Category Archives: Hermeticism

How to close the theory-practice gap

I have never once just thought up a truly new practice and then executed it afterwards.

Every new thing I’ve ever conceived emerged from intuitive, nonverbal doing — from groping in the dark, from muddling through, usually under conditions of considerable perplexity and stress.

Only after, if it worked, can I go back and reflect on what made it work, and produce a theory.

I’ve never seen things go the opposite direction.

As far as I know, the only way to close the theory-practice gap is to theorize from practice. And it is less like a closing of a gap than it is paving something substantial but rough and poorly lit.

There is only a gap if theory has been sketched into a vacuum. I don’t think those gaps ever close.

And trying to practice from theory leads to mechanical sterility. It leads to execution of memorized dance steps, or the recitation of syllables from an alien language.

Every important thing I’ve ever conceived has come came to me this way. And every important thing I’ve ever learned has come to me first as a new practical capacity, a new ability to perceive or respond first — tacit know-how — and only much later has it become something I can actually explain.

Maybe a Sartrean formula would be helpful: Practice precedes theory.

What emerges from practice-forged theory is praxis — articulate practice.

I am excited about design as an alternative mode of practical life.

It is a new living tradition, a way of working, self-consciously developed by many diverse practitioners, solving a vast and growing array of real-world problems in every conceivable material (matter, space, time, information, imagination, feeling), for (arguably) the last 60-so years.

It is a tradition that must be appropriated and internalized before it becomes productive in the head, hearts and hands of a participant.

It is the appropriate mode of practice for anyone who works in systems in which humans participate. If you think about it at any depth at all, this category embraces just about all human activity, most of all the governing of people at every scale.

Design is the way we should be approaching life together, but its methods and even more, its core sensibilities, its conceptive capacities, are still largely confined to specialists. In my own life, I’ve found that disciplining myself to behave as a designer has made intractable, incorrigible problems soluble.

Almost anything I do, I do better if I do it in a designerly way.

But what is this designerly way? It is not methods. It is what animates these methods. It is a faith.

More and more, I am realizing that the purpose of my life is to illuminate and activate the esoteric underpinnings of design practice.

Like all faiths, design has a visible outward form that can be looked at — an exoteric expression — and an inward, esoteric being that cannot be looked at, but rather is seen from.

The reason I have been so quiet lately is I am returning to the sophia perennis. I want to do for design what esoterists have done with traditional religions — illuminate their transcendent unity. To this end, I am focusing on the esoteric depths of my own faith, and studying Kabbalah.

But just to preemptively address on obvious and important objection:  I am not in the slightest interested in making design into a religion. I am just trying to invest our practical lives with religious energy. We cannot continue on with this vacuous, stressful, tedious slogging. Our oil-dependent economy depends even more on another rapidly depleting fuel source, will-power. Our will-power tanks have been sucked dry are emptied even of vapors.

We sit before our screens, commanding our hands to move and type out words, but they refuse to do what we say.

We need an alternative, renewable psychic energy source. But we cannot tap into this source as long as we continue to insist that all new sources conform to our current sacred theories of power. These theories possess us and will not release us until we pay the price of our redemption.

Six sensibilities of service

I’ve decided to experiment with making my course “Introduction to Service Design” an exercise in hermetics. I am going to re-title the course “Initiation Into Service Design”, and I am going to re-title the central module of the course “Six Sensibilities of Service”.

I’m using “hermetics” to mean applications of esoteric insights in the domain of mundane life — applied hermeticism. I’ve been working this way for decades, and have struggled for language to explain my approach to design and how it differs from the technique-driven approach of most professional designers.

The esoteric language, including the designation “hermetic”, however, is not for the public. It is just for me and my own clarity, and for the handful of weirdos who also respond to this kind of thing and find it clarifying, rather than mystifying. At this point, I do not plan to run around billing myself as a “hermetic designer”. My outward practice and language will and must stay compatible and cooperative with the exoteric practices and norms of the design industry and the business world to which it belongs.

This kind of skillful selective semi-concealment, by the way, is part and parcel of esoterism, which always remains in communion with the exoteric facets of its tradition — while serving it by investing it with life, or “vivifying” it, to use Valentin Tomberg’s words.

I’ve intuited this idea often, but I think it is time to say it explicitly: Design is a tradition equipped with exoteric theories and practices, rooted in esoteric understandings into which designers are initiated, or of which they are oblivious.

Merely learning the lingo, theory and methods of design does not fully equip a would-be practitioner to actually design. Nor does expertise in executing the techniques designers use. There is something else required if one hopes to “really know what they’re doing” as designers, or even “knowing where designers are coming from”.

The new goal of the course is to accelerate the acquision of this “something else”, which consists of activating a set of enceptions — what hermeticists call arcana — each a different capacity to perceive, recognize and interact with a certain species of given, without which the given is missed. The given is either not noticed, submerged in oblivion, or it is meaningless, or perplexing.

For the sake of sounding minimally sane, sober and non-exotic, I will call these enceptions “sensibilities”. After all, each is an ability to make sense of some particular species of given. Also, the word “sensibilities” is common in the world of art and design, and my use of it is, though novel, completely compatible with current usage. It is a very gentle repurposing of the word.

The six sensibilities are what one must activate and cultivate in oneself, in order to recognize, understand and resolve problems with services.

Think of the six sensibilities as parts of a mental hand — five fingers and a palm. All six are needed to grasp the complexity of any service as a simple whole. All six are needed to articulate this clear understanding of service and communicate it to others. All six are used to grip the tools of service design in shaping new services or reshaping existing ones. They are the background of any clear understanding, any effective communication or any skillful response to a service design problem.

These six sensibilities differentiate  inspired, insightful service designers who work naturally and intuitively from designers who work formulaically and mechanically with tools and techniques they understand mostly theoretically. Before the sensibilities are active, a designer is like an aspiring dancer who must recall and execute each step of the dance they are performing. After the sensibilities are developed, the dance moves the dancer’s body with spontaneous, musical grace.

But this course is not only — or even primarily — for designers. It is for people who might hire and/or collaborate with service designers. But why would they need a course? After all, don’t we hire professionals to spare us the need to become experts?

Here is why: One of the challenging peculiarities of service design is that an organization cannot hire service designers to do service design work for them. They must hire service designers to work with them.

Service design work changes the way organizations operate, and even how they organize themselves around the delivery of services.

Every design discipline works with a particular material, and with service design the material is the organization.

For service design to work, an organization itself must, and cannot avoid, participating directly in the service design process.

That participation requires a significant degree of understanding of service design, and that understanding is hollow, ineffective and overwhelming without the six sensibilities.

That is why this course is needed.

So what are the sensibilities and how do we activate them?

I will list the sensibilities, and offer a quick and barely adequate description for each one:

  • Temporal sensibility – Services are experienced in a series of Now points, each with a past and future. At each point in the experience, one remembers what happened before and tries to anticipate what comes next, and this shapes and colors what is happening in the present. When the service experience ends, it is remembered as a story with memorable ups and downs, and an overall impression of how it went. Designing an experience that unfolds over a significant duration of time requires a different mentality from designing an object experienced momentarily — it requires a temporal sensibility.
  • Omnichannel sensibility – Services happen across multiple touchpoints delivered through different service channels. A typical service zigzags across locations (home, car, store, service centers) and physical objects (computer, phone, product packaging, product interfaces) and virtual objects (websites, apps, messages, social media platforms). But they are perceived as part of something, and that is a service. Designing an experience that unfolds across multiple channels of a person’s free choosing requires a different mentality than designing an experience confined to a single channel — it requires an omnichannel sensibility.
  • Polycentric sensibility – Services are experienced by different actors playing different roles in the service, often interacting with one another. For instance in a retail scenario, a customer is an actor who receives the service, a cashier is an actor who helps delivers the service, while backstage in the stockroom another actor supports the service. Service design tries to make each actor’s experience a good one. Each actor is considered a different center of a common experience with multiple centers. Designing for multiple actors simultaneously requires a different mentality from designing for one actor at a time — it requires a polycentric sensibility.
  • Reciprocity sensibility – At every point in a service, in order for the service to unfold as intended, one or more actors must be motivated to participate in the service. The actor wishes to get some kind of value from their participation, and if they see no value they are unlikely to play their part. They invest something valuable — effort, time, information, money, comfort, etc. — in order to get something valuable in return. This is as true for those delivering and supporting services as those receiving them. And it becomes exponentially true when participation is voluntary and non-hierarchical, for instance when partners cooperate to provide jointly-delivered services to shared customers. To the degree that a service provides a win-win value exchange for all who participate in it at every point, the service will flourish. Wherever it does not, the service will be weak or even broken, and actors will opt out (refuse to buy; quit their job) or choose services with a value exchange (buy from a competitor; find a better job somewhere else). Designing win-wins for everyone who participates in a service requires a different mentality from designing around the needs of only one actor — it requires a reciprocity sensibility.
  • Operational sensibility – In the practical world, ideas are worthless unless they can be implemented and made real. Service design is radically practical, and to ensure ideas can work in practice enlists experts from throughout the organization to contribute their knowledge and disciplinary know-how, and to collaborate with other experts to push the boundaries of what is concretely possible. To guide collaboration among diverse experts each of whom has insights and knowledge required to ensure practicability of innovative ideas requires a different mentality from pie-in-the-sky “big idea” concepting — it requires an operational sensibility.
  • Staging sensibility – It is a truism that some of the best designs are invisible. But at the same time it is also true that some of the best designs are delightful and memorable. The best services are an orchestration of both. Services design pays close attention to what elements or moments of a service should be unobtrusive or even concealed backstage, and which elements should be brought frontstage to be experienced, appreciated or remembered. To coordinate a service that appears the right way at the right time and conceals what should not be noticed requires a different mentality from something designed to only be invisible or only to delight: it requires a staging sensibility.

In the course itself, I will introduce each sensibility with a more extensive description, provide some examples to be viewed through the lens of the sensibility and outline some criteria and earmarks to keep in mind when.

After we have been introduced to each sensibility individually, and learn to exercise the sensibility to detect the kind of service problem that sensibility perceives, we will use all six sensibilities together to assess real services and clearly communicate our assessment.