Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Designerly Thinking and Doing workshops

Just a brief reminder of upcoming workshops.

I will hold a workshop on Designerly Thinking and Doing in Chicago on March 31st. Click on the link if you want to know more.

I am planning to hold the same (similar) workshop in Bloomington, IN, later this Spring, probably in May. Let me know if you are interested. It will be similar purpose and content (but less expensive).

You might be wondering with is different with my workshops in relation to many others out there. Most other workshops on 'design thinking' focus on the design process and some simple tools suitable for the process. In my workshops I focus on the individual's thinking and character, that is, what designerly thinking and doing means when it comes to an individuals competence, abilities, and skills. And on why they matter, and how they can be developed. We will focus on how to grow and become a thinking designer, instead of just describing some activities or tools. It is who you are as a whole person that makes you designer, how you can think, how you can make informed judgments, and how you can assess and evaluate when, where, and why a designerly approach is appropriate or not.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Why Design Thinking Needs Systems Thinking

I was a young student in my first year at the university. I had never heard of systems thinking or any other kind of thinking either. I had entered a program with focus on systems analysis and information systems, and I had no idea what it was all about. Pretty soon I had my first encounter with a real university professor. In the very first course the professor had us read “The Systems Approach” by C. West Churchman. The book was so different from anything else I had read. For the first time, I read something that was intellectually stimulating at the same time as it felt real and practical. I loved the book. 

Due to the same professor, throughout my undergraduate and doctoral years I was "forced" to read, think, reflect and discuss the works of Churchman. We had lectures, seminars and discussions around Churchman’s work. Churchman was as a visiting professor at our department. All this, of course, strongly influenced my intellectual development. My mind was devoted to systems thinking.

But it became too much! I actually came to a point were I had to free myself from the intellectual tradition I was trained in. I realized that systems thinking was not enough, at least not for me. I found that it was too much focused on analysis, on revealing the conditions of the already existing, while I became more and more interested in the not-yet-existing, and therefore moved towards ideas and traditions more focused on design inquiry and action. I tried to find out what creativity, innovation and design was all about. 

In recent year my thinking has changed again. All the ideas that were introduced to me by Churchman is slowly making a “comeback”. I believe this is not something that I am the only one to experience. We are entering a world that through new technology, changing cultures and markets rapidly becomes more complex. Design today is almost never about creating something closed and contained. Almost everything is systemic by design and part of other systems. This is especially true when it comes to digital products and systems. The infusion of computational and communication abilities into almost every new artifact radically changes our whole environment. Nothing is separated from anything else. There are no separable components. We find ourselves in a true world of systems.

In such a world of extreme complexity we need intellectual tools suited for that challenge. And it is obvious to me that popular forms of 'design thinking' are not equipped with such tools. It is as if the pendulum has swung too far on the side of 'creative' and 'innovative' aspects of designing while tools that can support serious investigations of the complexity of reality is neglected. 

I have realized that I am, in a way, back to where I started. In my attempts to handle this complexity I find support and guidance in the thoughts and ideas of Churchman and of systems thinking in general. In his books he reflects on the many aspects of systems and of complexity. He tries to makes these reflections go hand in hand with basic aspects of life itself by always pushing the questions of what systems thinking could and should be used for. These are all issues pertinent to design. Design thinking today is in need of systems thinking. The work of Churchman is relevant and useful in a way I think he would have liked, that is, not as an isolated theoretical lens without relevance outside academia, but as a pragmatic approach to reality with the focus on making a difference.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Why 'design thinking' is risky

When design thinking is promoted it can look like this

"Design Thinking is a mindset. Design Thinking is about having an intentional process in order to get new, relevant solutions that create positive impact. It’s human-centered. It’s collaborative. It’s optimistic. It’s experimental." (link to text)

It sounds really good. But what is not mentioned is that designing is also complicated, difficult, hard and risky. So, why is it that 'design thinking' is portrayed as this fun, exciting and highly positive process without mentioning how risky it is. Well, some people who advocate for 'design thinking' are selling it. They have selfish reasons for making design thinking look exciting, fun and useful and they do not want to stress 'negative' aspects of design thinking. They want everyone to believe that they can easily learn and use design as an approach.

There is of course no serious problem with describing 'design thinking' in a positive light. Designing is intrinsically an optimistic and positive approach. It is built on a core belief that  positive change in the world is possible, that we can make a difference. And to be honest, to those who are trained in designing, the process is rewarding and fun, despite (or maybe thanks to) it being complex and difficult.

However, a process aimed at producing the not-yet-existing is by definition risky. A design process is intended to lead to something that we have not seen before, something new, something different. It means that there is no way of knowing if the process is moving in the right direction, if what is designed will work in its intended context, until it is too late. Designers have to trust what they do. They have to trust the process and their own judgment. And since there is no 'guarantor of design' (that is, anything that can guarantee a 'good' result) the final outcome is a consequence of the designer's judgment and therefore also the responsibility of the designer.

It is not difficult to find examples of bad design in the world. I take this as a clear sign that designing is difficult. It means that whoever decides to approach a situation/problem with a design approach also has to accept that the process may seriously fail. And they have to be ready to take the responsibility for that.

Designing is different from many other process that have well defined goals and outcomes, that have well developed steps and procedures that can to some extent guarantee that if you follow the process you will end up with a good or adequate result. Designing is a process that is 'designed' to not lead to expected outcomes, which is why it cannot be prescribed in detail and why there is no way to clearly 'measure' what a good design is.

So, remember that the design approach is powerful in what it can achieve, but that that power comes at a cost. It is risky. Unpredictable. And difficult. And requires a good design judgment and not just a superficial understanding of what 'design thinking' is.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Things That Keep Us Busy: The Elements of Interaction

Our new book is now on Amazon, even though it will not be available until September. But it can be pre-ordered.

Things That Keep Us Busy: The Elements of Interaction (MIT Press) 
Hardcover – September 1, 2017
by Lars-Erik Janlert (Author), Erik Stolterman (Author)

There is no cover yet and not much information, but there is a description:

"We are surrounded by interactive devices, artifacts, and systems. The general assumption is that interactivity is good -- that it is a positive feature associated with being modern, efficient, fast, flexible, and in control. Yet there is no very precise idea of what interaction is and what interactivity means. In this book, Lars-Erik Janlert and Erik Stolterman investigate the elements of interaction and how they can be defined and measured. They focus on interaction with digital artifacts and systems but draw inspiration from the broader, everyday sense of the word.

Viewing the topic from a design perspective, Janlert and Stolterman take as their starting point the interface, which is designed to implement the interaction. They explore how the interface has changed over time, from a surface with knobs and dials to clickable symbols to gestures to the absence of anything visible. Janlert and Stolterman examine properties and qualities of designed artifacts and systems, primarily those that are open for manipulation by designers, considering such topics as complexity, clutter, control, and the emergence of an expressive-impressive style of interaction. They argue that only when we understand the basic concepts and terms of interactivity and interaction will we be able to discuss seriously its possible futures."

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

What design judgment is

A designer is constantly involved in making judgments. The reason is that any decision has to be made based on insufficient information. At the same time, a designer is commonly overwhelmed by the richness and the complexity of the situation. So, dealing with an abundance of information that still feels insufficient while being pressured to move forward means that judgments have to be made. However, even though judgment is a core ability for designers and is mentioned frequently, it is not well defined. So, what is it?

In one of his writings the famous philosopher John Dewey discusses at length what judgment is. This is done in his book "How we think" (which is a wonderful text). I am re-reading this book at the moment and will later write more about some of the core ideas in this book and how they are crucial to anyone engaged in designing.

Below are a few quotes from the chapter. I would like to reproduce the whole chapter, since every page is full of sentences that are both insightful and beautiful!

Dewey on why having more information does not reduce the need for judgment:

"For learning is not wisdom; information does not guarantee good judgment. Memory may provide an antiseptic refrigerator in which to store a stock of meanings for future use, but judgment selects
and adopts the one used in a given emergency -- and without an emergency (some crisis, slight or great) there i no call for judgement." (p 107).

Dewey on why judgment can be developed:

"Long brooding over conditions, intimate contact associated with keen interest, thorough absorption in a multiplicity of allied experiences, tend to bring about those judgments which we then call intuitive; but they are true judgments because they are based on intelligent selection and estimation, with the solution of a problem as the controlling standard. Possession of this capacity makes the difference between the artist and the intellectual bungler." (p 105)

Dewey on why judgment cannot be prescribed:

"No hard and fast rules for this operation of selecting and rejecting, or fixing upon the facts, can be given. It all comes back, as we say, to the good judgment, the good sense, of the one judging. To be a good judge is to have a sense of the relative indicative or signifying values of the various features of the perplexing situation; to know what to let go as of no account; what to eliminate as irrelevant; what to retain as conducive to outcome; what to emphasize as a clue to the difficulty....In part if is instinctive and inborn but it also represents the funded outcome of long familiarity with like operations in the past. Possession of this ability to seize what is evidential or significant and to let the rest go is the mark of the expert, the connoisseur, the judge, in any matter." (p 104)

Friday, March 03, 2017

Design versus Designing

Since a few years I have stopped using (or at least tried to) the word 'design' when it seems more relevant to use the notion of 'designing'. The reason is that I try to be more specific with aspects of design I am addressing.

To me, design is a concept that is broad and extraordinary inclusive. It covers almost anything that has to do with design in all its manifestations and forms. Designing, on the other hand, is more narrow. It is concerned with the practice of design, of the process of design, that is, of design(ing) as an activity.

When it comes to some other similar concepts, such as art and science, the terms are commonly seen as denoting large societal phenomena including their history, present and future. The terms cover all cultural, social, educational, and professional aspects of the phenomena. At the same time, when it comes to the practice or activity the broad terms are no usually used. Instead concepts such as the 'artistic process' or the 'scientific process' are common. Or we talk about 'doing' art or science. The terms science and art are usually not reduced to only signify the practice or process of doing it.

In the same way, the concept of 'design' should be used to denote the larger societal phenomenon of design.

So, why does this matter? Well, if we do want to say specific things about the activity of design, then it seems more appropriate to use the term designing. When people talk about 'design thinking' or 'research through design' it is probably more correct to talk about 'designing thinking' and 'research through designing'. Of course language wise some things have to be changed, not just adding an 'ing'.

The meaning of the 'history of designing' is very different from the history of design. Theory of designing is different from theory of design, etc. I understand that this is minor, minor, thing in the big picture but it matters.

We have many other similar problems in the field of design, for instance with the notion of 'design research' which in some cases means 'the research done by designer during a design process', and in other cases mean ' research about design' and sometimes 'research about designing'. OK, enough...

Friday, February 10, 2017

Why Design Thinking is Not Enough

If you go to Youtube and look for "design thinking" you will find a large number of videos with TED talks and other talks all explaining what design thinking is, how important it is, how to do it, etc. Some are good. They present an understanding of designing that is ok, but in many cases they are quite simplistic, and surprisingly quite often based on the speakers personal experience of realizing the "power" of design as a new creative process to solve problems. The speaker have "seen the light", and the light is design thinking. Again, this is all well, we do need as many as possible to be introduced to a designerly way of thinking. The world needs design thinking.

But, it is not enough. Any approach used by humans to engage with the world in an intentional way, for producing knowledge (as the scientific process) or for producing art (as the artistic process) or for producing change (as the design process) has to be supported. The scientific process has for the last couple of centuries been develop within a larger culture that recognizes, enables, supports and advances it--the academic culture as manifested by universities. This academic culture has developed together, in parallel, with the scientific process. The two have over time influenced each other, and they have more or less had a common goal. The broader academic culture knows what a scientific process is and what it requires to be successful and it sees as its task to make that happen.

If we now look at design thinking instead of the scientific process, a very different picture emerges. Design thinking is in most cases not protected and supported by a broader culture such as the academic culture protects and support the scientific process. When I talk to professional designers in all kinds of industries this is one of the most frequent 'complaints' I hear. these professional designers are happy to be involved in design, but they do not feel understood and definitely not 'safe' or protected. Instead, I often hear them describe their reality having to 'defend', 'explain', and 'fight' for design as a suitable approach. They feel threatened and are always looking for ways to argue for what they do, even to the extent that they start to change the process to look more like processes that might already be recognized and appreciated within the culture where they work.

This is why design thinking (in all its varieties) is not enough. Any design approach needs to be situated within a designerly culture that understands what design is, what is requires, and when it is appropriate (and not). Design thinking needs a surrounding culture that protects its strengths, uniqueness and core so it can perform and deliver what it promises. Companies that bring in design thinking as a quick fix, as a 'tool', as a 'method' will fail unless they engage in creating a broader designerly culture.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Why design judgment matters more than ever..

I was today made aware about an interesting text about complexity (thanks Abiel Tomás Parra Hernández for the pointer). The article has the title "Why this will be the Century of Complexity..." written by Kieran D. Kelly. The article is mostly aimed at the world of physics and how that discipline has and is changing in relation to the growing understanding of complex phenomena. To what extent the article correctly describes physics and its development is not something I can determine, but, the article makes some interesting observations that can be relevant to the philosophy and theory of designing.

In the article Kelly argues that complexity and chaos is something natural and something that we have to live with and that can't be reduced to traditional thinking based on some fundamental ideas of stability. Anyway, if this is interesting from a scientific perspective I don't know and for the purpose of my post, I don't care. Instead, what is interesting to me are some of the definitions that Kelly examines. For instance, he defines chaos as “adaptive instability” and as “unresolved internal adaptation to feedback, surfacing as turbulent diversity on the system level”. And he writes that "Natural Chaos is Incompressible Adaptive Diversity".

When I read these definitions they fit quite well into some advanced ideas about designing as a process of intentional change struggling with unpredictability. To try to intentionally design while dealing with "constantly changing feedback" in a context of emerging complex systems is an overwhelming task. And this is only on the side of designing that tries to understand the context and conditions within which the design is supposed to make a difference. We have a similar complexity on the side of intentionality, or desiderata, that is, on the side of the purpose and goal of a design. What all involved want or desire from a design is equally influenced by complexity, feedback and emergence.

So, is intentional design even possible? Of course it is, we see examples of wonderful intentional designs in the most complex contexts and conditions. But we also see a lot of examples of failed designs. Designing is not easy. It demands a designerly mind that is able to understand how to approach and deal with the complexity and richness of reality through the use of design wisdom and design judgment. It will never be possible to fully examine and understand reality for designerly purposes in a way that reduces the need for a designerly judgment. A designer judgment is needed to cut through the overwhelming but insufficient information about the reality that we can produce with all our approaches and methods. A designer judgment is need to find out what the desiderata is, that is, what is the desire and purpose with a design. Desiderata is not a consequence of reality, of any complex and emergent contexts, or deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms of reality. Desiderata can only be established by designers in conspiracy with all stakeholders based on their desires, wants and needs. Ok, enough for now...

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Working on a new course preliminary called "The World of Interfaces"

I am at the moment, together with my PhD student Jordan Beck, working on a new course preliminary called "The World of Interfaces".

I would like to teach a course that captures the breadth and diversity in the way interfaces are manifested today. It would include a lot of capturing, collecting and curating. It would lead to categorizations, clusterings, and types. I imagine it as a quite exciting course for undergraduate students primarily with the purpose to challenge their perceived ideas about what interfaces are, can be and should be. I also imagine a graduate course on the same topic but with more theoretical ambitions (related to my new book "Things that keep us busy -- elements of interaction".

If you have ideas about a course like this, maybe already teach one or took one, or know good readings, I would love to hear from you. My email is

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

How (not) to improve design practice

One of my intellectual hero's is Donald Schön. I have sine the mid 1980s been impressed and inspired by his writings on design. His theoretical framework is broad in scope, deep in detail and ambitious and by most today overlooked. Of course, Schön is one of the most cited design thinkers but his ideas has been reduced and are usually referred to only be about "reflection". Schön's work is much more than that.

Anyway, to those to engage in trying to produce new methods and tools that can support design practice, there is a wonderful quote from Schön that is worth 'reflecting' upon.

(You have to exchange 'policy academics' with 'design academics' in this quote.)

"If policy academics want to build a better understanding of policy practice in a way useful to practitioners as well as appropriately rigorous, then they must not bypass the research in which practitioners are already engaged. If they disregard what practitioners already know or are already trying to discover, they are unlikely either to grasp what is really going on or to succeed in getting practitioners to listen to them." (Schön & Rein, "Frame Reflection", 1994, p.193.)

Way too often we can observe attempt from academia to improve design practice that is not grounded in any serious understanding of practice. What Schön is arguing for is what I have in other places called "rationality resonance", which is a concept that captures the ideal situation when the rationality underlying an 'improver's' suggested change resonates with the 'improved' practitioners own rationality. When this is not in place, the noble attempt to improve design practice ends up either being neglected or destroying the very nature of design practice.

So, go back, read Schön's books. They constitute an extraordinary source of design wisdom.