Thursday, October 01, 2020

Our book "The Design Way - intentional change in an unpredictable world" in Chinese

 My co-author Harold Nelson and I heard for a while that there is a Chinese version of our book "The Design Way - intentional change in an unpredictable world" (MIT Press, 2012). Just the other day, one of my students, who is in China, helped us and sent two copies of the book to me. It is so exciting to see our work in Chinese. The book looks good with great graphics, but to what extent the text is close to the original, I cannot judge :-)

Thursday, July 23, 2020

New book in our book series

I am happy to announce that we have published a new book in our MIT Press book series "Design Thinking/Design Theory" that I edit together with Ken Friedman. The new book is "How Artifacts Afford: the power and politics of everyday things" by Jenny L. Davis.

Here is a link to all books in the series

Monday, June 22, 2020

How System Designers Think about Design and Methods: Some Reflections Based on an Interview Study

In 1992 I wrote an article that was published in the Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems. It was based on an interview study I did for my PhD thesis. I have not read this paper since it was published, almost 30 years ago! Hard to understand.

Anyway, today I read it, and I liked it. It is interesting to see how I did work on the same ideas I work on today. But, more importantly, is that I recognize how formative that interview study was for my research at the time and even today. I still agree with the analysis and the contributions of the research. Actually, I think it is still highly relevant. Other researchers have written about the same topic and in many cases argued for similar conclusions, but it is still not an understanding of design that is prevalent.

I would like to re-write some parts of the paper, but it is a paper and study that I am still proud of.

Stolterman, E. (1992). How system designers think about design and methods. Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, Vol 4.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

When COVID makes philosophy concrete

In these uncertain times, it is interesting to see how the philosophy of technology by Alfred Borgmann suddenly becomes real and concrete. Borgmann's philosophy is about 'things' and 'practices' that can lead to focal experiences, that is, experiences that are real, grounded, connected to time, people, and places.

Borgmann developed what is called the 'device paradigm' philosophy with the core notions of focal things and focal practices, commodification, etc. He warned us that when we commodify our everyday experiences through the use of technology, the experiences are not the same, they lose essential qualities. However, the commodification of practices is so convenient, it leads to a comfortable life where everything is constantly available to us without any concerns about how it is done and with no effort on our part. For instance, our homes are heated or cooled without us even knowing how it works. We only turn the thermostat. He discusses this in contrast with the fireplace that requires knowledge about wood, how to light a fire and the obvious presence the fire has in the house. It connects us tot he place, to time and to others.

Our world with smartphones and their apps is another more modern example. Most apps are built on an idea that aligns almost perfectly with Borgmann's theory. The idea is that an app will make us independent of time, people, and place. We can use them at any time, without needing other people and we can be anywhere. The experience is commodified. Press the button and you get it. How it works, who is actually doing it, or where it is done is irrelevant to us. We are fully disconnected. And we are not engaged in any focal practices. According to Borgmann, what makes an experience a focal practice is when it is connected with time, people, and place. It may not be so convenient or practical (as obvious with the example of the fireplace), but it connects us with practices, people, history, places and it limits us when it comes to what decisions and prioritizations we can do.

Most people are in their everyday lives happy to trade connections (focal) with convenience (commodities). But in these pandemic times, we can see how Borgmann's philosophy is emerging as a thought pattern among a lot of people. People are getting tired of Zoom meetings, not because they do not function necessarily, often they work quite well, but there is something missing. Real meetings require so much more, we have to travel to a specific place, we have to book a room, we have to dress accordingly, we have to engage in small talk before and after the meeting, we might have to make sure there is coffee available, etc. People are reflecting on what it is that is missing in this world where everything is commodified. We cannot go to restaurants, instead, we order prepared food to our homes. We do not have to do anything. But it is not the same. Something is missing. Maybe Borgmann's philosophy describes and explains what is going on.

Borgmann, A. (2009). Focal things and practices. Readings in the Philosophy of Technology, 115-35.

Friday, March 06, 2020

A model of how to become a designer

Any type of learning goes through stages or levels of knowledge and abilities. So does design learning. To become a designer is, as any process of becoming a professional expert, a complex and rich process that involves everything from knowing facts to having a sense of who you are as a professional and human.

In our book, "The Design Way", we present this as a hierarchy model of design-learning outcomes. Starting with becoming able to express routine expertise, through adaptive expertise, design expertise to end with value expertise. This journey takes effort and time, learning and practice. The model (see figure below) portrays this journey. The model can be used as a way to measure where you are in your process of becoming a designer and as a "tool" to help to decide how to further develop your competence and expertise.

Below the figure, I have added an excerpt from the book about the model.

"A hierarchy is based on the understanding that the things in a lower level are given significance, meaning, and value by next the higher level. For example, for design capacity, facts and skills are valuable only in the context of the confidence to take action or to do things. The competence to learn is only valuable in designing if there is the courage to be creative and innovative, to take risks with the full understanding of responsibility and accountability which is the next higher level in the hierarchy—that of connection.

The hierarchy of learning outcomes is necessary and crucial to understand since it makes it clear that some outcomes are not possible to achieve if others at a lower level are not already achieved. It also shows that at the end of the day, to become a designer is a process that deepens over time and becomes more personal as you move up the hierarchy." (page 234)

Friday, February 28, 2020

Where do you start if you want your organization to become more designerly?

There are a lot of discussions about design thinking today. And everyone wants to be better at design. Every company wants to be more designerly. This is all good. But where do you start if you want to change people or companies to be more designerly?

In our book "The Design Way" we introduce what we label as "design learning domains". We show it in a simple schema (see Fig 14.12 below). We explain the idea like this

"Design learning can be addressed in four domains: (1) design character, (2) design thinking, (3) design knowing, and (4) design action or praxis (see figure 14.12). These domains can be expressed as sets. The outcome of design learning or inquiry can be seen as a process of managing competency sets that are interrelated among the quadrants formed by the crossing axis of familiar dichotomies such as concrete reality and abstract thinking, and the individual contrasted to social collectives. These sets—mindsets, knowledge sets, skill sets, and tool sets—must be established and filled, in the process of becoming a designer (see figure 14.13)."

What we see today is a lot of different approaches aimed at improving or enhancing design thinking to create more designerly organizations. Most of these approaches do not address all four sets. The argument we make is that to establish a deep understanding of design that can lead to competent design practice, all four quadrants have to be addressed and "filled".

So, the next question then becomes where do you start the process of building design expertise, all quadrants filled? Do you start by teaching people certain tools, or certain skills, or certain knowledge or do you first engage with their mindset? Among contemporary and serious design educations we can easily find all kinds of approaches, some focused first on skills, others on knowledge or on mindset. Most of them over time addressing all quadrants.

Companies that are trying to transform themselves into being more designerly are unfortunately not as ambitious. Commonly they focus on either the mindset or the skill set. This means that they might invite speakers to preach the benefits of a designerly approach with the purpose to change the mindset of the people or they engage in concrete workshops where some simple tools and skills are practiced. Neither of these will lead to any lasting or serious changes in everyday practice.

To be clear, there is no 'right' way of approaching the design competency sets. Each attempt, each organization, is unique and has to be addressed as such. Each attempt to enhance design has to be adapted and designed to fit the specific situation. And nothing will be achieved if not all quadrants are engaged with.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Is your company designerly enough?

Today a lot of organizations are excited by the notion of design and the ways a designerly approach can enhance their business. Some companies even label themselves as "design companies" or state that they want to be seen as designerly companies. This is all well, but what does it mean and how do you know if and when you actually are designerly enough?

In many areas we have seen different forms of maturity models. A maturity model is supposed to help people "measure" and establish how mature they are in relation to some aspects. Examples are plenty, such as capability maturity models for software, project planning maturity models, risk maturity models, etc.

One of the fundamental ideas that underlie maturity models (even though not always stated) is that any progress in an area has to be built on a solid foundation. Without a solid foundation, any introduction of new tools, methods, approaches or procedures will probably over time fail.

So, does your organization have a solid foundation that can support the development of a designerly culture and improved design thinking and action? And do you have the knowledge and tools to find that out?

There are ways to assess an organization when it comes to how designerly they are and the level of their design maturity. Unfortunately, I see a lot of organizations that try to build a design culture without caring about the foundation. Instead, they start to implement (simplistic) tools and methods locally without the appropriate support and without any intentional effort in developing a strong and solid foundation that can support such initiatives. Not surprisingly, many of these initiatives fail and lead to a negative experience, and to a negative view of what a design approach can do.

So, organizations should (1) engage in assessing how designerly they are and (2) develop and use a design maturity model to better understand where they are and what needs to be done to successfully transform into a design-oriented organization.

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