It’s said that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Who said it first is up for debate, but it is said. And it is sad, because the aphorism rings true.
The designer’s dilemma is finding new solutions for old problems. The good folks at Placemakers recently considered this in part by questioning how we ask people questions. Steve Jobs famously observed that many people don’t know what they want until innovators show them. So we shouldn’t be surprised when people tell us what they know instead of what they really want:
We actually devalue participation when we don’t solicit the information that breeds meaningful discourse. Or forces the discussion of competing interests. Or limited resources. Or property rights. In asking, “What would you like to see here?”, we simply ask for a wish list that will never be adequately fulfilled.
We need to do better. We need to more effectively play the role of psychoanalyst, drilling down to information that’s actually useful: What kinds of things would residents like to be able to do? What problems would they like mitigated? What potential byproducts of change are they afraid of? How can your city better serve you?
These are the questions that lead to meaningful design criteria. Which is what breeds meaningful design.
If you ask a man with a hammer what he wants to do, he’ll probably say he wants a better nail. If you ask a man with a car where he wants to go, he’ll probably say he wants a better road.
We who deem ourselves designers—of technology or places—would do well to ask better questions. It is not our place to tell people they have to use a hammer or a screwdriver, a bus or a train. We do our best when we get to the heart of the matter. Do we want to bang on nails all day, or do we want to fix the places we live?