22.03.2020

The Flâneur approach to design

The Flâneur, or flâneuse (female equivalent) is a French word that means “stroller” or “lounger”. Historically, they were representatives of the urban higher class with the freedom to wander detached from society for the purposes of acute observation. Being a flaneur carried all sorts of rich connotations — urban explorer, idler and man of leisure.

The main purpose is to wander, without any real objectives though, it is the opposite to doing nothing. According to Honoré de Balzac, Flânerie is “the gastronomy of the eye”. Walter Benjamin, German Jewish philosopher described the flaneur as a modern urban spectator and investigator of the city. Whilst they are gentlemen strollers of the city, they also play a role in participating and shaping their surroundings.

In the 1990s where the internet boom happened, the cyberflâneur emerged. During the early days of the internet, surfing the web was a form of art without the presence of Google or Facebook to organize information the way it is today. The gradual decline of the historical flâneurs were brought about by the modernization of the streets with larger, exposed common parks. Similarly, the cyberflâneurs followed suit after the introduction and fast growth of Google and Facebook’s presence.

A lot of what we do as designers is rooted in context. Everything we see around us are both problems and inspiration — we may see great solutions that others have came up with or noticed potential improvements that could be made. Sites like Behance and Dribble allow for the same artistic exploration that were done by flâneurs in the cities.

However, what we tend to forget about are the things that we do not see. Consider the knowns and unknowns framework — what we do not see could be the known unknowns or unknown unknowns. When it comes to knowledge, known knowns are facts, known unknowns are questions. Unknown knowns are intuition and unknown unknowns are exploration, a trait strongly tied to the historical flaneurs.

Exploration in the unknown unknown context would indicate observation without purpose, but purely for investigation. By exploring our surroundings and experiences without any direction, we often take an unbiased and uninformed approach to finding potential opportunities. Similarly with the known unknown questions, we can dive deeper into investigating and answering these queries. The only difference is that there is are slightly more tangible grounds to start with.

Theories are often built on existing knowledge and the curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias where one assumes others have the same context and background to understand certain information. Exploration can help break these barriers to find new information because it is taking a leap into the unknown. For example, hypotheses are derived from known unknowns by reframing questions whereas research and exploration can help better understand the unknowns. Observation is also part of investigation.

Like the flâneur, to solve an unknown unknown requires an open mind. Only with an open mind can we see problems with fresh eyes to produce new, innovative and meaningful solutions that are not just carbon copies of trends that exist on the market.

Forget about Google, Behance and Dribble for a second and return to analog methods of research — go out there in the world and carefully observe. Make your own notes on what you see or not see and develop your own conclusions without any prior contexts.


Originally published on the UX Collective

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