3+1 Things Designers Can Learn From Foraging
I spent a week of my summer holiday camping around the Eastern parts of Finland.* In the quiet of the woods, I began to wonder if being a good forager was actually a lot like being a good designer. As a Service Designer, a big part of my job is to figure out what exists in the ways that it does, and why. The other part is to imagine what could be and how to get there. As someone looking for edible things in the forests, I’m facing pretty much the same questions.
A skilled forager and a designer both practice:
1. Seeing in systems
Nature consists of amazingly complex and sophisticated systems. These dependancies are vital for a forager to understand. You will most likely find chantarelles in mixed woodland near birch trees, in the same spots year after year. Wild strawberries often grow on the sunny side of a road or along the edges of a field. Some species can’t exist together. Some live in symbiosis and won’t manage without each other. By understanding the conditions under which each type of being thrives, you are most likely to find what you are looking for. This type of systemic thinking is what seeing the forest for the trees quite literally means.
In the context of design, seeing in systems is crucial in terms of driving change. To have any kind of an impact on the macro-level of their work, a designer must aim to understand the dynamics of their environment. What are the underlying assumptions of our stakeholders that can drive or hinder change? What kinds of trade-offs are they willing to make? What might be the optimal point for an intervention?
2. Systematic progress
Wandering in forests sometimes gets people lost. The most successful tactic to find your way is to trace back your own steps. If you are looking for someone else in the woods, sticking to a systematic search approach works best: search parties create grids on the map, divide sections for each team to go through, and aim to cover the whole area by walking only an arm-length apart. This approach of meticulously moving to seek through the whole grounds works with looking for wild food as well.
On the contrary to what many people believe, design is a rather disciplined field of work. It is largely about making sure you cover the whole ecosystem and think of all possible scenarios. Rather than getting stuck on the first idea you think of, consciously expanding on thoughts and looking for new paths is one of the things that tells a professional apart. A lot of what may seem like creative vision is actually the result of analytical research and openness to the new thoughts that come across on the way. A seasoned designer may sometimes heavily rely on their intuition, but this in truth is the experience of all their previous work culminated in their current thoughts.
3. Sensitivity with timing
On our way to a camping site, we were driving past a swamp when I spotted something small and orange flashing by in the corner of my eye. Knowing they grow in such places, I felt pretty sure what I had seen was cloudberries, so we pulled over to go and see. I was right, but the enormous plain of berries was about a week from being ripe.
Knowing when the time is right to go looking for each type of wild food is important to a forager. Collecting lingonberries a bit too early will lead to you sorting out half of what you’ve caught in your berry picker. By letting the porcini grow just a little longer, you might gain double the amount in the end. For those living in places where picking avocado is possible:
Similarly, a designer must learn to read their environment and be sensitive to timing. Especially when working on topics that steer emotions, like organizational change, it’s critical to recognize the right moments for taking action. Getting your client excited about a new project might require lots of gentle nudging over a long period of time, but eventually all of the pieces might just click together overnight when they reach a certain point of exposure to the idea. Often patience is a virtue. On the other hand, sometimes you will miss an opportunity if you can’t adapt and change course fast enough. Should you push your points of view or take a step back and wait?
+ Knowing when to go alone and when to collaborate
Some foraging activities require the participation of your whole clan to succeed, others will be easier to accomplish alone. Harvesting large amounts of food takes a lot of manpower. Especially with berries that ripen fast and grow in large clusters, like wild raspberry, it’s an advantage to have a good amount of people picking. If you are scouting around unknown territory and looking for potential berry picking sites, it might be easier to first move on your own. There’s a lot of sense in the saying: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
As a designer, you often are expected to go both quickly and far. Most of the time it’s beneficial to work together with your team, your client, their client and many other stakeholders. A big part of your expertise, however, is to recognize the moments when collaboration will truly bring advantage and to boldly step out to venture alone when it won’t. New insight rarely emerges in meeting rooms, but requires people to bring in thoughts collected somewhere out in the real world. On the other hand, ideas are cheap and insight needs to be turned into action. With human-centered and agile methods, successfully facilitating the design process is one of the biggest challenges designers face. Managing the balancing act of personal vision and discussions that push the work forward might be what makes or breaks your next project.
In Finland we have this thing called Freedom to Roam. It means we can travel, set up camp and forage in any forest, as long as we don’t cause harm to our environment. It’s great. Practicing a similar mindset as a designer is a good goal: taking the freedom to explore all the corners of your environment, but only driving change for the better.