Wherein I Don’t Attempt To Win Any Friends

NextD, the journal for “ReRethinking Design,” just posted a conversation between me and one of its principals, GK Van Patter.

Starting off fairly tame, it becomes a no-holds-barred discourse on design, designers, design thinking, anthropology, voice advocacy, and, of course, turkey dinners.

I don’t mean to discourage you, but it’s long. The conversation came out to 30 pages of documents in Word. Around 15,000 words.

I also savored every minute of the discussion. I admire GK for his willingness to confront — being an active participant (as opposed to a softball-lobbing interviewer) leads to a much more engaging, if at times uncomfortable, discussion.

And it really helped me think deeply and thoroughly about how I approach issues of design, and designers.

It definitely won’t win me any new friends. But I hope it serves GK’s desired purpose to contribute to the activities of sense-making that design practitioners must engage in during this liminal moment.

Following are some key passages from me to give a flavor of what’s being discussed:

I have no interest in learning something “properly.” Doing so suggests aligning your epistemology, your worldview, with a particular frame of thought. I feared that doing so would close me off to other perspectives. I work best when drawing from a variety of intellectual sources.

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Now, to actually answer your last question, let me recant what I wrote earlier and say, yes, I do think we’re in the design business. In many fundamental ways we don’t behave like any other company in the design business, but at the end of the day, we seek to design solutions to address our clients’ challenges, or to teach others methods for solving those challenges themselves.

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It’s worth noting that not one of the founders of Adaptive Path had formal training in design. Our backgrounds range from history to journalism to anthropology to film. But before starting the company we had all engaged in design practices at a variety of companies. We had all realized that design was a tool for solving the problems we were facing, and we taught ourselves what we needed to know to succeed.

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…And this dovetails into what is probably the most important factor, which is the oh-my-god overwhelming complexity that our products and services must grapple with, whether the complexity is in the product itself, or in how it integrates with other aspects of a person’s life. And current design practice and education is simply not equipped to deal with this. Frankly, I’m not aware of any formal training that can handle this. We continue to navigate uncharted waters, and, really, that’s what I’ve been getting at all along. That’s what makes all this “possible,” as you said. What we’re (all) attempting to do is still so new, so nascent, that no one can claim any ownership of it.

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The democratization of anthropology can only be a good thing. I decided not to pursue anthropology seriously because anthropological practice, as I observed it in school, meant producing material for other anthropologists. There was little interest in engaging the public, or in engaging other disciplines. (Quick! Name a famous cultural anthropologist other than Margaret Mead.) I think the democratization of anthropology will have numerous benefits. It will breathe fresh air into what can be a staid and conservative discipline. It can provide those practicing anthropology a more practical outlet. It can introduce new methods into anthropological practice. It will engage more non-anthropologists with anthropological thought.

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There is a difference between engaging in a few methods from a field, and being a full-fledged member of that field. I conduct field research and a kind of rapid ethnography, but I am not an anthropologist. I try to appreciate the financial ramifications of the work I do, but I am not a business analyst. I conduct surveys, but I’m not a market researcher.

I do all of these things to support what I consider my work, which is design. And I am willing to call, market, and perform services as a designer.

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…Design is much more a body of practice than it is knowledge, and as such, it lacks the depth of a field like anthropology. I mean, compare the number of Ph.D. programs in design and anthropology. Unlike anthropology, design is not a research discipline. I also don’t think design is nuanced the way anthropology is. By nuanced, I mean that in anthropology there are many different shades and perspectives that revolve around a central core. The distinct sub-fields of cultural anthropology -medical anthropology, applied anthropology, visual anthropology, folklore – all draw from a core appreciation of “anthropology.” Whereas, I think our discussion has demonstrated there’s nothing nearly as coherent in the field of design. Interaction design, industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, environmental design, architecture, etc., etc. are not tied together by a recognized core. Instead, each is learned and practiced pretty much distinct from the others, and often are set in competition to one another.

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I, and my colleagues at Adaptive Path, are relentlessly focused on providing the best user experiences. We try not to be beholden to any particular approach, dogma, or school of thought. We pick and choose from a variety of approaches to solve problems. Often it means borrowing from our design toolkit, but other times it means utilizing “business thinking” – measurement and analysis obviously have their place. Or it might mean borrowing from “engineering thinking” – obsession with the material nature of the problem.

Each of these forms of thinking have characteristics which, depending on contexts, can be helpful or hindering. What I was trying to do in that post is show that the design approach is not an absolute good, and it shouldn’t be adopted unquestioningly.

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Designers have spent a long time focusing on the wrong thing, or, perhaps more fairly, on the inconsequential thing. My post on the Dark Side of Design Thinking, and my other criticisms of designers are to shine a light on the behaviors and expressions of designers that have lead to their marginalization.

You would be right in saying my empathy is not with designers. I think that’s a very limited expression of empathy. My empathy, my voice advocacy, is with all those who want to Do Right and are struggling against external forces. Whether it’s Do Right By Themselves or Do Right By Their Organization or Do Right By Their Customers/Clients/Users/Constituents.

I work as a designer and I engage with the design community because I see design as a powerful tool for Doing Right.

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Ever since I’ve worked closely with designers, I’ve witnessed their self-proclaimed victimization. In my experience, designers are victims not of the actions of others, but of themselves. They have let others come and define their roles for them, dutifully accepting requirements, iterating on whims, and then bitching about it over beers after work.

I argue that designers need to stand up and define their own work. Make their voices heard throughout the product development processes. Demonstrate that their contributions go deeper than form, to the core of the product (and business) itself. To be willing to be held accountable for their work – to accept the risk and reward given their non-designer colleagues, to be lauded for their successes and chastised for their failures. When that happens, we’ll see designers sitting in their rightful place alongside other leaders of business, society, academia, politics, appropriately influencing matters across a range of concerns.

4 thoughts on “Wherein I Don’t Attempt To Win Any Friends

  1. Interestingly, your description of web site design practice matches that of theatrical and motion picture directing. It doesn’t hurt for the stage or screen director to know a little something about lighting, lenses and sound equipment, but there is no training at any school that can provide formulas or techniques guaranteed to produce emotion in an audience.

    Years ago, when I was a UCLA Theatre Arts major, the famous and award winning stage and screen director Joshua Logan spoke to some of us about his career experiences: http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0517597/

    His extraordinary string of Broadway amd Hollywood successes began, he told us, when he was in the U.S. Army. Though he had been involved in theater groups, he had never directed until his Special Services superior officer assigned him to direct a play for the company.

    Logan told the officer that he didn’t know how to direct. The officer then told Logan that his job was to direct the performers so that the audience could see and hear the play.

    Though it doesn’t sound very inspiring, Logan told us that fulfilling that command opens the director to whatever creativity his own intuition and experience may bring to the project.

    And to employ an analogy from my own favorite art, no matter what the recipe, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.

  2. Hi Peter,

    Good post. I have to take issue with one of your comments from the interview (note these are just observations):

    You state, “learning something “properly.” Doing so suggests aligning your epistemology, your worldview, with a particular frame of thought. I feared that doing so would close me off to other perspectives.” I disagree completely here and your claim sounds awfully relativistic to me. For example, knowing how vision and your brain functions (say from an empirical perspective), I think can very much inform and help when designing UIs for b2b or b2e web applications (what people are calling web 2.0 or more desktop oriented web apps).

    Knowing how folks process information from a cognitive science perspective will lead to better ease of use and learnability in say a business application where users need to complete a series of tasks through a UI. I think you need to make a distinction between creative design (with say no usability goals) from a task based web site or UI where users need to accomplish something. As a visual designer you may feel constricted if you adhere to any one principle of school of thought, but I can tell you that when you do usability, understanding the brain (or having this knowledge) is very important and, I think, critical.

    Also in the strictest view epistemology is not really defined as a ‘world view;’ rather most philosopher’s of history (and I take it you’ve heard the word used in philosophical circle) understand epistemology as the pursuit of justified true belief (viz., knowledge). For example, science is an epistemic pursuit, while art or design has no epistemic value.

  3. Peter- that was the most interesting thing I’ve read in the subject that interests me most. What subject is that? I’ve had a hard time trying to pin it down myself over the years, but I think you’ve already walked down the streets I’m searching for. I *love* your viewpoints that you expressed in this piece.

  4. I’d also like to point out that the NextD page that hosted that inteview is the only time in the last 5 years that I’ve used Opera (browser) that I had to use the “open frame in new window” feature to actually read it.