The following is a draft introduction. I wrote this as a way to hopefully ground me within a particular strategy and set a stage for the rest of the book, knowing that it will definitely change as I begin writing.
Philosophy with the Hands
Design is the embodied action of philosophy.(1)
Out of all the fields that influence experience design, philosophy is probably discussed the least. Volumes have been written on the roots of experience design within fields like psychology, cognitive science, and anthropology, but almost nothing 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 more speculative in nature. Or perhaps simply 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 start considering contributions from philosophy as a serious inquiry in experience design.
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. I started publicly talking about this topic at conferences and writing on it for design publications about a year before beginning this book. Each time I give a presentation, a small group will approach me after and talk about how they have thought about the connection before, have not thought of it but want to learn more, or simply that their college philosophy 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 background. Reactions like these tell me there are others with latent interest in the more philosophical topics within experience design—that not all designers are looking for the most basic, profitable methods for creating the next social media app, but that there is a desire to understand what they do on a deeper level. This gives me a bit of hope.
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 phrase “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 being wrapped up in each other’s work and not necessarily knowing it. One of my goals for this text is to articulate a means by which that gap might be bridged through 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 idea.
The tone of the book will likely feel more like an academic text than a practitioner manual. That being said, phenomenology is a framework that emphasizes praxis as a means of knowledge and understanding. 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 illusory “best practices” for how to handle certain problems. Instead, it will provide the beginnings of a framework that the reader can interpret for him- or herself. Nor will it be overly esoteric. There is a difference between purposefully obscure and using 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.
Ship or Die
In a 2006 interview, Tim Berners-Lee referred to a new breed of Web architects as “philosophical engineers.” (Interview, 2006) Halpin, Clark, and Wheeler (2006) associate this title with the recognition of a new iteration of the Web, which calls for a deeper understanding of the relationship to the body and mind of the user. This is essentially a philosophical question. Berners-Lee was probably ahead of his time (yet again) in referring to the philosophical engineer in the light of the semantic web. Eight years later, we’re not even talking about the Web in the same way as before—we’re talking about mobile and wearable devices, about networks of connected things and ecosystems of products. So far, we’ve done an excellent job of developing products, but a terrible job of designing products. That is, we’ve swung the pendulum too far from “thinking” to “making,” which is resulting in masses of products lacking utility or potential for meaningful interaction—from connected refrigerators to dog collars that track movement from doggie bed to fire hydrant and back.
The irony is that trends like the Internet of Things and wearable computing actually have potential to introduce completely new interactions and experiences into our current conception of computing. These areas are the domain of the philosophical engineer. But startup economies and venture capital have emphasized speed to market and returns on investment to the point where “the launch” has become a fetishized event. Products are “designed” in a matter of weeks, even days. They are isolated from the entire products landscape and designed in a vacuum, polished but not architected, beautiful but useless, conceptually unique but aesthetically templatized. That is not to say design should be a long, drawn out process. But it also should not be an afterthought. We need to take the time to understand the nature of problems and user needs, the implications of our design decisions, and how design executions manifest themselves in the world.
My hypothesis for why we are designing products at such a rapid rate is multifaceted. First, I should note that I am speaking mostly of product design mostly within the United States, in which venture capital seems to be throwing money at any consumer product that comes along. This has created an environment of competition for funds much in the same way as corporate products compete for market share. The difference within startup economies is that instead of only launching “on brand” products, there is a large benefit to being fast to market. Ironically, this obsessive need to launch and iterate is precisely what links design to phenomenology; the emphasis on praxis and time spent testing with users is a phenomenological concern. But we will save that for later.
Startups have fostered a large amount of backlash against the academic side of design research. Asking a 23 year old startup founder to spend a month understanding who his end users are—what frustrates them, what their lives look like, why they would ever use his product—and it’s like asking him to throw away 30 days of development time. Of course, this is a generalization, but I think we can safely say that American startups tend to see very little value in the design thinking happening in academia and in more design-centric parts of the world. Instead, they are concerned with launching and learning. Movements like Lean Startup and Lean User Experience have done an excellent job of emphasizing the importance of customer insight, but at the same time they advocate methods that are often biased, lack rigor, and end up reinforcing shallow assumptions. On the other end of the spectrum, academic design research is often perceived as esoteric and disconnected from real products and services. The motive for academics is usually not profit driven but rather publication driven.
The origin of this difference between academia and industry is associated with a paradox found within design, a paradox I think phenomenology can help explain and solve. This book will dedicate an entire chapter to articulating what I’m calling the Designer’s Paradox, which states that problems and solutions evolve together and must be understood together. There will be much more to say about this later, but for now, we might say that treating design problems and solutions as a linear movement (from problem to solution) creates an unnecessary distinction and a false assumption about “where to start.” This is where academics and industry professionals get caught up. One goal of this book is to use phenomenology to reframe the ways we think about problems and solutions. If we can better understand how problems and solutions manifest themselves, we are in a better position to articulate an understanding of design that doesn’t fall into this binary trap.
Phenomenological Design Thinking
Phenomenological Design Thinking or PDT is a framework that accomplishes a few objectives: 1) it allows us to talk about how a phenomenological groundwork influences design theory and practice; 2) it pushes the evolution of phenomenology to its logical conclusion, from a focus on being to technology to design; and 3) it allows us to formulate a design process that combines both speed and rigor.
Phenomenology has been through a few important evolutions. Beginning with Edmund Husserl’s formulations of individual experience with the world, his student Martin Heidegger broke quite radically with his teacher and expanded phenomenology into the study of being. Around the same time, Maurice Merleau-Ponty was rethinking phenomenology from the perspective of embodiment. Contemporary philosophers such s Done Ihde, Peter-Paul Verbeek and others who I will cite frequently in the coming pages have focused on Heidegger’s interest in technology and Merlau-Ponty’s interest in the body, to rethink phenomenology yet again as post-phenomenology. This new movement highlights the role of technological objects as the source of insight about the world and our relationship to it (or even if “we” are separate from “it”) along with how embodiment can explain our involvement with tasks, goals, and other people.
While the history of phenomenology isn’t our focus here, this short introduction should point to the idea that the next stage of this evolution is design-centric. If technology is our means of understanding the world, then the ways in which we design things becomes massively important. In a certain sense, we cannot talk about technology without talking about design. So I am proposing that the next evolution of phenomenology is a sort of Phenomenological Design Thinking. This approach gives post-phenomenology a more purposeful tone, explaining not only what technology is important but also how can can design it. It also provides a new perspective on design thinking, a topic that has seemed to fall out of style in the past few years but still, I believe, provides a lot of excellent theory for designers to put into practice.
As one of the pillars of academic design thinking, Nigel Cross (2006) explained three facets of design research:
• design epistemology – study of designerly ways of knowing
• design praxiology – study of the practices and processes of design
• design phenomenology – study of the form and configuration of artefacts
While I understand his desire to break these fields apart and define them independently, I want to argue that design phenomenology, as currently defined, is too narrow in focus, and it actually encompasses the other two. With PDT, we can talk about how a phenomenological approach to design thinking would include what Cross calls design praxiology, as the knowledge of artifacts is dependent on how we design and use those artifacts. And if those artifacts embody our understanding of the world, then they will always include a sense of design epistemology.
PDT will articulate how philosophy is enacted through design and how the coming-together of design and philosophy contributes to each field. We are at a time in phenomenology when the current formulations need to take action; we need a plan for how to implement this type of thinking about the world within the world. And we are at a time in design when we need strong theoretical foundations on which to build future practice. I hope that PDT and the critical analysis in this book will contribute to that.
(1) This statement is inspired by an introduction Allan Chochinov gave for Cameron Tonkinwise at a small presentation in New York City. Allan mentioned that Cameron came from background in philosophy before studying design and explained that design is simply “doing philosophy with your hands.” That statement was immediately clear to me and helped frame, clarify, and make conspicuous the objective of this book. But I’d like to go beyond the hands as the key reference point for design. Much of what designers do involves the hands, of course, and the hands are certainly the means through which we interact with the world, but I’d like to argue that designing has intangible aspects as well. Not everything we design takes form in material.
I would greatly appreciate if you take a minute to leave me anonymous feedback. Or email me personally at thomas [at][ designfordasein [dot] com