Very Rapid Learning Processes

mapping-Erik-Lorang-Lindberg web


Very Rapid Learning Processes are conducted by Designers who use Systems Oriented Design as an approach to deal with complexity. It is a technique to learn a new field very fast to a degree where one is informed sufficiently to know how and when to depend on experts and what limitations your current possitions and knowledge bases have. It is a technique to very quickly achieve an information advantage but at the same time to remain humble about your knowledge, The methods that make VRLP possible are a designerly approach to learning, GIGA-mapping, collaborative GIGA-mapping, co-creation, building expert-networks and other dialogue based approaches. The Rich Design Space allows the immediate access and socialisation of large amounts of information. Redesigning information in the GIGA-maps allows for the internalization of the information.

VRLP has been proven to work in many cases during the last years and its relevance has been confirmed by a long list of partners in the SOD research. Amongst them we find The SAC at the emergency hospital in Oslo (LegevaktenTPG, Attendo, Medema, Beyond Risør and others

Read more in the article below.


Can Designers Design Anything?

About Very Rapid Learning Processes

Birger Sevaldson

This is a version of a short article that originally features in the AHO yearbook of 2012


In the latest years there has been a double movement in the field of design. On one side design has diverged into ever new areas and specialties, on the other hand design has converged into a generic field where special sub-domains of design blend into each other and the boundaries are blurred. This double action is best seen in the expansion of design. Designers are moving into ever new areas. This happens both as more or less defined models from specific traditional design fields like product design or graphic design are blended and adapted into new fields, Models and perspectives are migrating to other professions and it happens because designers to an increasing degree tend to take on almost any challenge. E.g. Design thinking has long made its way into management and planning and designers are moving into new fields like policy and organization design. Though these fields are not new by themselves they have not been an arena for design thinking or designing as such to a large degree yet.

This thriving of the design field has not unexpectedly provoked some people. Both design thinking and especially its simplified and branded version has been heavily attacked. Also there is a growing irritation about the willingness and confidence of designers in moving into new fields and claiming they can design anything. Some of this criticism comes from design scholars, most of them without any design background. Design theory and research is peculiar in the sense that it is densely populated with non-designers who make carriers in the academic part of design. Some of them are integrating well and bring to design research valuable perspectives, while others never understand the features of design and they use the field to establish themselves as authorities in design theory and to defend their territories. It is from that side that the criticism has been loudest. 

On the other side some professors and professionals with a design background claim that designers can design anything. Design has general features that are successfully applicable in any case, issue or field. This claim has not really been argued for very convincingly yet.

Despite the division into the two positions and the debate between them the question, if designers can design anything, is not easily answered. It actually has many aspects to it and this essay will only polemically scratch its surface.

Let us first look at the claim by applying the same question to other research based professions.

Can doctors heal anything? The question is absurd. We all know they can’t.

But designers are not doctors. The fields are very different, doctors being reactive, reacting to health problems, while designers are proactive and generative, creating new things. So designers they do to a much greater degree create their own criteria and conditions. At the same time they need to involve in an ever greater number of given dynamic parameters that inform the design. For the doctor the criteria for success are quite clear. For designers they are relative and discussable.

But what if we make a little twist to the question: Can doctors heal anything better than non-doctors? The question to my mind is yes. Though many people would claim that there are others who also heal there is next to no scientific evidence that they can better than doctors or that they actually can heal anything at all.

What about designers? Can they design anything better than non-designers? This is much harder to answer. We have neighboring professions like engineers or stylists who also seem to design. The term design is used by many fields and in many ways. We do not need to entangle in these definitions for the moment, only we need to state what we mean with designers. For the moment lets explore the issue by simply talking about those designers who graduated at one or the other design school.

This leads to another difference between doctors and designers. Doctors have a undament that they share and then they become specialists in clearly defined areas or they develop into generalists which also is a well defined role. Designers do have a far less well-defined fundament, structure and specialisations than doctors and as mentioned before the specializations are erroding and in transformation. Specializations in design are far less well-defined and they are in a process of convergence where the boundaries are getting blurred.

Despite this convergence indicating that many designers are moving between design domains, are these designers so homogeneous that they actually can jump between all the design specialties and design anything? Obviously not with great success. I know an architect who entered the field of software design but this was based on personal interest and development of skills outside of the specialty of architecture and resulted in a quite long learning curve.

So even within the boundaries of what can be regarded the professional area of design, a designer can only design anything in this field with limited success. But can she do it better than non-designers? There are truly some basic skills and approaches that are applicable across the whole design field. These are visualization skills and an ability to integrate and synthesize solutions from tasks where there is no wrong or right answer. The doctors result is far easier measured. Either the patient gets better or not. There are grey-zones in between there too but the goal is defined. Ideally the patient returns to a totally healed state. In design often there are no such ideals or given goals, only better or worse resolution of "wicked problems".  The designers generally have developed the skill to reach at such resolutions based on complex and fuzzy input. Also the current fluidity of the design fields have lead to the development of adaptive skills. Designers learn software needed to resolve a task on the fly. They acquire the needed knowledge for solving a new problem. So the answer is yes, a designer can design better than a non designer in any given situation within the domain of design, even crossing the fields of specialties within design.

Finally returning to the principal question reformulated:

Can designers take on any task and design for any situation with a relative success compared to non-designers?

This can be addresses in two ways: Since designers are the ones who design they can design for any situation in the same way as doctors can attempt to heal any illness. Can designers design successfully for any situation? Obviously not, exactly as doctors often are unsuccessful.

So the final answer to the question is like this:

Designers are fully justified and even to a certain degree qualified to design for any situation. Are they successful in this? Sometimes, often not.

The issue designers should really be criticized for is not the self-confidence to design for anything, but the nonchalance they tend to show when designing for new fields. While design migrates into ever new areas design education has been sleeping. We have underestimated the processes designers have to go through when moving into new fields and establishing new specialties in those fields. We also have underestimated the need for learning to learn, to cope with very rapid learning processes when designing for singular new challenges where establishing specialties is not feasible. Designing for any new field requires an intensive learning process and the development of adaptive expertise. The new phenomena where designers teach them selves new software when needed or dive into for them unknown knowledge fields are not taken up by the design schools to a great degree as a new pedagogical perspective. This is not new but resembles very much the concept of the adaptive expert. We need to take on this challenge and change design education so that designers are able to adapt quickly and to design anything in a more connected and informed manner.

Designers need to be both self-confident and humble when entering new fields for design. They should be very self-confident because designers indeed can do great things in areas where they traditionally have not been. But without being humble about these fields, their inherent knowledge and skills and the need for the designer to learn rapidly and depend on insider knowledge and expertise the results risk to be hilariously superficial. And this lack of humility and willingness to empathy and respect for knowledge has rightfully been criticized.

Systems Oriented Design is a framework to make designers better at designing for complexity, and to make them able to learn very quickly and to become adaptive experts in the field of design. This has resulted in many exciting outputs where master level students have demonstrated very rapid learning processes that made them able to open up new design fields.

The problem with designing anything is the lack of information, knowledge and skills that are specific for the area. To address this problem we have developed a very fast learning process (VRLP), conducted in a designerly way through so-called GIGA-mapping. These learning processes help designers to achieve an overview, to define insufficient knowledge where support from insiders and experts would be needed. To illustrate this we will shortly present two cases, one where the designer crosses between design fields and one where they open up a new area and organization for design.

The first case a product design masters student in collaboration with a newly graduated student with the same background migrated into the field of ceramics. Their goal was to design a porcelain lamp. In the case of the lamp design the problem was the material, the porcelain. The designers had no prior experience with the material and the ambition was to finish the lamp within a time-frame of three month. An impossible task said the expert. Porcelain is a very difficult material which it takes years to learn. With the rapid learning process and the expert network in place the designers succeeded within the time frame. This is an example that a designer under certain circumstances and with a targeted process and suitable approach can cross specialties in design.


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GIGA-map of the very rapid learning process (VRLP) conducted in the process of making a finalized prototype for a porcelain lamp within three months (Student: Ida Naomi Vidal 2010)


Story lamp small SkarVidal 1 Photo Kaja Bruskeland web

Final Porcelain Lamp

When entering totally new fields where the designer and sometimes even the design field at large would not have any prior expertise nor patterns or best practices to rely on the task is even more challenging. In the project Design for Dignity in a Sexual Violence Response System (Manuela Aguirre Ulluoa & Jan Kristian Strømsnes, 2012) the students approached an emergency hospital for sexual assault victims. They wanted to investigate what designers could contribute with for this organization where designers before have been limited to design the facilities and artifacts and where they so far never had a role directly involved with the organization. It took a whole process to convince the people at the hospital to let them in. The project was started with a very intensive inquiry that included GIGA-mapping, conversations, field work and workshops for co-designing and information mapping. The results where three systemic interventions on different scales. The response was very positive and showed that designers can enter new ground, gain the needed knowledge and overview as well as the needed interaction with experts to produce innovative design interventions and open up the organization or field for design.


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GIGA-map of the landscape of sexual assault.

Rather than quarrelling about the question we intend to demonstrate an approach and practice that makes the designer able to enter ever new areas for designing in both a humble and courageous way. If we manage to develop this expertise further and our processes become sufficiently good and flexible we might reach a point where we truly can claim:

Yes, designers can design anything.