Category Archives: Design

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 concepts 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 concepts 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 concepts, so in effect each team are forced to create a new concept 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 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.

Room 101

If someone were designing my ideal Hell (or if you prefer atheistic imagery, Room 101) put me on a team that designs by committee for a committee. You don’t even have to sentence me for eternity. A month is plenty to get my teeth gnashing, and more than a month will reduce me to the blackest despair.

The thing that makes a design approach render clear social sense for me is that it makes sense of some region of the world in personal terms. We investigate how a specific person does specific things with specific things and experiences specific things, and our job is to make these interactions, artifacts and experiences good by the standard of that person. When learning from users, design researchers redirect all deflection of personal response (and users always try it) into speculation on how other people might respond with “we are interested only in what you think and feel, and what you would do.” By looking at responses one at a time, and only at the end finding any generalities, we rid ourselves of the noisy refractions of what people think other people think other people will think other people will think, which gives us more information on their social psychological folk-theories and and insights into how they would try to design the thing we are designing, than on their own personal responses to novel possibilities.

Speculating on how heterogeneous groups of people might react to a design, and designing for an audience instead of persons is a different art, and an important one. It changes the activity from a interpersonal one to a social one, to use Buber’s distinction. The skillset becomes that of constructing systems that conform to the social rules of that social setting. These rules help people participate as members of a group, performing standard roles, which entails selectively suppressing personal idiosyncrasies, for the sake of smooth social functioning. This means the construction, too, must use standard language, in standard ways, denoting familiar concepts, used in familiar ways. Change at this sphere of design is exponentially difficult and often requires power and some degree of coercion.

But if you are trying to do this kind of design in a group which is itself so large that it can no longer function by an interpersonal dynamic, but must adopt social rules to function, now we have something requiring a degree of talent for functioning within social rules to design things that function within set social rules. The smartest option in situations like this is to design activities with new, temporary social rules that “program” the group to interact differently to accomplish different outcomes. (Which is another way of saying: design and facilitate workshops, because a workshop is a temporary social setting with new roles and rules that afford new kinds of works and new work products.) Workshops can produce group outputs that differ from the usual, but they are still stiff lumbering things that never result in the kinds of surprising snd brilliant novelty interpersonal dialogue can produce. And that is probably fine. The stars for which very large organizations reach in their grandest moments are suspended like gravel in the upper reaches of clouds, somewhere above incompetent mediocrity but well-below that of the average novelist. Workshop outputs are plenty good enough, 95% of the time.

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It just occurred to me: people who always operate by social rules (even their own invented rules), who play a role of their own self-identity (even their own original identity), and confine themselves to the categegories of their personal ontology (even an ontology of their own invention) — and consequently find it impossible to improvise in response to another in a dialogical setting feel, interact with others like workshop participants in little workshops of their own design.

Maybe this is what I despise about political types who see roles and rules governing all things. When the “personal is political” dialogue, deep invention, all the inexhaustibly surprising, creative potential of persons encountering the unique personal kernel in the heart of each person’s soul — the mutual conflagration of divine sparks —  is lost. Instead corporate stability is imposed and preserved.

Totalitarianism is eternal design by committee.

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Room 101.

Anne-Marie Willis’s “Ontological Designing”

Yesterday, Nick freaked me out about the existence of Anne-Marie Willis’s paper “Ontological Designing”. I was so distressed about possibly being scooped, and also about the state of my current project — a distress possibly biologically amplified by an infected eyelid — that I barely slept last night. I was dreaming about this stuff.

Today I got up, read most of the paper and sent Nick the reply below, which seems worth keeping.

Ok, this is not what I am doing, though it is the kind of ontological designing Willis describes here that informs my project.

This paper appears to be written from the perspective of a user contemplating designs-ready-made, not a design practitioner reflecting on design-in-the-making (to adapt Latour’s distinction).

The experiences that feed my thought (experiences I am undergoing, unfortunately, though quite conveniently, on this very project) are the reworkings of understanding induced by the breaking of individual interpretations and understandings upon an (as yet) inconceivable design problem.

In these situations, designers are forced to instaurate new local micro-philosophies that permit collaborators with incommensurable understandings to “align” their efforts to design equipment that can be readily recognized in a present-at-hand mode, adopted, and then used in a ready-to-hand mode. I think this microphilosophizing is an underrecognized gap both in design practice (which tends to focus its thinking on its tasks at hand, and rarely to macrophilosophize) and in philosophy (which rarely participates directly in the kinds of hellish rarefied design projects that inform my concerns).

My work is describing what happens if we apply the lessons of constant local microphilosophizing back to macrophilosophizing.

I think it is important because I’m seeing the same dynamics I see in my mini-hells unfolding in the larger world in our incapacity to align on what to do about — well — everything. The disgruntled tolerance for the postmodern condition and its refusal to macrophilosophize (due to the po-mo allergy to grand narratives) has contributed to a deep fracturing and factionalizing of our citizenry.

And you can see that this idea of designerly coevolution completely misses the central problem: How do we agree on what to do in the first place, in order to world our world into a state where maybe it can coevolve us back into a more livable, peaceful condition? Everyone is full of end-solutions, but at a loss to explain or even frame the problem of why we can’t get there, except to invent theories of viciousness about those who refuse to cooperate. We do not know how to think these kinds of conflicts, which are essentially just political crises — but I think I do have some clarifying insights, thanks to my occasional hell-immersions, and my funny habit of trying to feel better by understanding their hellishness and applying the resulting insights back to my own grand narrative, which I happen to think is better than the ones that developed in the vacuum of public intellectuals being to smart and stylish to perform their duties.

Random reflections on intuitive UI design

Some people are intuitive users of tools. They are able to make the tools wordless extensions of their intensions, similar to how most of us use a pencil. We don’t instruct ourselves to move our hands in order to move the pencil, we just somehow make a mark on a page. Intuitive users are able to do this with more complex tools like user interfaces.

Other people seem to be verbal self-instructors. They have a monologue in their head — sort a script that tells themselves what to do. These people never really form an intuitive relationship with complex tools. They just memorize steps to execute tasks.

The former users are very sensitive to design. They want the design to follow Beatrice Warde’s ideal of invisibility. After the tool is learned, it should merge with their will, and disappear.

The latter users are less sensitive. As long as they can memorize the script needed to do certain actions, they are more or less indifferent to the nuances of how a thing is designed.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way (and I think it has to do with successive generations of designers brought up on web design), we’ve lost sight of intuitive invisibility as a goal of design. Further, a great many UI designers are themselves verbal self-instructor types who lack even basic awareness of what intuitive means, much less how to design for intuition. These types say “this is intuitive because it is well-organized and easy to figure out.”

Another point. It used to be that Apple’s primary customer base was a minority of intuitive users who could not tolerate the imposition of a thick, glove-like linguistic layer between their intentions and their actions, and who valued design that removed it and would pay for that quality. The people who have never seen a real difference between Apple and Microsoft, except one of slickness or prestige, tended to be the verbal-self instructing majority, and they were Microsoft customers.

But now that Apple is a consumer goods and media company chasing the mass market, this small and choosy segment is no longer worth the effort. It’s a smart marketing decision to bugger this segment, but I’m still mad as hell about it.

This is me throwing a tantrum about PowerPoint’s unbelievably horrible “design”. I’ve passed the point of burning fiery rage, and entered realm of icy hatred where the only thing that helps me feel better is analytic vivisection. Thank you for listening.

Designerly virtues

In my decades of design work, collaborating with a wide variety of people from all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds, personalities and workstyles, I’ve noticed that the attitudes most helpful for doing good design work are often reversals of conventional virtues.  I’ve developed a habit of humorously flouting these common virtues and valorizing their opposites.

Over time, this exaggerated oppositional attitude has become my own weird style of professionalism, and these inverted vices have become what I am calling designerly virtues. This post will be a first draft of a list of designerly virtues.

Cooriginality — Designers prize dialogical creativity over individual creativity. We are proud to have contributed to new ideas that pack more insight and expertise than can fit inside the mind of any one person. Cooriginality challenges the modern ideal of the self-sufficient lone genius, who hatches original ideas with no help from anyone.

Epistemic humility — Designers are so accustomed to being wrong, that they eventually become cheerful about the inevitability of being refuted, usually where they least expect it. This acceptance of inevitable error is the mark of experience, not pride that one’s theories will be proved correct. Epistemic humility challenges the desire to be the guy who’s alway one step ahead, who knew all along.

The following three virtues are probably components of epistemic humility, or examples of it:

  • Impertise — Impertise is the opposite of expertise. I guess I could have called it anti-expertise. It is a kind of receptive “beginner’s mind” attitude that constantly tries to perceive all possible novelty in what a more superficial expert glance might dismiss as a redundant, derivative reinvention of the wheel. An impert will try, and almost always find something unprecedented, significant and exciting, to inspire cooriginal creativity. Impertise complements the ideal of expertise, which surveys every situation, classifies it and prescribes a known solution, by adding a critical awareness of expertise’s current limits.
  • Blindsight — Everyone has blind spots. The most perverse characteristic of blind spots is they are blind most of all to themselves. Right this minute you have two blindspots in your field of vision where a optical nerve pokes through each of your retinas, and in each region your vision is interrupted? See it? No, you don’t. When we are blind, literally or metaphorically our vision continues, uninterrupted, right across what we are failing to see — the unknown unknowns — and nothing seems amiss. Blindsight is insight into how blindness really works, and abandonment of the effort to map our blindnesses and compensate with theoretical knowledge, because more often than not, our blindness conceals where we are most blind. Blindsight relies instead on one’s peers — especially the ones we conflict with most — to point out realities to which we are truly oblivious, and think simply do not exist. Blindsight challenges the ideal of corrected vision — the notion that through conscientious calculation, scrupulous adherence to technique and using un-distorting “lenses” we can adequately neutralize our worst subjective blindnesses, biases, and train ourselves to perceive more objectively and justly.
  • Receptivity to be taught — Everyone wants to be a teacher, but the best teachers have something to teach precisely because they have been receptive learners. This is very different from knowing how to inform oneself, which leaves the learner in control. To be taught is to submit to learning: to allow an other to control how the information is presented. Every subject of study has its own effective ways to present its own distinctive kind of knowledge. A math student who comes to a poetry class to interrogate the teacher on the theorems and proofs of verse creates needless obstacles. Human subjects share this characteristic with academic subjects: it is best to invite the teacher to teach, then hand over control. But this is a rare and difficult art especially for people who strongly prefer to play the role of the teacher. Receptivity to be taught complements the ideal of taking the role of teacher.

Phronesis — Phronesis is tacit know-how acquired through hands-on experience. Being tacit, phronesis doesn’t always lend itself to explicit language, but rather, demonstrates itself in practice. When people who understand theory very clearly and who can explain it eloquently, struggle to apply that theory effectively and to adjust their methods to fit contingencies, phronesis is what is lacking. Another reason phronesis is important is “intuitive” design harnesses existing or easily-acquired phronesis to enable users to skillfully interact with a system without having to explicitly figure out or memorize how. Phronesis complements theory with tacit skills that enable mastery of theoretical and physical systems as well as effective improvisation where explicit methods are not available.

Apprehension tolerance — Sartre was right when he said “hell is other people.” Trying to align with other people on how to think about phenomena with no pre-fab interpretation is an intensely anxious undertaking, and frankly, it freaks many people out. Experienced designers learn how to handle this apprehension, and in fact come to see in it a symptom of impending breakthrough, especially when breakthrough seems impossible. Apprehension is the birth pangs of profound insights. With practice we learn how to breathe, relax and deliver radically new ideas. Apprehension tolerance challenges the ideal of the peacemaker who steps in and defuses tension and conflict and restores harmony.

Principled disloyalty — Many designers are afraid to be excited or attached to new ideas, because these ideas might turn out to be wrong, infeasible or otherwise inadequate. But design is inspired and propelled by precisely this excitement and commitment. A good solution to this dilemma is to cultivate an equal and opposite proud and disciplined readiness to reject a beloved idea when it is time to say goodbye. The virtue of principled disloyalty challenges two ideals at once: 1) the passionate champion of the believed-in ideal, and 2) the objective detached rationalist who holds no strong position, out of fear of becoming a passionate champion.

Personal goodwill — Good designers must care more about their colleagues and the people they serve more than their own ideas, and must constantly reaffirm this commitment: “I care more about you and my relationship with you than I care about any of my ideas.” This kind of goodwill is absolutely necessary to do the deep, challenging and often painful work of design. The ideal of personal goodwill challenges the ideal of the true believer whose principles, creed, or ideals matter more than anything else in the world.

Pluralist comparison — There are many good solutions to any problem. Those who believe there is only one ideal solution will be tempted to cling to the first eureka. Sometimes that first solution turns out to be the best. But teams that keep going often find other solutions to consider, and sometimes they find those later solutions are far preferable to the first one. Pluralist comparison challenges the ideal of the discovery of the right solution that is searched for until it is found.

Tradeoff sense — Designers understand that perfection is always a function of certain kinds of partial attention, and that closer scrutiny always reveals unobtrusive trade-offs. The goal is not a solution without trade-offs, but rather a solution with tradeoffs so optimal that they go unnoticed when the solution is encountered in its intended context. Inexperienced and naive idealists often approach problems with impossible standards (and usually highly distorted criteria of perfection) — which lead not to the ideal solution but lackluster ones whose chief virtue is flawlessness according to one unexamined standard. Tradeoff sense challenges the ideal of perfectionism, and all the expectations of perfectionism, especially the belief that the right solution requires no tradeoffs, and everything that does is therefore not right.

Synesse — Synesis is the act of inhabiting a new first-person perspective through fruitful dialogue. At first glance this might seem to be empathy, but it is not, for two reasons. First, empathy tends to be motivated and guided primarily by attempts to experience some approximation of the feelings of others, something which is difficult, if not impossible for people with different lived experiences. Synesis is guided more by interpretative understanding. By gaining insight into how a person’s perceptions, conceptions, valuations coalesce into a worldview that shapes lived experience, a person’s feelings become more discussable. Further, these insights opens new possibilities of interpretation, and freedom from unexamined, habitual, unconscious interpretations that control us if we are not aware of them. Second, the goal of synesis is not necessarily for one person to understand the other. The goal is more for each to approach the other to produce a new, more expansive understanding that can accommodate and do justice to all parties in dialogue. Agreement might not be reached, but a mutually-acceptable account of what the essential difference of opinion is, supports a more pluralistic and respectful form of disagreement that does not (unconsciously) privilege one opinion over the other as superior (and therefore in a position to judge, explain or diagnose the other). These expanded perspectives often produce new space, not only for better mutual understanding and respect but also for conceiving radically new innovative ideas that could not fit into the older smaller perspectives. When design research produces disagreements and intense apprehension among researchers about how to understand their participants, this signals a need for synesis and the opportunities for radically new ideas that come from creating new idea spaces. Not only will the ideas be oriented toward the needs of participants, they will make use of conceptions that are not only non-obvious, but literally inconceivable without synesis — a benefit I call “precision inspiration”. — Synesis is a challenge of the highest order. It involves active listening, apprehension tolerance, willingness to be taught, personal goodwill — all the other designerly virtues, in fact. When we practice this constellation of skills together we get better at it and develop the capacity for synesis: synesse. Synesse challenges the ideal of empathy, especially its impossible goal, which ironically encourages the futile and very alienating conclusion “you can never really understand me.”

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This is my first list, and it might not be complete. It is a good start, though, and I am relieved to get it out of my head.

 

Experience mesh

I recently cooriginated a new kind of design artifact that seems to be taking off in the service design world. I call it “experience mesh”.

The purpose of experience mesh is to represent a multi-actor design without taking any of the actors to be more primary or central than any others. This is crucial, because the main advancement of service design over older user-centric or customer-centric or any other actor-centric approaches to design is that service design is polycentric.

Polycentric design does not focus only on one actor, but looks at the experiences and especially the interactions between multiple actors to ensure that all actors are having a good experience and are interaction with one another in mutually beneficial ways.

What has been bothering me about the main design deliverable of service design, the service blueprint — and what inspired the framing of the problem that led to experience mesh — was that a blueprint is only partially polycentric.

The very format of the service blueprint has been impeding service design’s evolution beyond the single actor perspective. Though service blueprints do represent multiple actors, the whole thing is organized around one protagonist’s storyline (usually the customer). The other actors delivering or supporting the service are viewed only in reference to the protagonist, appearing and disappearing on the frontstage and entering and exiting the backstage, called into existence by the needs of the protagonist.

But much of what is most decisive in the service experience of these other actors happens completely outside of a blueprint oriented around a customer. For instance, a call center agent who materializes in a middle of a blueprint, when a frustrated customer calls to ask about her bill, also arrives on the scene with a backstory of his own. That morning he attended a team meeting, where he was exhorted to reduce call times and to increase up-sells and cross-sells. The scorecard he keeps on his desk by his keyboard, shows that his numbers are down: no commissions this month. Also, he is sitting in a cavernous room with agent stats (including his) projected up on the wall the size of a movie screen, and he is surrounded on all sides by teamwork posters, performance award trophies and other motivation aids. These missing moments and touchpoints will affect how he feels about his life throughout the day and the quality of his interaction with the customer when their storylines eventually intersect. Longer term, they will help determine whether this call agent is inspired to stay at his job and jazzed about helping customers, or whether he ends up ground down to robotic apathy, looking for opportunities to quit as soon as he can. These omissions from the customer-centric blueprint might very well represent the problems most needing service design interventions.

An experience mesh keeps the customer’s, agent’s and all other actors’ storylines complete and unbroken, loosely weaving them together to show how the overall design of the service impacts the lives of everyone involved. Where the storyline threads converge and loop together, both actors are frontstage to one another in an interaction. When their storyline threads diverge (and perhaps loop with storylines of other actors within the service) they are backstage to one another.

But every actor’s experience with the service is shown in its full continuity and placed within the scope of the service design. Everyone has a continuous, unbrokenstory. Nobody is disappearing and reappearing in service of one primary actor who is placed at the center of the service design. Everyone is viewed as the center of an experience, which can merge and harmonize with each interaction, all of which can and ought to be designed as a single multi-actor system: this is polycentric design.

Experience mesh is still imperfect in execution. I think it might be one of those artifacts that benefits from the flexibility of digital tools, and might find its ideal form when it sheds the constraints of its physical paper and tapeorigins. But the problem experience mesh is meant to solve is now framed, and as John Dewey said, “a problem well put is a problem half-solved.”

Reconceiving the unconscious

Reading Schutz, and examining the structure of lived experience I am suspecting more and more that what we call “unconscious” and habitually conceptualize spatially as submerged beneath our awareness has been misconceived — or, to put it in more designerly language, is a conceptualization that introduces tradeoffs which might not be optimal for our purposes. And what is this purpose, I’d like to optimize for? I’ll try to pin it down: I think in popular thought (which is the thought that creates, re-creates and shapes society, through ethnomethods) we radically misunderstand the relationship between language and lived experience. We have a tendency to conflate consciousness and speech. If something resists language, and we find ourselves unable to capture it our memory with the help of words, that wordless memory of images, sounds, feelings, etc. seems to sink faster into oblivion, and to be harder to retrieve. My hunch is that words are nonverbal memory aids that condense experience from the mental environment. When we have words for what happens to us we are able to “objectify” what is going on, whether what is going on is “out there” in the world or “in here” in my memory. With language we produce sharper objectifications that go into our memories and we have mnemonic objects that will condense the sensory recollections when we wish to recall the experience later.

So in my model, the unconscious is just those mental activities that we have not articulated for objective knowing. But these are not autonomous demon-like beings who slip in the shadows and depths, who move us against our will when we ease our vigilance, hiding our under-selves from what our minds will tolerate. I see this as a nasty vestige of medieval religiosity — one that keeps popping up among people who fancy themselves secular, but whose minds still move in superstitious ruts.

I prefer to understand what we call the unconscious as that vast set of tacit perceptual, kinetic, feeling realities hiding in plain sight, but inaccessible to linguistic thought. They are there, real, tangible, important but we don’t have words for them so they evaporate like dreams after we experience them unless something happens to us that causes the vapor to condense again. One of the great benefits of words is they are reliable memory condensers.

Folks who “think visually” or who take their intuitions and mind motions seriously as real and significant prior to any ability to articulate or conceptualize or demonstrate or argue them have a capacity to create thoughts outside the dominant language games of the culture. I want to articulate some of these realities and make them more thinkable. But also, I want to banish the latter-day demons of the Freudish “unconscious” that seems to have reemerge to haunt our social and political anxieties.

I also find our beliefs about the role of language in our everyday behavior to mislead designers. If we believe users verbalize instructions to themselves that their bodies obey when using software, we stop trying to directly engage our hands. If we understand that language itself is an interface that we use to help us make sense of experience when other means fail, we create two layers of interface between users and their tools. A great user interface minimizes the requirement to verbalize, so tools become invisible, ready-to-hand extensions of the user’s will.

Try these ideas on with this line of thought. The political crisis we are in now, with deep roots in the American tradition, can be seen as starting with the rise of social media. Much of our social lives, and our lives in general, became heavily word-mediated. Normally, when people gather it is around experiences. Things are enjoyed together — food drink, music, art, laughter — and experiences unfold over the course of hours. Social media is fast language. TL;DR, scan, scroll, start, stop, scroll. Not only are people’s blah-blah flipped through like TV channels, but engagement is sporadic and flitting. Written literature has time to evoke, conjure, hint, suggest and condense memories and knowings. Fast language only recalls or refers. It is spastic and explicit. Expastic language could be a good word for fast language, dittos and hashtags. But things got worse when Covid put everyone in social isolation. Then the entire world had to be strained through screens. The realm of shared tacit realities constricted and the word-world expanded explosively. I think what we are seeing now is the opposite of an eruption of the unconscious. I think the sensible wisdom our tacit understandings were removed from the public setting, and brainless verbal logic took over and is running itself to its logical extremes inside s frictionless, gravityless vacuum of collective solipsism.

Antibuddhism

It has been said that a soul is a society. Let’s assume this is true. It is true.

And let’s assume that every soul, being a society, has its own internal culture, its own internal political factions, its own internal injustice, and its own persecuted, marginalized parties longing from freedom and recognition.

Every association a soul makes with the external world affects its culture and politics. It empowers, liberates, suppresses, ostracizes or enslaves some soul-faction.

(There is such continuity between the internal and external world that ignoring the distinction has some analytical value. Even denying the existence of essential self can have merit.)

Relationships between people (or, rather, between soul-factions) can overpower those relationships that hold an individual’s soul together. When this happens, the term “individual” is exposed as inadequate. Love is the most conspicuous example of this kind of turmoil.

Being “one in flesh”, or, conversely, feeling “torn”, or having “two minds” has more literal truth to it than one suspects. It takes two to know that truth.

When a person’s internal society changes, that person’s external relationships must be renegotiated, most of all the more intimate ones. Deep internal change transforms an intimate into a stranger.

Jealously is an instinctual defense against estrangement.

Spiritual folks disparage jealousy as an illegitimate attempt to possess another person. Their understanding of possession is impoverished, the consequence of a desire to be invulnerable, to be “not of this world.” We are of this world, especially when we refuse to be.

There are relationships between people and objects that affect a person’s internal culture and politics. This is one reason that design is so important.

Despite what spiritual folks insist, we are as much our possessions as we are “ourselves”.

The world we inhabit holds us together. Our efforts to physically and socially shape our worlds are as important to soul-care as so-called inner work.

Religion is taking our finite place within infinity. Infinity is, from the perspective of finitude, inexhaustible surprise. Infinity literally, etymologically, sur-prises every finite being.

Religion should, especially in these times, attempt profound enworldment. Religion should be the furthest thing from “not of this world.” Spirituality — especially “spiritual-but-not-religious” spirituality — is how we try to get our mind to feel some specific divine way, maybe blissful? or peaceful? or ecstatic? or overwhelmed with awe? And typically, its method is aestheticized solipsism.

What would a designed philosophy look like?

I’ve been bothered by a simple question: if philosophy is, as I believe, a design discipline, what is 1) its material, 2) its specifications (“deliverables”, the plan of the designed thing), 3) its artifact (the designed thing itself), and 4) its actualization (the actual using of the designed thing), the qualities of which are the ultimate, though indirect, goal of design?

I am asking this way, not because of some compulsion for finding structural parallels, but because the problem of what a philosophy is and should do has been perplexing me. What is a philosophy? What is its nature? Is it the assertions? The logic? Is it a kind of thinking style?  When we apply the philosophy, or what is the nature of this “thing” that is applied?

It all becomes a little less perplexing (or gives me some degree of grip on the problem) when I compare it to other forms of design and make structured comparisons.

Even with the most concrete and tangible kinds of design, the ultimate intended effect is practical and experiential, and experiences are painfully indirect. The fact that designs in use disappear in the activity of using does not help matters at all.

Let’s start with some concrete examples, and see if they suggest new ways to think about philosophy. I will answer the question with two design disciplines I know well, UX and service design.

With UX, 1) the material is digital media (screens and other interfaces, and the underlying systems which enable and constrain what is possible); 2) the specifications are process flows and screen schematics (wireframes); 3) the artifact is the software or site; and 4) the actualization is a good user experience — effortless, pleasant and fruitful interaction with the software.

With service design, 1) the material is the entire extended organization (including not only the whole organization, including employees, partners, physical and digital infrastructure, practices/processes, policies, etc., but every point where value is co-created by delivery of the service, that is, with customers and users of the service); 2) the specifications are moment architectures and service blueprints; 3) the artifact is the service in its various forms across delivery channels; 4) the actualization is a good service experience for every actor involved in delivering, supporting or receiving the service.

So, giving philosophy this same treatment, 1) the material of philosophy is language in the most general sense (including not only words but symbols of every kind); 2) the specifications are lessons in the most general sense (books, essays, lectures, conversations, arguments, models, paradigms); 3) the artifact is concepts (understood as thought-producing mental behaviors, which is confusing because these behaviors are impossible to state directly and factually, but must be demonstrated); 4) the actualization is a thoroughly second-natural way of understanding (meaning that it becomes spontaneous and transparent) some domain of life (or the entirety of life) in a way experienced as better. By better, I mean more comprehensible, more livable and more valuable. By better, I mean we are able to avoid feeling perplexed, bewildered or indifferent to our lives.

As with all design, the work must be done with the actualization in mind, which is why the process is one of iterative experiment with direct involvement with those who will finally actualize the design. This is why human-centered design practice, or, in the case of service design, polycentric design practice are not specialized types of design but, simply, design competence. The implications to the practice of philosophy are significant. Does this help explain why philosophers crave conversation? Is the attempt to persuade an informal kind of philosophy design practice?

This is a first crack, so everything is up for discussion.

Redemption by design

Rorty, being intensely Rorty:

…the intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature. Monotheistic religion offers hope for redemption through entering into a new relation to a supremely powerful nonhuman person. Belief in the articles of a creed may be only incidental to such a relationship. For philosophy, however, beliefs are of the essence. Redemption by philosophy is through the acquisition of a set of beliefs that represent things in the one way they really are. Literature, finally, offers redemption through making the acquaintance of as great a variety of human beings as possible. Here again, as in religion, true belief may be of little importance.

And redemption by design is arranging the elements of life — people, things, ideas, etc. — in systems that allow them to cooperate for mutual benefit, however benefit is conceived by the cooperating agents.

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I would like to count among the number of cooperating agents, “infrapersons” — psychic components of personality whose dynamic relations produce myriad moods, feelings, experiential colorings. Different designs will engage different infrapersons. Writing with a Bic pen or a #2 Ticonderoga is a different experience because it engages different infrapersons than writing with a Pelikan Souveran M800 or a Rotring 600 pencil. Sitting in a cubicle under a cold fluorescent strobe suppresses elements of self that might come out when sitting under sparkling halogen in a studio space. We feel more “like ourselves” when more of our self — more of our own infrapersons — have an opportunity to emerge and participate in our living. An important task of designers is to acknowledge and serve neglected infrapersons. To the degree it accomplishes this, design generates excitement, newness and je ne sais quoi. Cynics might dismiss this as slaking appetites for pointless consumption, but this is an uncharitable view of the profound relationship people can have with things in the world. I view these proud “anti-materialism” sentiments as a leftist strain of “not of this world” puritanism.)

Philosophy adoption

Susan asked: how is the philosophy design you envision different from Kuhnian paradigm shifts? The answer she extracted from me gets to the heart of my project, and I will need to emphasize this point in Second Natural: The physical sciences, and the attitude toward truth inspired by the physical sciences places all emphasis on epistemic and practical knowing (“what” and “how”) and trades off moral (valuative) knowing (“why”), which becomes a sort of ethic of scientificality. “The truth hurts” and being scientific means embracing the pain of sacrificing all other values.

But if we accept that we live in a truly pluralistic reality, and embrace the consequence that no single philosophy is capable of accounting for reality without strategically excluding, distorting or underemphasizing some realities in favor of others, we are freed question this tradeoff. A new scientific paradigm may give physicists a new way to conceptualize some stubbornly puzzling corner of their field, but these advantages might not be worth what is given up for ordinary people whose conceptual needs differ from those of physicists.

Once we see concepts as tools for selective perception, categorization and reasoning which permit some kinds of response and suppress others, we are freed (to a degree) to think of philosophies, components of philosophies and philosophical implications as matters of adoption. We can say physics theories what the best atheists say of God: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” If our concerns do later come in contact with theological or scientific problems, we might have to rework our personal philosophies in order to faithfully contend with their claims. This is especially true if we wish to win the respect of those communities and persuade them to accept our own beliefs. But this is not all that different from the adoption of any other technology that integrates with its design context.