Reconceiving conceptions, part 1

A note on word choice: I am experimenting with using the word “conception” in place of “concept”. A conception is a conceiving move that produces a concept. A concept can be one of any number of artifacts, all of which can be viewed as alike in that they are produced and reproduced (comprehended) by the same conception.


If you think about it — and few of us do — thinking is an extremely mysterious activity.

Thinking is never more mysterious than at the edges of intelligibility, where, in order to think with any coherence, clarity or conviction, a thinker must first find new ways to make clear unified sense of material that is fragmentary, murky and perplexing. These new ways of making coherent sense are conceptions.

When one lacks conceptions needed for thinking, conceptions stand starkly absent. It is similar to how we suddenly become hyper-aware of our reliance on a humble body part, like a little toe, once it is injured or stops functioning, or how much we use a utility when service is interrupted, and we keep mindlessly flipping on light-switches even though the electricity is out.

It is when conceptions and thinking breaks down that we think about the activity thinking and experience how mysterious it is.

For normal people, the experience of grappling with inconceivability is relatively rare. Most things make sense most of the time — or at least most relevant things make sense. Of course, many things remain incomprehensible, inexplicable, irrational, confusing, frustrating, chaotic, crazy or mysterious — but these things tend to be pushed out to the margins. They are labeled “irrelevant” and ignored. Or they are labeled as “evil” or “delusional” and condemned or despised. Or they may be labeled “mysteries” and placed beyond human comprehension, for wonder, contemplation or worship. Generally, nothing short of catastrophe or crisis is sufficient to motivate a person to reconceive and understand something that defies comprehension.

Normally, normal people rely almost exclusively on ready-made conceptions to produce whatever thoughts they think, and to form whatever beliefs they hold. Infinitesimally few beliefs are produced by thinking. Nearly all beliefs are conceived automatically, in perception. Most conception occurs prior to thought, habitually and invisibly, in the continuous act of perception, where conceptions intercept and conceptually format sensations prior to any conscious thinking. When perceptions cohere autonomously in a form that lends itself to effortless intelligibility — self-evident truth — truth and reality are indistinguishable. This state of mind is called “naive realism.”

Is naive realism bad? Many will insist “yes” but this judgment is itself the product of conception — perhaps, ironically, a habitual and unconsidered conception of precisely the kind it disparages.

Naive realism can also be conceived as an ideal. This is what I intend to argue, and I intend to argue it from a highly abnormal angle: that of a design strategist.


I mentioned that normal people normally do not think about thinking nor the conceptions they have at their disposal for perceiving and conceiving truth, and I referred to design strategists as abnormal in this respect.

Design strategists are forced to think about thinking, conceptions, perceptions all the time. A total breakdown of thought and attempts to resolve the breakdown and resume thought is just part of the work.

This is because design strategists are crisis agents. We are primarily hired to resolve crises, or to create crises in order to help organizations innovate, differentiate or disrupt their industries and throw their competitors into crisis, all for the sake of gaining competitive advantage.

Design strategists are professional crisis mongers. The most important component of such crisis mongering is design research, and the ideal outcome of design research is what I call “precision inspiration”.

Explaining strategic design research and precision inspiration provides context for understanding why strategic design demands thinking about thinking.


The best way to explain design research is pragmatically, presenting it in terms of what it does. And since design research was formed in the crucible of business, let’s discuss what it does in terms of benefits, using the preferred genre of the business world, the sales pitch.

What are the benefits of design research?

First, and most obviously, design research informs decisions. It helps organizations identify opportunities for improvement. It helps them understand precisely what can and should be improved, why that improvement will matter to people and how the improvement ought to be made so that efforts to improve things have their intended effect. And these improvements are not only for customers, but for all people involved in the organization — customers, employees, partners, leaders, investors and any other kind of stakeholder. Design research helps organizations “design the right thing, and to design the thing right”. Research improves the product of an organization.

Second, design research looks at opportunities through the lens of an organization’s capabilities, and especially those capabilities unique to the organization and therefore potentially differentiating. The improvements found are improvements only this organization is able to provide. Research differentiates the product of an organization. The product is not just better — it is uniquely better, and this organization is the only one able to provide it.

These first two benefits supply the “precision” part of precision inspiration. They focus effort on a sharply-defined problematic region, where potential value is most concentrated.

Third, design research provides persuasive evidence that helps leaders align organizations around particular projects. If everyone in an organization is persuaded that a project is worthwhile, energy otherwise wasted arguing for following divergent paths — or even taking those paths and working at cross-purposes — is applied forcefully in a single direction. Morale-sapping doubts are answered, freeing participants to invest energy into the project, optimistic that their efforts will bear fruit. Design research helps organizations align and improves efficiency and effectiveness of production.

Fourth, design research also drastically improves team dynamics and helps them collaborate more effectively and enjoyably. By introducing the scientific method into design processes, it brings enlightenment values to the notoriously authoritarian milieu of the workplace. Instead of uninformed speculations and untested intuitions (the products of private imaginations, prejudices, preconceptions and biases) competing to prove that it possesses esoteric insights into the souls of The User or The Customer and therefore has the answer on what solution to build, everyone is free (or freer) to propose questions to ask and hypotheses to test with real people, in order to assess the degree of validity in everyones’ ideas and hunches. The stakes are lower and cheaper, so democratic participation is more affordable. And the output of the research typically partially validates multiple views in ways requiring new combinations. So ingenuity is contributed from more sources and woven together ingeniously by yet others, and ultimately the idea can only be said to originate in the entire team working together on a shared problem. Research improves the experience of production, which lays the political groundwork for the climax of this pitch, the inspiration part.

The inspiration of design research comes from how it can helps us reconceive what we are doing, how we are doing it and why it matters. This is important, because our repertoire of conceptions enable and constrain what we think, believe, imagine, invent. They also shape our perceptions and help us ask clear questions. The limits of our conceptions are the limits of our minds, and the limits our capacity to take intelligent action. In the most productive research, new conceptions are learned directly from participants in the research, in the process of understanding their worldviews. Yet more conceptions must be found/made (or instaurated) to make sense of the full range of conceptions learned and to link them to the conceptual tools of the various disciplines collaborating on a solution. This can rarely be done with the available stock of existing conceptions, so in effect each team is forced to create a new conception-system — a small, local philosophy tailored to the project — that makes the problem intelligible and soluble.

This is an arduous, perplexing and anxious process. Not all people have the intellectual flexibility, faith and fortitude to do it. But when it is done successfully, new conceptions cause novel possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo — possibilities were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas — even new goals, purposes, values — resulting from the acquisition of new conceptions is, in fact, precisely what inspiration is.

The novel ideas produced by research are far less obvious and far more relevant (because they were acquired through precise understanding of specific people and and specific organizations) than ideas produced by the general truisms of industry conventional wisdom. Because industry conventional wisdom processes the same old facts the same old way, produces nothing but the same old same old, same-old: safe, stale, predictable, undifferentiated ideas.

This new, previously inconceivable way of conceiving precisely what this organization can do for precisely these people the organization exists to serve, conceived in a way that makes this problem thinkable in a shared way for all people involved in the effort and aligns them in solving it is precision inspiration.

Deep, rigorous, courageous research is the most effective and reliable way to induce such precision inspiration.

Doing research in this way, day in, day out, year in, year out changes one’s conceptions of conceptions and forces us to rethink how thinking works. A life of producing myriad small, specialized philosophies for specific problems eventually produces a comprehensive general philosophy that expands far beyond the limits of business, or any compartmented life activity and changes one’s view of everything.

In other words, it becomes a fundamental philosophy: a philosophy of design of philosophy.


To be continued… Design should be invisible, and so should be our conceptions!

14 thoughts on “Reconceiving conceptions, part 1

  1. Bravo! Great stuff. A few comments:
    1. Conceptions: The term didn’t do much for me. I highlighted its use in your essay and then read every instance as “concept” instead of “conception”. The meaning of the sentences didn’t change a bit for me. Let’s discuss what you’re trying to accomplish with this word.
    2. Up front you discuss major macro cases of inconceivability, but when you get into the rest of the essay, discussing design research/precision inspiration, you seem mostly focused on micro cases of inconceivability: “focus effort on a sharply-defined problematic region, where potential value is most concentrated”. You may want to save the life-changing kinds of inconceivability for later discussion.
    3. Your mention of “naïve realism” is an interesting one. I think of it as akin to “the crust of convention”. It is absolutely necessary and should be second nature for productively engaging in the given set of purposes the convention/realism serves. But as you point out later, “The limits of our conceptions [read “our naïve realism”] are the limits of our minds, and our ability to take intelligent action”. In other words, each kind of naïve realism helps us take certain things for granted so we can be more efficient, mentally effortless. But the flip side is that they lock us into fixed ways of looking at the world, which we must from time to time disrupt (create a crisis as you put it) in order to see things in new ways. So I’m wary of an unqualified argument that naïve realism is an ideal. Like any “tool” it can be ideal for some jobs and not others.
    4. I like the idea (note you use the word “idea” in a couple places in the essay instead of “conception”) of a “crisis monger”: someone whose job it is to break the crust of convention, disrupt a given naïve realism, in order to improve our ability to pursue existing goals or create new goals, new purposes. It’s related to strangification/defamiliarization.
    5. I like that the combination of opportunities for improvement and an organization’s capabilities is what focuses precision inspiration. This reminds me of all the Rorty quotes I sent you about philosophy reweaving the old (current capabilities) with the new (opportunities for improvement).
    6. You say that “In the most productive research, new conceptions are learned directly from participants in the research, in the process of understanding their worldviews”. I’m curious where the participants got their new conceptions? Did they just generate them easily, spontaneously while working, or did they have to go through some explicit conception process as you describe. I ask because you initially say that “Normally, normal people rely almost exclusively on ready-made conceptions to produce whatever thoughts they think”. If this is the case, how did the participants generate the new conceptions discovered during the research phase?
    7. Conception-system. Local philosophy. You don’t like my suggestion, “precision philosophy”? ?
    8. “[E]ach team are [sic] forced to create a new conception-system — a small, local philosophy tailored to the project — that makes the problem intelligible and soluble”. I think it’s critical to more fully distinguish making the problem intelligible from solving the problem, if you want to highlight the importance of explicitly generated and documenting a precision philosophy PRIOR TO generating a solution FROM the precision philosophy. It is the precision philosophy that make the problem intelligible in a new way. This is a precursor to generating a solution from this new form of intelligibility.
    9. “[N]ovel possibilities pop into existence.” How about adding “Novel possibilities and sometimes even new purposes pop into existence”? This would sound more fructivist. ?

    1. 2) What I am attempting to do in this section is provide some context for the relationship with thinking that design strategists form — which is instrumentalism — and the experiences we often have, but suppress because they are difficult to account for in the terms of our popular philosophy, and cut against the grain of harmony-at-all-costs corporate culture. Where I am trying to take this like of thought is to the philosophical shift that can occur if you develop a philosophy that permits or even prescribes philosophy as an intrinsic part of all design, and takes seriously what happens when this is done with wide-open eyes. Philosophy of design of philosophy (for design).

    2. 3) I am probably overstating my point. I intend to loop back and reinforce this point with my arguments about invisibility as an ideal of design. Naive realism is what we get when our philosophy is designed so well that it disappears in use — so that when we think with it, we think through it and focus solely on its object, truth, just like when we write with a perfectly functioning pen we write through it (and our hand) and focus solely on the sentence flowing forth.

      We are so used to a skeptical stance (at least what in whatever it occurs to us to be skeptical toward) that sometimes we forget to have skepticism toward a compulsive skepticism that breaks anything that seems fragile, for no other reason than that it is fragile and therefore…? (and this is where my skepticism kicks in: why is indestructibility assumed to be a property of truth, especially if truth is known to be constructed?)

      I think the skepticism and critique is great for breaking conceptions that are malfunctioning, but that we should be judicious about what we decide to break, and what we choose to preserve and maintain.

    3. 4) I’m deliberately using Kuhn’s concept of”crisis and linking it with Michael Porter’s beautiful concept of “competing to be inimitably different”. The goal is to break our conceptual habits in order to clear ground for a novel philosophy capable unifying stakeholders of an organization in a unifying vision — aka “synesis” seeing some complex phenomenon together as a unity, together with other people. Con-cept. Together-taking, together with others.

      Re: “idea” — I have the same problem as with “concept”. Ideas are objects, and I need something more gerundy.

      1. I understand your problem with “idea”. I was merely pointing out that you used the term a few times in your post. I suggest you remove the term “idea” by substituting either “concept” or “conception”, in order to make things clearer.

    4. 6) This is a very fun question to think about. Every discipline forms its own popular philosophy, usually more or less organically. Learning a new job is not only learning how things are done, but also learning how things are conceptualized, thought about, talked about, and evaluated. (In other words, it is a matter of learning ethnomethods, mostly tacitly) And even when individual organizations manage to innovate and differentiate, experienced practitioners migrate across jobs, spreading the new ways of thinking and doing across their industry. The reason we are able to address needs of cohorts instead of facing radically divergent needs of individuals is this industry conventional wisdom. One of the shortcomings of early UX was that it simply learned these philosophies and applied them directly to their solutions, instead of breaking them against their client organization’s corporate and disciplinary philosophies to find new and better ways to resolve problems.

    5. 7) To me, precision is about the exactness of its construction, not the focus of its scope. That’s why I prefer language around smallness and locality. I’m still looking for the right word, though. “Specialized” might work better.

    6. 8) Are you saying that the philosophy used for the design work (which is essentially what a brief is) ought to be presented as its own little design project-within-a-project? In some ways, that is what I’ve twisted service design into at my company. I treat service design projects essentially as brief design projects — but, even to do THAT we need a philosophy… so we get this infinite regression. Actually, this is a whole new way to get to this root philosophy I am trying to design — it is the asymptote or point of approach in this infinite regression.

      1. I think it would be fruitful to discuss the structure, content, and uses of a design brief, so I can better understand how you think a brief and a local philosophy (or whatever you end up calling it) are related. I’m not suggesting any kind of regression or recursion (I think). I’m merely asking you to highlight that a design brief is a necessary and central deliverable of a design engagement AND that it is clear that the brief is a form of local philosophy/conception-system/conceptual-scheme-system.

        Let me give a contrived concrete example to make what I am asking for clear. Suppose the design engagement was to reconceptualize the roles/processes of product management for a software company (something we tried to do at IBM). I could imagine a client who doesn’t get it saying, “I’m not interested in the local philosophy behind your redesign, just tell me your recommended changes to product management”. Your response might be “The recommendations won’t make sense and won’t work, unless you understand the philosophy of product management we have designed with you”.

        This is what I meant by “[The local philosophy] is a precursor to generating a solution from this new form of intelligibility”. The “solution” in the above example is the set of recommended changes to product management. The set of changes without the underlying philosophy is a recipe for disaster.

  2. 1) With “conception” I am attempting to find a word for an engendering action that produces a conceptual unity. I’ve tried to shift the meaning of “concept” to play that part, but I’m not sure it is possible or desirable, because the form of the word denotes an object of conception. When we perceive, our perception produces a percept. So when we conceive, our conception produces a concept. That’s the logic of the choice. Does that change anything for you?

    1. The analogy to perception did the trick, I think. However, here is the language I typically use for perceiving: The act of perceiving is relative to a perceptual scheme. When I engage in the act of perceiving, I am (implicitly) using a perceptual scheme to produce percepts. An example of different perceptual schemes is how people of a given race have greater difficulty perceptually distinguishing the faces of people of a different race.

      Likewise, the act of conceiving is relative to a conceptual scheme. When I engage in the act of conceiving, I am (implicitly) using a conceptual scheme to produce concepts. An example of different conceptual schemes is scientific theories, eg Ptolemic vs Copernican astronomical conceptual schemes.

      Thus, I will now read your term “conception” as “conceptual scheme”. Is this wildly misunderstanding you?

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