Category Archives: Design

Drawing on every side of the brain

In high school, all my art teachers taught us to draw and paint the shapes our eyes “really” saw. We were discouraged from drawing the things we believed we were depicting — eyes, noses, vases, cow skulls, gourds, drapes — and encouraged instead to draw the shapes that were said to precede our objective interpretations. We did zillions of blind contour drawings. We drew and painted shapes instead of trying to model the dimensional forms we believed were there. It was an interesting experience. I learned to shift into a trancelike consciousness that made the visual world hyper-vivid, and disabled speech.

Toward the end of college I met a prickly teacher who demanded a different style from her class. Now we were to observe, analyze and model forms. She taught us methods for rendering various three-dimensional effects on flat plains, so we could translate the forms in space we learned to understand to what charcoal and paper could convey. It was an incredibly difficult shift, which I experienced as an undoing of years of skill development.

In the years after I did some other visual thinking development, but they were all remote from figurative drawing. I learned to compose pages and screens to aid in comprehending complex information. Shortly after college, I experimented with translating musical compositions into visual ones via the language of mathematical ratios. Most importantly, though, I developed an ability to collapse complexity into simple visual diagrams, which are tools for conceptualizing information, not only existing data, but for framing incoming data on an ongoing basis. They are visual hermeneutic tools. I philosophize visually first, and even when I translate the visuals into words, I keep wanting to retain the visual qualities, which might be why I’m tempted toward prosody. Not for the sake of sounds (or not primarily), but for the sake of structure. I want important thoughts to be expressed in linguistic crystals.

Now my job has me doing figurative drawing again, but in a style going driving me back further into those left-brained natural habits of seeing and drawing I worked so hard to break and replace in my teen years. Now I am sketching ideas with the goal of communicating complex ideas as simply as possible. It is somewhere between cartooning and writing in pictograms.

My life as a visualizer-thinker has led my on a tour through my brain and shown me how many ways we can bilateralize what we see and know.

Why you should be mad about Lean Startup

Lean Startup externalizes usability costs to users.

To combat this practice, if I find a usability issue I call tech support and have them walk me through the interaction. These calls cost a company a significant amount of money and makes it less profitable for them to skip the user-centered design steps that ensure a decent experience for users.

I urge everyone who cares about design to do the same. Stop wasting your time and energy trying figure out how bad designs are supposed to work, and start wasting the company’s resources instead.


The long story on Lean Startup:

Before Lean Startup, companies invested in user centered design processes, including usability testing, to ensure customer’s tools always worked well. The highest priority was given to protecting customers from design mistakes that inflicted frustration and interfered with their lives. Software was released only when the flaws were fixed and the software was ready for human use.

Lean Startup changed all that. It advises companies to not invest money in design and research, but instead to release the software sooner, even though this is likely to expose customers to usability errors, frustration and confusion. Rapid release cycles enable the problems to be spotted in analytics and quickly corrected. This enables the company to accelerate software improvements and outpace competitors.

With Lean Startup, it’s all about competing to be the best product first. It’s all about the company’s product surpassing the competitor’s product — not about the customer’s tools working as they should and providing a great experience. It’s all about how good the company’s software gets, not how bad their customers feel while using untested, hastily hacked-together interfaces.


Tool users vs service users

I am not one of those people who sees service design as the grand catch-all for multi-touchpoint multi-/omni-channel experiences.

I feel the same way about “service” as I did in the early aughts about the term “user”. These words imply relationships between what is designed and the person whom it is designed. Designing for the wrong relationship means misframing the design problem. “User” implies a tool relationship. Users use things as a means to accomplish something. Of course we can apply the word ‘use’ broadly and see a movie as something an audience uses for entertainment or a concierge as something a visitor uses to get local information, but this breadth is purchased at the cost of consequential subtleties. What we need and expect from a word processor is different from what we expect from a concert or a bank. Discovering exactly what those needs and expectations are and developing satisfactory resolutions of those needs calls for different methods. The mistakes UX have historically made were often tied up with insufficient sensitivity to these distinctions. The same is true of “services”. We can reduce a drill to one component in hole-making service that spans a journey from discovering a need all the way to resolving it, and, yes, much is gained from seeing it this way, but if we are not careful, important distinctions can be lost.

And in fact I do believe certain things are currently being lost by this framing. Software as a service (aka cloud computing) has changed norms around how software is supposed to behave. We are now accustomed to think of web-based software as something that belongs to someone else that we are licensed to make use of. A decade ago, users were more likely to perceive software as tools to own, learn and eventually master. Upgrading was a purchase decision resembling the decision to replace a pen or a hammer with an improved model — not as a periodic change that just happens and requires us to adapt.

This seems mostly OK in many cases, especially where tools serve as front ends to services, for instance banking and accounting, or databases. But for software tools used for making things — word processing, image editing, ideating, music creation, even blogging — changes, especially subtle ones, distract from the tools purpose which is to be an invisible extension of a user’s abilities. It is important that such tools be utterly predictable, controllable and unobtrusive so the user can exercise mastery over the tool to keep complete focus on what is being produced. I am concerned that software designers have lost all awareness of this goal. They are focused on different problems.

Years ago I was struck by the elegance of James Spradley’s research method typology, defining them not by technique, but rather by the role played by the research informant. Surveys are performed with respondents, tests with subjects and ethnography with informants. I think a similar approach could be helpful for classifying design methods. Perhaps we could gain clarity by paying less attention to medium or channel of delivery and more attention to the kind of relationship we are trying to develop through our design between the designed thing and the people for whom it is intended.

Obtrusive conveniences

A design trend that disturbs me intensely: obtrusive conveniences.

What makes these conveniences obtrusive is that they make it incredibly inconvenient to refuse what they offer and you end up fighting for control over what you are attempting to do.

An example that is driving me away from iOS is text selection. Instead of giving the user direct character-level control over  selection, iOS tries to divine the user’s intention. Are they selecting just a character? or a word? or a text block? It never gets it right, and the effect is one of fighting for control.

Autocorrect also blows it constantly. If you use unusual words it constantly changes them to common ones for you. It is like one of those idiots who insists on finishing your sentences for you constantly despite having no idea that you are saying something they don’t already know. I can’t believe Jony I’ve hasn’t done something about how much effort it takes to type his name against the digital will of the devices he’s made.

And these behaviors are not even bad in a consistent way across apps. Now a new breed of “creative” coder has entered the scene who feels he can improve “the experience” by adding his own innovative flourishes to text editing. Nowevery editor you use has different behaviors around selection, spell checking, formatting, etc. Sadly, the more powerful HTML becomes, and the more empowered designers and developers are, the more inconsistent the overall OS platform user experience becomes. “Learn once, use often” has been replaced with utter chaos of second-rate ingenuity. The very editor I am using now (WordPress) is one of the worst offenders.

And don’t even get me started on autocomplete. When everything is optimal — the device is running smoothly, the internet connection is fast, and the user is typing accurately — autocomplete is great. But things are rarely optimal, so what actually happens is painful delays between keystroke and result, leading to mistyping, leading to attempts to delete and correct, with missed keystrokes and that same desire to escape being helped so ineptly.

Behind it all are philosophical principles which I can feel palpably in these interactions. For one thing, there is no awareness that this product is one element of a much larger experiences. For one thing, there is the experience of using the device, something few developers consider anymore. Then there is the experience of trying to get something done. And of course, there is the experience with organizations over time. Human-centered designers think about these overlapping contexts and design with them in mind, but in recent years companies have come to the opinion that iterative trial and error with ludicrously short development cycles that leave little or no time for testing will get them to a great product faster than being thoughtful or thorough. In all of this I detect a relapse, away from empathic discipline (thinking subjectively in terms of experiences) back into obsessive making of objects (which are still called “experiences” by people who like the idealistic tone of the term and the mouthfeel of X). But what bothers me worse is a sense that these coralling conveniences are ok for most people, who don’t really need control, and who are happy to say and do what is easily expected. In these near-irresistable conveniences I feel a sludgy flow toward a brave new world of lethargic uniformity where everything is dittoing, me-tooing, LOLing, emoticoning from a shrinking repertoire of publically recognized standardized experiences.

If any individuals are still out there, consider this a liberal beacon. Hello? Hello?



Gadget-porn addiction

Apple used to innovate by asking “Wouldn’t it be great if people could ____?” This was what made them uniquely great.

Now Apple does what every other banal tech company does and asks “Wouldn’t it be great if we could make a thing that could ____?” Or even worse “Wouldn’t it be great if we made a thing that has ____ characteristics/features/specs?”

This is why Apple keeps coming up with the same ideas as everyone else in the industry and why none of what they do matters one bit, however much their gadgets get hyped by gadget enthusiasts.

This hyping is part of our problem: great designs are better to use than to obsess over and to talk about. Most of what is best in great design is hard to talk about and is boring to read about. Great design tends to disappear. But cool features, record-setting specs and thrilling visuals generates buzz and drives short-term sales.


I think our culture’s gadget porn problem might be destructive in ways that parallel our culture’s sexual porn problem.

Just as pornography confuses and misleads youth about healthy relationships between partners, gadget porn confuses consumers about healthy relationships between people and things. In both cases, what is most healthy is quiet and not much to talk about but makes life much better. Addiction to lust drives people into cycles of craving, temporary satiety and empty boredom.

When design isn’t rewarded in the market, companies stop taking it seriously. They don’t invest in making products that are great to use, the make sexy-looking gimmicks that open wallets. Our tools start out as pleasant diversions and end up as perpetually irritating distractions.




Why I get emotional about design

When I use a product, I feel the milieu that produced it. Products are crystallized philosophies. In a designed object I feel people — the people who produced it and sometimes a precise person for whom an object is intended. This “personal from” and “personal to” is what makes design what it is.

When I get inspired or offended by bad design, precisely the personal from and to is what I am reacting to. In objects I sense all kinds of things about the producer: care, contempt, insight, vanity, poetry, banality, tyranny, playfulness, thoroughness, orderliness, arbitrariness, etc. And I also sometimes detect a consumer’s personality and worldview (for better or worse) — a person the producer had in mind for whom this thing is intended. And all too often I feel an anonymous vacuum where a producer or consumer should be. It is a thing from nobody and it is for anybody.


When I’ve felt betrayed by design it is when an organization did a “personality switch” on me, like an unfaithful friend. I can feel that the organization has come to see the world in a new way where there is no longer space for me to exist. The organization used to make things designed for me, but now they’re designing for someone else, or worse for everyone, which really means nobody.


Since we are once again in gift season, I will repost my “Design as gift” idea yet again, with the usual minor variations.

When one person gives another person a perfect gift, the gift is valuable in three ways:

  1. The gift itself is intrinsically valuable to the recipient. The gift is good because it makes life easier, more pleasant or more meaningful.
  2. The gift contributes to the recipient’s own self-understanding and sense of identity. The gift is a concrete example what the receiver experiences as good. It is a crystallization of the recipient’s ideals that reveals something important about the recipient that sometimes cannot be said.
  3. The perfection of the gift is evidence that the giver cares about and understands who the recipient is as an individual. The successful giving of a perfect gift demonstrates that the giver was moved to reflect on the recipient and has real insight into who they are as an individual, what they value and how they fit into the world.

Great design experiences are similar to gifts. When a design  is successful the user gets something valuable, sees tangible proof they are valued and understood, and experiences an intensification or expansion of their sense of self.


It’s the experience, stupid

People think software is becoming more frustrating because the world has become more complex.

This is false. Software is worse because development has been drastically accelerated. The shortened cycles leave little or no time for best design practices that ensure that real people experience the updates as useful and usable. The QA testing often suffers, too and software is released with major bugs. And this is all by design. But don’t take my word for it. The following passage comes from page 4 of the Bible of this development approach, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries:

I’m a cofounder and chief technology officer of this company, which is called IMVU. At this point in our careers, my cofounders and I are determined to make new mistakes. We do everything wrong: instead of spending years perfecting our technology, we build a minimum viable product, an early product that is terrible, full of bugs and crash-your-computer-yes-really stability problems. Then we ship it to customers way before it’s ready. And we charge money for it. After securing initial customers, we change the product constantly — much too fast by traditional standards — shipping new versions of our product dozens of times every single day. We really did have customers in those early days — true visionary early adopters — and we often talked to them and asked for their feedback. But we emphatically did not do what they said. We viewed their input as only one source of information about our product and overall vision. In fact, we were much more likely to run experiments on our customers than we were to cater to their whims.

Traditional business thinking says that this approach shouldn’t work but it does and you don’t have to take my word for it. As you’ll see throughout this book, the approach we pioneered at IMVU has become the basis for a new movement of entrepreneurs around the world. It builds on many previous management and product development ideas, including lean manufacturing, design thinking, customer development, and agile development. It represents a new approach to creating continuous innovation. It’s called the Lean Startup.

If you read the book, it becomes abundantly clear that Ries thinks very much in terms of engineered things: software, organizations, innovations. And what he wants to do with those things is to improve them as rapidly as possible, through trial and error. This makes sense, given his background.

What Ries fails to consider, though, is the experience real people are having while advancing his project of continuous innovation. He is not thinking about what it is like for a real person to try to do something important with his latest “terrible, full of bugs and crash-your-computer” release. And he is certainly not thinking about what it is like to live in a world where most software is developed this this way, and consequently is in a stage of disrepair and renovation all the time. The “fail fast” trials of innovators translate directly into our own failures to get stuff done with reasonable effort because our tools never work like we expect.

And imagine: this is thought of as progress in the industry. In the 90s and early 2000s the software industry was progressing in a different direction. More and more people were talking about designing experiences. What was meant by experience is that when we design, our ultimate product is not the object we are engineering but the subjective experiences people when they use it. But somewhere along the way, experience became a cool euphemism for “thing” with no reference whatsoever to real people or the experiences they have. People now work on their “experiences” and it doesn’t cross their mind to wonder how you will experience what they’re doing.

So, the next time you go to open some software and cannot figure out how to use it anymore, or when software updates and it crashes on you, or feel a pit in your stomach when you see a dozen app updates — just know that the owner and investors in charge of this software probably read this book and thought it sounded like a pretty great idea.

One day when we will look back at this time in our history, maybe our minds will boggle that the folly of this approach wasn’t obvious to everyone. But for now, we’re just bobbing in this boiling broth, singing “ribbit”, and blaming technological progress and ourselves for what is in fact an industry-wide brain fart.

Luckily, I got out of UX (user experience) just before it was taken over by Lean Startup, and designers were demoted to front-end prettifiers and design researchers were pushed to the margins of the process, if not out of it altogether. I have no professional skin in this game. But as a user, I do still have quite a bit at stake. I would love to spread my enlightened frustration as far as possible.

Slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions of interpersonal being

Wow, this post really sprawled out. It hits a lot of my enduring interests. I’m not sure it is suitable for reading. It might just be a personal journal entry written to myself. Feel free to eavesdrop if you wish, but I cannot promise it will make sense or yield any value.


I listened to a fascinating Radio Open Source podcast on Hannah Arendt’s conception of evil, which ended with a wonderful discussion on empathy.

Jerome Kohn: Empathy is a fancy word or fancy theory that she argued passionately against. First of all she thought it was an impossible notion in the sense that it really means feeling what someone else feels. Sympathy, fellow feeling, is another thing. But empathy is the claim that you can actually feel what someone else is feeling. And for that Arendt found no evidence whatsoever. One could say it’s even the opposite of her notion of thinking from another person’s point of view. What you have to be able to do is to see a given issue from different points of view, to make it real. And then through those different points of view, with your own eyes, you don’t feel what the other person is feeling, you see what he is seeing through your own eyes, and then you can make a judgement. The more people you can take into consideration in this enlarged mentality, that actually is the foundation of reality for Arendt, the more valid your judgement will be.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Jerry’s exactly right. Hannah Arendt was always opposed to these slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notions about what binds people to each other. And she felt very keenly that what really binds one person to another is a commitment to try to see the world from that person’s point of view with your own eyes. Not to subscribe to their point of view or to merge with their point of view, but to be able to walk around and see what the world looks like from where they’re standing. But looking at it with your own eyes, so that you can then, as it were, discuss it with them. Not merge with them in some way, but discuss it with them. She was all about discussion. Not empathy in that sentimental way.

Christopher Lydon (host): And yet, well, there are distinctions without huge differences in some way. To put oneself in another’s mind is the beginning of something important.

EYB: To think that you can put yourself in another’s mind in the beginning of a terrible arrogance which has tremendous consequences. It’s a difference with great consequences. People who think they that they can know what another person thinks or feel what another person feels are narcissistic.

CL: Well, ok, I don’t want to make a philosophical or an endless argument about it. Isn’t it the incapacity and the lack of interest in that perspective precisely what she found at the core of Eichmann’s banality and Eichmann’s evil, really?

JK: Well, no, it was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think from any other point of view but his own.

EYB: Exactly. And these are very important distinctions.

This exchange is especially interesting to me for three reasons.

First: as a Human Centered Design researcher/strategist/designer, I am constantly telling people that I am in the “empathy business.” However, I have long been uncomfortable with the characterization of what I do as “empathy”. To characterize understanding another person subjectively as primarily a matter of experiencing how they feel misses the mark in a very Modernist way. (em- ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’). While feelings are important to what I do, they are not the primary focus. I would prefer to characterize my work as concrete hermeneutics, but words like that do not fly in the flatlands of business where thinking lags a minimum of three philosophical generations behind. So, I’ve adopted “empathy” and accepted the inevitable misconceptions that attend it, because that’s what it takes to be understood at all by most people.

It is hardly surprising that I see things similarly to to Young-Bruehl and Kohn, because I belong to their tradition. Heidegger taught Arendt and Gadamer who both taught my favorite thinker Richard J. Bernstein. A Clifford Geertz quote from Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism has stayed with me as an anchor for my understanding of what a good human centered designer does.

Second, I think that when we see things this way, we tend to treat emotionally-oriented people who are very sensitive and sentimentally responsive to people around them as having some kind of monopoly on human understanding. In my experience, there are multiple stages of coming to understanding of another person, and a talent for sensing and responding does not always correspond with a talent for grokking the “logic” of other people’s worldviews, nor an ability to think, speak and create from another worldview. It takes a fairly vast range of talents to function pluralistically.

I think a lot of the political problems we are experiencing today result from shoddy and retrogressive philosophical conceptions of alterity (“otherness”), which still see understanding of other people as very literally empathic. To know what is going on with another person, we must ourselves have had the experiences and emotions that other person has had. In an effort to understand and to demonstrate our understanding we must induce emotions similar to theirs. Two consequences follow: 1) The one who understands must try to produce the right emotions, and this production of emotion is the demonstration of understanding, which leads to some fairly repulsive public displays of political sentimentality. 2) The one who is understood is put in a position of judging the authenticity of those emotional displays, which is more or less being given the role of arbitrary judge. And if the feelings of the understood is viewed as the central datum or a special kind of insight (being “woke”) into a political situation (typically gauging the degree of prejudicial unfairness, its impact on those victimized by that prejudice and what is required to rectify that unfairness) this amounts to extreme epistemological privilege. Only the victim of prejudice has access to the reality of the situation, and those who are not the victims are incapable of perceiving how they participate in the perpetration, so to use the charming the formulation of today’s hyper-just youngsters, it is their job to STFU and to accept the truth dictated to them. It never occurs to anyone within the power hierarchy of wokeness that there’s anything superior to all this illiberal mess to awaken to. There are philosophical worldviews that are more thorough, more comprehensive and more expansive than the dwarfish ideology of the popular left, but for all the reasons they are eager to point out to anyone who defies them, they are entirely incapable of seeing beyond the motivated reasoning of their own class interests. (This does not mean I think the popular right is any better. It is not. We are in a Weimaresque situation of resentful evil left idiocy vs paranoid evil right idiocy, with the reasonable voices shoved to the margins.)

Third, I’ve found myself misunderstood by many close friends on how I view relationships, and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl did a great job of capturing how people think I see them: a “slurpy, mergy, touchy-feely notion about what binds people to each other.” I think the misunderstanding is rooted in this same conception of human understanding being primarily an emotional phenomenon. When my own ideal of marriage or of friendship is strained through the filter of today’s left worldview, it looks like a mystical merging of souls that arouses (and should arouse!) suspicions of domination and anxieties around loss of self. But any attempt I make to try to explain the difference between what I have in mind looks like, well, an attempt at philosophical domination and a threat to the selfhood of whoever is foolish enough to take it seriously. Who am I to tell someone something they don’t already know? And anyway, it smells very cultish to listen to someone claiming to know better than the public what is true and right. So, by the circular logic of the popular worldview of the left, it is superior to form one’s own individual opinion (never mind that this opinion on opinions is a product of an unexamined and manifestly broken worldview.)

Obviously, this means extreme alienation for anyone who adopts a sharply differing worldview that affirms the importance of collaboratively developing shared understandings with those around them. In an environment of extreme ideological conformity (with brutal social consequences for infractions) that exalts above all the importance of intellectual independence — but strictly within its own confined philosophical horizon — a philosophy of interdependence, of collaborative development of the very concepts one uses to form one’s opinions, and exalting a togetherness in shared worldview is marked for expulsion.

Anyway, what I really have in mind when I imagine ideal personal connections is, once again, that ideal sketched out by Bernstein, captured so well by Geertz, which I will now go ahead and re-re-quote.

…Accounts of other peoples’ subjectivities can be built up without recourse to pretensions to more-than-normal capacities for ego effacement and fellow feeling. Normal capacities in these respects are, of course, essential, as is their cultivation, if we expect people to tolerate our intrusions into their lives at all and accept us as persons worth talking to. I am certainly not arguing for insensitivity here, and hope I have not demonstrated it. But whatever accurate or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are, as the phrase goes, really like does not come from the experience of that acceptance as such, which is part of one’s own biography, not of theirs. It comes from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would call their symbol systems, which such an acceptance allows one to work toward developing. Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem — than it is like achieving communion.

And now I will quote myself:

“Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem…” or knowing how to design for them.

A design that makes sense, which is easy to interact with and which is a valuable and welcome addition to a person’s life is proof that this person is understood, that the designer cared enough to develop an understanding and to apply that understanding to that person’s benefit.

A good design shares the essential qualities of a good gift.

The kind of merging I have in mind is just sharing a worldview and using it together to live together, what Husserl (Heidegger’s teacher) called a “lifeworld“. I’ve called the process “enworldment”.

The merging aspect of this ideal enters the stage through my belief (shared, I believe by Process Theology) that souls are universe-sized. The pragmatic consequence of what one means when one says “everything” is the scope and density of one’s soul. To enworld* with another is to bring two “everythings” into harmonious relationship, and to begin to function more like a culture than two isolated individuals within this isolating milieu so many of us, without ever choosing, without even knowing we had a choice, inhabit as prisoners of our own destitute freedom.

(Note: that “enworld” link above is a pretty old post, and I’m not sure right now how much of it I still agree with. It makes me want to engage my old self in dialogue and try to discover how much common ground we have. How enworlded am I with my 9-years-ago self?)

Ancestors and siblings of process thought

While I’m scanning passages from C. Robert Mesle’s Process-Relational Philosophy, here are two more that inspired me.

The first passage appeals to my designer consciousness:

Descartes was wrong in his basic dualism. The world is not composed of substances or of two kinds of substances. There is, however, what David Ray Griffin calls an “organizational duality.” Descartes was correct that rocks and chairs and other large physical objects do not have minds, while humans do. In Whiteheadian terms, rocks are simply not organized to produce any level of experience above that of the molecules that form them. In living organisms, however, there can be varying degrees to which the organism is structured to give rise to a single series of feelings that can function to direct the organism as a whole. We can see fairly clearly that at least higher animals like chimps and dogs have a psyche (mind or soul) chat is in many ways like our own. This psyche draws experience from the whole body (with varying degrees of directness and clarity), often crossing a threshold into some degree of consciousness, and is able in turn to use that awareness to direct the organism toward actions that help it to survive and achieve some enjoyment of life. The self, or soul, then is not something separate from the body. It arises out of the life of the body, especially the brain.

The mind/soul/psyche is the flow of the body’s experience. Yet your body produces a unique mind that is also able to have experiences reaching beyond those derived directly from the body. We can think about philosophy, love, mathematics, or death in abstract conceptual ways that are not merely physical perceptions. Without the body, there would be no such flow of experience, but with a properly organized body, there can be a flow of experience that moves beyond purely bodily sensation. Furthermore, your mind can clearly interact with your body so that you can move, play, eat, hug, and work. There is a kind of dualism here in that the mind is not only the body but it is, in Griffin’s phrase, a hierarchical dualism rather than a metaphysical one. There are not two kinds of substances — minds and bodies. There is one kind of reality — experience. But experience has both its physical and mental aspects.

To my ears, this is a beautiful dovetail joint waiting to be fitted to extended cognition. “Rocks are simply not organized to produce any level of experience above that of the molecules that form them” but if a human organizes those rocks in particular ways, for instance drilling and shaping them into abacus beads, or melting them down to manufacture silicon chips, those rocks can be channeled into extended cognitive systems which in a very real way become extensions of our individual and collective minds. It is ironic to me that even at this exact instance, in typing out this sentence, a thought is forming before my eyes with the help of rocks reorganized as silicon chips which are participating in the “having” of this very thought. And if anyone is reading this and understanding it, my thought, multi-encoded, transmitted, decoded and interpreted by your own intelligence — rocks have helped organize this event of understanding! Humans help organize more and more of the “inanimate” world into participants of experience.

And now we are wading out into the territory developed by Actor-Network Theory, which asks, expecting intricately branching detailed answers: How do humans and non-humans assemble themselves into societies? I think the commonality within these harmoniously similar thought programs is their common rootedness in Pragmatism. It is no accident that Richard J. Bernstein saw pragmatism as a constructive way out of  the unbridled skeptical deconstruction of post-modernism, and that Whitehead, who acknowledged a debt to Pragmatism, is said to offer a constructive postmodernism.

The second passage appeals to my newly Jewish hermeneutic consciousness. This is a quote by Whitehead:

The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.

This, of course, is a description of the hermeneutic circle, the concept that we understand parts in terms of the concepts by which we understand them, but that our concepts are often modified (or replaced) in the effort to subsume recalcitrant parts. We tack between focusing on the details and (to the degree we are reflective) revisiting how we are conceptualizing those details. These are the two altitudes Whitehead mentions: an on-the-ground investigation of detail and a sky-view survey of how all those details fit together.

This is an ancient analogy. The Egyptians made the ibis, an animal with a head like a snake (the lowest animal) and the body of a bird (the highest animal) the animal of Thoth, their god of writing, the Egyptian analogue to Hermes. Nietzsche also used this image in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and that is where I first encountered it.

An eagle soared through the sky in wide circles, and on him there hung a serpent, not like prey but like a friend: for she kept herself wound around his neck. “These are my animals,” said Zarathustra and was happy in his heart. “The proudest animal under the sun and the wisest animal under the sun — they have gone out on a search. They want to determine whether Zarathustra is still alive. Verily, do I still live? I found life more dangerous among men than among animals; on dangerous paths walks Zarathustra. May my animals lead me!” When Zarathustra had said this he recalled the words of the saint in the forest, sighed, and spoke thus to his heart: “That I might be wiser! That I might be wise through and through like my serpent! But there I ask the impossible: so I ask my pride that it always go along with my wisdom. And when my wisdom leaves me one day — alas, it loves to fly away — let my pride then fly with my folly.”

And I have seen the Star of David as an image of the synthesis of atomistic ground-up and holistic sky-down understandings. And this is one reason I chose Nachshon (“snakebird”) as my Hebrew name when I converted to Judaism.


(Eventually, I’ll have to try to connect process thought with my extremely simplistic and possibly distorted understanding of chaos theory. Eventually.)

Rude tools

In my last post I promised that my next post would be “a theoretical tantrum on the ethics around that miserable love triangle between developer, tool and user.” and that I thought the issue of “‘ownership’ of software is an unrecognized moral crisis of our times.”

This is that post.

My belief in the importance of resolving the issue of tool ownership hinges on a theory which I experience as true: Extended Cognition. According to wikipedia “Extended cognition is the view that mental processes and mind extend beyond the body to include aspects of the environment in which an organism is embedded and the organism’s interaction with that environment. Cognition goes beyond the manipulation of symbols to include the emergence of order and structure evolving from active engagement with the world.” The example offered to me by my friend Zach, who introduced this concept to me, was of doing addition with your fingers. Viewed through the lens of Extended Cognition the movement of the hand is part of the thinking that produces the result.

Where I experience this as most true is when I use tools that I’ve learned to use skillfully. That is, I’ve mastered them so fully that they more or less disappear as I use them. If we know how to use a pen, we no more need to think about using that pen while we are using it than we need to think about our hand. It becomes part of us, and it allows us to focus our attention on the thing we are doing, and to become absorbed in our activity.

This is true also of software tools — or at least well-designed ones. I am able to just concentrate on the content of our activity rather than the actions we I am trying to perform to reach my goal. Often I can’t even tell anyone how I do what my hands just know how to do. I have to demonstrate it.

How many times have you told someone you can show them how to do something on their computer of phone, but if you can just get your hands on the device you can show them what to do? Sometimes it’s not enough to see the screen. There must be concrete interaction.

This kind of knowing that seems to exist just in the body is known as tacit knowledge. I like to call the part of UI design that harnesses this tacit knowledge “the tacit layer.” Back when designers still liked to talk about “intuitive design” this awareness was much more prevalent. But I think this way of thinking about design is in decline.

Tools used largely in a tacit mode to develop ideas become an extensions of the user’s own being. To change a tool so that it stops functioning this way changes a person’s being. It literally prevents a person from thinking — it robs them of a piece of their own mind.

When we look at software in that light, doesn’t it seem like a norm that a company owns software, and that users pay a licensing fee for the right to use it offers far too little protection to the user? Shouldn’t users have more control over what is done to them?

I’m not suggesting a change in IP law or anything like that. I do think the software industry needs some different licensing arrangements, though.



Taking away my tools

Over the last decade and a half I’ve relied on four tools for making my thoughts.

Of these four, two have broken in the last couple of years: Adobe Illustrator and WordPress. These two tools have undergone frequent deep UI changes, which have obsoleted my skills. When I try to use them now, I’m too busy thinking about how to use the UIs to concentrate on the ideas I’m attempting to develop.

Yesterday, I found out my hosting service is upgrading their server and it is going to bring down my Wiki, my core tool for organizing what I learn in my reading. I chose to host my own Wiki so I could control this key tool and not be subject to the whims of developers, but now they’ve caught up with me and ruined this tool, too. Now I only have one thinking tool left intact, and that is my own philosophy.

It’s funny; this feeling of vulnerability is exactly what led me to philosophy in the first place. When I was a kid living at home, my father was fond of informing me that I owned nothing — that he could take any of my possessions away any time he wanted to. My parents were always threatening my sister with taking away her horse if she didn’t toe the line. I saw clearly that I could not tolerate that kind of exposure. I figured the only thing I had that could not be taken away were my ideas, so that was what I made my treasure.

Stupidly, I have relied on tools under other people’s control to help me shape and craft my ideas, and when those people decide to exercise their whims to disrupt my ability to use these tools, my most precious capabilities — the things that help me be who I am — are jeopardized.

I’m halfway considering throwing out all my software tools and re-training myself to use just pen and paper to work through my ideas. While I’m at it maybe I’ll get rid of all my books and kick my awful caffeine habit. I can’t trust other people to even understand what I need, much less to actually respect the legitimacy of those needs, much less to act in a way that doesn’t harm me. And supporting those needs is entirely out of the question. What I need seems unreasonable to other people. Nevertheless, I need what I need, and that means I must reduce by dependency as well as my exposure. I think this is the root reason so many thinkers are ascetic.

My next post is going to be a theoretical tantrum on the ethics around that miserable love triangle between developer, tool and user. I am convinced that the “ownership” of software is an unrecognized moral crisis of our times.

Autumn 2011, when the canary died

A friend texted me a link to an article by “Authoritarian by Instinct“. What follows is a somewhat edited (and hyperlinked up) version of my SMS avalanche of a response.


I was about to say that I’m surprised at the naivety of so many liberal critics, and that this reminded me of my frustrations with Mounk… Has he not read Arendt?

The whole thrust of authoritarianism is to replace all principles, all laws, all ideological systems with the arbitrary rule of one person, whose momentary intuitive impulse is all-powerful! We think of intuition as this lovely creative thing that just wants to generate beauty and novelty in the world, and in a sense this is true, but not nearly true enough…

I discovered the dark side of intuition when I went to work at an ad agency after toiling for a decade under the “rigid” methodologies of  User Centered Design (UCD) consultancies.

I was the crazy intuitive guy at my UCD jobs — the guy with the big bold ideas. I thought the free-wheeling intuition-friendly air of an ad agency would be refreshing…

Wrong. The ad world was crushing. Layers of creative directors with more organizational clout were intuitively deputized to creatively intuit and dictate to their subordinates what was best. The pace and ethos made appeals practically impossible.

I came to realize that UCD — or as many of us have decided to broaden it — Human Centered Design (HCD) — might slow us way down, and require us to articulate, justify, experiment and demonstrate the virtues of our ideas, but it gives everyone a chance to contribute and to shape what the team is doing.

These processes and requirements meet exactly the same resistance in the workplace as liberal institutions meet out in the public political sphere. Slow. Expensive. Formalistic. Uninspiring.

This is not a coincidence. Human Centered Design is liberalism for the workplace. HCD designers have managed to institutionalize liberalism on teams, in departments, even in whole companies. It has everything to do using the scientific method, government by assent, respect for reason and adherence to processes that make reason possible.

So, here comes my “design as political canary in the coal mine” story that I compulsively retell to anyone who’ll listen, and to many who won’t:

The reason I have been so upset about the state of design is that in 2011 — autumn of 2011, to be exact — all the liberal progress I’d been seeing in my field suddenly reversed. Three things: 1) Steve Jobs died (October 5, 2011), 2) Lean Startup was published (September 13, 2011), 3) front-end frameworks, like Bootstrap (August 19, 2011 and Foundation (September 2011), hit the development world.

All three of these factors marginalized design in crucial ways that have brought the digital water we users swim in to a rolling boil.

There’s a reason why our digital lives are immersed in pleasureless turmoil. Remember back when we would count the hours to the next Apple product release, and get excited when we saw that an upgrade was available to the software tools of choice? Now it all makes us uneasy, because it means yet more disruption where we really need stability. New features are more likely to make things harder for us than improve our lives.

This is not an inevitable effect of the world getting more complex. It is a direct effect of design’s marginalization. Engineers now run the show, and they’re into the Thing they make, as opposed to the experiences real-life people have interacting with things in real-life situations. This is what designers do, and it is why we use the language of “experience” when speaking about our practices. They are all focused on getting at the experiences people have.

But now the language of design has been appropriated and emptied. Engineers call their Things “Experiences”. When they hack together a front-end using a front-end framework, they call this “designing the User Experience”.

People who lack understanding of the radical paradigm shift (meant literally, in the Kuhnian sense) at the root of HCD — a root that could not be more at odds with the objectivist Industrial Age paradigm — are blind to the relapse to which we’ve succumbed. They never made the shift anyway, and these new retro-practices make more sense to the engineering mindset.

And sadly, this relapse has spread into politics, hitting both left and right extremes of the political spectrum, each feeding on conflict with the other, and is rapidly closing in on the center. We have the brainless sophistication of children trained by disillusioned Marxists to perceive the world in the terms of racist, sexist and other identitarian sociologies (ironically called “hermeneutics” of this and that) facing off against aggressively anti-intellectual thugs. Liberalism is now widely disparaged and declared vapid, naive and obsolete by the very people who are blind to what Liberalism is, how it is done and why it is so important.

Hopefully, soon everyone will have known all these things I’m saying all along, and I will retroactively have not been the only one freaking out about the loss of liberal democracy, the loss of design and seeing very vividly the connection between the two. Until then, stuck in this present, I am isolated in my own obsessive interests and worries.



Over the last year I’ve been equipping myself to make pamphlets. I’ve purchased several reams of beautiful French Paper in cover and heavy text weights, waxed linen bookbinder thread, needles, and awls and a bone folder. I’ve figured out how to use Adobe InDesign with my printer (which prints 2-sided) to create booklets in signature format ready for binding. I’ve practiced and refined my booklet sewing technique constructing and revising Shabbat prayer booklets.

I think I am going to force myself to work differently in the coming months. I think I’m going to steal from the product development industry (my greatest, most beloved, most intensely detested frenemy, who has nourished me with so many unavoidable crises, who has dragged me through so much dark despair into so many enlightenments). What I intend to steal comes directly from the single most painful trend of the last decade. I intend to force myself to work in “sprints”.

Working in pamphlet sprints, I will write with the intention of always creating a printed pamphlet by the end of the session. I am also going to get rid of this notion of getting everything I’ve learned into a single book. I’m going to get it all out in microcosmic bursts of various genre.

Here are the pamphlets I have planned so far:

  • Geometric Parables. This is a book of diagrams I’ve been drawing and redrawing, interpreting and reinterpreting over the last 15 years. These images guide my best thoughts. When I think, often I am just growing the consequences of particular problems onto these frameworks, as if they were trellises. This will be an obscure little book, consisting of diagrams and meditations in compact verse. Its purpose is not explanation, and it is unlikely to make sense by itself. Its purpose is prayer: recollecting what memory cannot grasp. I will be flirting with idolatry making this pamphlet the way I want it made.
  • The Ten-Thousand Everythings. This could end up being a book that explains Geometric Parables. I’ve accumulated a large number of aphoristic scraps that fit together into a cohesive philosophical perspective. I want to attempt to demonstrate my way of thinking by exploring some key domains, especially ethics, ontology and religion. This will be my idea dump. I’m going to try to force myself to be more relaxed and prosaic writing and rewriting it.
  • Syllabus Listicalis. This idea came to life yesterday, when I just started listing out the most consequential points where I disagree with conventional wisdom. Few people understand the extent to which my thinking has diverged from the norms of everyday thinking, especially at the most crucial life-shaping points. This has left me in a place where at best I agree with others on details, but not for the reasons people tend to assume, which cannot be explained within contemporary customs of polite conversation. I doubt I’ll try to explain anything in Syllabus Listicalis. It will be a bare list of instructive disagreements, maybe a negative image of The Ten-Thousand Everythings.
  • Interface: This will be a more or less explicit book about the myriad lessons I’ve learned oscillating between human-centered design and philosophical reflection, and how these insights have constellated around what I think is an important new way of thinking about reality. I believe many designers have intuited the importance of this new perspective as they have developed and applied its methods to an expanding sphere of problems. But so far, I have seen no attempt to articulate the perspective itself and  account for its importance.

In addition, I may start typesetting my better blog posts. Maybe I’ll make a series called Anomalogues. But first, I’m going to make some editions of the pamphlets I’ve listed above.

“The many faces of research”

I just realized I never re-posted my October 2010 article summarizing James Spradley’s incredibly cool way of defining different types of research — by the role of the participant vis a vis the researcher.

Here’s the text:

Anyone who has ever commissioned, designed, conducted research will find these common but thorny questions all too familiar:

  • “What is this research going to give us that we can’t get from analytics and iterative design?”
  • “Don’t you need to ask all your interviewees the same set of questions so you can compare their answers?”
  • “Can you quantify these findings?”
  • And with qualitative research, the dreaded: “That’s an awfully small sample. Are these findings statistically significant?”

These questions can be difficult to answer clearly, succinctly and definitively. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have some kind of framework or model to help people understand how the various kinds of research (especially qualitative and quantitative fit together) to provide an organization what it needs to effectively engage and serve their customers?

James Spradley in The Ethnographic Interview provides such a framework. His approach is the identification of four different roles a research participant can play, each with a different relationship between researcher and participant and each producing a different kind of finding:

  • Informant – In ethnography, a participant is related to as an informant. Informants are “engaged by the ethnographer to speak in their own language or dialect”, providing “a model for the ethnographer to imitate” so that “the ethnographer can learn to use the native language in the way informants do.” The informant is related to as a teacher. What is learned is how the participant conceptualizes and verbalizes his experience. Informants give the researcher not answers to fixed predetermined questions, but the questions themselves. Informants help define what the researcher needs to learn in subsequent research. (Examples of research techniques with informants: unstructured and semi-structured interviews, diary studies, open card sorting, collaborative design exercises.)
  • SubjectSubjects are participants in social science research, upon whom hypotheses are tested. “Investigators are not primarily interested in discovering the cultural knowledge of the subjects; they seek to confirm or disconfirm a specific hypothesis by studying the subject’s responses. Work with subjects begins with preconceived ideas; work with informants begins with a naive ignorance. Subjects do not define what it is important for the investigator to find out; informants do.” (Examples of research techniques with subjects: usability testing, split testing, concept testing.)
  • Respondent – A respondent is any person who responds to a survey questionnaire or to queries presented by an investigator. “Survey research with respondents almost always employs the language of the social scientist. The questions arise out of the social scientist’s culture. Ethnographic research, on the other hand, depends more fully on the language of the informant. The questions arise out of the informant’s culture.” (Examples of research techniques with respondents: surveys, questionaires, structured interviews, closed card sorting.)
  • Actor – “An actor is someone who becomes the object of observation in a natural setting.” As with subjects and respondents, when participants are related to as actors, the terms of the description of the actor’s behaviors are those of the researcher, not of the participant. It should be noted, however, that in ethnographic research (and also in contextual inquiry, participants are interviewed as they are observed, which means the participant is still understood  primarily as an informant. The actor-informant teaches the researcher through showing and explaining in his own terms the significance of his actions, which allows the researcher to give (to use Clifford Geertz’s term) “thickness” to his descriptions of what he observes. (Examples of research techniques with actors: site analytics, business intelligence analysis, silent observation.)

Over the course of a research program, research participants may at various times be regarded as subjects, actors or respondents — but if the goal is to know what really motivates the participants, to understand how to engage them at an emotional level, and to cultivate an enduring relationship with them, it makes a lot of sense to begin by relating to research participants as informants, beginning with unstructured or semi-structured interviews.

By starting with an informant relationship with research participants researchers can develop a better idea of what matters to the participants, how they conceptualize and speak about these things, and most importantly how this motivates observable behavior. These insights (that is, findings that illuminate the inner life of participants) can focus subsequent research on the most relevant and impactful questions. It also improves the execution of the research by helping researchers use language that’s natural and understandable to participants, earning greater trust and cooperation, and minimizing misunderstandings. And in analysis researchers and planners will mine more valid insights from the data, since they understand the motives, thought process and language behind the responses and behaviors of the respondents, actors and subjects. And the insights will be accurate because they rely far more on fact than (often unconscious) assumptions.

The other types of research can then report in more quantifiable terms, using much larger samples, how many subjects or actors perform certain behaviors or how many respondents give one answer or another to certain questions on a survey or questionnaire — and these actions and responses will now carry much more meaning because now the researchers have subjective insights to complement the objective data.

Two more points worth making: 1) I haven’t mentioned segmentation in this article, but anywhere where I mention learning about research participants, I am talking about learning about segments of participants (defined by goals, needs, attitudes and behaviors), and understanding the similarities and differences among them. 2) Generally, it is in the role of informant that research participants provide findings that drive design and creative. Informants inspire empathy and creative approaches. Subjects, respondents and actors tend to yield information useful in making strategy decisions. Using the full range of qualitative and quantitative research methods together intelligently can enable strategists and designers to work together more effectively to harness the full power of experience design.

By understanding research better — recognizing the difference between research that produces subjective insights and research that produces objective data, by not mistaking them for rival methods for producing the same kinds of findings, and by understanding how they can be used together to gain a holistic picture of one’s customers that is far more than the sum of the facts — an organization becomes more capable of understanding its customers without sacrificing their individuality to empty statistics.

Dialogue: art-work, design-work, artisan-work


My view is that art is made without reference to the receiver.
It is entirely ego-centric.
It is thrown out into the world and if someone understands and desires it, it’s a miracle.
Design is made with reference to others — which is why real design is human-centered design.
I want my art self-centered and my design human-centered!


I wouldn’t say, “miracle.”
What would commissioned work be? Artisan work?


Depends on the benefactor
If the benefactor sees the artist’s vision and identifies with it (through that “miraculous” congeniality), it’s still art…
…but if the benefactor doesn’t know how to let the artist do the art, or the artist doesn’t know how to defend the art from the benefactor’s attempts to control the art, it becomes artisan work.
and here’s a new thought…
If a client doesn’t know how to let a designer do human-centered design or the designer doesn’t know how to defend the design from the client’s desire to control the design — what gets done is artisan work.


Update May 21, 2017:

3 types of participants in a creation:

  • The producer – the party producing a work.
  • The sponsor – the party funding the production of a work.
  • The consumer – the party enjoying the benefit of a work.

3 categories of production:

  • Art-work – In art-work, the producer produces work guided primarily by the producer’s own judgment, with less concern for the personal standards of sponsor or consumers. The artist produces as if for himself as consumer, and the work is chosen or accepted by the sponsor, almost as if intercepted, as an artifact manifesting the artist’s personal judgment. In art, the producer (artist) has final judgment.
  • Design-work – In design-work, the producer produces work guided primarily by the consumer’s judgment, with deliberate deemphasis on the personal standards of producer or sponsor. The active judgment in design is empathic judgment: quality of judgment is ability to overcome personal judgment in order to judge by the consumer’s standards. The one using has final judgment. In design, the user (consumer) has final judgment.
  • Craft-work – In craft-work, the producer produces work guided by the sponsor’s judgment, with deliberate deemphasis on the personal standards of producer or consumer (assuming the consumer is not the sponsor). The craftsperson produces for a sponsor to the satisfaction of the sponsor. In craftwork, the sponsor (the one paying for the work) has final judgment.

Much pain in production arises from ambiguity or disagreement over the category of production. A sponsor believes what he is commissioning is primarily craftwork, being produced to his own personal satisfaction, when the producer thinks what is commissioned is either design or art. (A sponsor who lacks pluralistic awareness, due to autistic, narcissistic or naive realist tendencies, will not understand the difference between craft-work and anything else. It will simply become a control issue or clash of wills.)  Or a producer is hired to work as a designer, but sees himself as the final judge of the work. (This is inevitable when the producer lacks pluralistic awareness).

Of course, most work is a hybrid of all three, located in the middle regions of a three-axis gamut stretched between art-work, design-work and artisan-work — but even minor disagreements in the balance point can generate strain.


Pluritarian Pluriversalism

To someone born into an autistic universe controlled by a single set of strictly logical natural laws, the experience of empathy and the subsequent revelation of an empathic pluriverse redefines the meaning of miracle, and of transcendence, and of religion.

Before, miracles were exceptions to the laws of nature. After, miracles are the irruption of something in the midst of nothingness: other minds, each with a world of its own — each with the power to change the meaning of one’s own world.

Before, transcendence was defined in terms of an infinite reality standing beyond the finite objective world.  After, transcendence was defined in terms of an infinite reality standing beyond myriad finite objective worlds, each rooted in the elastic mind of a subject.

Before, religion was the attempt for an individual to commune with a transcendent reality with miraculous powers. After, religion was still the attempt for an individual to commune with a transcendent reality with miraculous powers, but the change in conceptions of transcendence and miracle means that it is the individual and the individual’s world that is transcended, and this means the route to transcendence is not around the world and one’s neighbors, but through them and their worlds. The activity of loving, respecting and learning from one’s neighbors is intrinsic to loving, respecting and learning from the infinite God who cannot be confined to any one world, however vast.

Myriad worship practices are needed to worship myriad aspects of an inexhaustible and inexhaustibly meaningful God. By this understanding, empathy is worship.

Design Thinking by committee

Combining the core insight of Design Thinking — “everything is design” — with the truism that “design by committee produces mediocrity”, it begins to appear that the widespread (mis)use of meetings to shape collective action might be one of the great engines of contemporary collective frustration. Much of our lives are mired in mediocrity because everything that matters most — our institutions, our processes, our approaches to solving big problems — end up essentially designed by committee.


In distinguishing design problems from other kinds of problems, my rule of thumb is this: if a problem involves interactions between free people and things of any kind (objects, services, communications, screens, ideas) that problem should be viewed as a design problem, approached with design methods, developed as a design system, and evaluated as a design. In this light, all kinds of things that seem to be management, strategy, engineering, marketing, etc. problems are seen as varieties of design problems.

What design thinking does is fully acknowledge the “people part of the problem” as central to its resolution and focusing its efforts on getting that part right. And the only way to do this is to include the very people who will, through their free choice (or rejection), make the resolution a success (or failure) as partners in the development of the solution.

Failing this, it will be necessary to handle the people part of the problem by 1) speculating on it, 2) ignoring it, or 3) eliminating it.

1) Speculation means remembering/assuming/guessing  on the needs and wants, conceptions and perceptions, attitudes and tastes — in short, the practical worldview — of the people involved in the people part of the problem. We human beings are much worse at this than we think, especially when we don’t regularly put our visionary clairvoyance to the test. It is not uncommon in the design world to hear design researchers cheerfully admit to an inability to predict how people will behave, where others in the room make bold predictions based on their own gut-level knowledge of how people are. (It pays to remember why the Oracle at Delphi identified Socrates as the wisest man in Greece!) People research teaches respect for the elusiveness of other people’s worldviews.

2) Ignoring the people part of problems means pulling the engineering parts of the problem (the sub-problems that are made up of creating systems of unfree, rule-governed elements) out of context and solving those in the hope that the people part will take care of itself (or that “marketing’s got that covered” or that the system can be tweaked after it is finished until people like it enough to accept it.) Fact is, a great many engineers choose a career in engineering because they prefer interacting with objects more than interacting with subjects, and they will tend to prefer solutions to problems that allow them to spend most of their time in the company of objects or teams of like-minded people building object-systems. And that is fine, as long as someone has their eye on the people part and provides context for the engineering problems that contribute to the solution.

3) Eliminating the people part of the problem sounds ominous and it ought to: it amounts to turning freely choosing people into unfreely complying people. It means destroying alternative choices through anticompetitive practices (like those employed by Microsoft in the 90s or Apple’s recent supply chain manipulations) or by finding ways to bypass choice and control behaviors directly either through coercion (legislation) or psychological manipulation (like behavioral economics. The purpose of this is to make people into engineerable elements, that is unfree, rule-governed, controllable, predictable elements of a profitable system. It was this mentality that predominated in 20th Century social engineering projects, which unfairly discredited the very concept of deliberate societal self-determination for a great many US citizens. Social engineering is a hellish totalitarian notion. Social design, however, is deeply liberal-democratic, and the future of liberal democracy depends on it.

But — getting back to the original thread — this means we must learn to see design problems wherever they occur — especially when they seem to be something other than design. It means also that we must adjust our response to them to allow the right mindset and methods. As Marty Neumeier pointed out, we cannot “decide our way through them, we must design our way through them.” Which, again, means meetings are the wrong format for shaping solutions. (Unless, like some Design Management people, you believe the right workshop techniques transforms committees into design teams. I remain skeptical. I’ve seen workshops produce much more kumbaya than eureka. Workshops are more productive than most meetings, but what is produced should not be confused with design. Workshops are better-designed meetings, not meetings that produce better design.)

Once again, I’m going to trot out Le Carre’s famous quote: “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” It is important to remember that a conference table is just a big desk for a committee to sit behind. No matter how many post-it notes, white board markers and ice-breaking games you try to add to it, a meeting is a meeting is a meeting. To design effectively we must rethink why we meet, how we meet, what we can expect from meeting, what thinking can only be done in non-meeting contexts.

Meetings are an effective tool, but like all tools, meetings have their proper uses and places where another tool might be better.

Design and trade-offs

For non-designers (and immature designers) the toughest part of design is trying on different trade-offs.

The reason it is so tough is this: while most people can shift between ideas with relative ease, it is harder to shift between conceptions — different logics of coherence and meaning that invest ideas with different significance.

Harder still is to allow new conceptions to animate perceptions. Old conceptions cling and highlight features of perception that would remain inconspicuous to fresh eyes. And each shift in design direction adds new relevancies without removing the old ones, so the problem becomes more insoluble with each iteration.

It is like memory: it is easier to learn on command than to forget. The old ideas, once seen, become hard to unsee. The old concepts, once learned become impossible to unlearn. Perception becomes almost cubistic — too many simultaneous perspectives are viewed at once.

Pluralistic play — the ability to flit between logics — to try on different conceptions and perceptions — this takes years of practice, and the practice can only start once a person has discovered the dimension of mind that multiplies the universe into innumerable overlapping everythings.