The method is not the trick

by New Idiom

“Why are you asking me to watch you tear up a dollar bill? The method is not the trick. The method is never the trick. Once you’ve mastered the method, you’ve hardly begun the trick.”

— Jamy Ian Swiss, closeup magician


You may have seen the Methods Poster. You may even have it hanging on your wall. On it are displayed the methods taught here at the IIT Institute of Design, but they alone are not the sum of our education. Or at least they shouldn’t be, right?

Just like with magic, design is more about the relationship with others than learning how to do methods by rote. I have heard from some company reps that ID students are known to have a large toolbox of methods to draw on, but that we’re a bit too myopic in how we value the tools themselves. In a way, we’re like football players who laud the virtues of their playbook, forgetting that it’s the team’s interpretation and execution of the plays that ultimately scores points. Sometimes, we forget that we ourselves are a critical part of the design process, much more than the tools we are learning to wield. But it’s also not entirely our fault; it’s an extremely easy trap to fall into.

I remember in eight grade, I was forced to memorize the quadratic formula. But when my dad wanted to teach me how it was discovered, I didn’t care to learn; I had already memorized the damn thing, after all. Culturally, the education system we grew up in has taught us to value knowledge over ingenuity. Just knowing the methods isn’t enough. Each frames our creative energies much like the limerick form provides one way to write a poem. It’s still up to us to use our perspective and ingenuity to write the rhyme or intuit what the data means.

So I’ve sat through many presentations full of, “So we did an Insight Matrix …” and, “So we looked at a Compelling Experience …” and so on. Showing the work we’ve done isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we can’t forget that methods are just a means to an end, to the insight and discovery we really care about. We need to remember that it is our intuition and judgement, in partnership with our tools, that ultimately interpret our findings and bring our ideas to life. As Bruce Lee says, “It’s like a finger, pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”