Category Archives: Design

Methodic wisdom

Susan and I have been debating what wisdom is. We each felt the other’s view was incomplete. I thought her conception was overlapping too much with prudence; she thought mine reduced wisdom with mere open-mindedness. (Actually, she was right.) As we turned the question and viewed it from multiple angles, it became clear, as is so often the case, that it was a matter of emphasis. She was emphasizing exercise of foresight and consideration — awareness of implications beyond the immediate desires and compulsions. I was emphasizing readiness for thought-defying shock — awareness that our awareness is always partial and situated within a much vaster and weirder context, only the minutest speck of which we are conceptually prepared to understand or even perceive. We’re slowly converging on an agreement. Here’s my latest attempt, written primarily for Susan’s review:

Wisdom is an attitude of mind that considers ramifying implications that transcend the immediate concern, in time, in space and in subjectivity — especially those nonobvious implications that unfold only in careful consideration and those that unfold in ways inconceivable until they unfold in reality and which will be understood as inevitable only in retrospect. Wisdom expects to be surprised, because wisdom knows the limitations of thought, and leaves room for irruptions of reality and the epiphanies they bring.


If we accept this definition of wisdom, that would make design practice a methodical form of wisdom — an alternative to speculative-thought-and-talk decision-making.

Design method directs us to go to the reality we plan to change, and encourages us to interact with it directly, in order to encounter some of the implications and ramifications of our proposed changes — many of which we otherwise would never consider.

Design is methodic wisdom.


Chief among design’s considerations are the subjective ones — the interpretive and experiential consequences of deep, hidden differences in subjectivity that must be learned before they can even be conceived. (* see note below.)

Subjective learning of new conceptions is a rigorous exercise of hermeneutic, intellectual and emotional empathy (which I prefer calling synesis). It can sometimes radically redefine the designer’s understanding of the design problem, by revealing it in a new subjective light with new practical consequences — metanoia.

This metanoia — this new, consequential reconception — simultaneously reframes the problem and opens space for novel solutions. Problems and solutions, questions and answers, possibilities and actualities burst forth together with new conceptions. And because the new conception has been learned from real people and refer to real contexts, the newly conceived solutions are far more relevant and on-the-mark. I like to call design metanoia “precision inspiration”.


(* Note: The whole field of thought around conception is grossly misunderstood. Until a conception is learned, all ideas that require it are either inconceivable — submerged in intellectual blindness, neither perceivable nor imaginable — or misunderstood by another conception that comprehends it in a wrong sense, and commits category mistakes. If the originating conception of a set of ideas is finally acquired, the new conception spontaneously reorders the understandings, both on the whole and in part, and there is an epiphany. If the reconception is a very deep one, upon which many other conceptions are rooted, and these have wide-ranging pragmatic consequences, it can seem that everything has changed all at once. The scales seem to have fallen from one’s eyes, one feels reborn as a new person, and it feels and if the entire world has transfigured itself. Until one has experienced something like this, all language associated with this kind of event sounds like magical hocus-pocus — but this is only a misconception of what remains inconceivable. The consequences of this hocus-pocus are just the copious category mistakes of the believing fundamentalist and the unbelieving antifundamentalist.)

Soul and the speaking self

Within the complex society that is your soul, who is responsible for what you do?

Ask your soul, and your speaking mind will speak up. It will talk your ear off about its actions and accomplishments. It will tell you about what its intentions were, how it pursued its intentions, why those intentions were the best intentions.

The speaking mind speaks very convincingly and authoritatively, and sounds for all the world as if it alone decided all these things and carried them out. It speaks so convincingly it believes itself entirely, and because it believes itself entirely, it speaks convincingly.

The speaking mind believes it represents the entire soul when it speaks on its behalf.

Sometimes it forgets it is not the whole soul, itself. It gets out of touch with the rest of the soul. It forgets that there is more to the world than words. It becomes isolated and insular.

The speaking mind can fall into a word world, an existence where only things that can be talked about are real, and anything that can’t be talked about is less than real.

*

Obviously, if you pay close attention to your experience, there is more to a soul than the speaking mind. Besides the speaking mind’s speech, often obscured behind it, there exist myriad spirits, known by their movements and traces, which operate worldlessly and often escape the notice of the speaking mind, and if noticed, often leave the speaking mind speechless. The speaking mind might fumble for words, invent analogies or move it to poetry.

All too often, the speaking mind dismisses these signs, or relegates it to some dull and isolating category: just a reaction, just my imagination, just a feeling, just a passing mood, just a sense — it was nothing.

*

Much of a soul, maybe most of it, is pure instinct, the movements in the soul and movements in the body that function silently and almost autonomously, in response to events around them, completely outside the jurisdiction of speech.

We may be tempted to exclude these tacit and unreflective instinctive movements from full citizenship in the soul. They are not soul, but just bodily reflexes. That is a mistake. They are simply the underclass of the soul. If they went of strike, the soul would lose most of its connection with the body and personhood would grind to a halt.

Then there are habits. These are acquired instincts, those aspects of ourself who run autonomously, as our second nature. Often here, too, we treat habits as unintelligent and simply mechanical. When habit leads a process, speaking mind says “my mind was on autopilot”.

Nietzsche said “Every habit makes our hand more witty and our wit less handy.” This demonstrates the alienation of habit from speech, and demonstration is how habit communicates its existence. The wit of the hand is evidenced in the subtle and unmechanical distinctions and decisions that guide its interactions with the world.

Closely related to instinct and habit is the vast and amorphous class of spirits we call intuition. The line between intuition and instinct and habit is faint and blurry.

Intuitions do most of our experiencing, recognizing, evaluating, connecting and responding.

I — my own speaking mind, that is — likes to divide them into three types: what-intuitions that recognize and relate entities, how-intuitions that act and interact, and why-intuitions that feel value in its many qualities.

The intuitions themselves have responded mostly approvingly to this classification, because they seem to use it in their cooperative activities. In other words, they — I — have adopted this framework and apply it themselves without any verbal bossing from my speaking mind. It is how I intuitively, second-naturally, perceive the world.

*

As a designer, I seek intuitive connections. I want anything I make to link up directly with the tacit citizens of people’s souls, bypassing, as much as possible, the speaking mind. There are many good reasons for this:

  • We function most gracefully when we act wordlessly. When we are forced to verbalize it creates an unwieldy chain of command. The speaking mind introduces a bureaucratic stilted formality to doing that makes it look like the action is being remote-controlled, because that, in fact, is what is happening.
  • The speaking mind often has things it needs to do, and the requirement to issue verbal instructions to eyes and hands interrupts its own fluent speech.
  • When we support direct interactions between our intuitions and things we make, we are able to merge with things so they become an extension of ourselves. The guitar becomes part of our mysterious musical intention and our body and the music. The pen melds our creative, discerning, responding selves through our hands, onto the paper, into the image on the paper. And, I would like to suggest, our wordless understanding infuses itself into words, strung out into sentences, paragraphs, whole bodies of spoken and written thought.

*

Is it possible there is no speaking mind at all, but only a posse of intuitions who have connected to certain words, ideas, concepts that allow them to conceive thoughts? These intuitions have exclusive language privileges?

What would happen if some Prometheus brought language to the wordless intuitions?

Design mindset exercises

I’m thinking about some possible exercises for cultivating a more designerly soul.

  • When asking questions throughout the day, notice whether the question was open- or close-ended.
  • Try to ask as many open-ended questions as possible.
  • Try to get someone to teach you a novel way of understanding something.
  • Test a belief about someone else by asking them to explain to you why they think or feel something, and notice where you were wrong about them.
  • See if you can entertain and feel the persuasive force of something you haven’t fully entertained before.
  • Notice when you agree or disagree with something you hear or read or see, and observe closely and fully what it feels like.
  • Notice when you are feeling anxious or perplexed and observe closely and fully what it feels like.
  • Try to catch yourself before you argue for or against some idea and see if instead you can offer your thinking as an alternative approach to the question at hand…
    …and then see if you can entertain each alternative way of thinking and compare them…
    …and compare them in terms of advantages and trade-offs (in understanding, effectiveness and spiritual tone) instead of in terms of true and false.
  • See if you can learn something new about someone just by observing them or their environment or something they are using.
  • See if you can notice where something was designed so well you might not have noticed it if you weren’t looking for it.
  • Look for an opportunity to reconcile with someone, and observe closely and fully what it feels like.
  • Look for when you feel envy, and respond by complimenting the other, and sharing your envy with them…
    …and observe closely and fully what it feels like to give a deep, heartfelt and reluctant compliment.
  • Give credit; acknowledge contributions and influence as much as you can.
  • If you love people, try telling them so.

Living designally

Premise: If everyone conducted themselves as designers, not only at work, but all the time, most of our biggest interpersonal and social problems could be resolved.

For instance, my advice to designers I know who have been caught in conflicts, especially in political debates that have devolved into fights, is “stop thinking about politics politically, and instead think about politics designally.” —

Concretely, this might mean

  • Try interviewing the other person until you can think in their own logic.
  • Propose alternative accounts to compare, focusing on relative advantages and tradeoffs, not what which explanation is right or wrong.
  • Assure the other person that no solution will be good enough for you until it is also good enough for them.
  • Affirm to the other person that they matter far more to you than any idea or belief.

*

What if we began to think of design less as a skillset, or even as an approach to making, solving or resolving, and instead thought of it more as a spiritual discipline? A way to live, to exist, to be — a way that can be cultivated?

*

Much of traditional religion involves spiritual exercise, intended to cultivate a state of soul conducive to relationship to our transcendent ground. We learn to control ourselves, to accept ourselves, to accept our responsibility, to concentrate our minds, to notice what is within and without and the connections between, to open the hand of thought, to forgive and reconcile, to let down our guard, to feel gratitude for what is far too easy to take as given fact (as opposed to graciously accepting as given gift), to ask for the return of ourselves to ourselves, to feel an urgent hope for the wellbeing of others, to accept whatever happens with grace and strength, to love more readily, expansively, thoroughly — and far more than this.

Religion at its very best is supposed to be an intensive cultivation of self-toward-Allness, and one that does not attempt to exclude that most bothersome but important part of Allness, the people around us. If we cannot be religious with others, we may have spiritual experiences, but they are experiences, not that relationship with all-inclusive Allness that religion pursues so imperfectly but intently.

A great many people have been wounded by flawed religion, and by the antireligion fundamentalism that worships what it imagines to be an ultimate being of some kind, and hates every appearance of real Allness that contradicts it.

This is a weird kind of self-worship, imagination-worship, ideo-idolatry I call misapotheosis. It is a failure to distinguish the self’s imagination from what transcends imagination, and consequently to learn the difficult lesson that while all of us are of All, and in All, none of us are All. Our ideas about others are the furthest thing from other: our ideas about others are part of ourselves. Our ideas about God, about Reality, about History — these are only ourselves.

The religiously wounded cannot engage in religion as it has been presented to them, nor do they find it easy to engage in other religions without unconsciously engaging it as a good version of what hurt them so much in their earlier life. And when they do this, they accidentally inflict the same harm on others with their new true convictions. A great many of today’s most impassioned red-pilled or woke activists are little more than transcriptions of Christian fundamentalism doing the same old battle against Satan, only now it is the Satan of international conspiracy, or the Satan of Those Who Hate Our Freedoms, or the or the Satan of Those Who Oppress Our Identity, or the Satan of climate change, or the Satan of Whiteness, or the Satan of patriarchy, or the Satan of Libtards, or the Satan of Communism, or the Satan of Capitalism, or whatever evil they can agree on with others to hate.

Any Satan will do if you can’t find a credible All/God to love. If you can’t share a love, you’ll almost certainly share a hate. We humans cannot bear to be alone, and we will find whatever we can to feel together. Love is harder, so it is less common.

*

Somehow, though, design gives us a way out of this pattern. It gives us a manageably tiny mustard-seed of a problem to resolve together, along with the beautiful gift of no easy way to escape the necessity of really resolving it.

To succeed we must win the participation of those around us. To do that we must be deeply attuned to the who situation we are confronting, much of which transcends not only our knowledge, but even our logic. This includes not only the materials and the facts of the case at hand, but also the myriad ways others perceive the same situation, interpret it, construe what follows from it, imagines what out to be done.

In design, we must exist as ourselves toward who we are not and what we are not, with a full understanding of that strange relationship each of us has and an I toward All. The strangest part of this relationship is how inconceivable ideas can be learned from others, bringing into sudden existence, out of nothing, new possibilities in a flood of world-transfiguring inspiration.

*

Sure, we can describe it all in flat matter-of-fact language. We can make it no big deal. Yeah, yeah, we need to get aligned around a vision and a plan for getting there. Yep, maybe if we reframe the problem, we can find a solution people will get on board with. Let’s use empathy so we can find out what other people need and want.

Fact is, though, doing these things successfully requires a deep mindset shift. Everyone must make this shift for it to work. One belligerent debater or cynic in the room can break the dynamic. But if everyone makes the shift together something happens, and the productive output of the shift might not be nearly as important as the occurance of the shift itself.

As Rorty said, “Anything can be made to look good or bad, important or unimportant, useful or useless, by being redescribed.”

I want to redescribe this shift into this designerly mindset as essentially religious. (Or not!)

And I want to see if I can stay in this mindset all the time and make it essentially who I am.

Engineering, monocentric design, polycentric design

All engineering is done for some human purpose, even when it does not focus on the people who will eventually use it. Every engineering problem is defined with an eventual use in mind. An engineer develops a system that solves the defined problem.

Once the engineered thing is used by someone, however this can be viewed as a larger system — a hybrid system composed of interacting human and non-human components. It is now a design.

It is the job of the designer to develop hybrid systems of interacting human and non-human elements.

*

Let’s shift how we look at design, and view it in a cool, objective, impersonal and engineerish light. Imagine a person, who we’ll name “User”, interacting with an engineered artifact which we will call “widget”.

If User understands the widget and uses it to do something useful in a desirable way, User is likely to choose to stay engaged. The human and non-human components stay connected together, interacting systematically, and functioning together as intended. But if User finds the widget confusing, difficult, useless or unpleasant and chooses not to stay engaged, the hybrid system loses its human component, and falls apart as a design, even if that isolated widget functioned exactly as it was engineered to.

Designers talk a lot about experiences. Good experiences are ones that keep people engaged as participants in a hybrid system completed by their use. Bad experiences cause design system to lose their human parts and to break into unused engineered components.

For this reason, many designers say that their ultimate output is experiences. I would argue that these good experiences are the best means to another end: to keep the human part of hybrid systems engaged in willing participation in hybrid systems. (* See note below if you want some political provocation.)

*

I came up with this way of seeing design and engineering when I was trying to explain to my engineer father why design research is so important. He was a ceramic engineering professor and taught classes on material science. He’d teach engineering students how various kinds of glass or other ceramics performed under different conditions so they would behave as expected when used in components of engineered systems.

I told my dad that design researchers were like material scientists for the human components of design systems, but much of what we needed to understand what was happening subjectively with them, as well as physically.

*

To repeat: every engineered component is implicitly part of a larger design system.

This can be carried forward one more step:

Every design used by some individual person can be seen as a node in a larger polycentric design system — which happens, not in individual experience, but as a social system, among interacting persons, each having an experience of the interaction, each choosing to engage with or disengage from the system.

A monocentric design (focused on a single person) becomes part of a polycentric design system  when it shapes and colors how multiple persons interact with one another within a social system.

*

People sometimes ask how user experience (UX), customer experience (CX) or employee experience design relates to service design.

UX, CX and other Xs  are monocentric design disciplines.

Service design is a polycentric design discipline.


Note: For political reasons, it has been unwise to express what designers do in this way, because it implies changes in method, organizational design and, possibly, reporting structure. Someday perhaps we’ll heed these implications. Engineering efforts should be informed, defined and directed by designers. But the industrial revolution is still not finished winding down, and we still live in an engineering age. Engineers and other STEM disciplines are thought to hold the answers to life’s problems. This exaltation of STEM is actually creating most of these problems, not solving them. And the identities of STEM practitioners has zero to do with it, either — the disciplines themselves methodologically exclude precisely the considerations that most need to be included and considered in resolving societal problems. If you are trying to solve the wrong problems, or if the problem is misframed, no amount of technical ingenuity will help. But this is a whole other diatribe.


Philosophy is a polycentric design discipline.

If I taught design

If I were responsible for a design curriculum, the first year of study would be focused exclusively on usability.

Students would sit with people and watch them attempt to use various things. They would watch people use mobile apps, kitchen appliances, car dashboards, etc.

They would watch people trying to understand various media, starting with posters, fliers and short videos before progressing to art, literature and non-fiction, and see where they were able to sharpen or change their understandings in fruitful ways.

They would follow customers as they researched insurance policies, enrolled in them, then filed and received claims. Then they would follow the same processes from the employee side, observing actuaries, agents, CSRs, claim investigators and so on. Then they’d observe the leaders of these organizations to see how decisions were made that shape the employee’s responses to customer needs.

They would go into schools and watch what teachers do, not only in the classroom, but also late into the evenings and early in the mornings, all seven days of the week. And they would also watch school administrators hang out in meetings deciding what else to require teachers to do. And they would learn about the experiences of students from various backgrounds, in the classroom, around school and at home.

They would observe political institutions at the local, state and federal level, and see how laws and policies are hammered out. Then they would observe the implementation of these laws and policies, and compare intentions with actuality.

The second year would be redesigning these artifacts, experiences, interactions, processes and organizations — but solely in order to fix existing problems. No rethinking, only improving.

The third year would be dedicated to innovation — to understanding people, interacting groups, institutions and use contexts, and rethinking systems to make them work fundamentally differently, or to do entirely new things nobody has thought of.

The fourth year would develop the students’ sense of form, aesthetics and craft.

If, after making it through this demanding program, students felt willing and ready to bear the sacred responsibility of designing real products and services that real people will actually use, experience, or even adopt and incorporate into the fabric of their everyday lives, they will be required to earn an advanced degree and to go through rigorous examinations to ensure they can be entrusted to design and play a part in shaping our material and spiritual existence.

Apple is better off without Jony Ive’s glitz

Someone posted this article on my company slack about Apple finally understanding that their brainless, aesthete’s arrogance was causing them to make much prettier, but far worse, products. I must say, since I bought my latest MacBook it in 2018, I’ve been infuriated by the sheer wrongheadedness of its design. So, of course, this inspired another of my design rants.

I’ll post the whole thing below, but the part of this spew I’m happiest with is this bit:

A design system is complete only in its interaction with people — the use of its users, the action of its actors. Without people using it, a design artifact is only a component of a design system.

I’ve tried to articulate this thought  before, but this is the best it’s come out, so far. It is this — that people are viewed as an intrinsic part of the system being developed — that should distinguish engineering from design.

Here’s the full rant:

Jony Ive is a first-rate talent, obviously.

But, sadly, his was the wrong first-rate talent for the job he was asked to do at Apple. His talent is sculpture. And it is precisely his artistic genius that disqualifies him from doing great, or even good, design.

Ive’s exaltation of Ramsian elegance over usability, deeply damaged Apple in ways they may not fully realize.

The laptops were only one example, and not even the worst. It was his software design misleadership that harmed Apple the most. Ive ruined iOS with his “anti-skeumorphic” embrace of flat design, which was essentially a system-wide affordance-ectomy. Those fake shadows Ive mistook for decorations, were, in fact, cues that helped users understand how to interact with the screen! While most of those screens were more beautiful to behold after he performed his cosmetic magic on them, that’s not what they are for. User interfaces are for interaction, and it is in the quality of the interaction where UI beauty should be judged. Ive’s interaction designs were confusing, affordanceless trial-and-error pigshit, draped over with elegantly minimalistic graphic design. Their graphical elegance was purchased at a cost of requiring users to decipher them to figure out what was a merely graphical informational or aesthetic element to be read or looked at and what were widgets capable of specific kinds of interaction. Ive prioritized the static appearance of a screen over the the dynamic experience of using it to do something.

In this principled arrogance of imposing an aesthetic vision on passive consumers, Ive aped the worst qualities of Jobs. Jobs’s saving grace was that he loved interaction design as much as ID and graphic design and saw to it that the interactions, most of all, were insanely great.

Jobs instinctively understood the single most important thing every reflective designer must never forget:A design system is complete only in its interaction with people — the use of its users, the action of its actors. Without people using it, a design artifact is only a component of a design system. Jobs judged his work with the human element included. (That human usually himself, but somehow he was able to discern — and maybe that was his best talent.)

But Ive did not understand this. Accordingly he made artifacts so pure that the presence of a person and the context of a life ruined their photogenic perfection. Without Jobs’s supervision, Ive basically beautified Apple’s portfolio into a fashion shitheap. Very few people seem to perceive this key difference, and they have not grasped the decay of Apple’s brand from one founded on wonderful interactive experiences to one of looking-at and being-seen-owning desirable objects — consumer gaze fodder.

I’m glad Ive is gone. I’m glad Apple might be returning to designing products to be enjoyed in use rather than adorned, photographed, awarded, chattered about and documented for eventual worshipful career retrospectives.

Ive should never have been put in charge of Jobs’s legacy. He should have stuck with what he’s dedicated the rest of his life to: crafting luxury goods for the obscenely rich. Stuff like yachts and jewelry, meant to be seen from afar, admired and envied. That’s where is heart is.

It will take a decade for Apple to fully recover from the glitz, if it ever chooses to kick designer luxury to the curb and return to quality design

Infining metaphysics

I was just looking for a good name for my metaphysics, and I was entertaining the idea of an “infinite metaphysics” (infinity, of course, defined in its metaphysical qualitative sense of absolute undefinability, as opposed to the more common quantitative mathematical sense of interminability). I became curious if anyone has already used this term, which led me to Google, and then to Wikipedia, where I, once again encountered Levinas, whose metaphysics profoundly influenced my own.* (see note below.)

In this article on infinity, Levinas is quoted:

…infinity is produced in the relationship of the same with the other, and how the particular and the personal, which are unsurpassable, as it were magnetize the very field in which the production of infinity is enacted…

The idea of infinity is not an incidental notion forged by a subjectivity to reflect the case of an entity encountering on the outside nothing that limits it, overflowing every limit, and thereby infinite. The production of the infinite entity is inseparable from the idea of infinity, for it is precisely in the disproportion between the idea of infinity and the infinity of which it is the idea that this exceeding of limits is produced. The idea of infinity is the mode of being, the infinition, of infinity… All knowing qua intentionality already presupposes the idea of infinity, which is preeminently non-adequation.

I realized I’d accidentally stolen Levinas’s term infinition, forgetting where I got it, and went on a search for where I’ve used it without attribution. That led me to this article from 2010, where I laid out my metaphysics — perhaps better than I have since.

I will likely lift this (sans the brand crap) for the book I am absolutely going to start writing — formally, as a book — by years end.

*

Since 2010, much of my effort has been diverted away from uncompromising development of my own personal philosophy, and toward getting along with and making clearer sense to the people around me. I’ve dedicated my professional life to applying my philosophy in design research, with the goal of understanding other people’s implicit philosophies, both in their convergence (alignment), divergence (misalignment), and conflict (incommensurability) and learning to synthesize incommensurable conceptions into new philosophies, designed for groups to adopt so they become able to communicate and collaborate.

I’ve gotten better at explaining what I do, and why I do it (guided by the example of that master of philosophical accessibility, Marty Neumeier), but sometimes I worry that I blunted my best personal thinking in the effort to gain influence among my design peers. I must confess, I read my 2010 article with a substantial amount of envy of my past self, and with dread that I have passed my peak.


  • Note on Levinas’s ethics: Unfortunately, along with his metaphysics, I contracted an infection of Levinas’s ethics, which Levinas saw as the very essence of his philosophy — but which I see as a key component of the current resentment revolution that threatens the future of Western civilization. I hypothesize that Levinas’s is an unbalanced ethic that ignores the finite nature and responsibility of persons. It is perhaps best described in Kabbalistic terms, as Chesed (love) untempered by Gevurah (judgment, aggression, limits). Without such tempering, Chesed leads a person into moral hubris where mortals — not just I but all — are pridefully expected to exhaust themselves like gods with infinite responsibility for myriad beings. This responsibility is discharged in outbursts of unrestrained, impatient, irritable Netzah-infused revolutionary sentiment, with no awareness, much less respect for the good is craves to guillotine. I know this feeling from the inside, and I reject it, not as as an unrealistic, idealistic excess, but as a titanic impulse, an isolated drive taken out of its divine society and set loose — in other words, an evil. Our culture has a strong prejudice that views Gevurah as evil, and deserving of eradication, even in micro-doses, and Chesed as essentially good, so unrestrained, limitless Chesed is the ideal good. The more love we can heap up, and the more we remove limits and let it flood the world, the better that love is. Kabbalists are wiser, and know that good is in the balance among divine virtues, and that vice is virtue out of balance.

Philosophy as polycentric design

Peter Gordon’s electrifying introduction Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: has sparked some insights. I’ll quote the core passage, with comments and responses:

History has not been kind to Cassirer, but we should ask ourselves if his criticism was so wide of the mark. It was Cassirer, after all, who grasped the philosophical implications of the natural sciences and especially modern mathematics and physics, whereas Heidegger betrayed the superfciality of his thinking on all such matters when he declared that “science does not think.” Today when so many of our contemporary problems confront us with the need to move beyond the unfortunate divide between the natural sciences and the humanities, Cassirer’s philosophy may offer greater promise. All the same, Heidegger may have been right to suggest that the old dogma of transcendental humanism could not be sustained without a covert appeal to metaphysics. Cassirer occasionally reads as if he meant to give up on metaphysics to develop a kind of phenomenology without foundationalism. But most of these gestures are only half- convincing. The urgent point of dispute at Davos remained unsolved: can there be objectivity without metaphysics?

This compulsion to overcome metaphysics has, for me, become problematic. How was this collective decision to reject metaphysics made? Was it even argued, or was it just collectively decided as a fashion?

What tradeoffs have we been making for collectively adopting this stance?

One solution was developed by philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas, who delivered a lecture in Hamburg in 1995 on the dual occasion of the rededication of the Warburg Library and the “ftieth anniversary of Cassirer’s death. Habermas expressed in his lecture great admiration for Cassirer and extoled him as a champion of democracy and Enlightenment at a moment in German history when such champions were all too few. But he also suggested that The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms did not succeed in liberating itself from the conventional paradigm of a “philosophy of consciousness.” For Habermas, the philosophy of consciousness is the name for any philosophical doctrine that describes meaning from the isolated perspective of a transcendental subject who comes to know the world primarily through representations. Over the course of the twentieth century, many philosophers have come to see this paradigm as antiquated and indefensible, chie!y because it relies on a crypto-metaphysical conception of a transcendental subject who stands beyond its own field of operation.

Full disclosure: I believe my own philosophy, despite being antifoundationalist and concerned as much (or more) with immediate, preverbal interpretations and interactions as it is with representations, is, essentially, a “philosophy of consciousness”, but that not only is this not undesirable, I think it is good and important, given the purpose of my thinking, which is the systematic design of conception systems.

It serves as the grounds of meaning but can give no account of its own genesis. Habermas tries to resolve this dilemma without following the path of metaphysical skeptics such as Heidegger and Foucault.

Good! The academic canonization of these two deeply illiberal men has been ruinous. I will even argue that the youthful judges of the Davos debate were, themselves, caught up in the same illiberal mood that plunged Germany and the USSR into totalitarianism, and judged the debate by this same illiberal logic. The world, including its intellectuals were in an illiberal mood, and it was that mood, not reason, that judged the debate.

Instead, he understands objective meaning as the shared creation of an irreducible plurality of subjects who build up the world through intersubjective communication and praxis. This solution helps to secure the objectivity of our language and our moral-political commitments even though it is an objectivity that has dispensed with the need for metaphysical grounds. This ideal of an intersubjectively validated objectivity derives originally from the German idealists, but one can glimpse in Cassirer’s thinking a certain anticipation of Habermas’ solution.

This! We are having exactly this same debate in the world of service design. In fact we were debating it as my company just last week: Is service design (SD) a flavor of human-centered design (HCD), or is HCD a sub-discipline of SD?

My argument is that HCD is evolving from an essentially monocentric discipline focusing on the experiences of isolated individuals to a polycentric discipline, focusing on interactions among multiple actors, each of whom is having an experience. (Services are only one species of polycentric experience, and I think treating services as the overarching category is reductive and unhelpful.)

Much of what I do as a service designer is design philosophies that can support collaboration among interacting collaborators from varying discipline and responsibility levels within organizations. And it is precisely in this space among intellectually diverse people that philosophical (hermeneutical, dialectical) abilities are needed.

Thinking of philosophy not only as a design discipline but as a polycentric design discipline feels explosively fruitful.

The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is an ambivalent work that sits at the boundary between two epochs in the history of philosophy. It points in the direction of a post-metaphysical theory of the symbolic without wholly liberating itself from the older paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness. We can occasionally glimpse its author as he struggles to overcome his own philosophical inheritance, even if its authority remains too strong. This may help to explain the strange feeling of untimeliness that seems to emanate from the pages of this unusual work. Cassirer himself was a man between epochs, a contemporary of Einstein who could effortlessly call to mind lines of poetry from Schiller and Goethe. Though unashamed of his origins, he was indifferent to the claims of nation and tribe; he saw in Judaism only one source for the rational universalism that was the common inheritance of all cultures. A humanist philosopher in an age of extremes, he was in many ways the supreme representative of a world in eclipse.

Although he was fortunate enough to escape the European catastrophe, he did not live long enough to see the new world that would emerge from the ruins. Whether he could have felt at home in this new age of specialization is doubtful. Erudition today is a rare commodity, and it has become just one commodity among others. For good or for ill, philosophers these days no longer have the habit of quoting Goethe. But if we look past these marks of old-world erudition, we may yet find that The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms can come alive with new insights that even its author may never have anticipated. No genuine work of philosophy belongs only to the past.

Of course, I myself feel situated at a moment in history where liberalism is colliding with a collective illiberal mood, so Cassirer is becoming a heroic figure for me.

iPad undo needs a redo

Back when the iPhone was released, shaking to undo was a pretty cool interaction.

True — it lacked cues to help users discover how to undo, and no alternative method for undo was available in some key apps (such as Mail), so this was never a perfect design, but it was usually ok.

But, where the original iPhone had a 3.5″ screen, weighed 4.8 ounces,  and had a generous bezel, my 12.9″ iPad weighs 2.4 pounds in a protective case and has an edge-to-edge screen, which means no space on the front for gripping it, and this changes the shake-undo experience

Undoing an action now requires a user to hold the tablet around the outer edges, while carefully avoiding the buttons. This is made harder because the edge to edge screen gives no orientation indication. Depending on which side is up, the buttons could be located on any of the four corners, usually exactly where one of my hands are when I try to shake it. Half the time the device turns off before I can get the undo to happen. Once I get my grip exactly right, I heave the iPad back and forth with a two-arm movement until the sensors register a shake. Sometimes there is a several seconds delay before the undo activates so this can take awhile. But sometimes it just doesn’t ever work, for unknown reasons.

There are other ways to undo actions, but most of them are only for typing, and these are available only in some apps.

It is sad to watch Apple degrade this way, version over version. Where the Macintosh UI matured and became more systematic over time, iOS has been declining for the last 10 years. Yet, Apple seems to be leaning toward making the Mac more iOS-like rather than the reverse.

Things do not look good. It feels like UI design and digital experiences in general have fallen back into the hands of technologists, and consumer expectations of digital design have fallen to lows not seen since the early 90s, with no Apple to serve as a shining counter-example to point the way out of it.

A good use for leading questions

In the field of design research, leading questions are generally considered undesirable and are carefully avoided, especially in foundational research (where the design team is trying to develop a basic understanding of some domain of actors, their goals, behaviors, attitudes, contexts, etc.), and in generative research (where the team looks for opportunities to introduce improvements to the actors’ situations).

Researchers try instead to ask open-ended questions, which tend to have the form of a request — for a story, a description, an opinion a lesson, etc..

Leading questions, and even more neutrally-stated closed-ended questions, tend to direct the research participant toward responses anticipated by the researcher.

The greatest value of foundational and generative interviews, however, is often in the unanticipated responses — ones that never would have occurred to the researcher or to anyone else on the design team, had the research not been conducted.

These responses are surprising precisely because they are answers to surprising questions — questions that nobody knew to ask, but which the open-ended question coaxed into the open. These questions point to different conceptions our participants use to make sense of their worlds, conceptions that give things distinctly different patterns of significance and relevance, and which make the difference between designs that hit home and designs that seem off-the-mark.

When designers think with the conceptions used by their users — or even better, on revelatory improvements to their conceptions — the design concepts make immediate and profound sense to the users. Ideally, users experience it as: “They get me!”

But if closed-ended questions are asked (questions that imply a limited set of answers), or worse, if leading questions are asked (questions that point to a narrow range of desired answers) the participants will use their social competence to answer the question ask, according to its implied conceptions. The researchers get their answers — but those answers conceal something more valuable: the key to how the participant thinks, their own conceptions, which is the entrance to their worldview.

I am currently rereading Susanne Langer for the first time in 11 years, and I am realizing just how much I gained from reading her:

The “technique,” or treatment, of a problem begins with its first expression as a question. The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it — right or wrong — may be given. … Such implicit “ways” are not avowed by the average man, but simply followed. He is not conscious of assuming any basic principles. They are what a German would call his “Weltanschauung” [worldview], his attitude of mind, rather than specific articles of faith. They constitute his outlook; they are deeper than facts he may note or propositions he may moot… But, though they are not stated, they find expression in the forms of his questions. A question is really an ambiguous proposition; the answer is its determination. There can be only a certain number of alternatives that will complete its sense. In this way the intellectual treatment of any datum, any experience, any subject, is determined by the nature of our questions, and only carried out in the answers.

But what is really inspiring this line of thought is something subtler I am picking up in Langer’s words, a fascinating use of “leading questions’. The first example is example: “The concepts that preoccupied them had no application in those realms, and therefore did not give rise to new, interesting, leading questions about social or moral affairs.” The second example really drives it home:

The rise of technology is the best possible proof that the basic concepts of physical science, which have ruled our thinking for nearly two centuries, are essentially sound. They have begotten knowledge, practice, and systematic understanding; no wonder they have given us a very confident and definite Weltanschauung. They have delivered all physical nature into our hands. But strangely enough, the so-called “mental sciences” have gained very little from the great adventure. One attempt after another has failed to apply the concept of causality to logic and aesthetics, or even sociology and psychology. Causes and effects could be found, of course, and could be correlated, tabulated, and studied; but even in psychology, where the study of stimulus and reaction has been carried to elaborate lengths, no true science has resulted. No prospects of really great achievement have opened before us in the laboratory. If we follow the methods of natural science our psychology tends to run into physiology, histology, and genetics; we move further and further away from those problems which we ought to be approaching. That signifies that the generative idea which gave rise to physics and chemistry and all their progeny — technology, medicine, biology — does not contain any vivifying concept for the humanistic sciences. The physicist’s scheme, so faithfully emulated by generations of psychologists, epistemologists, and aestheticians, is probably blocking their progress, defeating possible insights by its prejudicial force. The scheme is not false — it is perfectly reasonable — but it is bootless for the study of mental phenomena. It does not engender leading questions and excite a constructive imagination, as it does in physical researches. Instead of a method, it inspires a militant methodology.

Leading questions are ones that contain a conception — a generative idea! The reason we ask open-ended questions in design research, and avoid our own closed-ended or leading questions, is to make it possible to uncover better leading questions — ones that are either familiarly relevant or inspiringly novel to our users!

The goal of design research is to upgrade our leading questions. These new leading questions are then posed as opportunity formulas (such as “how might we?” questions) or as design briefs that conceptualize a problem in a way that generates solutions compatible with how the research participants conceive their worlds. As John Dewey put it, “A problem well put is a problem half solved.”

I enjoy calling what I do “precision inspiration“. Precision inspiration replaces stale, lifeless, irrelevant questions with novel, living, relevant questions, which activate new and better conceptions capable of imagining and producing novel, relevant, exciting solutions.

Enworldment design (again!)

Enworldment is my preferred term for lifeworld. I think it’s prettier and it has some desirable overtones: enworldment sounds like something that we intentionally shape for ourselves, where one can easily imagine an amoeba inhabiting a lifeworld.

Enworldments are held together by conceptions. Conceptions manifest in a variety of ways — only one of which is language.

Language is undoubtedly one of the most important manifestations of conceptions. Language provides our best access to conceptions, our readiest way to share them and also our best means to change them — to interrogate them, weaken them, break them, and to find novel conceptions, entertain alternative ones, to evaluate them and to adopt new conceptions in place of old ones.

Because language is so closely connected with conception it is easily to reduce conceptions to language or reduce change of conceptions to a change of language. To to conflate or confuse conceptions with verbalized concepts is to commit a logocentric category mistake.

Why should anyone care about avoiding this mistake? Changes in conception have consequences that extend beyond language. For instance, changes in conception can affect perception, not only in how a perception is interpreted (such as learning to see an optical illusion) but even how it is experienced aesthetically (such as when we acquire a taste, or when our tastes change in response to changes in our lives).

This should not be surprising if you understand perception as sensory conception (sensorily taking-together). A painter’s or musician’s style manifests conceptions in visual or auditory form, and a style resonates with us when we receive it via analogous conceptions, or they intrigue or disturb us when we intuit a conception that we are on the edge of learning.

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From here I want to develop the idea that these conceptions we use to enworld ourselves and make sense of, interact with and to value some things at the expense of other things is not something we only do to enable us to change our world — though it does do that. The enworldment itself transfigures the world even before we apply it to our actions, in ways that make some better than others for different people in different contexts.

Misrelations

More and more, I see the answer of innumerable confusions and conundrums as a matter of prepositional category mistakes.

What do I mean by this? According to Oxford English Dictionary, a category mistake is “the error of assigning to something a quality or action that can properly be assigned to things only of another category, for example, treating abstract concepts as though they had a physical location.” A prepositional category mistake is a category mistake pertaining to relationships between one that explicitly or (more often) implicitly gets a relationship among entities wrong in a way that misleads thinking. The pragmatic consequences following from the relational conception lead to confusion, error or ineffectiveness.

For instance, we might confuse something we ought to experience from — a subjectivity — for an object of experience. (My example here is philosophy. We think a philosophy is a body of truth assertions which are there for us to examine and judge, when in fact the truth assertions are primarily a means for entering and inhabiting the philosophy — from which truths are asserted, examined and judged.)

Or we confuse something that we understand toward (something we orient ourselves toward that is in principle beyond knowledge, or something we can asymptoticly approach in increasing understanding but never reach) with something suited for comprehension as a direct object. (My example here is reality itself vis-a-vis our understanding.)

Or something that mediates an experience of some object as itself an object, instead of an experiencing through. (Here I’m thinking about user interfaces. Novices look at the interface and ask “does it make sense to me?” Experienced designers want to know if the work being done makes sense when performed using the interface, which is why usability testing is organized around the performance of tasks.)

Or we misconstrue a relationship within which partners function as participants within an enclosing whole which includes but exceeds either, snd view it only as an exchange between two self-contained peers. (My primary example here is marriage. The former is what I call actual marriage, but because few modern couples know how to use a participation-in-transcendence conception most enact something closer to what I would call “peers engaged in intimacy exchange”.)

These kinds of things are easy to get wrong. Our thinking is naturally (or deeply, culturally second-naturally) oriented toward objects. Relationships among objects are far more elusive, and we are often distracted by the things themselves when the real confusion is in the manner of togetherness in the things together.

I realize the examples I am providing are sup-optimal. I’ve jumped to the difficult relationships that motivate my thinking, when what is needed are simple, concrete examples that can be built upon.

For this, I plan to rely on a taxonomy developed by Don Ihde and the postphenomenologists: four basic forms of technological mediation: embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations, alterity relations, and background relations. Both my philosophy and design practice are pressing me to finally commit these relationships to memory, so I will write up a succinct summary of these relationships in the next few days.

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I also realize “prepositional category mistake” is bad writing. I plan to call this kind of confusion misrelation. I’m over hideous philosophical language, and I plan to design more usable and desirable vocabulary for conveying my more useful, usable and desirable philosophy. The conceptions I take from phenomenology and other disciplines will all be sent to the gym and given makeovers.

And of course it will all be embodied in a well-designed, well-crafted book.

Useful, usable and desirable all the way down, sahib.

Conceptual conflict

My first vivid conceptual conflict was in my senior year of high school.

My art teacher had taught us that red, yellow and blue were the primary colors and that the reason our red and blue paints produced a placenta brown instead of purple was that no paint was perfect “spectrum red” and “spectrum blue”. Later, through experiment I found that a blue-green clashed with red far more jarringly than green (the supposed complement). Then I learned in physics class about additive and subtractive color worked and saw that the red-yellow-blue primaries were simply wrong.

When I tried to explain this to my art teacher she refused to listen, and just repeated her own color theory and insisted it was correct. She would not entertain my perspective, and it was obviously more important to her than my need to be understood, and that alienated me completely. I no longer respected or liked her, not because I decided to change my mind, but because that is what spontaneously happened and I did not know how to prevent it.

This has happened to me many times since. The felt suspicion that someone values a concept, theory or even a tacit philosophy more than their relationship with me is alienating. If I am stupid enough to press it hard enough and that feeling develops into a full-fledged certainty, that is the death of the relationship.

In working relationships, I often tell people explicitly: “I care more about you and our relationship than I care about anything I think.” I also try to keep things light with people I know cannot or will not be able to make philosophical shifts to make room for me. Often I don’t push against the suspicion, because the certainty is too painful for me.

But every 7-10 years I seem to wind up in a work situation where I fall under the power of someone who imposes a bad theory or philosophy on me that I cannot escape and I where no appeal is effective. The resulting claustrophobia, the feeling of asphyxiation, the panic paralysis and depression that results appears to be outside most people’s experience, and so it has no reality or rights. It is treated as oversensitivity or prima donna demandingness. I need protection, but I cannot get it. When I protect myself, I am condemned for it. I no longer apologize, or expect apologies.

I bought myself a talisman to honor this kind of pain.

A few notes about this form of pain:

  • The most concept-dominated people are sentimental, intuitive and non-intellectual, and fancy themselves the furthest thing from conceptual. It’s Dunning-Kruger.
  • The people who inflict the worst suffering for the sake of their own concept-loyalties are paradoxically precisely the people who fancy themselves highly empathic. They seem to know only an empathy of emotions, but not of values or intellect, and to dismiss whatever they do not know.
  • It seems that deep familiarity with concepts and how they work is the only way to have some semblance of control over them and freedom from them. Conceptually unreflective people only think they are non-conceptual because they are so dominated by their concepts that they treat reflection on them as taboo.
  • Fundamentalisms are the exalting of a theory “faith” over realities, even the realities these theories are meant to represent. They worship a concept of God at the expense of God. They love a concept of people at the expense of people. This includes, most of all, their children.
  • Politics today is dominated by of the most titanically concept-dominated, reality-excluding philosophies I’ve ever encountered, and my political anxieties are tied directly to this horror I’m describing.
  • I found this Nietzsche quote comforting: A Jew, on the other hand, in keeping with the characteristic occupations and the past of his people, is not at all used to being believed. Consider Jewish scholars in this light: they all have a high regard for logic, that is for compelling agreement by force of reasons; they know that with logic, they are bound to win even when faced with class and race prejudices, where people do not willingly believe them. For nothing is more democratic than logic: it knows no regard for persons and takes even the crooked nose for straight. (Incidentally, Europe owes the Jews no small thanks for making its people more logical, for cleanlier intellectual habits — none more so than the Germans, as a lamentably deraisonnable race that even today first needs to be given a good mental drubbing. Wherever Jews have gained influence, they have taught people to make finer distinctions, draw more rigorous conclusions, and to write more clearly and cleanly; their task was always ‘to make a people “listen to raison”.’)

Weird kid

My whole life, from earliest childhood on, I’ve formed strong attachments with objects and been fascinated with their aesthetic and symbolic qualities. Some of my earliest memories are vivid experiences with details of objects. The cozy orange glow of vacuum tubes and the curved reflections on brushed aluminum knobs of my father’s Heathkit stereo, the bright red nose and green lederhosen of a German pull-string jumping-jack toy, the green luminescence of glow-in-the dark tokens from a Casper the Friendly Ghost game, magenta Light-Brite pegs, an intense purple metallic paint on a metal toy airplane that pooled and deepened in the indented details, a clear purple plastic yo-yo. I’d attach to objects and use them as talismans to secure myself wherever I went. I had a plastic Porky Pig in 1st grade that I carried with me and found reassuring. Even into college I had a leather jacket I always wore. My record collection played a similar role, and now my books. My house is filled with items magical relational properties. Books, pens, bags, bicycles, even software tools form connections with me, and sometimes weaken or break those connections. Apple and Adobe have changed their product strategies over the years, and I experience the resulting misconceived redesigns as signs of betrayal.

I think this sense of connection with things is what drives my design.

But when designs do not have or seek this kind of personal connection, I am bored. There is nothing for me in problems of usefulness and usability but no aspiration of desirability.

Expathy?

One of my more unfortunate habits: whenever the bad design of some misconceived and malformed product, service or state of affairs pisses me off I imagine the meeting that produced it. Then I imagine all the little philosophies each participant brought into the room and used for misunderstanding and talking past (or over) all the others.

Bad design is, for me, not only intrinsically frustrating and aesthetically offensive, but politically and philosophically infuriating.

I need a name for a sixth-sense, analogous to empathy, but whose object is artificial objects. I feel the generative philosophies behind artifacts.

Similarly, I sense the enworldment to which a thing belongs. This can be the enworldment that produced the artifact, or it can be the enworldment that is improved by it. The best case is an artifact that is uniquely suited to perfect an enworldment in an unexpected and clarifying way. An ideal gift is physical philosophy.

Conceiving a better world

A philosophy is the total repertoire of moves a mind knows how to make in its efforts to make theoretical, practical and moral sense of the world, to enworld itself.

A well-designed philosophy choreographs these moves into some kind of cohesive and enduring whole that renders life itself intelligible, manageable and valuable. In other words we have a sense of what is true, possible and good for us in the world.

To do philosophy is essentially attempting to acquire new moves, usually by way of tackling a perplexity that feels relevant or urgent but which resists thought. We move guided only by intuition in a region of inconceivability (“here I do not know how to move around”) in order to conceive a new way to navigate it.

The moves themselves are not directly perceived or grasped, because these moves are, themselves, perceiving and grasping. To try to understand them is like trying to see sight or hear hearing. We know what they are by what they do.

Imagine if we humans could acquire new organs of perception that allowed us to experience new, previously undetected phenomena in the world around us.

The miracle of philosophy is that we can, and routinely do, acquire new faculties of conception that allow us to experience new, previously undetected truths, possibilities and value in reality.

And these faculties engage intuitions in ourselves that we frequently dismiss, deemphasize, marginalize, suppress or even oppress. We have no idea what to do with them, so we neglect them, ignore them, push them out, relegate them to insignificant noise.

In a very importance sense, when we learn what to make of our world, we simultaneously learn what to make of ourselves. When make new sense of the world, we make new sense of ourselves, too. The reverse is true as well: when we make something new of ourselves by welcoming marginalized, suppressed intuitions and integrating them into our philosophies, new possibilities of the world open up for us: new things we can understand, new things we can do and make and say, and new things that can matter to us because they are good, beautiful or momentous.

Likewise, if our world feels bad to us, if it is chaotic, irrational, unmanageable, doomed, evil, oppressive or worthless philosophy gives us a completely new response. The unphilosophical mind takes (with its limited repertoire of conceptions) its ugly perception and interpretation of the world as a direct perception of an ugly reality, and selects from the handful of possible responses its limited repertoire of conceptions can imagine, and these responses are saturated with valuations tinged and constricted by its limited repertoire of values.

The philosophical mind, knowing the degree to which our experience of reality is conditioned by philosophy, knows that philosophical inquiry can call any belief into doubt if it examines it with sufficient intensity. Skepticism is a universal philosophy solvent, that can be used to break down any understanding and dissolve it into perplexity. Perplexity clears ground for new philosophy.

Between the destructive power of skeptical critique and the constructive power of philosophizing, we have much more space for changing our shared world than most of us realize.

“Precision inspiration”

When people ask me what design research is, my favorite answer is “precision inspiration”.

I know this might seem slightly business romantic, but my meaning is exact, clear, concrete — even a bit technical.

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I’ll start by explaining what research is pragmatically, in terms of what it does. And because I’m a business guy, I’ll explain what it does in terms of its benefits. In other words, I’ll start with a sales pitch.

First, design research helps inform decisions. It helps teams identify opportunities for improvements. It helps us understand what should be improved, why that improvement will matter to people and how the improvement ought to be made so that the work has its intended effect. Design research helps organizations “design the right thing, and to design the thing right.” Research improves the product.

Second, design research also 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. And morale-sapping doubts about the project can be quelled, so participants can invest real energy into the project, in the expectation that their efforts will produce a positive outcome. Design research done well is organizational alignment magic. Research improves the efficiency of production.

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 gets us closer to the climax of my 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 our ability to take intelligent action. In the most productive research, new concepts 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 concepts learned and 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, teams are forced to create new conception systems — small, local philosophies tailored to a project — that makes problems 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 possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo, that were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas resulting from the acquisition of new concepts is in fact what inspiration is.

The novel ideas produced by research are far less obvious and far more relevant (because they were acquired through understanding users or customers) than ideas produced by industry conventional wisdom that, because it processes the same old facts the same old way, produces nothing but the same old same-old, safe, stale, predictable, undifferentiated ideas.

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

 

Meditation on “Microsoft Re-Designs the iPod Packaging”

Apparently I am waxing careericidal once again, because I just posted this on my company’s slack:

 

A meditation on the classic “Microsoft Re-designs the iPod Packaging” video.

This video pretty uncannily represents how most design used to be, back in the days before design research, when everybody in the room wanted to be the one who “knows The User” and “knows what The User wants”.

And that smarted, most insightful person, by total coincidence, always turned out to be the most powerful person in the room. Huh.

Then design research came along, and it changed team politics and collaborative dynamics completely. Design practice liberalizes business.

This same thing, by the way, is exactly what happened at the inception of the Enlightenment with the Scientific Revolution. This is how liberalism always happens. (and no, of course not — it did not happen perfectly, out of the gate, but nothing happens perfectly right away, except in the minds of naive fantasists, or the rhetoric of cynics.)

Here’s how I explain my job to myself so my work feels important enough to take seriously: We designers are in effect bringing a social scientific revolution to the notoriously illiberal, authoritarian world of business. This is why design research is the greatest thing ever.

Sometimes it is useful to have the opportunity to remember what it was like back in the bad old days of intuition wars and might-makes-right design.