Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Positive Design

Tomorrow I am leaving for the workshop "Positive Design" in Cleveland. I am looking forward to it since it is a working conference in a format I like. The notion of positive design triggers some thoughts. I talked today with some students about why we in Informatics do research that sometimes looks like product development. Students and faculty create and design new digital tools and systems in a way not dissimilar from what goes on in creative companies.

It is possible to make the case that the outcome of a design process is a statement that shows the potentiality of the material in question and the environment we live in. This is related to the ideas of revealing "potentiality" as discussed by Herbert Marcuse.

In this sense a new theory can be understood as a designed object that opens up our understanding for new potentialities in the world. So, a theory and a design becomes very similar. If we accept this (to some extreme analogy) we also have to live with the consequences! It means that any new design (or theory) that shows the potentiality of reality can disclose not only good things but also bad or even evil things, it can open up for not earlier existing actions and possibilities. So, behind any design (or theory) is therefore an ideological and ethical decision.

I think this is an important way of understanding design research (and all kinds of research). It means that there is no such things as design research that is only "play", only exploration, only experimentation, without a responsibility for the potentiality it reveals. If we want design research to include the creative and innovative aspects of finding out new technological tools and systems, we have to be ready to face responsibility.

(of course, this is actually valid in all kinds of science, even though it is not acknowledged in the traditional understanding of science, except when it comes to the extreme, like the nuclear bomb)

2 comments:

Josh said...

But are we as designers really responsible for the actions of others, especially if they use the design in a way we did not intend? If so, I don't know if I'd be willing to take on these potential negative feelings. If the design improves the world in its inteded use, but someone finds a way to exploit it and do bad things with it, should the designer feel guilty? These are hard questions...

Erik Stolterman said...

Josh

That is a very good and real question. If we were to take the responsibility to the extreme no person would ever dare to do anything ;-) So, that is not the case. But, I truly believe that a designer can not "hide" behind the idea that when the design is out in the world it is only an issue for the user. Car companies are responsible for not designing dangerous cars, we have regulations around that. In my opinion a good designer always tries to "calculate" the intended "goodness" of a design in relation to the potential unwanted consequences it might create. Too many designers spend time trying to figure out the good potentiality of a new design while not seriously considering "bad" potentiality. And, of course, I agree with you...these are really difficult questions....