Category Archives: Design

Remedial phenomenology

For the last couple of months I have been re-grounding myself in Husserl’s phenomenology. The work I am interested in doing is phenomenological, but it is not, itself, phenomenology. By returning to Husserl, I hope to arrive at the point of departure for my project. I am interested in approaching philosophy as a design discipline, both in the form of the philosophy (writing, visuals, practices designed to impart a particular faith) and in its substance (the life afforded by adoption of the faith). To make matters weirder, the faith itself is designerly. Obviously, it is a synthesis of philosophy, design and religion that profoundly scrambles the current meanings of philosophy, design and religion.

Course outline: “What is service design?”

I’ve been taking an online course on designing online courses. If that isn’t meta enough the online course I am learning to design is on design.

My course will be an introduction to service design, meant to introduce people who are contemplating or preparing to participate in a service design project how to think about and talk about service design, so they can feel comfortable with the idea of embarking on a service design project and participating in the process.

I’m putting the tentative outline of the course here, just in case anyone is interested:

Lesson 1: What is design?

  • What we mean by design
  • What we do not not mean by design (making functional things more appealing)
  • What we also do not mean by design (planning out an engineered thing)
  • Design produces dynamic systems of parts and participants
  • Successful design motivates participants to participate
  • Design is concerned with understanding and involving participants

Lesson 2: What is a service?

  • What we mean by service
  • What we do not mean by service (service as opposed to product)
  • Service design’s much broader conception of service
  • Some services don’t look like services
  • Service generates, exchanges and distributes value of myriad forms

Lesson 3: What is the value of design?

  • Quantitative value
  • Qualitative value
  • A business that fails to deliver qualitative value will not make money
  • Experience is about qualitative value
  • Design motivates participants to participate by offering good experience

Lesson 4: Good experiences in general

  • Good experience is useful, usable and desirable
  • Human-centered design (HCD) is a method for producing good experiences
  • Overview of HCD (universal methodology for producing good experiences)
  • Altitudes and granularity of experiences
  • Beyond touchpoints

Lesson 5: Good service experiences

  • Service experiences are a complex special case
  • Service experiences have six characteristics, all of which must be addressed in a good service experience.
  • 1. Services comprise multiple experiences occurring over a span of time
  • 2. Services comprise experiences occurring across multiple delivery channels
  • 3. Services comprise experiences interacting with other people
  • 4. Services comprise experiences of aligned and misaligned interests
  • 5. Services are experienced as partly exposed and partly concealed
  • 6. Services experience is the result of how the organization operates

Lesson 6: The six dimensions of service

  • Reflection on service experiences, good and bad
  • Introduction to six dimensions of service (6DS)
  • 1. Sequential
  • 2. Omnichannel
  • 3. Polycentric
  • 4. Aligned
  • 5. Semivisible
  • 6. Operationalized
  • Sorting good and bad experiences into the 6DS

Lesson 7: A typical service design project

  • Introduction: from current to future state
  • Understand internal perspectives
  • Understand current service delivery
  • Understand the current actor experiences
  • Identify and prioritize opportunities to improve current experiences
  • Envision alternative future experiences
  • Evaluate and revise alternative future experiences
  • Blueprint future service delivery
  • Plan phased development of future service

Lesson 8: Some core tools of service design

  • Introduction: current state, future state versions
  • Current state ecosystem map
  • Current state service blueprint
  • Current state experience map
  • Opportunity statements
  • Concept sheets
  • Future state experience (“story from the future”)
  • Future state moment architecture
  • Future state service blueprint
  • Future state evolution map

Lesson 9: What it is like to participate in a service design project

  • It is participatory
  • It is collaborative
  • It is multidisciplinary
  • It is radically democratic
  • It is anthropological
  • It demands empathy
  • It demands different modes of thinking
  • It will demand different ways of working
  • It changes everything

Lesson 10: How service design can help you

  • Apply six dimensions of service to your own service
  • Define a project

What the actual hell is service design? Part 1

People often ask what I do for a living. I dread this question. Because I answer “service design.” To which they very reasonably ask “What is service design?” To which I find myself unable to give a succinct, clear answer.

My succinct unclear answer is “I am a sort of win-win engineer.”

While this doesn’t come close to answering the question, it does get things rolling in the right direction.

If the person seems sincerely interested I might continue with some un-succinct clarification. “I try to help organizations set conditions where anyone who deals with that organization, whether as a customer, or employee, or leader, or partner, or whatever — anyone who participates in the activities of the organization — benefits from their interactions, while also benefitting others.”

Years ago, a friend and I had big plans to start a “But what is it?” blog in order to showcase companies who explain the benefits of some offering of theirs, but who completely fail to give any sense at all of what the offering actually is. I bring this up because I am painfully aware of the fact that, so far, my explanation of service design is exactly the kind of thing that existed to ridicule.

So let’s put some nouns under the lovely benefits. What is service design?

Service design is a design discipline that focuses on improving how organizations create and deliver value, both internally and externally.

Besides committing the sin of circular definition, there are few nouns shakier than “design”. Half the world is confused by the word, and the other unconfused half misunderstand it. The matter of what design actually is will be dealt with later. For now, I will make things even worse by elaborating on the “create and deliver value” part.

The word “value” might be even shakier than “design”. It is certainly very general, and vague. But it is general and vague for the very best of reasons: value exists in myriad forms, and only a word as general and vague as “value” can cover them all.

Obviously, one form of value is money. When value takes the form of money  it becomes easy to quantify, track and manage. Service designers definitely want to help organizations make money, but in this respect, we are no different from any other vendor a company might hire.

The difference comes from the other forms of value that service design helps organizations create and deliver — the more qualitative forms of value — and how many of these forms of value service design seeks to create coordinate and deliver.

Qualitative value can be in the usefulness or desirability of a product, those qualities that motivate someone to buy it.

Qualitative value can be the convenient or timely availability of products.

Qualitative value can be a helpful act of assistance that saves time or effort or stress.

Qualitative value can be useful information, or clarity on some murky or complicated matter, or a mind-blowing epiphany that makes you rethink everything.

Qualitative value can be feeling nourished or refreshed by beauty or elegance, or charmed by humor.

Qualitative value can be reassurance, or a kind word, or a sincere smile.

Qualitative value can be combinations of these various good things all at once, adding up to a good experience.

Qualitative value can be consistently good experiences over durations of time, resulting in a deepened, warmed or strengthened relationship that is valuable in itself. It feels good to have strong loyalty to a brand who has always done you right, and that is valuable.

It also feels good to work for an organization that does its customers right. This kind of organization is often also the kind of place that does its employees and partners right — and encourages employees and partners to do each other right, while doing right for their customers.

Even though these qualitative forms of value can be harder to quantify, track and manage than money is, they are the human reality that is the very root of value. Without these qualitative values, money will not be made.

And without qualitative value money would have no value at all. What good would even the largest quantity of money be, if there were no qualitatively good things to purchase with it? This was the hard lesson King Midas learned when he discovered that his magical touch that turned every qualitative reality into a quantum of gold, was not a blessing, but a curse.

This a paradox: What feels most real, concrete and factual from a management perspective is actually an abstraction of what seems vague, squishy, intuitive and arbitrary — but which are the realest realities of any organization. The hardest facts of business are the least concretely real. The softest, vaguest, touchy-feeliest aspects of business are what drive the behaviors that help a business flourish or make them fail.

So how do you manage these unmanageable factors that make or break your business?

By now it should be clearer what service design exists to do. Service design helps organizations coordinate to produce and deliver all these various kinds of qualitative value as effectively and efficiently as possible.

But how? This brings us to design. But I’ll have to go into that later.

What I’ve written above might end up part of a course I am working on. Please give me feedback if you have any. Thanks!

Reflections on service design

Last week I realized several important things about service design.

First, the modus operandi of service design is to create conditions for summoning and sustaining benevolent collective being (a.k.a. egregores). We arrange the roles, the rules and the material artifacts required to receive a collective animating spirit in which those receiving, delivering and supporting services participate. I cannot talk this way in a professional setting, but knowing this helps me feel the full importance of my work.

Second, I am realizing that one effective way for me to explain what service design does it do point out the contagiousness of feeling. The best strategy for ensuring any one person has a good experience is to ensure that every person has a good experience. A miserable clerk will darken a customer’s experience. And too many miserable customers will sour a clerk’s experience, and over time, it will sour their life, and that clerk will darken the experience even of cheerful customers. Only by baking mutual benefit into our social systems can we ensure that the primary contagion passed in our interactions is good moods.

Third, in any organization, the less direct control it has over the behaviors of its customers, employees and partners, the more it can benefit from service design.

All design is an appeal to freedom. Design assumes choice — the choice to attend or ignore, the choice to select or reject, the choice to cooperate or rebel, the choice to invest or divest, the choice to advocate or denigrate, and so on. Only organizations with coercive power over people do not need design.

Wherever an organization must persuade, design can help. Design helps organizations understand what is persuasive to those people it wishes to persuade, helps it produce the most persuasive options, and helps it ensure that these options stays the persuasive option available.

The design industry has gotten pretty good at producing persuasive options for particular types of people. Witness the prevalence of X disciplines. UX (user experience), CX (customer experience), PX (patient experience) are established industries. Employee experience and citizen experience are becoming more common.

But now, increasingly, organizations face the challenge of designing for multiple types of people. To make it even more complicated, these types of people often interact with each other, on behalf of the organization, but not under its control. Think about platforms like Uber or AirBnB who mediate services exchanged between providers and receivers, but whose brand depends on the quality of these service exchanges. The organization cannot directly control what happens, but must instead create conditions where each participant in the service benefits by benefitting the other.

Organizations who must compete for employees, motivate them and retain them, while simultaneously competing for customers, are also in this boat.

Organizations who produce a product that is a component in a partner’s service, whose product is experienced in the context of this service are in this boat.

Organizations who produce a product but who depend upon partners to present, recommend, distribute, deliver, install, customize or support that product are in this boat.

Organizations who coordinate networks of partners to achieve some greater good are in this boat.

Elected officials who oversee public services, whose careers depend on the votes of an alert, informed, critically-engaged public should be in this boat, at least in theory.

When an organization finds itself in this general position, where it must persuade multiple kinds of people to interact with one another in mutually beneficial ways that support the goals of the organization — that is when service design is most valuable.

I’m thinking about all these things because I am working on designing an online course called “What the Actual Hell Is Service Design?”

Palindromic structure of service design

I am desperately trying to find much simpler ways to convey how service design works. Here is one of my recent simplifications. And it is a simplification that intentionally errs toward over-simplification. It not precisely, exactly accurate, but it is directionally true and helps illuminate the logic of the methodology. It is a helpful heuristic.

The structure of service design is palindromic. That is, it has a mirror structure. It goes 1-2-3-4, then 4-3-2-1.

The first motion is understanding what the current state of the service is.

The second, reversed motion is one of instaurating what the future state of the service ought to be.

First understand:

  • 1. Understand the current organizational capabilities.
  • 2. Understand the deployment of these capabilities in the current service delivery.
  • 3. Understand the current experience of those who receive, deliver and support the experience.
  • 4. Understand where the opportunities are: what should and can change.

Then, in reverse order:

  • 4. Prioritize the opportunities: what should and can change.
  • 3. Envision a better future experience of those who receive, deliver and support the experience.
  • 2. Design a future service delivery capable of actualizing the better service experience.
  • 1. Develop the capabilities required to support the better service.

Above, I linked to an old post, a lengthy excerpt from Bruno Laour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. As apt a term as “instauration” (discovery-creation) is in any truly creative act, it is even more true in service design, where an organization providing a service is dependent on voluntary actors choosing to participate in a way that sustains the service — as opposed to refusing to participate in the service, or participating in a way that undermines the service.

…we find ourselves in a strange type of doubling or splitting during which the precise source of action is lost. This is what the French expression faire faire — to make (something) happen, to make (someone) do (something) — preserves so preciously. If you make your children do their vacation homework assignments, you do not do them yourselves…

As any leader knows, even employees must be persuaded to participate in their employment. But in service design, often much of the service is delivered by partners, many of whom are not under the control of the organization. Participating in the service must be valuable to them or they will opt out or lame out.

Service design wins participation in service systems by designing for mutual benefit. It instaurates conditions where win-win interactions spontaneously occur between service actors.

And this is the single biggest difference between service design and other experience design disciplines, for example, user experience and customer experience. Service design is like them, in that those people who receive the service (whether we call them users, or customers, or consumers or patients, etc) are supposed to find that experience a good experience. That is, the design is functionally helpful, easy to understand and interact with and, hopefully, resonates with their aesthetic and moral ideals. But service design is just as concerned with the experiences of those people on the front lines, actually delivering the service. And it is also concerned with the experiences of people behind the front lines who support that service.

Services are optimally effective when they serve everyone who participates in the service — receiving the service, delivering the service and supporting the service. And, I should add: They must also work for those sponsoring the service. That is, the service must help the sponsoring organization flourish.

In the near future I’ll be posting more and more on service design. I am taking a class on designing online courses, and my project will be to design an actual course, “What is Service Design, and What Does It Do?”

I am absolutely convinced that the praxis of service design is a path to a much better way to work, live and experience life. I would love to see service design become mainstream and become our next collective enworldment, at least for everyday life.

WordPress, R.I.P.

WordPress has completed its long pivot and has finally fully transformed itself into a website design tool. It is no longer optimized for writing. It is designed to assemble media elements into engaging, immersive digital experiences, or something.

The upshot is I can no use it and absorb myself in my writing. The legacy text editor has been fully retired. The block editor is now non-optional, at least if you use the WordPress app. And the online editor is extremely broken. The block editor layout causes weird typos (for instance, I constantly hit underline when I mean to hit delete). When you tap on a word in a different text block, the whole thing lurches upward, and instead of the word you were trying to select, the word below it is selected. And it is now entirely impossible to cut multiple paragraphs. Everything conspires to distract and frustrate.

WordPress is no longer a tool I can use. Even right now, writing this little diatribe, I am having one problem after another. I can hardly get this out. It is depressing.

I loved WordPress.

I also loved Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop.

I loved MacOS, iOS and I loved Apple.

A new alienated generation of designers now dominates UX. One by one these alienated incompetents are destroying designs that I once loved and relied upon. These tools were part of me — extensions of my own being. My intuitive bond with these tools has been severed. I experience it as amputation. It is deeply personal. It is betrayal.

Alienated people cannot design intuitive systems, because alienated people do not even know what intuition is. To them intuition is just arbitrary mental habit, which can be retrained. With enough repetition and drill, just about anything can be made familiar, intuitive and true.

When one is fully alienated, this seems absolutely true, and, without any contrasting experience of intuition with which this alienation can be compared, it is impossible to know or even conceive otherwise. Where conception ends, imagination ends.

Things can be better. Things will be better. Whether we live to experience it, or die from alienation is the real question.

Service design initiation

I am starting a class on online course creation this month. The class is project-based, centering around the design and implementation of an actual online course.

My class project will be an initiation into the enworldment of service design.

By enworldment, I mean the practical-experiential manifestation of an understanding, which causes a person to approach, perceive, understand, respond to and attempt to change the world in some distinct way. (Enworldment is close enough in meaning to “worldview” or “lifeworld” that for most purposes it can be used interchangeably.) *

The course is not meant to be a philosophy of service design, but a series of exercises to effect a shift that causes service design problems to become conspicuously visible as what they are: service design problems.

Currently, under the mainstream corporate enworldment, most service design problems, if noticed at all, are understood in other terms (such as technology problems or management challenges) and are addressed in ways that fail to resolve them, or make them worse.

For a variety of reasons, I have it in for the corporate enworldment, and its failure to detect and respond to service design problems is the least of them. The main problem with the corporate enworldment is the alienating, intuition-paralyzing, depressive effect it has on the majority of people who subscribe to it.

People who believe they hate capitalism don’t really hate capitalism as an economic system, but rather this corporate enworldment’s mode of capitalism. Frankly, if we were to establish socialism today, we would establish it under this same hellish enworldment, while losing many of the tempering effects of the market, and end up with something at least as soulless, oppressive and violent as the Stalinist or Maoist systems. Today’s youth are some of the most thoroughly alienated people I have ever met, and they suffer from political Dunning-Kruger of the profoundest kind that makes them believe they have the answer when they can’t even hear the question. If they do not grow out of their social childishness before they take full control of our society, mass suffering is inevitable. I am sorry, but this is the truth.

I despise the corporate enworldment, too. The only thing I despise more is the anticapitalist two-in-one political enworldment that opposes it — proggism and its complement, alt-rightism. They each think they are the opposite of the other, but they are just the vessels and veins of a single bad-blood pumping circulatory system.

I know that commerce can be conducted in myriad ways within a capitalist system, and one of the better ways is service design. I would like it to become the universal enworldment in the domain of business, and to see all the bean-counters, systems engineers, product managers, perception manipulators, strategic planners and so on, to find their proper places within it, not over it, as they are today.

There is a lot of interest in service design right now. Most people try to do service design within the corporate enworldment, which causes it to be far more complicated and ugly than it could be if it were practiced under a more suitable enworldment. I hope this online course might inspire people to approach business — and life — in a radically different, much better way.

NOTE * : Here is an outtake from an earlier version of this post, where I was attempting to shed more light on enworldment:

“I’ll restate this same idea religiously. Why not? : An enworldment is the way the world manifests to us when we approach it in some particular faith. So when employees of corporations experience their work lives in that dull, weary, anxious, workaday way we describe as “corporate”, that is an enworldment. And any product of corporate life also belongs to that enworldment and it bears a corporate aura — more like a smell — of phoniness, impersonality or insincerity and artificiality. Art aspires to the opposite. An artist with his own enworldment produces artifacts experienced as art, ideally bearing a genuine, intensely personal, otherworldly aura — also known as a halo. Most aspiring artists have absolutely no idea of enworldment, and just try to craft interesting-looking stuff that seems to suggest something provocative or mysterious. Most art does not even manage to be bad art. It is just the idle play of people who’d like to bear an artist’s aura, but who are too timid, pain-averse and unimaginative to diverge from the popular enworldment with its moral norms of norming the abnormal and conventional wisdom of deconstructing convention, playing around with materials in hopes something novel will emerge.)”



Herbert Simon’s first book

I’m finally getting around to reading Herbert Simon.

I wonder how many service designers are aware that before writing Sciences of the Artificial, Simon wrote another book called Administrative Behavior, which according to Wikipedia, “was based on Simon’s doctoral dissertation” and “served as the foundation for his life’s work.”

I haven’t experienced this precise species of excitement since I learned that Adam’s Smith’s other book was all about empathy.

Prying open the hand of thought

I’ve begun to notice where other people’s own original “pet theories” harm their overall understandings and ability to communicate their ideas. The noticing is spontaneous and intuitive, too. It is not an intention or an analysis. I just see it as given.

This matters to me because I have become aware that I am guilty of the same thing. The idea that I was going to write a book to mark my intellectual property, and my intense anxiety of getting scooped has corrupted my thinking. Now my philosophy is scarred with neologisms and mangled with argumentative entrenchments.

For this reason, I am doing some strange things to loosen my own grip on “my” ideas.

I feel that if I can stop caring, or at least suspend caring about the source of the ideas I use and care about — if I can “open the hand of thought” and let my precious, old, complicated ideas fall out — maybe some simpler ideas might land on my palm.

I am focusing on learning to teach — prioritizing what is most readily learnable over what is mine — as a mindset to gently pry my fingers open.

And what I am going to learn to teach is service design. I want to get service design dead simple, so it can do its transformative magic on our everyday dealings with others.

When done in the right spirit, service design invests us with a new practical faith — one that guides our participation in the transcendent, mysterious, glorious drudgery of life. This drudgery — ours and others — deserves our love and respect. Service design operationalizes that love and that respect within an organization.

It is important!


I spent most of this week at Greenville Memorial Hospital. My dad had a Type A aortic dissection, and had to undergo emergency open heart surgery. So far, he has beaten some terrifyingly slim odds, largely thanks to his heart surgeon, Dr. Bhatia, who worked on him literally all Sunday night through Monday morning, and the incredible nurses and support staff at the CVICU.


These days it is easy to lapse into pessimism regarding our species.

But it is important to remember that the people who give us this dark impression is a small and specialized segment of the population, who spend their days reading about and writing about one small corner of human experience.

Meanwhile, another, much larger group of people show up to work each day to give care and comfort to a perpetually rotating set of hurting, terrified people. They serve with skill, professionalism, compassion and humor. We don’t often hear their perspectives on things because they are incredibly busy. Their communications are mostly practical and specific and directed to one person or a few.

When I focus on people like this, and recognize them as representative of humanity I feel much, much better about everything.

Rambling on about gundams

A friend of mine invited me over to his house to assemble a model gundam with him. I’ve done it twice now, and it’s got me thinking.

As a young kid, for a few years I got way passionately into building model airplanes and cars.

I can pinpoint exactly when I got into it — July of 1981 — because I associate the smell of the citrus safety glue with Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding which was going on at the same time. I’d picked up a model F-104 Starfighter at an Eckerd Drugs en route to SUUSI, a Unitarian-Universalist family summer camp thing. At SUUSI that year I learned the word “lesbian”, and, simultaneously, I found out that gay people were not mythical beings, but actually existed, were attending this camp, and wanted to hang out with each other. Who knew? Also at this session, they showed a film called “Beatlemania”, where I discovered that the Beatles were not an obscure musical act that only I knew about. Not only did a large number of UU adults show up to see the film, but other kids my age did, too. But here’s the real kicker: according to this film, the Beatles were a very popular band — bigger, even, than KISS, the Spinners and Ray Stevens.

Don’t judge me. I did not ask to grow up in rural South Carolina, and I definitely did not ask to be the socially awkward nerd child of yankee pinkos who decided to save money by living in an extra-backwards town neighboring the university where my dad worked — a town that detested yankee pinkos and their awkward offspring. And in the 80s, no less: the golden age of nerd persecution. The theme of every other movie that came out was how dorky, impotently horny and hopeless nerds were, and how they deserve the abuse they naturally receive from their social superiors, but maybe they can use computers or science to get revenge or catch a glimpse of gratuitous boobery. It was not a good time. So fuck off. I had to figure everything thing out myself. That included, most of all, how to generate self-respect in a respect vacuum — a skill that, more than anything else, has made me who I am.

But I’m digressing.

So, model-making takes me way back into by biographical prehistory, and the idea of trying it again was intriguing.

But it wasn’t the same at all. There is no citrus glue. The pieces fit together perfectly — like, weirdly perfectly. When I made my F-104 Starfighter the parts were crude — obviously molded out of plastic magma, probably poured by hand from cast iron vats, in some dark factory lit only by coal fire and arc welders, by some worker who looked like a sooty Mario from Donkey Kong. The parts were attached to trees, and had to be twisted and wrenched free before they could be stuck together.

Half the time the part broke at the wrong point, and the other half of the time the part got all mangled. Later, I learned to gouge the parts off the tree with a blunt X-Acto blade. I wasn’t clear on the concept of disposable blades. I thought of changing the blade as repairing the knife if it broke, and as long as it kept sort of cutting stuff, it wasn’t broken, yet. So I’m pretty sure the blade I plunged into the palm of my left hand, while attempting to carve a T-Top into the roof of a silver 1978 Trans-Am Firebird, had a broken-off tip, and was was also covered with rust and paint. Sadly, that hand-stab was likely the cleanest cut of my model-making career.

But I’m digressing, again.

These gundam molds are miracles of precision fabrication. We snip the pieces with an instrument called the GodHand Nipper. But snip is the wrong word. The plastic just politely and perfectly separates along the cutline.

Then we sand the imperceptible mark where the cut allegedly occurred, until it is as if that part is a material manifestation beamed to Earth from Plato’s plane of pure form. The parts are then snapped together, effortlessly, without any need of glue. They fit with a perfection that gives me goosebumps. Half of the experience is marveling at the ingenuity of the kit’s designer, and at the quality of the fabrication.

Reflecting on this experience, I realize I’ve misconceived the activity.

A long time ago a friend of mine explained to me the difference between popular art and fine art as one of effort, or — as we say in the service design racket, of “value exchange”. In popular art we expend little effort, and in return passively receive the modest pleasures of entertainment. With fine art, we invest serious effort in meeting the work half-way, and through active participation receive sometime life-transforming rewards.

In saying all this, I am not claiming that gundam models are fine art — (but I’m also not denying it) — but if I were to think of it that way, I would see the assembly of these kits less as an act of creativity, and more in terms of that kind of cocreativity demanded of the listener of classical music — or maybe, better, of the performer of a scored piece of music. Here there is a lovely blending of connoisseurship and artistry, of consumption and production, of a kind that was more available back in the day when, if you wanted to hear your favorite Beethoven sonata, you had to go play it for yourself with your own two hands on a piano.

Knowing from a distance

My life as a design researcher goes like this, over and over: My client hires us to do design research. The organization is full of smart people who know the organization’s business inside and out. They believe they know roughly what is happening with their customers and their employees. Mostly they just want us to fill in some knowledge gaps. So we go out and interact with real people in their homes and workplaces. There we learn that the situation is quite different from what the client thought, that the problem has been misframed, and that the most important insights aren’t located in the knowledge gaps, but rather where nobody thought to look.

It’s not like this every time. Some organizations understand people better than others. But it is like this often enough that I am highly skeptical of claims to know from a distance. It is hard enough even to know close-up!

And when people seem unaware of the difficulties of distant knowledge and have too much confidence in their ability to piece things together based on sifting hearsay, I suspect they lack the kind of healthy relationship with reality that allows us to know truth.

Real and ideal

Bruno Latour: “What is real resists.

Reality most conspicuously resists our ideals.

What do we do when reality and ideal diverge?

We can be incurious, and ignore the gap.

We can be ideological, and condemn those who make it hard to ignore the gap.

We can impersonate gods, and condemn the gap itself.

We can be industrious, and reshape the world to conform to our ideals.

We can be reflective, and reshape our ideals to conform to the world.

We can be designerly, and reshape the world and our ideals together.

Design is not a praxis.

Design is praxis.

Optimistic outburst

I just had a little optimistic outburst, and I almost went and blabbed it on LinkedIn, but decided instead to sleep on it:

If you were to sit down and inventory the pain points of your life, most of them could be traced to bad service design.

I’m not talking only — or even primarily — about your pain as a consumer of services. Even more, I’m talking about the frustrations you experience as a deliverer of services within your own organizations, and to your organizations’ customers.

Whenever an interaction just doesn’t seem worth the effort… whenever you feel coerced into complying with some bullshit policy… whenever you keep on going, from desireless momentum, or fear, or lack of alternatives — try re-seeing that moment as a service design fail. Notice how someone didn’t try to design the system to make things work out for all participants, or worse, designed it to benefit only one party, without consideration of others.

Things can be better than they are. We have methods, tools and praxis to co-design win-wins into our organizations and into our society.

The real question is: Do we actually want change? Are we willing invest effort and risk discomfort to achieve win-wins for everyone? Or are we actually sort of okay with business-as-usual?


October 4: today I edited this post, de-saccharinated it, and harshened it up. It is getting closer to ready. I’m trying to re-work my work persona, and this is a prototype.

Designerly exnihilism

Any experienced, philosophically-sensitive designer who reads the passage below will recognize how indebted design praxis is to Existentialist thought:

When we combine Heidegger’s explanation of the shift to the perspective of presence-at-hand with Sartre’s functionalist account of emotions, we obtain as a bonus an interesting explanation of our tendency to pit reason against passion. Examination of objects present-at-hand and indulgence in emotions like anger have the same origin — the recalcitrance of the world. Confronted with the broken toy, one child takes it to bits to examine it while another flies into a temper. The first deals with the recalcitrant object practically, the other ‘magically’. So reason and passion can come to seem incompatible strategies for coping with the world. The mistake of the dualist who seizes upon this and speaks of separate faculties or ‘parts of the soul’ is a failure to appreciate that, when things run smoothly, there can be no factoring out and isolation of the elements of understanding and mood, belief and desire, which are integrated in our engagement with the world.

The steepness of a hill is an undramatic example of something disclosed through mood. An important and distinctive feature of existentialist writings, however, is the demonstration that some moods and passions disclose matters of great moment. It is this which prompts one commentator to remark that the existentialists’ ‘phenomenology of the emotions … will prove to be one of their most valuable and lasting achievements’. An obvious instance is Angst, which is taken by several of our writers to intimate to us our radical freedom and individuality. I shall return to this and other examples including, by way of further initial illustration, the disclosive character imputed to sexual experience. ‘There is no doubt,’ writes Merleau-Ponty, ‘that we must recognize in modesty, desire and love in general a metaphysical significance.’ Shame and shamelessness, for example, together reveal the ‘ambiguous’ character of the body. In shame, it is revealed as an ‘object’, victim of the gaze and inspection of another. In shameless behaviour, a ‘subject’ — the dancing Salome, say — seeks to captivate another person, tum him into an ‘object’. More generally, Merleau-Ponty concludes, sexual experience is ‘an opportunity … of acquainting oneself with the human lot in its most general aspects of autonomy and dependence’.

Whether Merleau-Ponty’s particular suggestion is plausible does not matter for present purposes. What does matter is the plausibility, given the Existentialist’s view of our Being-in-the-world, of supposing that sexual and other feelings should have ‘metaphysical significance’. If our Being-in-the-world is an embodied engagement with a world that ‘opens’ itself to us through our concerns and projects, there can be no reason to think that it will be disclosed only when we take stock and reflect. On the contrary, unless its features are revealed in a more ‘proximal’ way, there would be nothing to take stock of and reflect upon. If so, it must be wrong to suppose that reason is the faculty which discovers how the world is and passion merely the arena in which our subjective reactions to this discovery are played out.

Above, I highlighted these sentences: “Confronted with the broken toy, one child takes it to bits to examine it while another flies into a temper. The first deals with the recalcitrant object practically, the other ‘magically’. So reason and passion can come to seem incompatible strategies for coping with the world.”

“Design” has always been a sharply ambiguous word, and the ambiguity has always split along these two strategies for coping with object-recalcitrance.

When engineers, and those who think in the manner of engineers (using the philosophy of technik) say the word “design”, the emphasis is usually on the practical aspects of objects.

But when “creatives” use the word “design”, the emphasis is on the passionate and magical. The goal is to use sensory and symbolic means to aesthetically and emotionally frame some artifact to crystalize within a user’s or customer’s worldview to stand apart (de-) as significant (-sign).

The trend in design is definitely toward a seamless de-severing of these two coping strategies, and instead coordinating them to return us to a smooth integration of “the elements of understanding and mood, belief and desire, which are integrated in our engagement with the world.”

But this very project of practical-magical integration requires designers to experiment with philosophy, and “frame” or “concept model” problems in multiple ways — not only to render problems more soluble on a practical level (as some designers think), but to invest the designed artifact with de-significance capable of crystallizing (or at its most magical, dissolving and recrystallizing) a person’s understanding around that artifact — and orienting them to that artifact conceptually, practically and axiosly. (I’m playing with back-forming “axiosly” from “axiology”, to mean pertaining to values. That it is uncomfortably close to the word “anxiously” is a feature, not a bug.)

The most powerful designs force rethinking of entire fields of life — for instance how iPhone put phone design in its own orbit by making it retroactively obvious that the iPhone approach is objectively the right way to design a phone.

(Rant: Upon seeing iPhone, most people were induced to reconceive what a phone can and ought to be. Seeing it, and grokking it, everyone’s understanding reshuffled to accommodate it. After the reconception and reshuffling, it no longer seemed to be an invention; it was a discovery, and iPhone was just a good execution of this newly discovered archetype. And you know, come to think of it, we all knew this truth all along. There was this precursor, and that one. Never mind that nobody did, really, or they would have tried harder to actualize it. But truth is, most people are too subjectively oblivious to catch what happened, and all that stands out to them are little objective novelties graspable by the grubby hands of IP law. Apple could only sue Google over design trifles like rounded-cornered rectangles and elastic scroll behaviors, because its primary innovation — the idea that demanded imagination, faith and perseverance to actualize — was too deep and too subjectively contagious to protect. How else can a phone be designed? It takes a Steve Jobs to hear that question as more than rhetorical and to venture an answer.)


In my years of design, I have done numerous small, local philosophies and noticed that every really good design brief works like a spell on design teams to make perspective-shifting useful things. I call this philosophical craft “precision inspiration”.

And doing this work, day in and day out, has gradually shifted my own sense of truth, of reality, of practicality, of possibility — most of all of the permanent possibility of reconception of every thing and everything, which has cast a spell on me and made me an exnihilist.

Philosophy is designable. Philosophy-guided practice — praxis — is designable.

When we design praxis, we also redesign our overall experience of life — our enworldment.

My ambition is to be a praxis designer.

Design, existentialism, technocracy, etc.

If a philosophy is more a matter of questions than of answers — or to take this beyond mere language, that praxis is more a matter of problems than of responses — and I do see it this way — then the fact that the questions and problems that concern me most are all, without exception, existential ones — including this crucial distinction I am making this very moment between mind-bound philosophizing and full-being praxis.

Many of my responses to existential problems have come from pragmatism (for example instrumentalism). However, I have noticed where pragmatism departs from existentialism (for instance much of analytic philosophy) the questions it pragmatists concern itself with feel like idle conceptual play in the sandbox of language.

If the work done inside the philosophical sandbox does not persist beyond the conceptual playtime, and the relevance of the work does not extend into the world beyond the sandbox — in other words, if it neglects the practical dimension and falls short of full praxis — the work is not only unimportant, but straight up uninspiring. Yes, praxic work, like any kind of work, can, in its inspired moments, feel playful. But if the work is dropped when it starts feeling painful, not only will the work not get done, the play itself will be mediocre — mere speculative escapism.

While I will continue to use pragmatist tools, I’m seeing my project as existentialist. For that reason I’m kicking all talk of “design unstrumentalism”, “design pragmatism” and the like to the curb, and accepting the fact that I’m just another neo-existentialist. As I see it, I’m returning to existentialism gifts it contributed to design praxis, worn smooth and refined by use, and therefore, hopefully, in improved form.


I think design praxis should merge more fully with existentialist praxis.

This means design praxis must fully liberate itself at last from the objectifying praxis of technik, which currently dominates not only technology, but the entire commercial world (still mostly managed as industry), the world of politics (technocracy), and even our culture (which objectifies unique persons as mere instantiations of identity).

I hear a lot of careerist-types, whose whole mission in life, it seems, is success and social prestige, sitting around casually raging about “dismantling the system”. I don’t take them even a little bit seriously, because they know who butters their bread, and they like butter a lot. They like butter, in fact, far more than justice. As long as they continue to loyally serve the system in action — which very much includes directing their angry justicy words toward non-problems (such as DEI), and impossibilities (like overthrowing Capital) — they’ll get all the butter they care to eat. Social justice, for most, is butter — a way to self-righteously get a leg up in the market. It is annoying, but luckily also funny to watch them scold everyone around them about their unconscious biases and motivated reasoning… in the name of justice. But now I’m digressing, again.

Say these people did manage to actually dismantle the system. What would replace it? Given their intellectual poverty, all these activists would be capable of would be to construct a new technik-dominated system, and probably one with all the worst vices of the current system, minus the war-honed technical competence of the New Deal, and omitting the redeeming vestiges of liberalism that make what we have today bearable.

We’d end up with another technocracy cobbled together by Dunning-Kruger-crippled social engineers.

It’s the philosophy, stupid.


Yesterday a friend posted an article on LinkedIn, “Why Corporate America Broke Up With Design”, along with some comments. I left some comments of my own.

Here’s the thing: design is a praxis — meaning it is a philosophically-guided practice. Nearly all large organizations are dominated by industrial praxis. They appropriate the tools and techniques and jargon of design, but confine it to the philosophy of technik, which cannot accomodate it. 1) This severely limits what design is able to accomplish. 2) The philosophy of technik is the actual source of misery, commonly attributed to capitalism by pop leftists.

Unfortunately, it is taboo to talk philosophy in the workplace, but fact is, our culture badly overdue for a philosophical reform, and until it happens the angst and conflict afflicting our society will intensify.


If corporate America did break up with design, it would be the typical divorce scenario: some thirsty dude marries an idea of a woman and cannot bring himself to learn that she is a real person, with her own first-personhood, with important lessons to teach him — and not an ideal or a function that exists only to satisfy his own needs or desires.

and, finally

This article is severely marred by its click-bait title. The author talks about design evolving to “stakeholder centered design” (which, by the way is what service design is, and has been for decades) and concludes with “Companies may have no choice but to adopt a more expansive view of design.”

No kidding.

But this is the furthest thing from a breakup. It is a much-needed deepening and internalization of design in how organizations approach their business.

Eventually, if we are all lucky, organizational leaders will finally recognize their organization (not only what it makes) is itself essentially a design problem, comprising smaller design sub-problems, each comprising smaller engineering, operational, financial and executive sub-problems.

The corporate world still has things mostly backwards and inside out… but this seems to be slowly but steadily changing.

Paul Rand, classic sabra

Several years ago, I bought Paul Rand’s book just to have his most famous quote represented in my sacred library in its proper fetish-form (hardback, of course): “Everything is design. Design is everything.”


I just watched a video of Steve Jobs reflecting on working with Paul Rand.

Jobs’s description of Rand’s designerly sabra personality is especially inspiring to me right now. I resolve to harden and spike my exterior to establish respect first. Later, if people prove themselves respectable, I will dole out friendship in small portions until I find the edges of their abilities, generosity and presumptuousness.

Not all colleagues are peers. Not all buddies are friends. I keep these distinctions very clear in my own head, and now I’m going to help others stay clear on them as well.


When children are misparented to believe that their own ignorant convictions are just as valid as the hard-won wisdom of older people — (or more valid, because the convictions they indoctrinated to uncritically accept are fresh and new!) — someone’s got to reparent them. Our culture cannot sustain another generation of permachildren.

Gen X was raised in conditions of Peter-Pandemonium — and it falls on us to recover and reinvent adulthood so young people can see why maturity is desirable.


I’m worried that if I don’t get my social topology straightened out, I risk becoming an everse-sabra.

Design activism

All design praxis is guided by a glorious hybrid of existentialist and pragmatist ideas, interbred and naturally selected for maximum effectiveness. This is true for monocentric design disciplines (UX, CX, and all the other X-disciplines, where designers focus on the experience of a single person encountering a designed thing) — and it even more  true for polycentric design disciplines (where networks of people interact with one another and with things, each having an intentionally formed experience of that network and its constituent elements, some of whom are fellow persons). Today, service design is the most prominent example of polycentric design.* (See note below.)

Any design project potentially conveys this praxis (and a taste of its enworldment) to those who actively participate in the project, and for that reason all design projects are, to some degree, interesting to me.

But the design projects that are most fascinating are ones where the designed systems themselves (not only the designing of the system) serve the propagation of design praxis and designerly enworldment.

The latter is a kind of activism I find inspiring.

For this reason, I am prioritizing educational service design, in collaboration with my wife Susan.

My goal: I want people to approach all problems as polycentric design problems.

I want to do this by 1) clarifying, developing and articulating the tacit philosophy of polycentric design praxis, 2) by involving as many people as possible in doing and learning polycentric design, 3) encouraging design practitioners to use design praxis as their primary life praxis (most importantly in their political thinking!), and 4) by redesigning education to teach polycentric design praxis, and thereby conserve and perpetually reform liberal democracy.


“Everything is design. Design is everything.” — Paul Rand

  * Note: I believe the world is badly in need of other forms of polycentric design where interactions are less hierarchical, more equal, and where roles in a system are not clearly defined in consumer and provider terms, and less amenable to being characterized in terms of service. (Service designers might object and offer redescriptions of social systems using service logic, but to me — and, I hypothesize, most people outside the service design profession — this will feel like a reductionistic stretch. Polycentric design is designing for pluralism.