Category Archives: Design

Reasons to love design research

Some people love design research for purely functional reasons: it helps designers do a much better job. Others just love the process itself, finding the conversations intrinsically pleasant and interesting.

These reasons matter to me, too, to some extent, but they never quite leave the range of liking and cross over into loving.

Here are my three main reasons for loving design research, listed in the order in which I experienced them:

  1. Design research makes business more liberal-democratic. — Instead of asking who has deeper knowledge, superior judgment or more brilliant ingenuity (and therefore is entitled to make the decisions), members of the team propose possibilities and argue on the basis of directly observed empirically-grounded truths, why those possibilities deserve to be taken seriously, then submit the ideas to testing, where they succeed or fail based on their own merit. This change from ad hominem judgment to scientific method judgment means  that everyone looks together at a common problem and collaborates on solving it, and this palpably transforms team culture in the best way. This reminds me of a beautiful quote of Saint-Exuperie: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
  2. Design research reliably produces philosophical problems. — Of all the definitions of philosophy I have seen, my favorite is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'” When we invite our informants to teach us about their experiences and how they interpret them (which is what generative research ought to be) we are often unprepared for what we learn, and often teams must struggle to make clear, cohesive and shared sense of what we have been taught. The struggle is not just a matter of pouring forth effort, or of following the method extra-rigorously, or of being harmonious and considerate — in fact, all these moves work against resolution of what, in fact, is a philosophical perplexity, where the team must grope for the means to make sense of what was really learned. It is a harrowing process, and teams nearly always experience angst and conflict, but moving through this limbo state and crossing over to a new clarity is transformative for every individual courageous, trusting, flexible and benevolent enough to undertake it. It is a genuine hero’s journey. The opportunity to embark on a hero’s journey multiple times a year is a privilege.
  3. Design research is an act of kindness. — In normal life, “being a good listener” is an act of generosity. If we are honest with ourselves, in our hearts we know that when we force ourselves to listen, the talker is the true beneficiary. But paradoxically, this makes us shitty listeners. We are not listening with urgency, and it is really the urgent interest, the living curiosity, that makes us feel heard. Even when we hire a therapist, it is clear who the real beneficiary is: the one who writes the check for services rendered. But in design research, we give a person significant sums of money to teach us something we desperately want to understand. We hang on their words, and then we pay them. People love it, and it feels amazing to be a part of making someone feel that way. In a Unitarian Church on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan there is a huge mosaic of Jesus washing someone’s feet, and this is the image that comes to mind when I see the face of an informant who needed to be heard. (By the way, if anyone knows how to get a photo of this mosaic, I’ve looked for it for years and have never found it.)

 

Inducing collective self-actualization

Design Thinking workshops are innovative in the way Multi-Level Marketing conventions are entrepreneurial. These are experiences designed to induce some enticing  collective feeling of self-actualization along some culturally desirable axis.

It is a well-known fact among people who actually create: the larger the group the less anything truly new or good is likely to happen.

 

Facets of empathy

Working in design research, empathy is one of our primary tools. Reflective practitioners quickly learn where they and their teammates have strengths and weaknesses using empathy to produce understanding.

Continuing this week’s trend of identifying distinctions and creating categories, here’s a list of skills associated with what is commonly called “empathy” and what I prefer to call synesis, which is a form of interpersonal understanding that emphasizes worldviews as much as feelings and which sees understanding, not so much as a receptive act, but as an collaborative instauration (discovering-making) between persons (researcher and informant) within a situation.

  • Reception – detecting signals from an informant that something requires understanding that is not yet understood
  • Reaction – controlling one’s behaviors to permit or encourage signals to emerge
  • Perception – interpreting the signals and sensing what they signify from the perspective of the informant — feeling-with or seeing-with, using whatever immediate signals are available to the researcher
  • Constraint – suspending one’s own perspective in order to make space for the informant’s understanding
  • Response – interacting with the informant to spiral in on understanding whatever truth the informant is trying to convey
  • Immersion – developing a tacit sense of the informant’s worldview and “entertaining” it, or “trying it on” through detecting the validity in the informant’s truths
  • Application – using a tacit sense of the informant’s worldview to participate in understanding with the informant — to attempt understanding of the situation at hand and explaining it in the informant’s terms
  • Approval – iteratively testing applications of understanding with the informant, and continuing to test applications of the informant’s worldview until the explanations are accepted and confirmed by the informant
  • Conception – clarifying, articulating and internalizing the informant’s perspective in terms of other perspectives
  • Collaboration – dialogically working with researchers and informants to craft new concepts capable of earning approval from all persons involved

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From this, you can see why the emphasis on emotions — pathos — in the word “empathy” strikes me as impoverished. Synesis (together-being) is a far better word, especially when you take it in the two-fold sense I prefer:

  1. It is putting together the experiences of a situation so they make sense (understanding a situation)
  2. It is using the pursuit of understanding a situation to develop understanding between persons.

So, yes, sensing and feeling the emotions of other’s or intuitively grokking their mindset are crucial skills required for understanding, but empathy must not be confused with understanding. It is only a necessary starting point. Further effort and deeper insights are required to develop empathy into genuine understanding.

Curriculum

I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite this scattered in my curriculum or quite this solid in my own philosophy. Mostly I am jumping around trying to connect my philosophy of design with like-minded thinkers and practitioners. I want to try to organize the leads and strands, so I can keep track of it (or maybe just note my intentions, in case I later want to map out what turned out to go somewhere, versus a dead-end or a road not taken).

Most material-turn thinkers seem to find the metaphysics of A. N. Whitehead to be compatible and supportive of their work, so I definitely want to dig further into his thinking, most likely continuing to use Stenger’s Thinking With Whitehead as a guide.

Stenger and many others refer to the work of Deleuze and Guattari, so when I spotted an episode on them in the completely fantastic podcast “Philosophize This!” (so fantastic, in fact, that I joined Patreon, just to help fund it) I decided to listen. So far, I’m finding their last collaboration What Is Philosophy? to be very close to my views on what philosophy is/ought to be and do. I anticipate finishing this one, before tackling Stengers.

I’m also bumping into Gregory Bateson quite a bit these days. I ran into a reference to him in The Design Philosophy Reader (would also like to finish this this summer, or at least this year, since I’ve decided to root my own philosophy in the bizarre and intensely uncomfortable experiences that permeate a life of strategic human-centered design) — and again in an article on futures literacy, which I plan to finish reading this week.

Last weekend I finished an intriguing paper Latour wrote (translated by Graham Harman — more on him later) on Souriau, which convinced me that I will have to read The Different Modes of Existence soon, which might help me actually understand Latour’s own magnum opus An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.

Regarding Harman, I’ll probably make myself read his introduction to Object-Oriented Ontology, if only to eliminate OOO as a possible area of study. OOO is the one material-turn philosophy that seems almost preposterously wrong-headed, and it is also the hottest philosophical movement in the world right now, embraced by many brilliant people — so what am I supposed to do with that? As I’ve said before, philosophy is a schooling in humiliation, and my reaction to OOO — especially its self-evident foolishness — shows signs that I am failing to understand it. I continue to cautiously reject OOO until I can pin down precisely where it is failing, or until I convert and realize it was right all along. (Until then, however, I believe OOO’s entire trajectory is determined by a fundamental moral confusion endemic to the progressivist regions of today’s popular philosophy, namely, a passionate belief in selfless altruism. I deny not only that it is possible, but that selfless altruism is even a good unattainable ideal. I think the notion of selfless altruism is a result of a conceptual failure and pursuit of the ideal has disastrous moral consequences: it produces an incapacity to develop real relationships with real others, an incapacity to find genuine value in one’s life, and most of all an incurable moral irritability saturated with ressentiment. OOO wants us to try to leave our persons behind in order imagine our(not)selves into the undetectedly withdrawn life of noumena, like inhabitants of Calvino’s imaginary city of Baucis.

Vastly better, in my opinion, generally but especially for the purposes of human-centered design, is postphenomenology. I’ve read part of Robert Rosenberger’s collection Postphenomenological Investigations (Langsdorf’s essay is what reignited my interest in Whitehead as the material-turn metaphysician of choice) and I definitely need to finish it. I’ve already read Verbeek’s What Things Do. I’ll likely read Moralizing Technology next, and then start reading the works of Don Idhe (the founder of postphenomenology) from latest to when he turned his attention to human-technology relationships.

And, speaking of Verbeek — His attacks on Jaspers’s views on technology got me interested in Jaspers work, and strangely, led me into an existential detour earlier this year. I still intend to read (at least) his three-volume Philosophy (which I got scanned and OCRed, so I can read it on my iPad.) Also, Jaspers concept of the Axial Age, has intersected with an obsessive intuition I’m harboring that “we have come to the end of this kind of vision of Heaven”, and might now be starting to move beyond the 2,500-year-old understanding of religion which is so predominant and ubiquitous that we find it difficult to imagine that religion could be anything else. Not to propagate posts in this post-post moment, but I am interested in what post-Axial religious praxis can look like (which would include material-turn ontology set in a panentheistic metaphysics) and I’ve even managed to find a book on it, which, I, alas, also must read, and which threatens to barge in at the front of my reading queue. And of course there’s a whole world of Process Theology out there, based on Whitehead’s thought, which might, for all I know, already be exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve read one book on Jewish process theology, which did not connect with me much, but I don’t think it exhausted the possibilities.

I have a lot of reading ahead of me. I’d love to turn the work into a publicly-acknowledged post-grad academic degree of some kind, but what department in what university would ever award it?

“Escape from Flatland”

Continuing from earlier, it might even make sense to push the dimensionalizing further…

Touch-point design is the kind of design done by specialized design in a particular medium such as graphics, ID, interaction, architecture, etc.

Touch-line = single-channel experience strategy — shaping a series of experiences within a single channel and defining the design problem for one or several touch-points within that one channel path. This is the work a user experience strategist typically does.

Touch-plane = the same thing, but defining the experience across every channel path. This is the work omnichannel experience strategy does.

(There’s a fair amount of fluidity between UX and omnichannel, and of course UX designers often do UX strategy to define their single touch-point designs.)

Touch-space = service design. Now we have intersecting actors, each with experiences and free-will all intersecting in the delivery of a service, creating in these intersections many experiences for many actors. Service design has developed and continues to develop tools able to aid understanding and shaping of these intersecting, interacting experiences.

Now service design is no longer one more scale of “zoom-out” to encompass more of one experience but a way to handle the fact that experiences are the result of experiences, and that all experiences, whether at the official front-stage (the customer) or at the back stage (always front-stage for someone!) — all these experiences matter and they all affect one another as a system.

I suppose I could use the story of Flatland as a structuring metaphor.

Touch-points, touch-lines, touch-planes

If I were giving my talk on the differences between design researching service design problems versus UX problems today, this would be my talk:

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A confession: not long ago I thought of service design as just one variety of experience strategy, specifically an experience strategy that defines the experience of a process, a connected series of events experienced specifically as a series of events, perceived as a story.

I no longer believe this. Service design is a form of design strategy, that includes experience strategy and relies on it heavily, but service design is not reducible to experience strategy. I will explain why shortly.

It will all come back to a somewhat peculiar definition of design I subscribe to: that design shapes hybrid systems comprising people and things — people being understood as free-willed actors, and things as algorithmic, rule-based actors. In design, free-willed, experiencing people are part of the design and we try to give people good reasons to freely choose to cooperate with our designs. An implication of this definition is that a design only kicks into action and becomes what it is when a person interacts with it, producing an experience.

(Engineering, in contrast defines its systems to carefully exclude the people-elements, or if people are an unavoidable element in a system to treat them as predictable rules-following elements, either by imposing rules through policy, logic, commonsense or written instructions, or governed by peculiar psychological rules that can be discovered and used, or just to be irrational noise which is someone else’s problem.)

(I’ll remove this from the talk, but here’s my own inflammatory editorial: This is why only hacks claim to design when the people component is present in the process only as an imagined “The User”, or a trail of past behaviors synthesized into some sort of abstract behavior-producing entity to game into compliance with one’s own schemes. This sort of thing makes me super-angry, especially when I suffer from it as a user. One of the more catastrophic conceits of the 20th Century was the equating of rigor and being sociopathic, that is, attempting, on principle, to cleanse every “scientific” question of subjectivity, in pursuit of objectivity. Much of this stunted philosophy is still with us today, and it seems to be enjoying a sort of renaissance.)

Before looking at the crucial difference between designing experiences and designing services, let’s take a minute to clarify the relationship between time and experience:

Though all experiences take place in time, the “object” of the experience is not always a process where time is foregrounded.

The experience may be of having or using a physical artifact, or a digital artifact. It may be of being inside an environment.

The experience may also be of some user-directed activity with its own object, where the designed artifact is as inconspicuous as possible within the experience. This is how the design of tools ought to be approached.

(By the way, if you are into philosophy, and this line of thought captures your imagination a school has developed around our relationships with things, which is directly relevant to design: Postphenomenology.)

And yes, in service design, a crucial element of the design will be a customers, patient’s, employee’s experience of a connected series of events, and the flow of time is a big part of the perception of the experience. This is why we are always gathering, analyzing and documenting experiences in the form of stories and journeys.

And obviously, our overarching experience with many objects — say, a car — is a mixture of nearly every kind of design we mentioned, a physical thing we look at and enjoy, an environment, a tool that might disappear into our driving, and, sometimes, unfortunately services to help us buy, fuel, maintain, modify and eventually sell the vehicle. Looking at the car in a long line of touch-points from start to finish is good experience design, and until recently, I would have said this was service design.

Notice, I differentiate touch-points, which are relatively short spans of time and lines of touch-points. If you’ll forgive the coinage, I propose we call these connected touch-points touch-lines, at least for the purposes of the big point I want to make.

The big point is this: service design conceives a service as a mesh of intersecting experiences — of woven-together touch-lines. Let’s call this a touch-plane. When we look at a service through a service design lens, we see the delivery of the service, not as a mere means to one actor’s experience, but a matrix of intersecting experiences, most of which are processes experienced by a person — all of which must be designed properly if the service is to function as intended. A customer’s journey criss-crosses multiple employee’s journeys, which cross-cross manager’s, vendor’s, regulator’s, etc. journeys.

Obviously, we cannot design every single touchpoint for every single actor in a service, but when designing services we do not automatically choose and prioritize one actor’s or user’s experience as the end and relegate everything else as a means. We do what designers always do and make the smartest-possible tradeoffs across all parts of the experience plane.

So it should not be hard to figure out how this long roundabout discussion comes back around to the key question: what makes service design research different from UX research? If research for experience strategy clarifies what one actor’s/user’s end-to-end experience is, and requires deep knowledge of that user’s context, in order to define the design problem in one or multiple touch-points, service design requires study of multiple actor’s/user’s experiences and understanding how these experiences intersect and interact across a touch-plane and looking for opportunities to improve the experience for everyone involved in and experiencing the delivery of the service.

Beetle green

I just had a vivid memory from my early childhood in Pennsylvania. We had a row of rose bushes in my back yard and the roses attracted a certain kind of large iridescent turquoise-green beetle. The only other place I ever saw this color was in my grandpa’s house. For some reason he owned a lot of items — stamped metal toys, fishing reels, outboard motors — painted in metallic beetle green. In the early 90s they started painting cars this color, and suddenly the color was ubiquitous. Then it went out of style and I rarely see it anymore.

My gut says this color will be back in the zeitgeist soon.

Mathematician’s faith

From Isabelle Stengers’s Thinking With Whitehead (bold mine)

Thinking with Whitehead today therefore means accepting an adventure from which none of the words that serve as our reference points should emerge unscathed, but from which none will be disqualified or denounced as a vector of illusion. All are a part of the problem, whether they refer to the whys of human experience or to the hows of “objective reality.” If compromise solutions do not suffice, it is because they try to circumvent the problem instead of raising it; that is, they try to mitigate the contra­dictions and to make compatible that which defines itself as conflictual. Whitehead was a mathematician, and mathematicians are they who do not bow down before contradictions but transform them into an ingredi­ent of the problem. They are the ones who dare to “trust” in the possibil­ity of a solution that remains to be created. Without this “trust” in a pos­sible solution, mathematics would not exist.

This truth is the one William James called faith or belief, his only an­swer when confronted by those who have declared that life is not worth living, “the whole army of suicides (…) an army whose roll-call, like the famous evening gun of the British army, fo llows the sun round the world and never terminates.” It has nothing in common with what I would call, to underline the difference, “to be confident,” that is, to continue, to carry on in the mode of “everything will work out fine.” The mathematician’s trust is inseparable from a commitment not to mu­tilate the problem in order to solve it and to take its demands fully into account. Yet it implies a certain deliberate amnesia with regard to the obviousness of obstacles, an active indetermination of what the terms of the problem “mean.” Transferred to philosophy, this indetermination means that what announced itself as a foundation, authorizing a position and providing its banner to a cause, will be transformed into a constraint, which the solution will have to respect but upon which it may, if neces­sary, confer a somewhat unexpected signification.

It is funny that Stengers calls this a mathematician’s trust and views it as a characteristic that can be transferred to philosophy. I see this faith as the essence of philosophy (I wrote “dialectical imagination” in the margin of the page) and the element of  intellectual creativity common to problem-solving in any field.

It is certainly crucial to design innovation, and it is finding conditions favorable to it — the right level of desperation (which translates to willingness to trust), the right collaborators (who share this faith), the right deadlines and pace — that separates great design projects from dull ones.

It is also the difference between tedious debates and true collaborative dialogue: Do both parties have faith that another conception of a problem can yield radically new solutions — and actively prefer pursuing this utterly inconceivable, imperceptible, utter nothingness of an impossibility in the face of the most extreme anxiety? Or do they demand exhaustive disproof of all existing hypotheses prior to submitting unwillingly to some futile search for who-knows-what by some mysterious method nobody seems able to explain much less codify? The latter attitude make philosophical friendship impossible (and for those few capable of philosophy, taking this stance, in fact, is to refuse friendship). I feel like I need to add this softening qualification: Luckily, many other forms of friendship exist besides philosophical friendship.

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I have wedded this “mathematician’s faith” (or dialectical imagination) with a religious faith that perceives infinite importance in the exercise (especially collaborative exercise) of dialectical imagination, for the sake of deepening relationship with that who cannot be conceptualized — of transcendence. I have a simple word for the instinct that drives of this collaborative exercise: love.

This latter faith, the faith that there is better, and that better is tied to our relationship with realities beyond our sphere of understanding, and that this relationship involves other people is why I call myself a religious person.

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It is clear that I have to understand Whitehead.

 

SD vs UX research

In a couple of months I’ll be giving a talk on the difference between the kinds of research we do to inform user experience (UX) design and the kinds of research we do to inform service design (SD).

This question can be approached from multiple angles. The most obvious is probably differences in tools and techniques. What tools are common to both UX and SD, which UX tools are normally not used and what new tools have been developed for solving service design problems?

Besides the tools used, are there any other differences in how the research is done? Are different questions asked? Is there a shift in focus or emphasis? Is analysis conducted differently or documented differently? Are different people involved in fieldwork or analysis?

The reason these questions are most obvious is they are likely to provide the most useful answers, so obviously that won’t be the angle I will take.

No, my angle will have to be one that gets at the essential difference between UX and SD, which drives the need to dig for different kinds of insights.

I want to take this angle because, to be frank, SD is much weirder than UX and any other design medium I’ve researched and I still haven’t nailed down what makes it so weird. I want to use this talk as an excuse to figure it out, or at least generate some interesting ideas in an attempt to figure it out.

My starting hypothesis is this: I think the goal of service design research is to uncover design problems and the precise relationships between them — in other words, design problem systems, spanning moments, spaces, design media and disciplines.

Discovering and defining such problem-systems is different in nature from discovering and defining problems constrained to one particular medium, and this might be the root difference that drives all the other differences.

If you know anything about this topic, please do shoot at my feet and make me dance. I need to think this through.

Other names for design instrumentalism

This whole line of thought I’ve been calling “design instrumentalism” — and the lighly-technical-at-most voice I use for describing it — has become increasingly productive. I can’t write in my own voice and exclude all philosophical language — especially those words and names that have become experience-near for me and are organic elements of my thinking.

I have, however gotten feedback that the name itself might be confusing or annoying, so I’m considering other names.

“Axiopragmatism” is one option — which has the virtue of explicitly introducing valuative/moral/aesthetic concerns to a school which has been accused of excluding them.

I’m still thinking, and I’m open to suggestions.

The pluralism of design instrumentalism

Because design instrumentalism views knowledge as a result of conceptualizations of perceptions of particular experiences — that is, as a product of one of myriad possible praxes capable of producing different and even conflicting truths — with a particular set of design tradeoffs — that is, with varying degrees of descriptive, predictive, prescriptive, logical, practical, valuative and social adequacy — and, further, because some designs truly are better than others — that is, they make fewer tradeoffs overall, or solve particular relevant problems far better than expected — faced with an stubborn and morally-charged controversy a design instrumentalist is more likely to attempt to resolve the impasse with intellectual reframing than direct argument for one or another position within the current conflict.

And intellectual reframing is just another word for philosophizing — finding our way out of the current conceptualizations that make agreement impossible, into that uncanny shadowy region where words provide little help, and tacit thought must grope its way by smell, touch and tone through perplexity from one end to the other, out into the new light, where new ways of understanding are possible, and different ideas with different tradeoffs, perhaps acceptable or even inspiring to a wider range of people, can be produced.

(There are some folks out there who are averse to such reframing and from inability or unwillingness cannot bring themselves to cooperate with it. In design workshops, I can spot them from across the room. They alternate between sitting and crossing their arms and leaning aggressively forward, pushing the obvious truth, insisting that people show how the idea or objection they are asserting is false. They are suspicious of reframing, seeing it as a last resort to use only after existing theories have been shown to be nonviable. They often see themselves as hard-nosed rationalists, proud to set aside personal feelings so that objective truth can be served. That people like this can also, with equal inflexible fervor adhere to magical religious beliefs appears as contradictory to some conceptions of religion, but not to mine: rigid rationalism paired with metaphysical otherworldism go together in certain souls like two wings on a bird. Through various wily tricks of the design trade I keep people like this separated from from where collaboration is trying to emerge, because they make conception of truly new ideas impossible.)

Design Instrumentalism

The best name for my approach to philosophy might be Design Instrumentalism, a variant of John Dewey’s Instrumentalism. According to Wikipedia,

Instrumentalism is a pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as problems change. Instrumentalism is the view that scientific theories are useful tools for predicting phenomena instead of true or approximately true descriptions.

Design Instrumentalism differs from Dewey’s Instrumentalism in that it focuses on ideas as instruments that ought to be designed intentionally employing design methods and to be evaluated by design standards, such as Liz Sanders‘s famous triad of Useful, Usable and Desirable:

  • How well does the philosophy help its subscribers act effectively in response to concrete situations and produce good outcomes?
  • How well does the philosophy define, relate and elucidate ideas to allow subscribers of the philosophy to articulate clearly an account of reality as they experience it?
  • How well does the philosophy inspire its subscribers to value existence in whole and sum?

Philosophies, too ought to be designed as person-reality interfaces, which are should not be viewed as collections beliefs, but rather the fundamental conceptions of reality that direct attention,  guide responses, shape beliefs and connect everything together into a comprehensive worldview and praxis.

Obviously, Design Instrumentalism has a lot of arguing to do to justify its legitimacy, but luckily most of this legwork has been done by Pragmatists and their various intercontinental offspring, and it all solid, persuasive and boring to rehash. I prefer to just skip to the bottom line, and rattle off some key articles of faith, which are basically the vital organs of Pragmatism.

This is a good start of a list of Pragmatic presuppositions. I’m guessing some are missing, and many more could arguably be included. Phenomenology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, Materiality Turn philosophies and, at least for me, Nietzschean ethics also figure heavily, but I’ll err toward underspecification to leave maximum room for variety.

One more thing about Design Instrumentalism: It is, like all ambitious philosophies, a meta-philosophy. It might be useful, usable and desirable for some thinkers, but it encourages the design of philosophies for those who do not find Design Instrumentalism itself valuable, and focused “single-use” philosophies for specialized purposes, such as finding frameworks that support the resolving of design problems.

Doing just this kind of reframing in the context of professional design strategy, in combination with my private philosophical work is exactly what drove me to this view of philosophy. For me, none of this is speculative theorizing, but in fact my best attempt to equip myself with the ability to explain myself, to function effectively in the situations I find myself in every day, and to infuses my work and my life with a sense of purpose. Something like an inarticulate Design Instrumentalism led me to articulate Design Instrumentalism.

Is Sagmeister a designer?

I was chatting with my friend Stokes about Stefan Sagmeister. He said “I like him but I do not think It is helpful to consider him a designer. He is basically a conceptual artist who gets to practice in a totally different way.” I agreed — his way of being paid for work is just a new form of patronage.

This raises that old question: what distinguishes design from art?

My take: Design is only design if it is created for other people, and only incidentally for oneself. Art is the opposite: it is created for oneself, and only incidentally for others.

And what about engineering?

Engineering is for nobody — engineering is done purely to produce some objective outcome. Even when engineering involves human behaviors, it casts its problems in terms of behavioral outputs, rather than subjective qualities of experience, meanings or relationships. This is why Lean Startup and behavioral economics are so appealing to engineers — they are both ways to reframe design problems as engineering problems.

Simplicity simplified

I was told that my description of simplicity would be confusing to non-designers and non-nerds.

Here’s another way to say it…


If a person can say all 5 of these statements about a design, they will call the design “simple”:

  1. “This is a __________________ .”
  2. “It is good for __________________ .”
  3. “Everything I need/want is here.”
  4. “It has no extra crap I don’t need/want.”
  5. “Everything here makes perfect sense.”

Simple design

Friday afternoon at work, I facilitated a little salon where we tried to define what “simplicity” means in design.

Because I was facilitating, and it is bad form for facilitators to fight with participants, I had to keep my strong opinions to myself (which is probably exactly why they asked me to facilitate rather than participate).

But, of course, I did have uncomfortably strong opinions, and they had to do mostly with my own compulsion to simplify what we were saying about simplicity.

So here is my distillation, in the simplest terms possible, of how I think of design simplicity:


A design is simple when it is experienced by someone as having the following qualities:

  1. Everything relevant is included.
  2. Nothing irrelevant is included.
  3. It is conceived as systematic: all relationships among parts and within the whole are clear. 
  4. It is perceived as a whole: the entire system is experienced spontaneously as a single unit. 
  5. Its relevance as a whole is immediately obvious. 

3 C’s of service design

More on this later, but I wanted to jot down this framework:

Service design aims to get three things right:

  • Continuity: ensure the whole experience is designed without thoughtless gaps at any unconsidered moment where the customer is confused, frustrated or unserved.
  • Consistency: design the experience to maximize familiarity and “learn once, use often.”
  • Climax: build memorable and differentiating highlights into the experience that make it special to the customer.

Perspectives on hybrid systems

Approaches to the composition of hybrid systems (systems made up of both objective and subjective elements) can be classified according to perspective.

Actor-Network Theory views hybrid systems from a 3rd-person perspective, in objective terms, without emphasis on either the human or the nonhuman components that make up the system.

Postphenomenology views hybrid systems from a 1st-person perspective, in subjective terms, emphasizing how a human experiences, interacts with — or, better, participates in — the hybrid system.

This suggests a question: what would a 2nd-person perspective on hybrid systems look like? I would assume a radical Buberian I-Thou conception of 2nd-person, that would concern itself with accurately empathizing with and understanding others, appealing to and persuading others and motivating participation in order to influence the formation, development and or stabilization of hybrid systems. I am tempted to answer: Design. And by design, I always mean Human-Centered Design.

One way to see design

Design is materialized philosophy.

When designing something — which always and necessarily means designing something for someone — the central question is always: what is the right philosophy for this context?

The purpose of design research is to get to the heart of this central question out, and then to pose the design problem in such a way that designers think about the design problem in the right way, from the philosophical perspective suited to the problem.

Design briefs are tiny philosophical primers.

A good design brief will effect a perspectival shift in the reader (the designer) that brings new possibilities into view, possibilities that were inconceivable prior to the shift. This phenomenon is what is commonly called inspiration.

It is the job of design researchers to produce precision inspiration.

Designers develop hybrid systems

Reading Verbeek’s What Things Do, I’m reminded of Latour’s handy term “hybrid”, an entity that is neither purely subjective nor purely objective, but a fusion of both.

In Latour’s eye, the distinction between nature and society, or subject and object, which has seemed so self-evident since the Enlightenment, needs to be seen as a product of modernity that has far exceeded its expiration date. No other society makes this distinction in such a radical manner, and in ours it is more and more painfully obvious how poorly it allows us to comprehend what is happening in the world. The project of modernity, according to La tour, consists of the attempt to purify objects and subjects — we set objects on one side, subjects on the other, and draw a line between them. What is on the one side of the line is then material for scientists to investigate, with what is on the other side for the social scientists. … This purification and separation of subjects and objects, according to Latour, is coming to be less and less believable. Ever more entities arise that cannot be comfortably placed in this dichotomy. Latour calls these entities “hybrids.” The irony is that these hybrids thrive thanks to the modem purification: precisely because they don’t fit within the subject-object schema, we cannot recognize them and therefore they can proliferate at an astounding rate without anyone trying to stop or change them. But now, as their numbers become ever greater, it becomes more and more difficult to deny their existence. We are flooded with entities that straddle the boundary between humans and nonhumans…

Humans and nonhumans are just as bound up together in our culture as they are in others; therefore, Latour concludes, we need to study our technological culture similarly to the ways that anthropologists study other cultures. This means studying how the networks of relations between humans and nonhumans develop and unravel. In order to understand our culture, we must trace out both the process of purification and that of hybridization; we must understand how hybrids arise and why they are not seen as hybrids. In order to understand phenomena, they should be approached as black boxes that, when opened, will appear to contain myriad relations and activity.

If we grasp and internalize this understanding of hybrids, it becomes possible to compactly differentiate how designers approach their problems versus how engineers approach theirs — and why they so often marginalize designers and accidentally prevent designers from working in the way designers believe is best. Here it goes:

Designers develop hybrid systems. Engineers develop objective systems.

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I’ve written two elaborations of this idea, material to supply the understanding that makes grokking the compact definition above possible. I’ll post both, because there’s no time this morning to combine them.

Version 1

An engineering perspective treats design as a sub-discipline of engineering. Design adds an aesthetic (and among more enlightened engineers) and usable “presentation layer” to a functional objective system.

A design perspective ought to treat engineering as a sub-discipline of design. Once a hybrid subjective-objective system is developed through a design approach, objective sub-systems can be defined within the larger context of the hybrid system and built according to engineering methods. According to a design mindset, an engineered system is always and necessarily a subsystem belonging to a larger hybrid system that gives it its purpose and value.

The reason so few people see the obvious truth of the latter design perspective is that their vision is obstructed by a philosophical blockage. The hybrid system concept does not play nice with the modern subject-object schema. Designers learn, through the practical activity of design, to view problems in a new way that is incommensurable with modernity’s default philosophy (as described by Latour).

But designers are rarely philosophical, so the methods rarely progress to the point of praxis. Design language is all bound up with humans and the trappings of subjectivity (emotions, opinions, habits, etc.) on the side of who the design is for and the trappings of romanticism on the side of who does the designing (insight, inspiration, creativity, passion, etc.) Design practice is a jumble of “recipes” — procedures, jargon, styles and theater — a subterfuge to make design fit the preconceptions of folks who don’t quite get what designers are really up to. So design submits to modernist schema and goes to modernism’s special territory for people people, romanticism.

Version 2

Designers consciously work on developing hybrid systems where subjective and objective elements relate and interact. In design, people and things are thought of together as a single system. And things are not only material objects; they can be ideas, habits, vocabularies, etc. Whatever makes a design work or not work, including the engineered elements, as well as all business, cultural, environmental considerations are part of a design problem. When a designer opens a black box of their own making, they will see subjects interacting with objects and subjects, and objects interacting with other objects and subjects.

Engineering, on the other hand, works inside the subject-object dichotomy, and works on problems of objective systems. As a matter of method, engineering purifies objects and arranges them in systems. When an engineer opens a black box of their own making they see objective components interacting and working as a system.

From the view of engineers, the interior of the black boxes they make are their concern, and the surface layer of the box — the point where subjectivity encounters engineering, is the concern of designers. Engineers build the black box; designers paint and sculpt it to make it appealing to people.