Category Archives: Design

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.

*

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,

*

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?

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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?

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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

But, to that I say: Happy Easter.

*

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.

 

Methodic wisdom

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

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


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

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

Design is methodic wisdom.


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

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

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


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

Soul and the speaking self

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

Design mindset exercises

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

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

Living designally

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

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

Concretely, this might mean

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Engineering, monocentric design, polycentric design

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

This can be carried forward one more step:

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

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

*

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

UX, CX and other Xs  are monocentric design disciplines.

Service design is a polycentric design discipline.


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


Philosophy is a polycentric design discipline.