Thursday, November 15, 2012

On Design Methodology

We were reading in class about the architect Frank Gehry. All designers share some aspects in common with one another, and architectures are most certainly designers. Frank Ghery has an interesting design methodology. You can read about one of his latest buildings, the Opus, here:

So what does Franky Gehry do that's so interesting? Well he builds funky buildings, but that crucial point for this discussion is that he doesn't just dream them up in Maya or sketch them from scratch. He has a design methodology. That isn't just a funny flavoring word added in to talk about his modeling pipeline in AutoCAD. Design Methodology is the topic of this paper. The idea behind it is that there are certain things an artist has to do: rituals they must perform, angles they must look at, breaks they must take, and slightly-related problems they must solve, in the course of creating a new work.

Basically, Frank Gehry's first step (after obtaining all the survey data and so forth) is to build very childish looking towers out of brightly painted wood blocks.

And if he didn't, he couldn't design buildings. Pay attention, because this is crucial. He couldn't design buildings without his wood blocks. It is part of his process. Without it, the creativity will refuse to come. It cannot be skipped, or the resulting building will not be a Frank Gehry building.

For any building, Gehry makes about twenty of these towers, glues them together, and then sets them all out for his examination. He pushes them about and deforms them. Perhaps they let him visualize and block out shapes and space. He goes through each of these and begins to articulate why it is he is attracted to each form. The process of articulating these things brings the design to the forefront. It is only after building his block towers that Frank Gehry can sit down and start to put together the amorphous wriggles of glass and oddly positioned corners that have become his trademark look.

Now how does the discipline of design methodology apply to me? Obviously I'm not going to build block towers like Frank Gehry, but it's clear to see that I could and should have my own process for building games.

I should identify and pay attention to this 'design process' that I must somehow possess and then study it. That's pretty simple. Essentially, if I know what it is I do that helps me be creative, I should document it, so that at points in the future when I need to be creative, I know what to do to get the creativity juices flowing. Okay, I get that. Ah, and then I can also study my own design methodology. I can tweak it, make changes to it. My methodology becomes something I'm designing and reiterating constantly, with every new project. It becomes a project in itself.

This is kinda neat stuff. As soon as I identify the existence of a design methodology, I can start applying my own creative talents to it. I can intelligently alter how I think about and pursue projects. I can conduct experiments on my own creative process. I can design my life to yield more creativity. I can formulate a process- specific to me- that helps me come up with the best ideas. I can try new things within a framework. I can form a basis for evaluating my own actions based on whether they are helpful to my creativity, or detrimental. Cool.

So is there an example of a person who has a design methodology in games? Does it involve blocks? To answer that question, we researched  KeitaTakahashi, the creator of an extremely innovative and ground breaking gamed called Katamari Damany. This is they keynote 'speech' he gave at an annual game jam. The subject is, "How to Come Up With an Idea," but it shows off a very different, less structured, and more emotional design methodology.

Hmm. You know, I'm starting to think that Frank Gehry's methodology isn't specific to architecture. It's just how he visualizes problems. And likewise, Takahashi's design methodology isn't specific to anything at all. It's more a creative exploration of his environment while letting an idea bake away in the back of his skull. These design methodologies look to be the ways by which we creative humans solve problems, and each one is specific to each of us.

I have done a great deal of exploration as to my own design methodologies this quarter, and I have come up with some observations that I need to document, so that I can understand them for later. To study my own creative process, I looked at how I solved a number of problems, from designing my video games, to planning out a demo module for this semester, to the actual research I conduct while developing a game, to the way I pick out computer parts at the store, to puzzling out how to bring my cat to the USA for a month and a half over Christmas, and then get him safely back to Hong Kong without quarantine.

Based on my studies, I've managed to isolate a few elements that were present in every problem-solving scenario, and which seem to be common across my entire decision making process. At the moment, I am currently focused on identifying largely beneficial aspects of my design methodology, but in the future I expect I will have to isolate faulty aspects as well, so that I can eschew them.

When confronted with a large problem (and often even a small one), the first thing I want to obtain is a bird's eye view of the situation. I want to know the full extent of the problem. I try to surround the problem with my arms, as if putting it in a big hug. At this point, I really just want to know what it's circumference is. How big is this problem? Where does it extend to? I will start off by researching the problem indirectly, trying to find things like reviews, opinions, forums, help sites, etc. instead of going straight to the source.

Often times I will enumerate potential options for solving the problem, as well as potential pitfalls that I may have to solve in the future. I bookmark answers to problems I may encounter, reference materials, Wiki sites, etc. I keep a very organized set of bookmarks in Google Chrome. This is one of my brainstorming phases. I will labor through big problems and read books. I need an understanding of what it is I'm doing, a set of ideas in which I can base my upcoming activities. I need to feel informed and competent  I need to feel a bit like an expert in the field.

This stage of the process is not usually very long, and remaining in it for too long can leave me feeling emotionally drained and exhausted. Never the less, it is an established part of my design methodology, and is vital for me to take my first steps along the road to solving a problem.

The next step is to release my bear hug on the problem and to freeze it's size. At this point I am tired of skirting around the edge of the issue, and instead dive straight into it. The next thing I want to know about is not the breadth of the problem, but rather its depth. At this point I will basically make an 'asset list,' of each and every tiny last minute detail of the problem I am trying to solve.

I cannot make this list from start to finish. I have tried doing so many times, and it is never beneficial to my creative process. For awhile I was writing out ideas on index cards. Index cards let me constrain the problem to bite sized pieces. Working this way,  I felt like a DNA Synthase, chewing on one tiny part of the problem at a time and eventually getting around to chewing on the whole issue. However, I was never satisfied with this method. The fact that certain cards could go missing or simply not be displayed at the moment was both a mixed boon and a distressing curse. I also disliked the fact that it was hard and time-consuming to visualize the entire problem at once.

The latest addition to my design process has been mind maps. Because I am working at the speed of consciousness,  I cannot afford to use programs like Illustrator to create these maps. Often I work by hand on very large pieces of paper.  This is pleasurable. It keeps my hands busy. It keeps my artistic side busy while my logical side is working. In fact, I frequently use architecture stencils to make rapid circles, squares, and other shapes. I always work with multiple colors, to render groups visually distinct. The neatness and simplicity of the stencils keeps the overall image looking well-planned and organized. I feel good while creating the diagram, which prompts me to keep working on it. When I back up, I get a very clear and instantaneous visualization of my problem- as well as any elements I've failed to wrap my arms around in the previous stage.

For ideas that require a lot of online research, I will usually use a mind mapping software called Mindomo. Mindomo is very useful for referencing files and images and linking websites. The map can be closed up or expanded as I need it. I can visualize the problem as a whole or drill down to view only a few branches at a time. I use it not necessarily because it is the best, but because for what I need it for, it is good looking, professional in appearance, and easy to use. Remember that I am working at the speed of thought, and that I need my ideas to be visually distinct from one another and also to pleasurable to look at.

Once I have passed this stage, I am ready to start working on solving the problem. This does not mean my researching is over, only that now I will be researching answers to very specific problems that I encounter while problem solving. My previous bookmarks serve as useful anchors, and my asset list is something of a 'minimap' (gamer terminology) for keeping my goals in sight.

This is important. I am capable both of very broad lateral thinking and very deep vertical thinking. In order to keep one type of thought from upsetting and muddling up the other, I have to keep documentation on hand that soothes each of them while the other is working. This is why I had to bookmark answers to possible problems while doing my preliminary bear-hug research; and it's why I now have to keep my mind map on hand to refocus my on-the-ground development efforts.

The rest of my design methodology is not 100% clear to me, and seems to contain a lot of tips and tricks for how to get my brain to focus. For example, I must keep a clean living space, eat well, communicate frequently with friends and family, and both wake and sleep early on in the day in order to be productive. It will be my habit to try and eschew some of these things in order to focus, but the result will be intense frustration and lack of productivity.

I must also solve multiple kinds of problem at once. These problems may come from many difference sources. While solving a technical problem, I will also need to solve an artistic one. On the side I may be working on design issues. To let my inner creativity out, I may need to write something. When two problems of the same type show up, waiting to be solved at once, I enter a creative block. For example, two time-sensitive problems that operate in the same time frame will cause a lock up. So will two programming tasks of equal importance. Or two intellectual problems from different aspects of my life that are both important for different reasons.

In these cases, it is usually vital that I take care of the problem that's most personal, more urgent, smaller, or which strikes closer to home, first. If I can get past the initial block, the experience of solving a problem fills me with self-gratification and pleasure, and I am given a boost with which to complete my other problems.

For example. Say that I need to obtain a Visa for foreign travel and complete a final project at the same time. The Visa is very time sensitive, but quick to do. However, the fact that I have both things on my mind suddenly generates a sense of paralysis. The only way to break this paralysis is to bolt out the door and get to the Visa office. As soon as I commit to getting the Visa now instead of trying to weather through the anxiety of working on my long term final project awhile longer, I am liberated. When I return from the Visa office, I will be filled with energy to work on my project. If I recognize the source of my paralysis quickly, I can actually become more productive than usual as a result of having more problems to solve. If I deny the source of my paralysis, I remain paralyzed.

I frequently have to change my working environment. A current environment may suddenly stop eliciting creativity. This may be at home, which feels like a place of sleep and relaxation while I am exhausted pushing forward with a final project. Or this may be at school, where I feel overworked and stressed without the comforts of my home. Frequently, I work best in tea shops and parks, where I settle down with an iPad in order to plot out my course of actions for the day and solve difficult problems that had been plaguing me the night before.

I am still working out all the details of my design process. There are smaller details which I am not certain are significant just yet. For instance, I believe that tending to my cat may prove to be an instrumental part of my design process, at least for my current thesis. Right now I am working on games that permit escapism, bonding with digital characters, and encouraging relaxation and playfulness while alleviating loneliness. It is clear to see my cat is related to this problem, and that by interacting with him, I can better understand the product I am making and the audience I am trying to reach. However, I am not sure which is the cause and which is the effect. I do know that interacting with other living things is a vital part of my design process.

The crucial thing at this point is that I have acknowledged the existence of my own design methodology, and have taken steps to define it, modify it, research it, and nurture it. If I had to be completely honest, however, I would probably rather have a process like Gehry's instead of Takahashi's! Perhaps that is my logic talking.

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