Design involves doing philosophy with the hands. This statement paraphrases an introduction Allan Chochinov gave for Cameron Tonkinwise at a small presentation in New York City. Allan mentioned that Cameron came from a background in philosophy before studying design, and explained that design is simply “doing philosophy with your hands.” With that phrase, the impetus for my interest in the intersection between phenomenology and design—which I had been struggling to clearly articulate for some time—suddenly became clear. Design involves the enacting of theory through the body. This act of embodiment will be an overarching theme in this book: how we come to “do philosophy” through design, and how this activity relates to the design of experiences.
Out of all the fields that influence experience design, philosophy is one not frequently discussed. Volumes have been written on the roots of experience design within psychology, cognitive science, and anthropology, yet very little has been dedicated to philosophy, critical theory, and literary studies. Why? Perhaps it is because these latter fields are often relegated to the humanities, and are therefore perceived as less “practical.” Or perhaps it is because experience design is still a young field, and we simply haven’t had the time. Regardless of the reason, I believe now is the time to consider contributions from philosophy as a serious inquiry in experience design. As we see a distinct movement toward this type of inquiry in the last few years—with critical and speculative design, service design, ontological design, design thinking, and systemic design becoming more solidified as practices—my hope is for this book to contribute to the overall trend of adding rigor to experience design practice.
The focus here is on the philosophical tradition of phenomenology—specifically on its evolution through a few key phases—and its application to experience design and its offshoots. Although I started publicly speaking and writing about this topic at conferences and for design publications about a year before beginning this book, my research goes back to my undergraduate years. Each time I give a presentation, a small group of audience members will approach me afterward about how they have thought of the connection before, have not thought of it but want to learn more, or simply realize how their liberal arts degree now seems relevant. I speak about the topic with my students, and many of them end up finding a new use for their literary backgrounds. Reactions like these tell me that there are others with latent interest in the theoretical aspects of experience design; that others in the experience design community find value beyond recipe books, case studies, and the often decontextualized “best practices.”
This text is born in part out of a growing dissatisfaction with the state of design theory with respect to academia and industry. Even the simple act of reading the term “design theory” likely calls up notions of academia as detached from everyday design, esoteric conversations about the nature of design, and researchers who exist outside the bounds of design practice. At least in the United States, academics and practitioners are mostly closed off from one another despite the crossover in their work. One of my goals for this text is to articulate how that gap may be bridged through rethinking the dualism of theory and practice. Phenomenology provides an excellent way to do that: instead of reaffirming the traditional binaries of theory/practice and academia/practice, we are able to discuss both at the same time as part of the same system.
The tone of the book might feel more like an academic text than a practitioner’s manual. That being said, phenomenology is a framework that emphasizes praxis as a means of knowledge and understanding. This involves using theoretical frameworks to influence practical outputs, as well as using practice to influence theory. Similarly, the following examination over the next few hundred pages will aim to illustrate new ways to think about design, and hopefully inspire new practices. But this is not a recipe book—it has nothing to say about step-by-step instructions on how to perform certain design activities, or about illusory “best practices” on how to handle certain problems. Instead, it will provide the beginnings of a framework that readers can interpret for themselves. There is a difference between the purposefully obscure versus the use of language that reflects the complexity of the material. This book will do the latter. When dealing with philosophical text—especially when some of it has been translated from its original language—it is difficult to strike a balance between “plain” language and precision. The aim here is to provide both a rigorous theoretical framework and the beginnings of a practical methodology for how to embody philosophy through design.