Design Pragmatism

DISCLAIMER: This post is a big mess (which is why it’s been hidden from November 2020 until today March 31, 2021), but it’s got a lot of good, useful stuff in it, so I’m making it public.


In the winter of 2002, I developed a new life-changing habit. I began waking up early in the morning to drink tea and study philosophy before work. My family was living in Toronto at the time, and we loved exploring the diverse neighborhoods in the downtown area. On one of our excursions, we purchased some oolong tea, and the elaborate gear used to brew tea in the traditional gongfu way. We had a yixing teapot, special paired teacups (one for tasting the tea, and another for experiencing the aroma), a brewing platform for the teapot with a hidden water reservoir for the tea that is spilled and splashed when prepared in the gongfu way, tongs, scoops, canisters, carafes and cloths. My daughter Zoë, who was nine at the time, was enchanted by it all and started waking me up before dawn to make tea and talk about life. After she left for school, I read philosophy, starting with Nietzsche. The experience of reading philosophy first thing in the morning in a caffeinated state was inspiring, and it became the center of a new way of living.

When the habit was new, my work and my reading were compartmentalized. I was working as a user interface designer, and I didn’t like it. Most of the work was stressful and tedious. I did it for the paycheck. My thinking and reading time was an escape from work. If my work benefitted from anything I read, that was purely accidental. My reading choices were driven solely by what problems seemed interesting and important to me, and work was the furthest thing from either.

Gradually, however, my philosophical interests evolved in directions that happened to be useful. I moved from reading Nietzsche to studying phenomenology, hermeneutics and pragmatism. I found that these subjects helped me find better ways to think about and talk about how designers approach discovering, defining, exploring and resolving problems. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was rediscovering the sources of design thought, and haphazardly self-educating myself on the family of philosophies that contributed to the development of design methods. As my design practice became more theoretically lucid, I started enjoying design more, and taking it more seriously as a vocation.

Soon I was surprised to notice the influence flowing back from design to philosophy. I found myself applying concepts and language from the world of design to philosophical problems. I started asking the kinds of questions designers habitually ask about design proposals and applying them to philosophical ideas, and tried to clarify and resolve those questions using designerly approaches. Of course, I had always been sensitive to the physical form of the books I read, the quality of the typesetting and the style of the writing. What was new was asking these same questions about the philosophy itself — systems of ideas used in daily life to make sense of things and to produce thoughts.

It started with Liz Sanders’s useful/usable/desirable framework, a conceptual tool of such fundamental importance that some designers, including myself, use it to define the very purpose of design. The designer’s job is to ensure that whatever their team is making is useful, usable and desirable for its intended users. I noticed myself casually wondering: “How useful is this philosophy?” What is it meant to do for the one who learns to use it? Where is it helpful? And: “How usable is this philosophy?” With practice will it become intuitive, habitual and as invisible as Beatrice Ward’s crystal goblet? And: “How desirable is this philosophy?” Does it intensify my esteem for life? Or does the world feel bleak and pointless when experienced through this philosophy?

This led to a more conscious exploration of the similarities between design and philosophy, culminating in a question:

What if we approach philosophy as a design discipline?

In An Inquiry into Modes of Existence Bruno Latour raised a question: “To say of a thing that it is constructed is to introduce a value judgment, not only on the origin of the action… but on the quality of the construction … Constructed, yes, of course, but is it well constructed?”

Designers, of course, are concerned with quality of constructions, and specifically with constructions of the kind Latour calls “hybrid”, constructions constituted of beings of diverse kind, including humans and nonhumans. When designers set out to design something, one of the first things we do is study the contexts in which this designed thing will be experienced and used by people. A new design, if adopted, will be woven into this context, and will change it by becoming part of it. A well-constructed designed artifact (whether a physical or virtual object, an environment, a service, a process, a communication, or whatever) helps produce a well-constructed context, experienced as better by those who inhabit it.

By now, the idea that truth is constructed is not only well-known, it is a comic truism. My younger daughter Helen and her friends enjoy ironically dismissing random things by declaring them constructs. I tried out Latour’s concept of well-constructed constructs on her. “If truth is a construct, shouldn’t we pay attention to the craft quality of our truth constructions? Shouldn’t we use the best available design methods to ensure these constructions do what we need them to do, and do it well? This extends my earlier question. What if we approach philosophy as a design problem by using design methods to produce well-constructed philosophies that improve their social contexts?

It is hard to pin down what philosophy is, in order to even know what it is we are designing. It is important

Philosophy is the practice of thinking about thinking. It investigates how we think and how this affects what we think and how we act.

Two quotes encapsulate the purpose and method of philosophy, or at least the kind of philosophy I care about. The first is from Wilfrid Sellars: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” The second is from Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said something important about philosophy by observing what happens when philosophy stops functioning normally, and becomes problematic: “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'”


  • Briefs
  • Models
  • Stories
  • Tradeoffs
  • Evaluation frameworks
  • Interviewing
  • Experiments
  • Altitudes
  • Hybrids
  • Interfaces
  • Comparisons
  • Apprehension
  • Invisibility (ready-to-hand / present-at-hand)
  • Alignment — winning cooperation
  • Adoption
  • Instrumentalism
  • Meliorism
  • Pluralism
  • Participation
  • Interaction
  • Cooperation (voluntary participation) avoiding coercion)
  • Participation
  • Eversion
  • Ethnomethodic Rules
  • Instauration
  • Misnorms
  • Extended existence
  • Wicked problems
  • Directional visions (north stars)
  • Triage
  • Adoption (as a substitute for progress)
  • Perceptual (categorial?) affordances
  • Multistability
  • Redescription
  • Fragilism – No truth can bear scrutiny. Looking closer is conceptual dynamite.

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