Modeling Language Spotlight
Design Formation
February 5, 1998


Like the other models of the MG Taylor Modeling Language, the Design Formation™ Model is protected by copyright. You can use it only by meeting these four conditions.

[Editor's note: This model is one of the more demanding ones in the MG Taylor modeling language. Readers are encouraged to gain a working knowledge of several other models and concepts before moving on:
The Transition Manager's Creed
The 5 E's of Education
The Learning Path
Seven Stages of the Creative Process
Design Build Use
Stages of an Enterprise]

The Basic Model as Applied to Architecture
The model represents a variant of a process employed by architects and builders the world over. It consists of seven stages: program, schematic concept, preliminary design, design development, contract documents, production management, and evaluation. First a brief description of each stage as it typically applies to architecture and the built environment.

glyph info Element Description
Program A set of specifications concerning the intended use of a space including who may use it, and what they want to use it for. The program is typically a list.
Schematic Concept The first proof of the program. Freehand blocking of the ideas at the smallest scale represented by the program, showing prominent elements that drive the design. "Bubble diagrams" and loose sketches.
Preliminary Design The proof of the program showing the scaled relationships between elements of the program. A dimensioned, hard line drawing.
Design Development Detail drawings of key components or specially designed items; some level of engineering of the design to see how it will work; an estimate of the budget; proofing out the major systems such as electricity and heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
Contract Documents A set of plans that someone can build from, including performance specifications of materials and every level of detail of the project.
Production Management The process that converts plans into a finished structure; creation and management of design modifications along the way; inspections; creation of as-built plans to show what was actually created.
Evaluation The user or tenant takes occupancy and tests the efficacy of the design and the final building that resulted. The program is revisited to see both how well it was executed, and whether it was truly relevant to the users needs at the time of occupancy.

Now let's expand our vantage point and consider how the model might apply to fields beyond architecture. In particular, let's consider how it applies to facilitation and transition management.

Why call it "Design Formation?" The word "design" means in part, to conceive, invent or contrive. But it also means to intend. I'll take liberty with this definition and define design as bringing intention to the process of invention. This doesn't mean that designers don't need a set of skills that allow them to conceive, invent and contrive, but it places those skills in a subservient role to asking the question, "what is it that asks for shape and form."

That question is phrased deliberately and is different from asking, "what does the user (or customer or client) want." Let me explain.

The problem with the traditional design process is that once the final product has been created, the users will employ or inhabit it, and in that act of using their new invention, they'll see everything in a new light (unless they choose to remain blind). They'll see things that they did not know about when the project was being designed. Sometimes this new sense of vision results from seeing the tangible product before their eyes for the first time. Sometimes it results from changes in the surrounding environment. Anyone who has had to wire an older building for local area networks knows what I mean. Chances are, however, that the nature of the finished product will prohibit them from employing any of their new vision and instead, they'll find themselves trapped in a system built from and on old, outdated knowledge. We can't want what we are ignorant of. A customer can't want what they don't know about. Your experience is your experience, and it's difficult to design, project, wish or envision something outside of the bounds of your own experience. What the end user wants is not irrelevant to the Design Formation process, but it is inadequate, underestimated, perhaps irrelevant to the world as it will be at the end of the project. And, what the designer wants for the user is also inadequate. Together they must explore new territory. If they don't surprise each other and themselves during the process, then they will bring into being a creation that keeps them from advancing, innovating, living.

Therefore, in the traditional application of the Design Formation, the Evaluation stage is a measure of the gap between performance and expectations. In the more expanded sense of the model, the Evaluation stage measures the degree to which the performance of the final product can adapt to new, unexpected conditions. The final product should broaden, expand, challenge, push and recreate the original program! This is what it means to ask, "what is it that asks for shape and form." I won't go into this concept any deeper here--take some time to wrestle with it. It has to do with vision but not in the sense of "your" vision, or of looking forward (or of looking backwards for that matter).

The Design Formation process is one of education--not of one expert educating an ignorant potential user, but of co-designers pressing against the boundaries of intuition, meaning, and logic, to uncover what they truly know and what they don't know. Discovering that you don't know something is the first step to knowing it.

Now let's add the three components that we wish to bring to our expanding sense of design: (1) bringing intention to the process of invention, (2) the question, "what is it that asks for shape and form," and (3) a sense of exploration, surprise and discovery on the part of the designers and users. This sense of design is far from mundane, frightens us perhaps (or at least causes some discomfort), and stretches our capabilities. It means that we walk into the first stage of the model--the Program stage--knowing that despite our skill, we know nothing. Everything must be made new; everything must be reinvented and recreated.

Formation is a clever and beautiful word whose two principal meanings complement yet contrast with one another and establish a sense of tension in wholeness. Formation is the process of producing. And at the same time, a formation is the thing formed (as in a geologic formation). It's a noun that refers at once to the creation and the process by which it is brought into being. The spirit in the process of being expressed is its own tangible expression unfolding--Escher's two hands drawing one another into being. There's no separation between the two definitions that is not artificial. One cannot learn the process of formation without learning the formation itself. One cannot study the tangible aspects of the thing formed without simultaneously perceiving the process. Formation calls to mind a variation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: if you measure the process aspect of formation, you lose sight of the tangible expression; but if you measure the expression, you lose sight of the process. There is a continuous dialog between the design (the intent) and the formation (the process and the product in process).

The transitive verb "form" means "to shape, mold," and one meaning of the noun is "a model for making a mold." Design Formation is a model about modeling--a meta-model. An old proverb that's widely used in the consulting industry emphasizes the greater benefit in teaching someone who's hungry how to fish rather than merely giving them the fish. But the application of the Design Formation model to the process of bringing things into being goes even further. It's facilitating ourselves collectively--users and designers--to learn how to learn to catch fish.

The Larger Sense of Architecture
So now we have a sense that Design Formation includes the following elements:

  1. bringing intention to the process of invention
  2. asking the question, "what is it that asks for shape and form"
  3. a shared sense of exploration, surprise and discovery among all the members of the design team
  4. a process of bringing something into being
  5. the actual thing brought into being
  6. a model about modeling

The word "architect" is rooted in a prefix, "arch-" and a word, "tekton". The prefix in the word architect, means "chief" or "ruler." Tekton means craftsman, or designer. The Greek root of the word architect, therefore, means master builder, or chief builder. The title now embodies both a sense of mastery of both process and object. A builder, after all, must be versed in the process of bringing the structure into being as well as an understanding of the structure itself. The architect engages with the Design Formation model as a master--a master with a beginner's mind.

But now let's expand our sense of architecture and architects and imagine that it can apply to any field of endeavor and any act of bringing something into existence through design. In this way, the architect becomes a practitioner of Transition Management who can facilitate themselves (individually or collectively) smoothly from one stage, or state of being to another.

I enjoy taking license with definitions. The noun, arch, has a different root than the prefix arch-, even though in English they're spelled the same. But it may be worthwhile to examine architecture as if it incorporated the noun. An arch is a curved type of structural element that spans an opening. As a transitive verb, arch means "to span." What is spanned by master architects of transition management who employ the Design Formation model? Designers span the gulf that separates condition from vision. This span can be depicted by the cycle of conception, success, death, rebirth and innovation represented by the Stages of the Enterprise model. Designers span the creative process from Identity to Using. More importantly, designers span the white space which separates one stage of any process from any other stage. They facilitate the spanning of these zones, allowing individuals and groups to move smoothly from one to the other.

It's this sense of action embedded in the verb form that brings the most meaning to the word as it relates to the Design Formation model

Structure of the Model From the Vantage Point of Transition Management
The model has seven stages. In its history, it was depicted in a linear fashion with each stage connecting both to its precedent and subsequent stages. The final stage, evaluation, was connected back to the first stage, program. This implies that as one moves through the stages, options for realizing the final version of the vision are discarded until the final and only option emerges as the finished building. This is a legitimate way to view the model and is supported by one of the Axioms, which reminds us that creativity is the elimination of options. But recall that the broader sense of the model now demands that the final product should challenge and push the original program. So while you're eliminating options, you're also building in the capacity for innovation.

Let's reexamine the stages of the model from the vantage point of Transition Management.

glyph info Element Description
Program Listen for, envision, recreate stories that reveal broad themes. Search for patterns in the complex web. Follow pathways of beauty. Embody archetypal journeys and characters. Uncover what matters to you. Love deeply and risk all for that love. Discover passion and the elemental forces calling you forward. Listen to the drums--your own heartbeat, the breath of the universe. Choose to live--to be alive on the raw edge of apprehension. Be still. Then consider what you are being called upon to create and answer with truth and strength and intent.
Schematic Concept Draw one hundred sketches. The axiom says, in every adverse condition there are hundreds of good solutions. Work rapidly like an artist who's sketching a live model who changes position every minute or so. Capture the essence. Strive to embody the patterns and themes in simple, strong, confident strokes. Or write one hundred songs. Or paint one hundred masks. Or act out one hundred scenarios. Improvise. See the thousand faces of your truth and intent.
Preliminary Design The schematic and the program are engaged in a dynamic and sometimes fierce dialog. If an AND solution (an Infinite Game) can be found at this time, the final creation will be alive. If the design is compromised by too much attenuation, the final creation will not be alive. Loop back to the program via Evaluation often in order to reacquaint yourself with the truth of what was revealed to you.
Design Development Purpose and intent made sharp and clear--deliberate and decisive. Revealing the hidden patterns that will allow the final creation to breath, grow, evolve, expand beyond itself into its own expression. The synergy between all components becomes apparent and the flows are natural.
Contract Documents Precision. Detail that approaches infinity. The revelation of a fractal and recursive design. [recursion: a system whose successive manifestations are generated by applying the essence of the system itself to its previous manifestations.] The most living, vibrating, clear expression of the vision that can be made. Something that at once inspires and instructs so that many can be employed with as little direction as possible. At this point the team is bound by their own laws to deliver the program as a living system.
Production Management What care do you bring to your skill, to your tools, to your team, to the ideas that have come this far? Span the space between the idea and the physical manifestation. Assert mastery by serving your art. In rapid, on-the-spot, spontaneous fashion, you will be called upon to improvise, reconsider, reprove, improve.
Evaluation At every stage of the process you have the ability to enter this sacred space. And why is it sacred? Because upon the moment of initial evaluation you face your creation, you face what has drawn you to this point, to this day, to this end. In the early stages, the creation may lack clear form and substance, but consider that even a program is a creation. You may reach out a trembling hand and embrace it. And in the encounter you will learn something of yourself and of life--a gift of value beyond measure. Don't just take a clinical look--open your eyes and see. Take this gift and let it lift you to the next stage and on to an ever-expanding and uncompromising vision.
Yes, but how do you facilitate to specifications as nebulous as these? They're not nebulous. The program is a story that inspires, informs and surprises. The schematic proliferates options--spare lines drawn upon the project with confidence. The preliminary design represents the first serious tug and pull between program and product. Facilitate this part of the process so that BOTH the program and the design are challenged, leveraged above their own expectations and transcend competition. At this point it's probably clear to someone that the execution of the project is impossible. Don't attenuate the design based on such an assumption. The belief that something is impossible is a sign of ignorance. Employ this sign as a tool to build a more robust body of knowledge. Learn. Create new experiences instead of relying only upon past experiences. During design development, constantly hold the field of the pure intent of the program. By this time, if you've facilitated properly, the program is very powerful and can overcome any obstacles because the co-designers will be living in the vision. Bring the art and skill of whatever specific design elements you're working with to the vision; don't compromise the vision to suit the current skill level. Invent new tools. Invent new skills. Facilitate the contract documents stage to the deepest level of understanding and commitment from the extended team that you can. The details should prove beyond a doubt that the program is attainable--regardless of the difficulty. Production management brings about the most tangible result of the entire process. As the result takes form it will undergo rapid, just-in-time modifications. Embrace the speed, energy and vibrancy of this process. The evaluation allows everyone to pause at any time during the process to contemplate, reflect, move around in the new intangible or tangible space that they are creating together, and gather resolve to push forward.

Move between the stages as necessary. Avoid linearity. Visit evaluation frequently. Remember that the model (like all of the models) is fractal. There is a production management component to the program and a program component to production management. There is a level of commitment or contract documents that needs to be brought to each stage. Schematics always can play a role to help uncover solutions rapidly and identify strong patterns without confusion.

Design Formation is the grandest symphony among all of the models. It embraces the widest spectrum of universal hopes and dreams. The story it tells is nothing less than an epic--an epic that you and I are living right now. Let's make sure we're all awake and fully immersed in the dance.

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