig­nif­i­cant resources to dimin­ish the amount of unknowns about our tar­get audi­ence. An exam­ple of a Hydra-like design move is the kind of playtest­ing employed by many game design­ers. We leave open the pos­si­bil­i­ty of sur­pris­ing acts from our tar­get audi­ence and hope to sub­se­quent­ly use those as the basis for new design directions. 

It is inter­est­ing to note that these upper two quad­rants are strate­gies for deal­ing with uncer­tain­ty based on syn­the­sis. The oth­er two rely on analy­sis. We typ­i­cal­ly asso­ciate syn­the­sis with cre­ativ­i­ty and by exten­sion with design. But as Boyd fre­quent­ly points out, inven­tion requires both analy­sis and syn­the­sis, which he liked to call destruc­tion and cre­ation. When I reflect on my own way of work­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the ear­ly stages of a project, the so-called fuzzy front end, I too rely on a cycle of destruc­tion and cre­ation to make progress. 

I do not see one of the two approach­es, Spore or Hydra, as inher­ent­ly supe­ri­or. But my per­son­al pref­er­ence is most def­i­nite­ly the Hydra approach. I think this is because a risk-savvy stance is most help­ful when try­ing to invent new things, and when try­ing to design for play and playfulness.

The main thing I learned from Boyd for my own design prac­tice is to be aware of uncer­tain­ty in the first place, and to know how to deal with it in an agile way. You might not be will­ing to do all the read­ing I did, but I would rec­om­mend to at least peruse the one long-form essay Boyd wrote, titled Destruc­tion and Cre­ation (PDF), about how to be cre­ative and deci­sive in the face of uncertainty.