It’s okay not to know the punchline

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

14. It’s okay not to know the punchline

Teaching a Design Thesis studio last year at the University of Melbourne, I gained a previously unexperienced global perspective of the design process. Nurturing a group of sixteen students through their projects, I was for the first time able to appreciate the many different approaches to the student / tutor relationship and to design.

I learnt that the best students were those who were able to fully commit themselves to the reciprocal interaction between design, research and dialogue. In other words, those who first posed a design question, second undertook research into possible solutions, third engaged in productive discussion, fourth listened to our suggestions and those of other students, and only fifth made a design decision. The key to this process is in commencing it without yet knowing how it will conclude.

Good design is not a linear journey whose end point is already known. Rather it is a series of false-starts, u-turns, dead-ends and scenic routes. Good design does not happen during an A-to-B trip with a disengaged driver behind the wheel, instead it unfolds as a weekend expedition undertaken by a driver who places himself behind the wheel for the love of it.

Ultimately, the destination – the final design – becomes defined by many of the detours experienced during the journey, becomes enriched by them. You won’t know which will have a lasting impact until you pass through them, so don’t try to map your route before setting out.

It’s okay not to know the punchline.

2 thoughts on “It’s okay not to know the punchline

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  1. Yes, I agree. Good science follows the same construct – following the where the research leads. It’s why few earth-shattering discoveries come from purely commercial laboratories – they are fixated on the pre-determined end in mind. Innovation’s challenge is not better management, but rather being intuitively hand’s off.

    1. You’re spot on there, Mel. Many of our most significant scientific innovations came through open ended enquiries: science for it’s own sake, pursued for the love of knowledge and occasionally rewarding beyond our wildest dreams. It’s one of the reasons I’m so enamoured with the idea of space exploration. It may seem like an exorbitantly expensive endeavour without valuable return, but it is one of the frontiers of our understanding, so who knows what new directions it will bring?

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