A few thoughts on planning and design
Shane Parrish uncovered a rather interesting document – The U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Addressing appropriate approaches to understanding and finding solutions to complex problems, the manual makes a differentiation between planning and design, saying, “design focuses on framing the problem rather than developing courses of action.” Again, design focuses on framing the problem.
Grabbing Shane's quotes from the manual –
This seems to invert most of the nature of our practice in large-scale and complex building programs. That is, we consistently see planning, as in “master planning,” as the first step in understanding a client's problem and proposing a solution frame, and “design” as the tool for subsequent implementation of specific projects within the frame set by the master plan.
This convention has been troubling me, lately. We have fumbled around for a different term to describe what we are doing for one of our clients. This is mostly with a general professional disdain for anything called “master” planning in a time that we perceive as too complex, too fast-moving, and too unpredictable to shape a plan with any certainty ten years into the future. So we call it a “strategic plan” or a “framework plan” or a “guide plan” as if to warn those who would use it of its fragility and need for ongoing validation and calibration.
Another fault is considering “design” in our perspective only as architects. In that frame, design is naturally subsequent to the plan. Its specificity to us tends to have us discount what is perceived as a more ambiguous planning phase. When we are engaged to do master plans, we tend to draw them as pretty pictures, as compositions of a recognizable norm, making them even less valuable than they started out being.
The Army/Marine reading is a good one for reflection. In the sense of programming as “problem seeking,” the manual sees design as “problem setting.” Each of these are critical inquiries. They perceive the presence of a problem that needs a solution and then dig into its nature and context through an analytical process. I like the terms, “inquiry,” and “conceptualize,” and hypothesize,” and “dynamics,” and “insights.” I think architects and workplace designers have typically been so eager to get to the illustration of a solution that they have been unable to use “design” as an analytical process to develop new insights and explore the value of new concepts.
In its ongoing work, our profession has only rarely used hypotheses and concepts to explore alternative frames to the problem of how what they plan and design will enhance the way their client's work will be done in the future. It’s easier for many to accept the groupspeak about the workplace, draw something stylistically clever, and say, “There it is,” rather than collect the information essential to uncovering new insights that allow them to propose a new frame and a new solution for the future.