Category Archives: Design

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.”

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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.

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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.

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.

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“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.

Response to a design ethics interview

A friend of mine is interviewing designers on ethics in design. A couple of my team members participated. This sparked a guilt-wracked conversation that I thought he might find interesting. Here is what I told him:

For what it’s worth, as a consequence of your interviews with us, my team had a painful conversation about our personal culpability in class supremacy. We design consultants are hired, not only to increase revenue through better products and services, but also to “increase efficiencies”, or to “scale operations”, both of which are code for eliminate working-/service-class jobs. Good proclass employees as we are, we do our jobs with Eichmannian effectiveness.

We all make good livings helping our own class dominate through entrepreneurial and corporate initiatives that siphon more money into our own class while sinking those who get “disrupted” into ever-deepening poverty and despair.

If a real worker’s revolution were ever to happen, I think many of us might fail to recognize it, since we are so accustomed to situating ourselves on the side of justice and of historical heroism. The workers, themselves, I fear, might beg to differ.

We proclassers use environmental and identitarian social justice issues to distract from a large and very angry elephant in the room: The proclass — (the professional class operating under the dominant ideology we call “progressivism”) — is the single most oppressive group in this country — and in the world. This class has been bought by capitalism and serves its interests with near-perfect obedience, even while ritualistically and ineffectually badmouthing it.

Proclass privilege is a privilege none of us will ever voluntarily check because it is the root, but rarely named, source of our collective and individual power. If we check that privilege, we lose the privilege of calling all the shots on what is true, just, and good in our society. We will have to put our values on equal footing with those who see things differently — and that we will never do!

Second verse, same as the first

We apprehend that something is, but we may not comprehend what it is.

“Apprehending that” establishes something’s existence.

“Comprehending what” establishes its conceptual relations within our understanding.

Sometimes (often, in fact) we apprehend something, but we cannot immediately comprehend it. We either ignore it as irrelevant, gloss over it, or are forced to figure out what it is. Sometimes, after a little effort, we recognize what it is, either with a word, or, failing that, with an analogy that has not yet been assigned a word: “this is, in some sense, like that.” Sometimes this recognition clicks, and we begin to experience it as a given what that thing is. Sometimes the recognition does not click, but we have no better option than to manually recall what we made of it, and hope the recall eventually becomes habitual.

In other words, there is spontaneous whatness, and there is artificial whatness.

In some cases, we can apprehend that something exists, or comprehend what it is, but still have no univocal sense of its meaning (in the valuative sense — moral or aesthetic), either because there is no distinct meaning or because we sense conflicting meanings. We have to reflect on it, turn it and its context around in our minds, and work out how we ought to feel. Sometimes a sense of moral clarity comes to us, but often it doesn’t.

In other words, there is spontaneous whyness, and there is artificial whyness.

We also might apprehend that something exists, or even comprehend what it is, but be unprepared to respond to it practically. We can talk about it, but cannot interact with it effectively. We are forced to think it out, devise a plan and execute the plan before we know what to do.

In other words, there is spontaneous howness, and there is artificial howness.

Perhaps the reverse of these cases is more interesting: sometimes we might lack comprehension, but still somehow still sense the value of something only apprehended. We might even respond practically — pre-verbally — to a realy that is apprehended but which remains uncomprehended.

Does that seem impossible? Do you believe a thing must be comprehended before value can be felt or response is possible? If you believe this, I accept that this is true — for you. I have no doubt this is true for a great portion of modern human beings. I won’t even rule out the possibility this is the case for the majority of educated people living in this era. For this type, reality is intercepted and linguified prior to feeling value or responding practically. And when we do something often we get better and better at it. We begin to think we can train ourselves to understand the world the way we want to, to train our feelings to find goodness or beauty where we want it there to be value, and to train our behaviors to automatically respond as we want them to.

To us, this imposition of artificiality might be acceptable to people accustomed to constantly instructing themselves with words, verbalizing whatever they see, arriving at conclusions using syllogisms or frameworks, and calculate valuations in units of currency. But those of us who value in minimizing linguistic mediation between ourselves and the world, see this aggressive linguification and retraining of our What, Why and How — with little or no concern for the fact that they feel artificial or false to us — seems nothing less than an existential threat. It is social engineering on the micro-scale, and not outside and (hopefully) at a distance, like the grand social engineering of the twentieth century, but in the intimate domain of the personal soul.

And like the old “macro” social engineering projects, this micro social engineering preys on insensitivity to experience and gross over-reliance on verbalized thought. Macro-social engineering believed it would, using iron and concrete, intentionally construct a better society to replace the inadequate one that organically developed unintentionally, or more accurately developed through non-centralized, uncoordinated, distributed intentions. “Oh, you think it is ugly? It is only new and unfamiliar.” They said this about building projects, and they said this about serial music. Both produced blight. Today’s micro social engineering wants to replace inadequately-accommodating concepts and language with new truth constructions with better intentions. “Oh, this seems ungainly and false to you? It is only new and unfamiliar.” I have little doubt that entrusting the construction of truth to overconfident, ambitious wordworlders will produce intellectual and cultural blight. Of course, exactly this kind of person will make relativistic objections: Who are you to judge matters of taste? And indeed, to those without taste, taste is arbitrary. But this does not make taste arbitrary, it only disqualifies them from speaking credibly about taste — at least to others who actually have taste and know better.

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But isn’t this… conservative? How can we make progress as a society if we must stick to what seems natural and familiar to us?

It seems obvious that what is most familiar to us feels natural to us. Social constructivists (or at least the vulgar majority of them) will insist that these things seem natural only because they have become familiar. But this neglects the possibility that perhaps they became familiar precisely because they naturally and spontaneously appealed to people from the start. And because they felt natural soon after being adopted.

This is why I keep bringing things back to design. Design, or at least good design, aims at intuitiveness, which simply means for non-verbalized cognitive processes. We want the whatness, whyness and howness to be spontaneously understood, and to require the least possible amount of verbal assistance or figuring out.

Familiarity is a key factor in such designs. A mostly-unfamiliar design will require too much adjustment. But the innovations introduced into mostly-familiar designs are not all equal. Some are confusing, or ugly, or hard to interact with, where others, after a moment of adjustment, are experienced as clarifying, or beautiful, meaningful or delightful, or effortless to use — and it is these designs that are adopted and then seem retroactively inevitable.

But our verbal minds and its logic and frameworks do not decide what does or does not make sense or have positive value or affords an effortless interaction. It can only speculate about what might work, and use these speculations to prototype artifacts which are then offered to people’s whatness, whyness and howness intuitions. The intuitions accept them or reject them, and good designers honor this acceptance and rejection over their linguified reason.

Good designers are not really conservatives, but they are even less social constructivists. They seek a better second-naturalness — something that people willingly choose over what was familiar.

The only places where inadequate familiarity (bad conservatism) or ungainly social constructivism (bad progressivism) prevails is where voluntary adoption is not an issue because the adopters lack choice. They cannot escape the situation or have nowhere to go. Or at least the bad conservatives or bad progressivists believe they lack options and must comply.

Where rough equality and free choice exist, design prevails.

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When I philosophize, I think things out. I try different interpretations, different analyses, different syntheses, different articulations. The ideas I devise I then offer to my intuition. If they click, I then try to use these ideas to make intuitive sense of things that matter to me, that seem to require understanding. I see how these ideas perform: do they clarify the matter? help me feel its various values? help me respond more effectively?

As with all other design, there is a strange ambiguity between the designed artifact as an object, the subjective using of the artifact, and the new sense of objectivity as given through the artifact’s mediation. To offer a tangible example, when we use a new digital tool, we are aware of the tool itself, we are also aware that we are using it in some particular way that is patly novel, and we find that what we are using the tool to perceive or act upon (for instance, images we view or images we edit) are understood somewhat differently. All these ambiguities are what designers mean when we say we are designing an experience, as opposed to merely the artifact.

With philosophy, there is language and there are concepts. But there is also a using of these words and concepts, and this using can be effective or ineffective. The using of the words and concepts, once acquired, is applicable even outside of the philosophical artifact itself. It “clings” like the mood of a novel, except it produces intuitive understandings — What, Why and How of various kinds and relations. I’ve called these “conceptive capacities”. New conceptive capacities are what “inspire us” and what “gives us ideas”. Perhaps this very line of thought I’m sketching inspires you and gives you ideas. This line of thought also has given me a world of ideas and thst world is what my book is about. I’ve called this book Second Natural and also Enworldment — the former, because the very goal is to produce a second natural truth that we truly believe, and the latter because radically new second natural truth produces a very different overall understanding of the world and of everything. Which reminds me of an old abandoned third title: The Ten Thousand Everythings, so named because every person is the center of an enworldment, even if, to us, they seem to be a thing belonging to our own enworldment.

Respect requires us to approach all other persons as the center of an enworldment. Our dignity is injured if we are not treated as such.

Yet, tragically, the more brilliant we are, the better informed we are, the more certain we are of our own benevolence and righteousness — and, yes, the more powerful we are — the more likely we are to disrespect those who differ from us, and the more ready we are to injure their dignity by forcing upon them our own self-evidently superior enworldment — which, to them, feels artificial, tyrannical, hubristic and profoundly dehumanizing.

Putting Rorty to work

This lifted from an evolution map my team is currently working on. I’m posting this here because the concepts of “progress from” and “progress toward” were derived from Richard Rorty.

 

(For context: the purpose of an evolution map is to sketch our a phased approach to a service, where each phase delivers a useful, usable, desirable, coherent service that builds on the last phase, and sets the stage for the next. The future phases, though, can be too distant to predict with any degree of confidence. This is why we call the furthest phase the “north star”. We navigate by it, but do not seriously expect to arrive at the future we describe. We think about the present in reference to it, always anticipating where we might go next.)

Consummated knowledge

A synthesis (syn- “together” + -tithenai “put”) is put-together piece by piece, expertly connected at each joint with logic.

The synthesis is placed before the mind, and the mind conceives it (con- “together” + -capere “take”). It is taken-together — conceived as a whole.

But the conceived whole still contains within itself the synthesis, which may be safely assumed and ignored. The whole can, in principle, be reopened, analyzed and seen to form a valid synthesis, or it can remain a closed unit — a given — represented by a concept.

In being simultaneously together-put and together-taken — both a conceived con- and synthesized sum- — the knowledge is consummated.

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When a synthesis is unblessed by conception, the synthesis must remain either a certified truth claim, or a thinking process that must be consciously repeated to reaffirm the truth. The knowledge feels unnatural, mechanical and artificial in application.

Consummated knowledge feels natural and can be called second-natural.

Consummated knowledge is integrated into one’s own subjectivity, and becomes an extension of one’s own self. Consummated knowledge is faithful.

Synthesis stays external. It is a pile of objective ideas one thinks about and considers “true”. Synthetic knowledge might become engrained in habit and experienced as familiar, but it can never be seen in nature as a given,

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Some rationalists are unable or unwilling to conceive a distinction between habitually-engrained and second-natural. They want to believe human nature is artificial and arbitrary. This is the mentality that assured us that our ears would learn to love serial music, that we would feel happy dwelling in cold, austere modern spaces. This is the mentality that wishes to reengineer language in order to remake our norms.

The only difference between artificiality and second-nature is time — and compulsion.

These rationalists fancy themselves more open and imaginative than those confined to the narrow convention of today’s taste. They are prophets who refuse to limit themselves to contemporary prejudices.

But what if today’s worst and most narrow prejudice is the malleability of human nature? That taste is a prejudice — but not rationalism, not unfettered imagination?

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Consummation is the ideal of design. A great design is intuited on the whole, but the intuition provides insight into the design’s synthesized parts. Designers work hard keeping the system consummated so part and whole inter-illumine.

This consummation is also the ideal of philosophy. An enworldment is a conceptual-synthetic understanding of everything that permits us to feel the synthetic black-boxed truth sealed tidily inside wholes, which we could, but needn’t, open, analyze, inspect and reassemble, unless we are bothered by it, or truly curioys. Without being burdened and overwhelmed we can intuit an intelligibility of the world around us.

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Or we can just break open every concept and leave the parts disassembled snd scattered. Every concept can be deconstructed, as we invariably find if we try.

The deconstructions do not necessarily destroy our faith in the concepts, but if the concepts are destructible, a deconstruction is the most effective means.

For this reason, we often deconstruct unwanted given truths with an intent to destroy. Once we have done it, we sometimes feel we have earned the right to call the former given a mere construct.

Do we, ourselves, stop seeing the given as true? Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

We can also make new syntheses and put them into concept-like boxes and claim that we find these boxes intuitive.

Do we ourselves see these concept-like constructions as given truths? Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

And many of us have grown so burdened with facts accepted from other experts that we no longer have any expectation of intuiting a given world. Nothing feels natural, and we congratulate ourselves on that fact. We tell ourselves and each other that we are better off relying on “System 2” artificial thinking-about as we bob about adrift in a meaningless universe. Nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

Nobody can prove one way or another, so we think it is safe to lie if we wish — except this unprovable dishonesty is felt with immediacy. The dishonesty pervades a personality and gives it a coloration and odor. Though this profound dishonesty cannot be formally discredited, it is not believed, even by oneself. But nobody can prove one way or another, so it is safe to lie if we wish.

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Lack of intellectual conscience is a liability to philosophical and design craft.

Argyle

Today, I am recollecting and reflecting on the insights that originally inspired me to draw a diagram that I’ve called “the argyle”.

It was originally meant to show how conceptual wholes and synthesized parts can intersect to produce meaningful systems. In a meaningful system the conception of the system makes the synthesized parts feel necessary and given, because their relationships are pre-determined by the logic of the concept –“Of course it works this way! — but, also, the synthesis is rationally constructed, so even if the concept were missed, the system would make sense — “This is perfectly clear and logical!”.

A meaningful system is comprehended with intuition and reason, or with both together in concert. (I’ve also considered the idea of treating comprehension as being simultaneous inter-illuminating conception and synthesis — instead of as an umbrella term for either conception or synthesis.)


The reason I needed to create this framework was that I’ve found that certain very types of designers (and people doing the work of designers) tend to prioritize concept over synthesis or synthesis over concept to such a degree that they stop reinforcing one another. One one extreme we have the wild genius who conceives a vision of the whole and regards all logic as stultifying formalism that undermines the inspired spontaneity of creation. It does not have to make clear sense if hearts are stirred and wallets open wide. On the other extreme we have the logical organizer of elements who views with suspicion and impatience any delaying attempt to seek an overarching concept to guide the design. After all, logic can get down to work immediately and start making demonstrable progress toward the final goal. If the final output is uninspired and dry — so what? Can the system be figured out with minimal effort? Good enough.

Years later, out of exasperation and a weakness for potty-mouthed ridicule, I developed a second model to describe the failure of merging concept and synthesis — though somehow, until today, I managed to miss the opportunity to explicitly link this failure to synthesis and concept. Instead I linked it to inspired meaning versus practical details.

I called this “the bullshit-chickenshit model”.

Bullshit – Meaningful, inspiring ideas that seem to promise something, but that something can never be fulfilled through any practical action.

Chickenshit – Practical activity that seems like it ought to serve some meaningful purpose, but in reality is pointless busyness.

Bullshit is meaning without practice. Chickenshit is practice without meaning.

But, really, bullshit can be understood as unsynthesizable concept. The meaning is a feeling of vast promise that cannot be applied to any particular.

Chickenshit can be understood as inconceivable synthesis. It is a giant mechanism of logically conjoined pieces that never resolves into a meaningful whole.

Most of what we encounter in the world is pure bullshit and pure chickenshit, and this produces that one-two KO nihilistic punch in the face that sometimes makes us want to burn this whole madhouse down.

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Finally, I will accept the risk of being accused of bullshit by suggesting that the  Star of David can be viewed as a transcendent argyle, and the ultimate overcoming of bullshit and chickenshit . Even before I was Jewish I conceived it this way, and this insight contributed to my need to be Jewish.

Here, the overlap of concept and synthesis is maximized, and both the depth of concept and extent of the synthesis is felt to exceed the overlap. The meaning of the religious vision resonates in every practical detail of life, but also the doing of every day mundane life is sacralized in Tikkun Olam.

Sacred practicality is practical sacrality.

Practical sacrality is sacred practicality.

This is my own Jewish ideal, and I don’t think it is only mine.

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Postscript

The “skeleton” of the star — formed by connecting the opposing points of each of the overlapping triangles — eventually became the asterisk “star” in Geometric Meditations.

Random thoughts about theology, symbol and design

Imagine a religion where the congregation convenes and worships by expounding theology in explicit language — instead of worshiping in the beautiful but ambiguous symbolic language of ritual and prayer — with the intention of developing the clarity, depth and inspirational intensity of the theology to the furthest possible extent.

Imagine that, through this practice, the congregation does succeed in its collective goal. Imagine also, that this theological worship enables every member of the congregation to make personal progress, each at their own maximum pace, in their own theological understanding.

What happens?

I will tell you exactly what happens: With each personal epiphany, the congregation shatters and reshatters in protest and counter-protest.

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A clear theology is univocal. It conveys one specific belief.

But, ultimately, every one of us, being unique, has a unique relationship to the infinite. There are as many theologies as there are persons. The better the theology, the less it accommodates more than one theologian — and the less comprehensible it is to all others — and the more intensely it induces apprehension in the uncomprehending.

A religious symbology is polyvocal. The more radically polyvocal it is, the more universal its community. A symbology can be an expression of any number of beliefs of varying depth and clarity.

Even beliefs that clash and conflict when stated explicitly, when expressed in symbol, affirm a harmonious commonality of faith beneath the beliefs.

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Each religious symbol is a miracle of polysemy, a part of an even more miraculous polysemous symbol-system, the symbology of the religion. A change in any one symbol can crystallize a change throughout the system.

But these symbols are not external tokens that can be known through external manipulation.

One cannot understand a symbol as an object, grasped in the hand of the comprehending mind. Assembling and disassembling symbols like Lego blocks and combining them with pieces from other sets might give you some kind of knowledge about the pieces, and you might enjoy the experience of playing with them, but this comes at the cost of understanding their meaning of the symbol within the symbology that engendered it.

A symbology is not an object. A symbology is a subject.

To know a subject, we immerse in that subject, participating in its praxis until we have an epiphany — an epiphany that renders the subject clear — clear, invisible, imperceptible, transparent (trans- “through” + -parere “show oneself”) — so transparent that we experience the world itself through the subject, as made apparent by the subject, as given by the subject.

A subject is an enworldment.

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If we conceive religions in terms of belief content, this produces a different understanding than if we see religions more like languages that put communities in relation with each other, and with ultimate reality.

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Is a dictionary an inventory of every entity English-speakers believe exist? Isn’t that a notion we kicked to the curb when we rejected correspondence theories of truth? I’m curious: When we naively believed in correspondence theories of truth, and adhered to them, does that mean that this restricted our actual thinking and speech? Or did it mean we actually thought and spoke one way, but spoke about and thought about our speech and thought another?

Isn’t it possible that religious people participate in religion one way, but think about and speak about religion another? Likely, even?

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In usability testing, we watch people use an artifact. We don’t thrust the artifact before them, invite them to look at it and ask them for their opinion of it. We give them a task, and they try to use the artifact to accomplish it.

When we ask them about what they did, or why they did it, it doesn’t add up. They say it was easy, when the struggled. Or they make up reasons to explain things they were clearly doing instinctively, unconsciously. They are clearly confabulating.

Looking at a thing and looking through a thing is radically different.

But we keep on thinking: “No, I get the gist of it.”

No, you do not get the gist of it.

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The craft of research-informed design teaches us this over and over and over and over again not to trust our ability to see other perspectives from our own perspective.

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The strangest thing about being human is that we are free. We can spiral our finitude out into infinitude, or we can withdraw our finitude and close it into an impenetrable circle. Anything we prefer to regard as nonsense we can leave nonsensical. Nobody can compel us to pursue its sense, unless we want to. We are free to understand or refrain from understanding. We can, if we wish, even obliterate understanding through willful misunderstanding. Nobody can stop us, or even know for certain what we are doing.

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To say “the author is dead” is not a statement of fact, but a speech act that kills authors. And every day that we celebrate the author’s wake is a day that we, alone, are free to author our own life as we wish. Postmodernism was a disobligating liberation movement, and it succeeded. Nobody is the boss of me.

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To say “God is dead” is also a speech act that kills God.

But, to that I say: Happy Easter.

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There is wisdom in keeping our beliefs private and expressing what matters most symbolically.

Beatrice Warde: “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible”

This seminal essay was written by Beatrice Warde in 1955. I need a reliable way to link to this essay, and so I am posting it here.


The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible

Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. You may choose your own favourite vintage for this imaginary demonstration, so that it be a deep shimmering crimson in colour. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.

Bear with me in this long-winded and fragrant metaphor; for you will find that almost all the virtues of the perfect wine-glass have a parallel in typography. There is the long, thin stem that obviates fingerprints on the bowl. Why? Because no cloud must come between your eyes and the fiery heart of the liquid. Are not the margins on book pages similarly meant to obviate the necessity of fingering the type-page? Again: the glass is colourless or at the most only faintly tinged in the bowl, because the connoisseur judges wine partly by its colour and is impatient of anything that alters it. There are a thousand mannerisms in typography that are as impudent and arbitrary as putting port in tumblers of red or green glass! When a goblet has a base that looks too small for security, it does not matter how cleverly it is weighted; you feel nervous lest it should tip over. There are ways of setting lines of type which may work well enough, and yet keep the reader subconsciously worried by the fear of ‘doubling’ lines, reading three words as one, and so forth.

Now the man who first chose glass instead of clay or metal to hold his wine was a ‘modernist’ in the sense in which I am going to use that term. That is, the first thing he asked of his particular object was not ‘How should it look?’ but ‘What must it do?’ and to that extent all good typography is modernist.

Wine is so strange and potent a thing that it has been used in the central ritual of religion in one place and time, and attacked by a virago with a hatchet in another. There is only one thing in the world that is capable of stirring and altering men’s minds to the same extent, and that is the coherent expression of thought. That is man’s chief miracle, unique to man. There is no ‘explanation’ whatever of the fact that I can make arbitrary sounds which will lead a total stranger to think my own thought. It is sheer magic that I should be able to hold a one-sided conversation by means of black marks on paper with an unknown person half-way across the world. Talking, broadcasting, writing, and printing are all quite literally forms of thought transference, and it is the ability and eagerness to transfer and receive the contents of the mind that is almost alone responsible for human civilization.

If you agree with this, you will agree with my one main idea, i.e. that the most important thing about printing is that it conveys thought, ideas, images, from one mind to other minds. This statement is what you might call the front door of the science of typography. Within lie hundreds of rooms; but unless you start by assuming that printing is meant to convey specific and coherent ideas, it is very easy to find yourself in the wrong house altogether.

Before asking what this statement leads to, let us see what it does not necessarily lead to. If books are printed in order to be read, we must distinguish readability from what the optician would call legibility. A page set in 14-pt Bold Sans is, according to the laboratory tests, more ‘legible’ than one set in 11-pt Baskerville. A public speaker is more ‘audible’ in that sense when he bellows. But a good speaking voice is one which is inaudible as a voice. It is the transparent goblet again! I need not warn you that if you begin listening to the inflections and speaking rhythms of a voice from a platform, you are falling asleep. When you listen to a song in a language you do not understand, part of your mind actually does fall asleep, leaving your quite separate aesthetic sensibilities to enjoy themselves unimpeded by your reasoning faculties. The fine arts do that; but that is not the purpose of printing. Type well used is invisible as type, just as the perfect talking voice is the unnoticed vehicle for the transmission of words, ideas.

We may say, therefore, that printing may be delightful for many reasons, but that it is important, first and foremost, as a means of doing something. That is why it is mischievous to call any printed piece a work of art, especially fine art: because that would imply that its first purpose was to exist as an expression of beauty for its own sake and for the delectation of the senses. Calligraphy can almost be considered a fine art nowadays, because its primary economic and educational purpose has been taken away; but printing in English will not qualify as an art until the present English language no longer conveys ideas to future generations, and until printing itself hands its usefulness to some yet unimagined successor.

There is no end to the maze of practices in typography, and this idea of printing as a conveyor is, at least in the minds of all the great typographers with whom I have had the privilege of talking, the one clue that can guide you through the maze. Without this essential humility of mind, I have seen ardent designers go more hopelessly wrong, make more ludicrous mistakes out of an excessive enthusiasm, than I could have thought possible. And with this clue, this purposiveness in the back of your mind, it is possible to do the most unheard-of things, and find that they justify you triumphantly. It is not a waste of time to go to the simple fundamentals and reason from them. In the flurry of your individual problems, I think you will not mind spending half an hour on one broad and simple set of ideas involving abstract principles.

I once was talking to a man who designed a very pleasing advertising type which undoubtedly all of you have used. I said something about what artists think about a certain problem, and he replied with a beautiful gesture: ‘Ah, madam, we artists do not think — we feel!’ That same day I quoted that remark to another designer of my acquaintance, and he, being less poetically inclined, murmured: ‘I’m not feeling very well today, I think!’ He was right, he did think; he was the thinking sort; and that is why he is not so good a painter, and to my mind ten times better as a typographer and type designer than the man who instinctively avoided anything as coherent as a reason. I always suspect the typographic enthusiast who takes a printed page from a book and frames it to hang on the wall, for I believe that in order to gratify a sensory delight he has mutilated something infinitely more important. I remember that T.M. Cleland, the famous American typographer, once showed me a very beautiful layout for a Cadillac booklet involving decorations in colour. He did not have the actual text to work with in drawing up his specimen pages, so he had set the lines in Latin. This was not only for the reason that you will all think of; if you have seen the old typefoundries’ famous Quousque Tandem copy (i.e. that Latin has few descenders and thus gives a remarkably even line). No, he told me that originally he had set up the dullest ‘wording’ that he could find (I dare say it was from Hansard), and yet he discovered that the man to whom he submitted it would start reading and making comments on the text. I made some remark on the mentality of Boards of Directors, but Mr Cleland said, ‘No: you’re wrong; if the reader had not been practically forced to read — if he had not seen those words suddenly imbued with glamour and significance — then the layout would have been a failure. Setting it in Italian or Latin is only an easy way of saying “This is not the text as it will appear”.’

Let me start my specific conclusions with book typography, because that contains all the fundamentals, and then go on to a few points about advertising.

The book typographer has the job of erecting a window between the reader inside the room and that landscape which is the author’s words. He may put up a stained-glass window of marvellous beauty, but a failure as a window; that is, he may use some rich superb type like text gothic that is something to be looked at, not through. Or he may work in what I call transparent or invisible typography. I have a book at home, of which I have no visual recollection whatever as far as its typography goes; when I think of it, all I see is the Three Musketeers and their comrades swaggering up and down the streets of Paris. The third type of window is one in which the glass is broken into relatively small leaded panes; and this corresponds to what is called ‘fine printing’ today, in that you are at least conscious that there is a window there, and that someone has enjoyed building it. That is not objectionable, because of a very important fact which has to do with the psychology of the subconscious mind. That is that the mental eye focuses through type and not upon it. The type which, through any arbitrary warping of design or excess of ‘colour’, gets in the way of the mental picture to be conveyed, is a bad type. Our subconsciousness is always afraid of blunders (which illogical setting, tight spacing and too-wide unleaded lines can trick us into), of boredom, and of officiousness. The running headline that keeps shouting at us, the line that looks like one long word, the capitals jammed together without hair-spaces — these mean subconscious squinting and loss of mental focus.

And if what I have said is true of book printing, even of the most exquisite limited editions, it is fifty times more obvious in advertising, where the one and only justification for the purchase of space is that you are conveying a message — that you are implanting a desire, straight into the mind of the reader. It is tragically easy to throw away half the reader-interest of an advertisement by setting the simple and compelling argument in a face which is uncomfortably alien to the classic reasonableness of the book-face. Get attention as you will by your headline, and make any pretty type pictures you like if you are sure that the copy is useless as a means of selling goods; but if you are happy enough to have really good copy to work with, I beg you to remember that thousands of people pay hard-earned money for the privilege of reading quietly set book-pages, and that only your wildest ingenuity can stop people from reading a really interesting text.

Printing demands a humility of mind, for the lack of which many of the fine arts are even now floundering in self-conscious and maudlin experiments. There is nothing simple or dull in achieving the transparent page. Vulgar ostentation is twice as easy as discipline. When you realise that ugly typography never effaces itself; you will be able to capture beauty as the wise men capture happiness by aiming at something else. The ‘stunt typographer’ learns the fickleness of rich men who hate to read. Not for them are long breaths held over serif and kern, they will not appreciate your splitting of hair-spaces. Nobody (save the other craftsmen) will appreciate half your skill. But you may spend endless years of happy experiment in devising that crystalline goblet which is worthy to hold the vintage of the human mind.

— Beatrice Warde, London 1955

The universal design brief

It occurs to me this morning that Liz Sanders’s useful/usable/desirable framework is the heart of what could be thought of as a universal design brief.

  • Useful: The design satisfies functional needs.
  • Usable: The design minimizes functional obstacles.
  • Desirable: The design is valuable beyond its function.

The goal of design research is to particularize this brief. Useful how? Usable how? Desirable how?

For me, at least, the most striking thing about such a brief is how poorly language serves its purpose. Perhaps the widest and strangest gap between academic research and design research is the role language plays in the research, especially in its output. Where the end product of academic research is normally a written publication, design research aims at producing a concrete design that users actually experience as useful, usable and desirable. Whatever words produced on the way are only a means to this end, and often design researchers are wise to say as few words as possible, and instead simply influence (in-form?), as directly as possible, the shaping of the design.

Useful is the most linguistically accessible goal. Usefulness can be summarized in terms of explicit functional needs addressable by features. When people think about what is learned in design research, those few people with any inclination and ability to imagine anything distinct typically see a method for uncovering needs. Here words serve us well. We identify a list of “jobs to be done” by the design. Some of these jobs are functional, and others are emotional or social, but all can be stated in words.

This helps explain why “design thinking” focuses most on usefulness. For most people, especially the kind of professionals who get invited to design thinking workshops, thinking is done in words.

Beyond usefulness, however, words help less — or even start to mislead and impede. Beyond the talk of usefulness, where usability and desirability is developed, design craft takes over.

Usable is the goal of removing friction and barriers to use. This should not mean (but all too often does mean) friction and barriers to figuring out how to use something. Figuring out is friction.

The flooding of the design field with non-designers from other disciplines — people who love problem solving, but lack real love of designed artifacts — who don’t notice, appreciate or maybe don’t even expect intimacy with designed artifacts — has caused a serious degradation in our usability expectations. Most designers today stop short at verbal “figure-out-ability”, instead of seeking intuitive usability.

Intuitive usability seeks spontaneous conceiving of the What, How and Why of a system in pre-use encounter, and direct wordless, transparent interaction in use.

Certainly, helpful things can be said about how to make something more usable — general principles of usability do exist — but ultimately, if spontaneous conception and tacit transparency is sought, usability is something that develops experimentally and concretely through an iterative design process. Usability can be indicated and its effect can be described, but usability cannot be encapsulated in speech like usefulness can. Usability is designed into things.

Desirability is the hardest goal. Here we try to create something attractive or compelling in pre-use and intrinsically meaningful in use. We want users to respond favorably to the intrinsic qualities of the artifact when beheld from a distance (when it is present-at-hand) and to experience an unobtrusively noticeable, ambient positivity during use when the artifact is ready-to-hand. Here, the better the design, the more reliably words fail, except maybe poetic words. Desirability is not just associated emotions, and especially not emotional uses (that is only emotional usefulness). Desirability is the je ne sais quois goodness in a design — a quiddity or thusness that makes it, to some degree, lovable. We feel the desirability of things when we feel it, and those who really know the craft of design can produce it reliably, but nobody can say how. Design researchers can help inform this effort, but much of the help is showing, not telling.

*

I guess I’m doing my usual beating-up-on-words thing again.

Why, though?

I think it is this: In a world that exalts language over craft, abstraction over concreteness, theory over practice — a world where craft must talk its way to the top or languish at the bottom under the micromanagement of talkers — where Thinkers reign over Doers, because obviously this is how things are — life itself is dictated by what is sayable.

Life devolves into features — heaps of What – and the quieter qualities of intuitiveness (How) and desirability (Why) fall by the wayside. What can’t be explicated, argued, listed on a PowerPoint slide drops away into ineffable oblivion.

Overall, life gets more and more useful… while growing less usable, less intuitive and less desirable. Life feels artificial, overwhelming and not worth the effort.

This artificiality seems to us to be the cost of progress. We see no alternative but returning to nature — retrogressing to simpler times.

But design offers an alternative to the A/B choice of progress into artificiality or return to nature.

Design offers second-naturalness.

But to get to an overall second-natural state we need to 1) raise our expectations of what we make for one another, and 2) kick our language supremacy and relearn reverence for craft. The more we can do this, the better chance we will have to instaurate a world that we experience as useful, usable and desirable.

*

Polycentric design seeks usefulness, usability and desirability for a plurality of actors who interact with things and one another. It seeks systems of mutual benefit, which make the system itself manifestly beneficial.

Do we know how to think in a way that supports acting in a way — making in a way — that supports polycentric design?

Do we actually understand what it takes to accommodate pluralistic mutuality?

Don’t we all sort of assume that all people ought to share our ideals, and that if only they would, that we could finally make progress toward something better? Don’t we think their resistance to what we want is an illegitimate obstacle that ought not exist? And don’t they think that about us?

We don’t want to discuss what ought to go without saying. We are exasperated, offended! We need to move on, make progress.

In design — real design that doesn’t just think design, but does design — this ironing out of mutuality demands things of us that seem unreasonable. The politics of what constitutes progress is the hardest part of making progress! But we want to skip this part, and just make progress as we see it, accusing the other who wants to make a  progress toward another ideal (or away from something experienced as undesirable or wrong) as mere obstruction. So pluralism, like design,  must not just be thought, but done.

Design is the practice of pluralism. Doing design, doing pluralism, and being unable to escape its terrible demands has forced me out of my head, down into my arms, hands, legs and feet and deep into my own heart. I have been forced to move my body to unfamiliar places, so I can watch how people do things, so I can hear them talk about what they are doing, why they are doing and how they feel about it all, so I can soak up the je ne sais quois of how they decorate, equip and inhabit their environments — and this moves me. I have worked and struggled to come to agreements with my colleagues and clients on what we have learned and how it is significant, and this has rarely been easy. Frequently, we have had to wrestle with perplexity together, to develop tiny, local philosophies to make what we intuit intelligible, thinkable, discussable. This has forced me to learn apprehension tolerance, and the art of summoning goodwill in the midst of angst.

To do these things at commercial velocity, and to survive as the kind of person I want to be, I have had to rethink how I think, rework how I work, redesign how I design — re-enworld myself — over and over again, iteratively.

I am convinced that what prevents us from designing better is our way of thinking. Our manner of thinking, our expectations of thinking — undermines our doing, and our capacity for doing-with — deep forms of collaboration.

We need a philosophy of polycentric design. I’ve made a solid start in designing one. I believe if I can get others to adopt my prototype and collaborate on developing it further, this way of understanding, this designerly way of enworlding ourselves together, could help us align on the kind of progress we would like to make together so we can move past this current dangerous-feeling impasse.

Polycentric virtues

Until quite recently, design has been monocentric.

All the various x-centric design disciplines were named after the single protagonist of the design. User-centered. Employee-centered. Customer-centered. Citizen-centered. In search of something more general and accommodating, most designers have settled on “human-centered’.

Human-centered design centers design on the experience of a person. While “human” can, of course, mean more than one person, in actual human-centered design practice — in the methods employed — it must be admitted that human meant one human. Designers nearly always focused all attention on the segments of people who might wind up a person at the center of their design, and they did this in order to ensure that it is useful, usable and desirable for whoever that might be.

Lately something new — much newer than it seems at first glance — has emerged: polycentric design.

In polycentric design multiple protagonists are simultaneously experientially centered. Multiple storylines — each an experience some person is having — weave together, converging and looping at points where people interact with one another, separating where people experience things alone. Polycentric design concerns itself with all the storylines equally, and attempts to make every point in this complex mesh of experiences useful, usable and desirable for everyone.

This new development in design began when human-centered design principles were applied to service design.

Even as far back as the early-90s (two decades before service design became human-centered) service design considered the entire service — not only the receiving of the service, but also the delivery and the support of the service — as a single designed system. The delivery and support of the service is not secondary to receiving the service, but of equal dignity and deserving equal focus.

So, when a human-centered design approach is applied to service design, then, the humans who are centered multiply. Any point in the experience where any person experiences anything in the receiving, delivering or supporting of the service — including where people experience interacting with one another — is framed as a design problem. It is a design problem part (a service moment) embedded within a design problem whole (the service) and the success of that moment and that whole is assessed by whether everyone valued what happened and feels that they participated in a win-win.

Designers debate whether service design is a species of human-centered design or vice versa. There is truth to all sides of the debate. I think they were both decisively transformed in the process and I like calling that transformation polycentric design.

*

Part of the reason I like to claim that polycentric design transcends both human-centered design (one person considered in first-person) and service design (originally multiple people considered in third-person) is that polycentricity challenges so many of our basic views outside of design — ideas bound up with what I believe are rapidly-obsoleting moral attitudes.

For instance, often we try to temper the natural egocentricity of children by telling them they are not the center of the universe. But why not instead tell them “you are not the only center of the universe“?

Or social activists will speak of decentering privileged groups. Why not instead extend centering to those who have been marginalized or excluded, and polycenter all people?

And consider altruism’s reflexive exaltation of martyrdom. Good people sacrifice their interests to the interests of others. But with polycentrism the selfless refrain of “not me, but you!” can be humanely transcended with an unselfish but also unselfless response: “not any one of us, but all of us.”

When we learn to think polycentrically, much more is possible than me getting my way, or you getting yours, or each of us compromising. We can rethink situations, we can philosophize pragmatically, and find entirely new ways to conceive what we face and find solutions preferable to all than the relatively impoverished conceptions we began with.

*

Oh, am I being an idealistic dreamer? Am I not tough enough for the hard truths of reality? for waging war for what matters?

I will argue the opposite.

I see tough-guy refusal to compromise, and resignation to the necessity of losers to produce winners as evidence of philosophical cowardice.

I see it as bullshit macho posturing of people who cannot handle the unknowability of the unknown and the dreadful apprehension one feels confronting what exceeds us and defies our language and even our thoughts.

(I overstate my position, in order to remind us that anything can be redescribed to look brave or cowardly, or realistic or delusional.)

*

What does it take to do polycentricity?

In individuals, it requires rare goodwill toward I-transcending We. It requires courage in the face of incomprehensibility — an ability to feel intense anxiety and antipathy, but not to obey it. It requires faith in the inconceivable becoming conceivable — so that our blindness to what might emerge if we approach problems in I-transcending We stops being evidence of impossibility.

And sadly it requires more that one person to possess polycentric virtues. In fact, it requires everyone involved in a polycentric situation (which is all situations) to commit to these virtues.

Most of all requires us to change our relationship to apprehension. Whatever we apprehend — a That we can touch with the tip of our mind — but which we cannot comprehend as a What we can grasp — makes us feel apprehensive.

When we take apprehension at face value, and conceive either the phenomena in question, or the other person forcing these phenomena to our attention — or both at once! — as signaling an offense or threat, we cannot entertain any important possibility that stands outside our comprehension.

And outside our comprehension is precisely where polycentric possibility stands!

*

For quite some time I’ve been arguing that it is helpful to reconceive philosophy as a design discipline.

More recently I’ve realized it might be even more helpful to reconceive philosophy as a polycentric design discipline.

Changed by writing

I can feel how this process of writing a book is changing me. It is changing how I think, feel and speak, which is strange because what I believe I’m doing is conveying a philosophy I’ve been using, more or less unchanged since at least 2014 and maybe as early as 2011 (basically, once Latour and ANT helped me transcend my natural ideocentric brain-in-a-vatism).

Yet, here I am, experiencing a real change in my enworldment, interspersed with intense apprehension — so clearly my code-freeze has thawed and substantial philosophical work (not just conveyance) is happening.

In some ways this process has been a recovery of simplicity that I’ve gradually lost over years of elaboration on my core philosophy. Perhaps I’ve suffered scope-creep trying to incorporate concepts from ANT and ethnomethodology into my repertoire. Some of this knowledge remains undigested synthesis, and has not really been conceived and fully integrated. (Nietzsche mocked this condition as “indigestion”.)

My earliest experiences of metanoia were simple and overwhelmingly powerful. They shifted — everted, in fact – my fundamental understanding of the world to one that was more intensely felt, more immediately intuited and more practical in orientation. These qualities map to Liz Sanders’s desirability, usability and usefulness, respectively, and I will develop this extensively in my book.

By contrast, the thoughts I had as a young man tended toward abstraction and uselessness. The thoughts were mostly aesthetic. My thinking produced works of art to contemplate and savor, not beautiful tools to carry out into the world and use to do things. In other words, my early thoughts focused exclusively on desirability. I used the concepts I’d passively acquired from school and work for usefulness. And usability was all on me. Complicated ideas would become usable with practice.

I was using philosophy exactly the way many people use religion. Weekdays are for usefulness. Weekends have one day set aside for profane desirability and another for sacred desirability. And on all seven days of the week, life is complicated. Learn what you can figure out, and trust experts for the rest.

This all changed for me starting in 2001, when I emerged from the worst depression of my life, able once again to see in color, furious with the work ethic that preferred death to professional disgrace. I decided that despair was something I owed nobody, and that I would reorganize my life around different, more immediate principles. I checked myself into a 10-day Vipassana meditation course, the fifth day of which was September 11, 2001. So, I missed the collective national trauma, the looping image of plane hitting the World Trade Centers, the bewildered phone calls where we worked out what to make of this. I sat in silence, working out what to make of it by myself, turning and turning and turning it, allowing my opinion to change, untethered by any stand-taking. When I came out of the course, there were flags everywhere – more flags, bigger flags, aggressive flags –suffocating flags. I never got back in joint with my people. What I chose to read in the years following made it much worse. Christopher Alexander set my mind on fire and made me feel the importance of design all seven days of the week, and along with Grant Peterson shifted and liberated my aesthetic ideals. Jane Jacobs gave me a whole new understanding of how cities work, and inspired Susan and me to move up to Toronto. And up there, I became so disgusted with my Canadian colleagues – their slavish obedience, their desire to be given a purpose by other people, their willingness to be pushed around and told what to think and feel, their appalling passionless passivity that I was moved to read Nietzsche, just to understand the “slave mentality”. Except… I was the slave. I decided to end that. And that is the point when I became feral. It tooks years to find any reason to cooperate with anyone. But thanks to the deep humane genius of American Pragmatism, I did, so here I am.

Anyway, I should probably edit out that digression, but I suppose I won’t.

So, I want to get back to some of that immediate, intuitive and meaningful simplicity of my earlier philosophical work. The requirement to find a red-thread to narratively and logically connect all my areas of interest, capable of relating ideas belonging to different times and regions of my thinking, has forced me to edit — to choose what is essential and central, and to omit what distracts or complicates it.

And I’m trying to control my linguistic palette, to limit my vocabulary and to discipline it, so that once someone understands the wacko way I’m using a word, they can count on it to keep that meaning. Years ago, usability god, Jakob Nielsen taught me “learn once, use often.” Having learned it, I use this principle often, and plan to use it in this book. But doing this requires a much deeper integration of concept and word than my sloppy self usually bothers with. I’ve lost weeks on dead-end or swamp-end attempts to nail down my words. I think I have it now, but I’ve thought I had it several times, only to excise major sections and move them into my scrapheap doc.

But the process has been worthwhile, and I think it is forcing new, deep integrations between older thoughts I’m trying to incorporate. This is like all design. The design is far, far more than the sum of the features. The parts and the whole develop together, and both change. I’m noticing I’m far more ready with words, now – more able to really nail explanations of ideas that I used to have to talk around indirectly.

Sorry for the rambling. I’m venting all my slop on this blog now, and reserving my hardass discipline for my book.

Design and behavior

I’ve gotten my overview of design instrumentalism as nailed-down as I can get it for now.

I’ve moved on to the design part of the book. This is what I worked on this morning.

Every organization depends on human behaviors for its continued existence and flourishing. An organization needs its members to behave in certain ways that support and sustain the organization, and to not behave in other ways that harm it. It also depends on behaviors of people externally associated with the organization. If the organization exists to serve other people, it needs those people to notice, accept and use its service. If it relies on external partners to supply it with needed materials, products and services, it needs them delivered reliably. Big changes in internal or external behaviors can put an organization in crisis.

Businesses are a common example. A business needs its employees to work effectively, efficiently and harmoniously to produce or deliver whatever product or service it offers its customers. It needs its customers to notice and choose its product or service, to keep choosing it, and to recommend the product to others. A business also has partners upon whom it relies to supply the business with needed materials, products and supporting services. If the behaviors of employees, customers or partners become erratic or interfere with the goals of the business, it must respond to the change or risk damage, decline and dissolution. It will work to restore the old behaviors, or it will try to produce new behaviors wherever and however it is able, to cope with the change, perhaps through reorganization, changes in marketing approach or formation of new partnerships.

When power is unequally distributed, behaviors are often controlled through coercive means. When employers hold most of the power and are aware that employees have limited employment options, they tend to demand more from them and manage their activities more closely. Likewise when employees hold power and are aware that employers are competing for employees with their skills, they become less tolerant of authoritarian management styles, and expect more benefits and amenities from their employers. The same is true with partners. If a partner is the only provider of a needed product or service, they will behave differently than if they are competing with others for the partnership.

But when power is more equally distributed, coercion gives way to persuasion. People give up on controlling one another’s behaviors and instead try to influence their decisions. When competition to persuade and influence becomes sufficiently fierce, design becomes important. Design is a symptom of equality and freedom.

This does not mean that design is essentially a behavior-influencing discipline. It does, however, mean that design is a behavior-influencing profession. It is the need for influencing behaviors that motivates organizations to employ designers and pay them money to do their strange kind of work.

Design work is strange because conditions of freedom have made it strange. Very early on its rapid evolution, the plans for industrial production of artifacts to be offered on the market – design’s initial purpose – became plans for more competitive products – products that customers would prefer to competing products. But what made a product preferable? Functional quality, of course, is always important, but constant improvement and technical innovation (plus, extinction of companies unable to keep up), soon brings products to rough functional parity. When functional quality stops driving preference, what makes one product preferable to another? A list of some of these more refined preferences shows hints of the future development of design: better aesthetic qualities (depending on individual taste, of course); more specialized functionality, optimized for particular uses (valued by some individual users and not others); better value trade-offs (striking different balances of cost, function and aesthetics, each appealing to different value priorities). 

With each ratcheting-up of competition, the definition of preferable is increasingly  relative to individual values, and the subject gains importance relative to the object. Every question must be qualified with “for whom?” And the answers, to be understood sufficiently that they can be applied to practical problems, are no longer straightforwardly factual, but require perspectival shifts into that of the people in question. For those who remain trapped in an objectivist outlook (still the majority of people), the shift seems mostly “subjective” – learning what the emotions a person feels, when they encounter various objects or events – cast in psychological terms, against a background of universal objective truth. But if the current trajectory holds, soon it will be impossible to ignore the truth that these emotional responses are only the emotive tip of a deeply objective iceberg, and that until the objectivity and emotion of a person’s response are comprehended together, the subject is most likely misunderstood in terms of one’s own subjectivity.

This is an important event in my life. Usually I write blog article that make it into my book. Today I wrote something for my book that I’m sharing as a blog article.

 

Rivendell

After 20+ years of intense yearning I finally got my ultimate bicycle, a Rivendell.

I love beautiful objects, especially beautiful useful objects. This is why I am a designer.

But the most beautiful and most useful object of all is the bicycle. Inconceivable amounts of intelligence, love and effort — heart, and soul and strength —  have been poured into perfecting the diamond frame bicycle by innumerable passionate people.

The bicycle is the ultimate object. And the Rivendell is the ultimate exemplar of the ultimate object.

 

What makes Rivendells so special is the old-school fabrication, which uses lugs to join steel tubes together. The artistry is stunning.

But the significance of Rivendell goes even further. The bicycle and the words of the bicycle’s designer,  Grant Peterson, gave me my first deep reconception of an object.

It was a conversion experience. Before, the conversion, I wanted a minimalist bicycle fabricated from the highest tech materials. But then I read what Peterson had to say, and Non-Rivendell bicycles were magically transformed into variously deficient approximations of Rivendells. Rivendells became symbolic of what I care about.

My overall aesthetic changed. My preference shifted from pristine, unadorned euclidian mind-forms to symbolically-ornamented heart-forms. A beneficiary of this change was Susan, who was suddenly liberated from modernist austerity, and freed to transform our house into the odd, colorful, semi-psychedelic warmth cocoon it is today.

This experience gave me my first glimpse of what design can be and do, not only with physical forms, but with conceptions. Later, many of the key ideas Grant Peterson demonstrated were articulated by Christopher Alexander as life-changing general principles of design that guide my practice today.

———

Here are some of the more memorable things Grant Peterson said that got into my heart. 

This:

We love lugs. We don’t build frames without them. We like the look, the art, the way they’re made, and we like designing smart, beautiful, and unique ones. We also like knowing that a Rivendell, Atlantis, or Heron frame is unmistakably itself beneath the paint, because the lugs identify it. Fifty and even a hundred and fifty years from now, when all of today’s frames have been retired or repainted or rusted away or whatever, a dumpster diver will come upon a paintless, decal-less Rivendell or Atlantis or Heron, take it to a bicycle historian, and there won’t be any doubt what kind of frame it is. That notion may seem silly to you, but it’s a small part of what makes lugged frames special for a lot of people. They have a face and a personality that is unique. No big deal, maybe, but it’s there.

And this:

“Form follows function” works for nature, but too often with people, it’s used as an excuse to rush to market something that’s fully functional but still not so good looking.

(Have you noticed that old things usually look good? Manhole covers, typewriters, ’50s station wagons, chairs, hand-saw handles, buildings, bells, letter openers, kitchen appliances, almost anything. They were designed slowly, on a real drawing board, by people who were part industrial designer, part artist, part engineer. When you mix those qualities with manual involvement and patience, what finally hatches usually looks good.)

When it comes to bicycle frames, we like them to look low-key from a distance and interesting up close. Lugs look good to us, and a little fanciness is fine, too. We want a Rivendell frame to be recognizable, even if a robber steals it and repaints it, and our signature lugs guarantee that.

It’s hard to dwell on points such as appearance without coming off like a snob; and rest assured we do see the beauty in rusty, homely, utility bikes that get ridden and help Save the Planet, etc. But at some point in the design and building of your frame, we make some decisions that affect aesthetics, and although we aren’t the final arbiters of good taste, we know what we like, and always look after the frame.

 

Conservatives and trade-offs

Lately, one of the conservative public intellectuals I follow and respect, Jonah Goldberg, has been talking a lot about tradeoffs, and how conservatives seem to him to be more willing to accept them, in contrast to progressives seem unable to accept tradeoffs.

I see some truth in this, but I don’t think it is true enough. I’d put it this way:

Conservatives are conscious that tradeoffs are inevitable and always to some degree necessary, and, consequently are more likely to see present tradeoffs as being necessary ones, or at least preferable to tradeoffs that might be made under alternative arrangements.

Progressives are conscious that, while trade-offs are inevitable and always to some degree necessary, that degree can differ, and are therefore more inclined to ask whether present tradeoffs are optimal, and if an alternative arrangement might require fewer tradeoffs – especially from those who have little control over these arrangements and who often end up bearing much of the burden of the off-trading.

This doesn’t mean progressives cannot make tradeoffs, or that they see every tradeoff as abhorrent, it only means they are always aware something else might be better. And conservatives are there to remind progressives that while an alternative might be better, it might be a lot worse, in ways impossible to anticipate until it is too late.

Illiberals are the ones who abhor tradeoffs. They have undue faith in their own convictions and logic, and cannot imagine how they might be wrong. They fail to ask themselves if incapacity isn’t a defect of their imagination, rather than evidence. They believe with all their hearts that if they could impose their wills on reality that reality would conform to their expectations, and everyone would see that they were right all along– that they are on the right side of history. Of course, the conviction one is on the right side of history is the furthest thing from evidence that this is actually so. But illiberalism is, at bottom, a conviction-actuality confusion, unlearned only through the hardest life-lessons, and often unlearned too late.

Why polycentric design matters

Susan and I are having a very fruitful conversation today. She just told me to post something I said to her:

Most of the brokenness in the world today is caused by bad interactions between people.

People leave these bad interactions feeling drained and dispirited, sensing that they lost more than they gained.

Polycentric design is the practice of redesigning these interactions (or the contexts and conditions of the interactions), so that interactions work out for everyone involved. Somehow each person gains more than they put in.

Good polycentric design  produces stone soup effects.

When I finish the book I’m working on now, which zero people will read, I’m writing Polycentric Design, which I hope several dozen people might read.

Types of rigor

Design research is tormented by rigor anxiety. There is a sense that design research is a bastard child of the social sciences; that what we do is a sloppy approximation of what anthropologists, behavioral scientists, social or cognitive psychologists do correctly. We feel that maybe because we must work so rapidly or with limited resources, we sort of do things a slightly wrong way. Or maybe our design educations omitted some technical know-how or esoteric theoretical knowledge that real social scientists have.

This anxiety is compounded by a phobia of bias and a fetishization of anti-bias techniques purported to neutralize or counter-balance these biases. Scientific techniques are understood to be our best hope for undoing these subjective biases that distort objectivity, by selectively noticing, ignoring and twisting what we think we perceive to play nice with our own preconceptions, preferences and cognitive predispositions.

I’d like to challenge this view — or at least the social-scientistic remedy part — and to point out that  differences in purpose, funding and  form of output make academic social science and design research as different as they are alike, and that each genre of research achieves rigor in its own way.

I’m already getting bored with this post, so I’ll make it really damn quick.

Most academic social science work is done with the goal of contributing new knowledge to the field. The work’s ultimate form of output is a paper published in some kind of juried academic journal. The key success indicator is how many other social scientists find the paper valuable enough that they cite it in their published papers. But in order for any of this to happen, the knowledge must be defensible, if not unassailable. Otherwise, the paper is less likely to be selected and published. If it is published, it will meet even more challenges, as other academics test it and attempt to discredit it with their own critiques or research. It is a high-stakes game, and the game is played in single-shots. An academic must be rigorous to make the work stand, and also to show that the work deserves attention, so it makes a lot of sense to take time, do everything possible to remove doubts,  uncertainties and soft spots vulnerable to attack.

Let’s call this kind of rigor “single-shot rigor”.

Designers on the other hand, are often forced to show results days into their research. Stakeholder are impatient to see progress and evidence that the work will produce value. Others in the organization clamor to get something useful as early as possible. Directional truth is sometimes very useful, especially when an organization’s general direction is in question. For design researchers, usefulness is most important, and unassailability is valuable only to the point where the research will be assailed at that particular point in its lifestyle. But that point is not single-shot. There will be more points, not only in the research, but also in whatever work the research informs. Everything is, as designers say, “wet clay”, moldable and adaptable, open to further learning as it is applied. (To extend this clay analogy, academic social sciences fire their work in the kiln of publication, and if it is pressed too far, it shatters.) Only when the final product is released, and this is true only for some kinds of products (like material products), most stay pliable after release (like software and services).

But also, because design research is fast and relatively cheap, it can be done iteratively, with each cycle informing different stages of the design’s development, each building on and stress-testing the previous iterations. This means that any misunderstanding or oversight in one cycle of research will be discovered in a future cycle. For instance, if a need of a user or customer is misinterpreted during foundational research (research used to help teams understand the people and contexts where a design intervention might be useful), when the insights from  foundational research are applied in the design of generative research (research used to produce innovative concepts for design interventions) or evaluative research (research used to assess the usefulness and desirability of design interventions) omissions and misconceptions will be brought to light. Through successive cycles of learning and application, each cycle slightly less open-ended and formally exact than the last, the research gets more and more complete, specific and certain.

So, let’s call design research’s rigor “iterative rigor”.

Given infinite time and resources, perhaps one-shot rigor could have some value of a certain kind, but that time and those resources might be more wisely used adding more iterations. But also — especially in early stages of design research where research is used to inspire intuitive leaps into unknown possibilities — premature rigor can introduce trade-offs against innovation by closing off  the intuitive hunches, reckless speculation and informed imagination that make it possible.  Here, trading off possible opportunities for certainty is unwise.