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Design as Participation

Published onFeb 24, 2016
Design as Participation

You’re Not Stuck In Traffic You Are Traffic

This started with a drivetime conversation about contemporary design with Joi Ito. We were stuck in traffic, and in our conversation, a question emerged about designers: This new generation of designers that work with complex adaptive systems. Why are they so much more humble than their predecessors who designed, you know, stuff?

The answer is another question, a hypothesis. The hypothesis is that most designers that are deliberately working with complex adaptive systems cannot help but be humbled by them. Maybe those who really design systems-interacting-with-systems approach their relationships to said systems with the daunting complexity of influence, rather than the hubris of definition or control.

The designers of complex adaptive systems are not strictly designing systems themselves. They are hinting those systems towards anticipated outcomes, from an array of existing interrelated systems. These are designers that do not understand themselves to be in the center of the system. Rather, they understand themselves to be participants, shaping the systems that interact with other forces, ideas, events and other designers. This essay is an exploration of what it means to participate.

Mies understood that the geometry of his building would be perfect until people got involved
Mies understood that the geometry of his building would be perfect until people got involved

If in 2016 this seems intuitive, recall that it is at odds with the heroic sensibility—and role—of the modern designer. Or the Modernist designer, in any case, in whose shadows many designers continue to toil. On the pre-eminent Modernist architect Mies Van der Rohe (director of the Bauhaus, among other legendary distinctions), Andrew Dolkart wrote: 1The Skyscraper CityReference:"The Skyscraper City". The Architecture and Development of New York City. (2003). 1 

Mies understood that the geometry of his building would be perfect until people got involved. Once people moved in, they would be putting ornamental things along the window sills, they would be hanging all different kinds of curtains, and it would destroy the geometry. So there are no window sills; there is no place for you to put plants on the window. He supplied every single office with curtains, and all the curtains are exactly the same. And he supplied every window with venetian blinds, and the blinds open all the way, or they close all the way, or they stop halfway—those are the only places you can stop them, because he did not want venetian blinds everywhere or blinds set at angles.

The circumstances that led to such a position and practice—and the legacies that emerge from it—could be summarized in the question I have asked in every architecture review I’ve participated in: if tv shows have viewers, and cars have drivers, and books have readers, what word do architects use for the people who dwell in the buildings they make?

The Birth of the User

I haven’t yet met an architect with an answer to that and this isn't really about architecture. Really. But in the meantime—in stark relief to the absence of the architectural term—the internet provided a model so useful that it sweeps across viewers, drivers, passengers, writers, readers, listeners, students, customers. It binds all of these into one expression: the user.

It’s hard to say exactly when the user was born, but it might be Don Norman at Apple in 1993 (referenced by Peter Merholz)2 :

“I invented the term [User Experience] because I thought Human Interface and usability were too narrow: I wanted to cover all aspects of the person's experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.”

In the 23 years since then, users have become the unit of measurement for entrepreneurial success. Like all units of measurement, it has acquired barnacle-like derivatives like MAU (monthly average users) and ARPU (average revenue per user.) If something has more users, it’s more successful than something with fewer users. If a user spends more time with something, it’s better than something they spend less time with.

To gain users—and to retain them—designers are drawing upon principles also set forth by Don Norman, in his 1986 “The Psychology of Everyday Things.” In the book, Norman proposes “User Centered Design” (UCD) which is still in active and successful use 20 years later by some of the largest global design consultancies.

Broadly, UCD optimizes around engagement with the needs, desires and shortcomings of the user (in stark opposition to, say, Mies van der Rohe) and explores design from the analysis and insight into what the User might need or want to do. Simply, it moves the center from the designer’s imagination of the system to the designer’s imagination of the user of the system.

Joe and Josephine, Henry Dreyfuss Associates 1974 (MIT Press)—you've never met them, but if you're seated, you're basically sitting in their chair.
Joe and Josephine, Henry Dreyfuss Associates 1974 (MIT Press)—you've never met them, but if you're seated, you're basically sitting in their chair.

In 2016, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a pre-user Miesian worldview generating anything successful. Placing human activity at the center of the design process—as opposed to a set of behaviors that must be controlled or accommodated—has become an instinctive and mandatory process. Aspects of this pre-date Norman's "user," e.g., Henry Dreyfuss’ “Joe and Josephine” (above) for whom all his products were designed. But where Joe and Josephine had anatomy, users have behavior, intention, desire.

It’s not the technical capacities of the internet; without UCD, Amazon couldn’t have put bookstores out of business, “ride-hailing” services couldn’t have broken the taxi industries in cities where they roll out, and digital music would never have broken the historical pricing and distribution practices of the record labels. Designers are appropriately proud of their roles in these disruptions; their insights into user desire and behavior are what made them possible.

But as designers construct these systems, what of the systems that interact with those systems? What about systems of local commerce and the civic engagement that is predicated upon it? Or the systems of unions that emerged after generations of labor struggles? Or the systems that provided compensation for some reasonable number of artists? When designers center around the user, where do the needs and desires of the other actors in the system go? The lens of the user obscures the view of the ecosystems it affects.

Robin Sloan recently addressed this in a post about “Uber for food” startups like Sprig.3

“[T]here’s more to any cafeteria than the serving line, and Sprig’s app offers no photograph of that other part. This is the Amazon move: absolute obfuscation of labor and logistics behind a friendly buy button. The experience for a Sprig customer is super convenient, almost magical; the experience for a chef or courier…? We don’t know. We don’t get to know. We’re just here to press the button.”

For users, this is what it means to be at the center: to be unaware of anything outside it. User-Centric Design means obscuring more than it surfaces. Sloan continues:

“I feel bad, truly, for Amazon and Sprig and their many peers—SpoonRocket, Postmates, Munchery, and the rest. They build these complicated systems and then they have to hide them, because the way they treat humans is at best mildly depressing and at worst burn-it-down dystopian.”

I have no idea what's going on here but this is what I'm trying to say.
I have no idea what's going on here but this is what I'm trying to say.

The user made perfect sense in the context in which it was originally defined: Human-Computer Interaction. UCD emphasized the practical and experiential aspects of the person at the keyboard, as opposed to the complex code and engineering behind it.

But we are no longer just using computers. We are using computers to use the world. The obscured and complex code and engineering now engages with people, resources, civics, communities and ecosystems. Should designers continue to privilege users above all others in the system? What would it mean to design for participants instead? For all the participants?

Designing for Participation.

Designing for participation is different than designing for use, in any case. Within architecture—which I refer to again precisely because participation is not native to the discipline—the idea emerged with increasing frequency as surfaces and materials took on greater dynamism. But perhaps the quintessential historical example is Cedric Price, who was working long before that dynamism was practical.

Cedric Price's 'Fun Palace' (1961) and if you've ever been to the Pompidou Center in Paris, you're looking at what happens when this idea puts on a suit and gets a job.
Cedric Price's 'Fun Palace' (1961) and if you've ever been to the Pompidou Center in Paris, you're looking at what happens when this idea puts on a suit and gets a job.

Price is well known for two projects: Fun Palace (1961) and Generator(1976) and though neither one was ever built, their genes can be isolated in the Centre George Pompidou and the so-called “smart home.” The Fun Palace (drawing, above) writes Stanley Matthews:4

“…would challenge the very definition of architecture, for it was not even a conventional ‘building’ at all, but rather a kind of scaffold or framework, enclosing a socially interactive machine - a virtual architecture merging art and technology. In a sense, it was the realization of the long unfulfilled promise of Le Corbusier’s claims of a technologically informed architecture and the ‘machine for living’. It was not a museum, nor a school, theatre, or funfair, and yet it could be all of these things simultaneously or at different times. The Fun Palace was an environment continually interacting and responding to people.”

Designed in 1961, the Fun Palace in free exchange with many contemporaneous ideas, cybernetics not least of all. The Fun Palace was, writes Matthews, “like a swarm or meteorological system, its behaviour would be unstable, indeterminate, and unknowable in advance.”

This was wholly in line with the early cyberneticists like Gordon Pask (who noted in 1972, "now we’ve got the notion of a machine with an underspecified goal, the system that evolves...").5 But Price's architecture was more than contemporary to cybernetics: it was infected by them. Pask himself organized the “Fun Palace Cybernetics Subcommittee."

The Fun Palace was obviously quite radical as architecture, but far beyond its radical architectonic form (some of which was adopted by the Pompidou Center) was its more provocative proposal that the essential role for its designer was to create a context for participation.

This returns to the drivetime question about the designers of complex adaptive systems: Price was designing not for the uses he wished to see, but for all the uses he couldn’t imagine. This demands the ability to engage with the people in the building as participants, to see their desires and fears, and then to build contexts to address them. But it wasn't strictly about interaction with the building; it was a fundamentally social engagement. As opposed to the “user” of a building who is interacting with a smart thermostat, the participants in a building are engaged with one another.

The social systems, however, are only one of many complex systems within which the Fun Palace is expressed. It stood outside any context of urban planning, or really any interaction with a broader system-based context (in which it is only a building, as opposed to a whole world.) It was designed for participants, but it denied that the building was participating in complex adaptive systems that were far greater than itself.

As best I know, this is pretty much what Cedric Price wanted to see happening in the Fun Palace
As best I know, this is pretty much what Cedric Price wanted to see happening in the Fun Palace

When the methodologies of design and science infect one another, however, design is not just a framework for participants, but something that is also, itself, participating. In the 2015 Hy-fi, a project for MoMA/PS1 by The Living (David Benjamin, above), it’s possible to see the various systems in active play. Analogous to Price’s Fun Palace, Hy-fi is a framework for participation, rather than a series of prescriptive uses.6

Hy-fi, however, is much more than the Price-like sensibilities that emphasize adaptability and context over structure and use. The materials used in Hy-fi are an innovative 100% organic material, manufactured from discarded corn stalks and bespoke “living root-like structures from mushrooms.” David Benjamin's design of this material is inextricable from his design of the building. Hy-fi sits at one intersection between building and growing, rendering it as close to zero-carbon-emission development as anything we’ll find in New York City.

Growing a building, 2015.
Growing a building, 2015.

It’s not as simple as a kindness towards the planet, though indeed, it’s a love letter to earth. Here is a building that is composted, instead of demolished. Hy-fi rethinks what the building is and does, relative to its participation with the complex adaptive systems around it. From the MoMA summary:7

“The structure temporarily diverts the natural carbon cycle to produce a building that grows out of nothing but earth and returns to nothing but earth—with almost no waste, no energy needs, and no carbon emissions. This approach offers a new vision for society’s approach to physical objects and the built environment. It also offers a new definition of local materials, and a direct relationship to New York State agriculture and innovation culture, New York City artists and non-profits, and Queens community gardens.”

Composting a building, 2015
Composting a building, 2015

In other words, it’s not as simple as making sure that people are participating with the building (as Pask and Price conspired to do over 50 years ago.) Rather, the building is explicitly designed to participate in the built environment around it, as well as the natural environment beyond it, and further into local manufacturing, gardens and agriculture.

This is the designer working to highlight the active engagement with those systems. This is the alternative to the unexamined traditions of User-Centric Design, which renders these systems as either opaque or invisible.

Design as Participation.

To see this all the way through, designers can be reconsidered—in part through the various lenses of science—to become participants themselves.

Special participants, perhaps, but see above: the subject of the MoMA text is “the natural carbon cycle” that is diverted by the designer. The designer is one of many influences and directives in the system with their own hopes and plans. But mushrooms also have plans. The people who dance inside them have plans. And of course the natural carbon cycle has plans as well.

This recalls Ian Bogost’s take on Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), which he characterized succinctly in 2009:8

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, DVD players, cotton, bonobos, sandstone, and Harry Potter, for example. In particular, OOO rejects the claims that human experience rests at the center of philosophy, and that things can be understood by how they appear to us. In place of science alone, OOO uses speculation to characterize how objects exist and interact.

Some contemporary work suggests that we are not only designing for participation, but that design is a fundamentally participatory act, engaging systems that extend further than the constraints of individual (or even human) activity and imagination.

This is design as an activity that doesn't place the designer or the user in the center.

Hans Haacke, 'To the Population' (Der Bevolkerung). Inside the Reichstag. This is Germany.
Hans Haacke, 'To the Population' (Der Bevolkerung). Inside the Reichstag. This is Germany.

Hans Haacke’s 2000 monument in the re-united German Reichstag—To the People, der Bevoelkerung—requested all the members of the German Parliament to collect soil from their various local regions, and deposit the dirt untouched, within the monument. What grows must be nurtured, collectively designated as the federal representation of Germany ... on into the future, growing year by year. There are no brick-like constraints, as in Hy-fi. There is only a structural context for the complex—and wholly unpredictable—interaction of soil, seeds, water, and sunlight. Germany.

Maria Theresa Alves, 'Seeds of Change' ballast garden in Bristol. This is Bristol, which is to say: this is everywhere that Bristol went.
Maria Theresa Alves, 'Seeds of Change' ballast garden in Bristol. This is Bristol, which is to say: this is everywhere that Bristol went.

More recently, the Brazilian artist Maria Theresa Alves worked in Bristol England to identify “ballast seeds”: the seeds that were inadvertent stowaways in the colonial period, when sailors would load rocks for ballast in their ships. The rocks came from wherever they happened to land, to stabilize them on their way to wherever they were gong. In “Seeds of Change” (2015) she nurtured the reverse-colonizers of Bristol: marigolds from the Mediterranean, tassel flowers from the New World. These arrived quietly below the water line, silent migrants from centuries ago.

Alves happens to have started Brazil’s Green Party, which situates the work in a broader practice of participation. But in Bristol, she surfaces the complex systems that lie below deck, systems that are derivative effects of commerce, colonialism, and the dynamics of life at sea. It's humbling to wander inside it, a reminder that it's not always obvious who exactly colonizes whom.

The final work here is by the art and design collective Futurefarmers, started by Amy Franceschini in 1995. Famous to some for designing the logo for Twitter—itself an exercise in representing participatory engagement—much of their work centers around building infrastructure for participation. Some of the participation is between people, but much of it is with the complex natural systems that surround us. Their recent project “Flatbread Society: Land Grant 2014” is described by the Broad Art Museum9 as:

“... a project that brings together farmers, oven builders, astronomers, artists, soil scientists, bakers, anthropologists, and others who share an interest in humankind’s long and complex relationship with grain.”

The work includes a flexible space for discussion and interaction (modeled after the trading floor of the Chicago grain exchanges) but more importantly, it also includes seeds that Futurefarmers have gathered from around the world, grains thought to be either extinct or useless. Further, there's an oven. The grains are baked into flatbread together with anyone who cares to learn.

In the Flatbread Society work, like the work of Haacke and Alves, human activity can clearly be understood as only one of the systems that is in play. This is the inversion of User Centric Design. Rather than placing the human at the center of the work, it's the systems that surround us—these systems we depend on—that take the appropriately center stage. They take the stage with complexity, mystery, and unpredictability.

You’re Not Stuck In Traffic You Are Traffic

Small detail from Chris Burden's 'Metropolis II' at LACMA. Every artist's landscape captures a place, and a precise moment in time. This is America, and this precise moment is the 20th century.
Small detail from Chris Burden's 'Metropolis II' at LACMA. Every artist's landscape captures a place, and a precise moment in time. This is America, and this precise moment is the 20th century.

This started with a drivetime conversation about contemporary design with Joi Ito. We were stuck in traffic.

At the time, I remember thinking about David Foster Wallace, his essay and commencement address entitled “This is Water,”10 and how he appealed to the students he was addressing:

“...I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth...\n Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do—except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.”

There will always be designers to design the Hummers and the bumper stickers, and there will always be designers to make web sites to propagate the warnings and promises of David Foster Wallace.

But a new generation of designers has emerged, concerned with designing strategies to subvert this “natural default-setting” in which each person understands themselves at the center of the world.

These designers do this by engaging with the complex adaptive systems that surround us, by revealing instead of obscuring, by building friction instead of hiding it, and by making clear that every one of us (designers included) are nothing more than participants in systems that have no center to begin with. These are designers of systems that participate—with us and with one another—systems that invite participation instead of demanding interaction.

We can build software to eat the world, or software to feed it. And if we are going to feed it, it will require a different approach to design, one which optimizes for a different type of growth, and one that draws upon—and rewards—the humility of the designers who participate within it.


(Many conversations led to this, most notably with Daisy Ginsberg as well as Kenyatta Cheese, Tricia Wang, Joe Riley, Karthik Dinakar, Joi Ito, and other friends, colleagues, participants.)

Matt Nish-Lapidus: A systems approach could imply that all of these things become “users”, or maybe more appropriately actors (as you infer), within the system with equally weighted needs, contexts, and attention. Designing for something like this could seek to balance the impact of the system on all… or to skew it towards one set of actors. The examples earlier in the paper speak to a skewed attention on “users” because users = customers to systems where commerce is the point of being. The other actors are resources to be extracted and exploited for profit.
Tim Chambers: "Only two industries refer to their customers as 'users:' drug dealers and software/web developers." – Edward Tufte
Stefan Veselinov: Dealers refer to their customers as customers/clients, it is the establishment who thinks of them as users.
Tim Chambers: A dweller or a visitor?
Kevin Slavin: (fixed broken images and captions — something got dorked with resolving GIF images, evidently)
David Fore: Design for participation is exactly the right idea. This concept is just as true in software design these days as in architecture. In addition to whatever native wit and well-honed craft any interaction designer may possess, each of us also depends upon some form of User Centered Design(UCD) to create products, services, and systems that are hospitable and appealing. Placing human concerns at the center of the design of software-enabled systems has been quite a trick, given that doing so has meant moving technology to a role that is subservient to human needs. But this Copernican shift has led not only to better products, but better process also. That’s because doing interaction design in the proper way also provides everyone greater visibility into and appropriate influence over the development, use, and impact of the systems that are designed. The problem comes when UCD is taken too literally, for it can also promote a myopia that blurs what’s outside the immediate reach of individuals, preventing us from clearly seeing the inter-woven social, industrial, and environmental ecologies within which people live and companies exist. This must change. Whether interaction designers hear it or not, we are being called upon to address the broader ecological contexts of the companies that build what we design, and those who use the product of our labors. It is, therefore, urgent for our design values, methods, and collaboration habits to evolve. Now. See more here:
Saikiran Chandha:
Mike Rea: In healthcare/ pharmaceutical design, we have yet to move beyond the word 'patient', which implies a level of detachment even one level beyond user... Yet the 'patient's participation is whole and holistic - their interaction (innate and personal) is a part of how well the treatment works... Would love to see the ideas here extend into that realm
Iain Perkin: "Price was designing not for the uses he wished to see, but for all the uses he couldn’t imagine." Does this not describe the dream for computers but arrived as the smartphone (the computer you have in your pocket)?
Juan Safra: The end justifying the means, in a pervasive and harmful sense. Specially if we look it from a systems perspective. It's an unsustainable approach to design and it doesn't has humble designers. Guess this way isn't design at all.
Erik Schmitt: One way to subvert this troubling "obfuscation of labor" trend is to shop local. To physically interact. I'd like to see more efforts by designers in the tech landscape to empower small local business enitities. This could help to create a counterpoint to the monoculture of mega corporations that thrive on this detachment of consumer form worker.
Jean Foster: I worked at A&TT Bell Labs in the late 70s as a Unix System Administrator and "user" was what we called the people who used our systems. The online etomology dictionary says the term, as related to computers, has been in use since 1967.
undefined undefined: This is a great read. The latest theories on smart home development are already recognising the need for a process that involves all stakeholders, from those who use the spaces to those who maintain them. Everyone has a voice. Intelligent environments evolve; the process of "design" is exactly that - a process without a point of terminus.
Sean Champ: Sounds Complex. Juxtaposing any singular concrete models and views of strictly material systems - as in a context of the SysML modeling language and applications with regards to Europe's AUTOSAR - I believe that the article presents a manner of a socially realistic view of how society ... functions, broadly. Alternate to the dark shadows of Orwellian narratives, I believe it strikes a chord in a Constructivist sense. That in these complex systems, surely communication must be a thing - I believe that may be towards the nature of my own "Vested Interest," academically. Likewise, I believe it is my "Takeway" of this transaction.
Eitan Reich: Love this piece and the Journal- thanks! But It seems to me that disruption is not just about users's desires or behaviours it's more about transforming the user all together. Where Henry Ford succeded in making us all into drivers, it's the driver-less car's turn to make us something new. See what I wrote about this here -
Peter Hartree: Pretty sure the book referred to here is The Design of Everyday things.
Peter Hartree: Pretty sure the book referred to here is The Design of Everyday things.
Chad Vavra: I think about the distinction between creative led companies and others in that the creative led solve for questions, the others solve for answers. I believe that this still holds true, but that in the future design will not end with solutions. When systems adapt to other systems, and both systems learn from each other without the intervention of a person, design becomes the place where these systems perform. And so the role of a creative designer will change from one that provides a solution to a question to one that understands the systems and creates a creative place for them to evolve their own solutions.
undefined undefined: To design without an evidence- based, ethnographic approach at this time in age equals to sleepwalking. The effort of pointing the way that it is imperative for us to start moving from a user-centric design ethos which often leads to "aggregates of solutions" (which may be connected or not), towards one that is system's centric & holistic and hits straight into the core of a new design ethos.We are all striving to constinuosly learn, to adapt, to reach a sustainable and long lasting model, one capable of equilibrium and self-regulation. Is there any alternative or choice? I believe there is not. Thank you for a very well articulated, provocative, and enlightened discourse.
Jackie Luo: So true! Reminds me of one of Patrick Collison's tweets: "When you think about it, optimizing engagement is a horrifying goal. 'Maximizing attention harvested!'"
joshua kauffman: I love how you so gently and logically deflate the idea of human centrality and control. I too have seen designers of complex systems subsume themselves in the service of something they only sort of influence. And now you've left me deeply inspired to think about how the people formerly known as users could themselves become as humbled with the realization of their own peripherality.
Bruno Duarte: That's a simple but extremelly powerfull instance.
Simone Tarchi: Grazie Kevin! Certo in Italia il traffico è veramente folle, a Firenze mediamente 10 minuti a km... quando si è fortunati.
Simone Tarchi: Noi possiamo discutere molto quando siamo in auto!
Lucas Shen: from center to participant, this reminds me the process that we thought the earth is the center of universe, the we gradually realized it's not. Now we start to understand that user experience is one experience but maybe should not be the center anymore because beside our feelings, how we interact with the environment, the context is equally important.
Kevin Slavin: well stated, thx. We talk about copernican shifts in some other things we're working on around neuroscience and AI, but I think it's right to think about these kinds of frameworks at every scale.
Tommy Jenkins: I'd like to speak about how to do this 'better.' When there are so many obvious rewards for playing it safe in several industries, how can we broaden the approach whereby we reward for transparency? I think it is essential that these essay topics are being posed in design, where free thinking is considered freest.
Andrea Botero: Slightly from a different angle than yours, this articulation by Ehn (2008) is quite interesting also / Ehn, P. (2008). Participation in Design Things. In Proceedings of the 8th Participatory Design Conference Experiences and Challenges (pp. 92 – 101). Bloomington, Indiana: CPSR/ACM.
Kevin Slavin: Interesting thanks for that -- wasn't familiar with that before -- interesting to read it in the context of it's pub date right on the eve of the massive change that came with social media.
+ 1 more...
Andrea Botero: Great piece! Are yuo sure they are indeed "More humble"? They definitively should be.. but I am not sure we are quite there yet
Alexander Laskaris: The most humble! Ever!
Mike T: This is precisely what happens in law, actually; the adversarial system creates two actors out of many, in which the lawyers are supposed to only consider their clients. It is a serious problem.
Victor Zambrano: This is wonderful! Thanks Kevin.   It summarises some very deep annoyances I had and could not describe. It unveils the reason why many designers design for themselves (because they can see themselves as a "user") or why every conversation with stakeholders ends up with everyone in the room describing how they would use the product/service (as, again, they also see themselves as a, and perhaps the quintessential, "user").   "Seeing the trees for the forest".   Now we need a word that describes the forest and not the trees, which is perhaps what Don Norman intended by adding "Experience".
Victor Zambrano: Indeed, I'd say there will always be more chance for humility in a conversation than in a monologue. The interactive nature of a conversations has a larger chance in reinin in the hubris, whereas in the monologue the path might be perceived as frictionless and thus rather vulnerable to one's own perception.   I'd correlate conversation with design for complex adaptive systems (which have much of the conversational process inherent to them) and monologues with designing "stuff".
Marc Rettig: Like other commenters, I like this way of framing the work. Thank you for the helpful language. But maybe this could be taken further. At least in my reading, this almost but never quite steps off the edge of "design for," to start moving toward "design with." Designing as a participant with the other participants is a frontier for design, and I believe it will be an unavoidable consequence of seeing in terms of participation and complex adaptive systems. As for the importance of research mentioned in the comments, my view is that research is the wrong tool for complexity. You simply cannot understand all the points of view, much less the dynamics between them and the forces that influence those dynamics. Most of what's going on is invisible and in motion. The tools we've been using for designing complicated things will be inadequate by themselves for creating in complexity. The shift in approach will involve convening and designing with the other participants in the system. And rather than seeking "solutions" as the outcome of our work, we'll need to involve our fellow participants in noticing whether the system's patterns are becoming more beneficial. For more good language on this, see Wang, "A New Paradigm for Design Studio Education" (start on page 6 of the PDF if you find the beginningn too thick): And I highly recommend the work of Dave Snowden and his company, Cognitive Edge.
jen van der meer: I see the humility in the shift to solve for health, environment, food deserts, poverty - complex systems that slap you back in the face with unintended consequences and negative feedback loops when you try to make even incremental change.
Minko Dimov: There is this beautiful Greek word koinonia, that predates computers, meaning "to share in the same experience." To me it provides the best definition of communicating today, where the medium is constantly in a state of becoming with design defaming the tombstones of past experiments. A great mind once called it "a life."
Kirtan Patel:
Nicholas Sund: This reference to Marc Andreessen should be explained earlier in the article so that your punch line (“software to feed it”) doesn’t go over people’s heads.
Kirtan Patel:
Matt Nish-Lapidus: This reminds me of Lev Manovich's concept of cultural transcoding in digital media. That it's more than just making our media into bits, it's a fundamental shift in our understanding and relationship to media. The digitization of media starts to push digital ways of thinking into culture. For example, expectations and preferences around language and style (images, glitches) that bleed out of the result of digitization into traditional media, and into our cultural expectations for communication and information exchange.
River Brandon: Ack, you need paragraph breaks.
River Brandon: "We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions." - Shoghi Effendi More on that idea here: I think the future of design is a much more spiritual practice, and one rooted in the concept of service. We have the evolving idea of the servant-leader, and we need to articulate that of the servant-designer. The examples here detail steps along the way, and we see the growing practice of facilitation and the support of groups in their search for truth -- whether it be the truth of the right shape for a physical object, the right behavior for a digital interface, or the just ways for our systems to treat and care for their participants. If design is the rendering of intent, then of course our ability to render with fidelity and beauty is critical, but above all we must examine, consider, and influence the intent.
martin pot: fine piece and most interesting view referring to former - utopian - projects. Question could be (with regard to e.g. Price) whether we should design or supply basic structures as well as the companying elements we ultimately live in. See e.g. Constant's New Babylon: basic structures that facilitate nomadic behaviour but remained untouched where it concerned infra and/or 'architecture' as a way to adapt space tohuman needs.
Michael Dila: This is, of course, what makes Frederick Law Olmstead such an important exemplar. For him the design always had to confront both its situatedness and its effects as a design or a platform for situation.
Kevin Slavin: Great reference. Yes. Is there one specific note from Olmstead you could point us to? I'm only familiar with their work at the broadest levels.
Stephanie Cedeño: Important to reflect upon as designers. Unfortunately, too many ascribe the ideas and morals of "participatory design" to the neoliberal disrupters (chills) we ubiquitously use (Amazon, Uber, etc). If we as designers are to be systems-thinkers, we must be able to locate and understand that the artificial and natural world is comprised of numerous systems and systems and systems... and some of these systems, whether logistical, cultural, technological, social, etc. are continually in flux due to huge market shifts. How are we supposed to responsibly and thoughtfully design if we do not understand these systems interactions?
David Petry: A quick hop into Google Ngram returns a 1937 Highway User Tax Guide from a Highway Users Conference. The term took off around 1960.
Kevin Slavin: oh! thx for this and all the subsequent references, I'm looking at them now... I'm interested to find the actual roots, but I'm always most interested in colloquial adoption, rather than historical precedent. I want to know when the idea of the user became, you know, a thing.
+ 3 more...
Mona Vernon: The legacy of Jay Forrester lives on. Thank you.
Oliver Kannape: "You're not stuck in traffic..." What's the correct way to cite an ad campaign? Is there an earlier source?
Kevin Slavin: Hm. That flickr link seems broken, but if it's a reference to a TomTom ad, it predates the ad for TomTom, and TomTom, and GPS, by many years. I don't know it's original provenance.
Patricia Wang: love this articulation kevin. and now the question is how do designers understand all the participants so that they're not just designing for themselves, so that they're not just repeating the Malkovich Bias that continues to plague tech? This is where I think the value of applied ethnography/design research is going to become even more central and strategic - as designers are participants they will need to learn how to understand the multiplicity of perspectives from all participants, and then figure out the red thread. This generation of desigeners already intuitively does this - they are better listeners.
Mike Stringer: Couldn't agree more about the increasing importance of ethnography/design research! With some design challenges, though, the number of different participants may be staggering — with synthetic biology, the participants may be "everyone." How might we scale design research to understand all of the participants in complex systems?
Jeremy Dean: This doesn't seem like much of a riddle? Inhabitants?
Alfonso Govela: Dwellers
Jeremy Dean: Nice line!
Jeremy Dean: Love this use of the word!
Jeremy Dean: Love this use of the word.
Anastasia Fischer: Right on the money with this. It is all about collaboration. Society still struggling with what real collaboration means as the cult of the designer is dying slowly. Although I'm hopeful that the whole concept of the cult of the individual superhero is diminishing, it is happening much more rapidly in design where designers are having to take accountability for interconnected relationships, systems, and cause/effect.
J G: 1982:
Greg Borenstein: I might be wrong, but didn't software inherit the word "user" from Christopher Alexander? He uses it extensively in all of his writings from very early, but most pointedly in The Oregon Experiment which is all about his massive years-long collaboration with the UoO community in designing their campus: Alexander was (maybe with Jacobs) Modernism's great dissident in architecture. And, maybe not conincidentally, has had his greatest influence through software -- particularly in how Ward Cunningham, the creator of the wiki, and the community of the first wiki adopted his Pattern Language ideas for describing systems and (in the wiki itself) his community-centric idea for how to run systems.
David Hecht: At the very least, Eliot Noyes and others at IBM were talking about users before Alexander (John Harwood covers this extensively in his book, "The Interface"), though he fits well into the historical arc around what Kevin is writing about.
Boris Anthony: And we see this happening, right? As outlined in this piece, and in so many pieces of evidence out there, including the very existence of this journal. Design is evolving, growing a new corner of its brain, so to speak. From a craft, to a discipline, and now to a science and a philosophy—posing hypothesis, being critical, introducing friction… these are functions of a philosophy. One danger design faces in this evolution, as we have seen with other human endeavors that have followed this path, is to lose touch with its praxis as it climbs higher into theory (which it MUST do in order to tackle things like culture and ethics and strategic work). Something we must be vigilant towards.
mauro d'alessandro: That is true, we must be vigilant. But i’m optimistic and enthusiastic. I think that a discipline that evolves itself towards a more participatory approach (enabling participation, and engaging in the participation), is willing to deep dive in the praxis (i like to highlight its will ). Participation and Friction are both almost onomatopoeia to me. They echo the noise of the moving matter more than refining philosophical concepts.
Boris Anthony: here, and in the later stated hypothesis—which I agree with—the parallels to Taoism and Zen Buddhism are strong