The way we view the world has a direct impact on our behaviour. On the macro scale, we have the meta-narratives our societies create that govern the social arrangements and codes of conduct. We also have the family-unit belief systems and religions that shape the micro-scale, namely our value systems and personal ideologies. Together all these mental structures define our thoughts, feelings and actions.
I’ve been always fascinated by how mental models impact my behaviour as a person but more importantly as a designer. The role of designers (product designers) is to translate ideologies and cultural codes into a functional material form. Whether the designer is aware of this process or not, cultural codes always make their way from the macro-scale to the products passing through the designer as a conduit.
If the designer thinks its best to be minimal and simple, or whether she prefers to focus on reviving the traditional craft, he or she is reacting to a set of variables built from the historical, cultural and ultimately personal matrices he or she is part of.
For me, mental models are the tiny cogs in the system that are easily accessed and can be easily swapped. (This analogy itself speaks of a mental system that equates mind with machine and its one of the most pervasive meta-narratives we are still suffering the hangover from. But that’s for another post…)
If perhaps our most ingrained mental systems are difficult or even impossible to fully transform, mental models are more flexible and malleable.
As designers we know how to use tools, both physical and digital, but we also must know how to access a different type of tool: a mental tool.
And just like a hammer or a spanner or a coding language, mental tools can be used when needed, can be swapped, tweaked and discarded.
There are countless mental models out there, some used specifically for Physics or Biology, or Economics. I always try to look for tools in other disciplines that might be useful to import into Design.
The term reverse engineering is a mental model that helps designers and engineers figure out how a product was made by disassembling it and studying all parts. The analysis starts from the end point (the product) and determine the steps the original creator took to build it. It’s a deconstruction exercise that is aimed at being able to replicate the product from scratch without any previous know-how about it.
This mental tool challenges how we approach designing because we begin at the end. We begin where we want to end up.
As a methodology it is really useful in design because it helps streamline the design process and focus only on the essential tasks required to get to that end point. Because that end point is clear, any excessive processes or steps are dramatically reduced. When the goal is crystal clear there is no time wasted. Furthermore, it helps designers have a concise plan of action comprised of sub tasks and specific step by step instructions.
This model asks: is this task taking me closer to where I want to end up? Is it helping the process? Is it providing crucial and necessary information to get there? if the answer is no, then we move on.
This mental model is also helpful when setting large and ambitious goals for the future. I personally use it all the time because it keeps my mind focused on the end goal and the small, daily challenges are just the tiny steps to take to get there. The more I keep my mind focused on the larger view, the more I enjoy the process because the daily challenges that come with it take on a sense of purpose: I know where I am heading and I know the purpose for this temporary struggle.
In a storm, focus on the beacon
Earlier, I explained how Reverse Engineering is a mental model used in Design and the manufacture of hardware products. A similar method is a mental model used by NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) and it works in very similar ways. This model is called Modeling.
Modeling as an NLP method begins with the end as well, but the ‘end product’ is a person. Through this method you choose a human, alive or dead, and you deconstruct their behaviour, values, techniques, what they write, how they think. The purpose is to find clues to their success and be able to reproduce their results again.
It’s basically the same as sculpting. You are trying to reproduce reality in the form you want. In terms of mental models, these are different approaches that are trying to do the same thing:
deconstruct ‘success’ to reproduce it.
Diana Simpson Hernandez
Designers for Humanity