Monday, December 06, 2010

Book comment: Andy Clark “Supersizing the Mind—Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension”

The book “Supersizing the Mind—Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension” by Andy Clark is a great account for the idea that our thinking and our minds are not only a matter of the brain. Clark is developing the idea of the “extended” mind in contrast to what he calls the “brainbound” idea of thinking. Even though this book is primarily a book on modern cognitive science and its different models and explanations of thinking, it also has a broader interest and also practical consequences.

I am of course reading this book from the perspective of my own interests in interaction design and design theory. Reading the book from such a perspective makes it very easy to be supportive of the major ideas discussed since they make intuitive sense. This is interesting since Clark notes that in cognitive science this proposed theory instead is commonly seen as too radical since it goes against an intuitive understanding of thinking.

The basic argument in the book is that humans do not merely think with their brains, but with their bodies and with their immediate environment, artifacts and systems. And that thinking is not only the abstract cognitive activity but influenced and informed through the “use” of bodily and sensory actions. This is for Clark an important theoretical position and he states it as “I believe that human minds and bodies are essentially open to episodes of deep and transformative restructuring in which new equipment (both physical and “mental”) can become quite literally incorporated into the thinking and acting systems that we identify as our minds and bodies” (p 31). Clark goes through a number of examples on quite detailed level that all lead to and taken together create his larger argument. He discusses robot research, the body, material symbols, the limits of his theory, what the brain becomes with if this view is accepted, and more.

One consequence of the view of thinking that Clark argues for is that thinking and acting becomes circular and a feedback system. Humans develop tools that in turn help them to think in certain ways, which again leads to new tools. He writes “The linguistic scaffoldings that surround us, and that we ourselves create, are both cognition enhancing in their own right and help provide the tools we use to discover and build the myriad of other props and scaffoldings whose cumulative effect is to press minds like ours from the biological flux.” (p 60). Of course, this quote also has some other quite powerful consequences, related to evolution and language. Clark writes “For examples, both educational practices and human-built structures (artifacts) are passed on from generation to generation in ways that dramatically alter the fitness landscape for individual lifetime learning” (p 62).

So, we humans develop artifacts, tools, and systems as a way to “do” or make things change in the “real” physical world but at the same time these tools alter and influence, or maybe more appropriately support our ability to think. Clark again “We thus comes to what is arguably the most radical contemporary take on the potential cognitive role of nonbiological props, aids, and structures: the idea that, under certain conditions, such props and structures might count as proper parts of extended cognitive processes.” (p 68).

Clark goes on discussing some general and philosophical issues and challenges that a theory like this faces, as well as, very detailed and empirically grounded concerns raised from within cognitive science studies.  One issue that Clark discusses is that with this view, thinking becomes a spread out activity located partly in the brain and partly somewhere else. From a cognitive science perspective this creates a lot of problems on how to study thinking, it becomes a bit “messy”. Which in terms can be seen as it creates a “high explanatory cost” for anyone who wants to study thinking since it becomes such a complex “system” instead of the neatly coherent and located “brain”. This is however not necessarily an issue for those of us who just want to use this theory as a tool in our own fields.

Reading this book from the perspective of design theory is fascinating and at the same time interestingly not very challenging. The notion of extended thinking is quite accepted in design and is also developed into approaches, methods and techniques used by designers. Designers always collect ideas, use notebooks, sketches, etc. all as a way of thinking, and not as a way of collecting information or knowledge.

We can find this developed more theoretically in the works of for instance Donald Schon who famously wrote about the idea that designers externalize their ideas in sketches and prototypes and that as a consequence the “world speaks back”. He argued that this “conversation” is at the core of any thinking aimed at creating the which does not yet exist, and where there are no logical systems that can prescribe the thinking process, instead it is all about explorative thinking. There are several books on the value of constantly sketching, of saving designs, of having notebooks, of surround yourself with artifacts to create a rich environment that stimulate and becomes part of your thinking, etc. In almost all the cases the argument among design thinkers is that these are “thinking tools” and that it is not possible to think without them.  It is clear that these “techniques” are not seen as informational, instead they are seen as part of the thinking process itself.

In the same way, designers are always thinking about the particular, about the artifact, and know that when you design an artifact or system you design tools that will become part of users “thinking”. The focus on objects, artifacts, and systems has probably made this kind of thinking quite natural and intuitive for designers. Clark mentions that for the mainstream cognitive science community his “expanded” perspective might seem too “messy” or “fleshy” (two concepts used by Clark). This bodily, material, physical and artifact centered view is therefore in a way intuitive for designers and easy to accept and understand.

The great value of Clark’s book is that he is making a strong case for a highly important way to think about thinking, which should be of interest to any designer. His argumentation is also based on scientific research which means that he is much more careful with definitions and claims, than people in design areas who make similar claims.  So, even the overall message in Clark’s book is less provocative for designers there is a lot to learn from this book.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Book comment: Cass R. Sunstein "Going to extremes--how like minds unite and divide"

A few years back when I read Cass Sunstein's book "Republic 2.0"  I was immediately impressed both by the message and the argumentation. In his most recent book "Going to extremes--how like minds unite and divide" he comes back to the same topic but more grounded and with a broader scope. The topic of this book is the idea of "group polarization".  Sunstein defines the phenomenon like this: "When people find themselves in groups of like-minded types, they are especially likely to move to extremes." (p 2). This means that when people meet with other who have similar views they reinforce and strengthen these views, to the point when they may be seen as extreme. This can happen around any topic and Sunstein gives many examples in the book. People may become extreme in their views on politics (something Sunstein uses a lot), health, sports, religion, etc.  Sunstein uses the major part of the book to show research that in different ways support this idea. He explores many aspects of the idea and paints a broad and convincing picture of the phenomenon.

The more I read the book the more complex the notion of "group polarization" becomes. Sunstein starts our with more definitional reasoning about how to understand the concept,  later he moves on to questions such as if polarization is good or bad, and how or if  it is possible to "handle" it. Of course, he also discusses some of the ideas he presented in "Republic 2.0" about internet as a very efficient tool  in creating "group polarization", but here he is more balanced in his reasoning and also bring forward and explores "good extremism".

As always, it is a pleasure to read Sunstein. The writing is extraordinary clear and easy to follow. The argumentation is wonderfully straightforward. As you reader you do not have any concerns with not understanding the author. Instead, the clear argumentation really invites the reader to analyze and critique the author.

For anyone who studies groups, communities, organizations, or any other assembly of people, this is a great book. It has implications for anyone thinking about social media and internet usage. However, the book does not makes things easier and it does not give the reader any prescriptions to follow on how to achieve certain group results, but it truly add to a more foundational understanding of group behavior.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Favorite books in Design Theory, Version Deux

In 2007 I posted a post with the same title as this one. I read this old post today and saw that it is time to update the list. This is how I introduced the list in 2007:

"I had a meeting today with a PhD student from another department and was asked what to read if you want to get into the more theoretical and philosophical aspects of design and that had influenced my work. It was a good exercise and I came at least up with a few books, even though I am sure I have forgotten some that might be even more influential on my thinking."

So, I have kept the old list and added some book that I had forgotten or that have been published since then. Even though I have only picked book that have had serious influence, the list keeps growing. I do not always have the full references but instead some have links.

The list is in no particular order, so here we go:

Lundeqvist, Jerker. (1982?) "Norm och modell" (Norm and Model). in Swedish
This was Jerker's PhD thesis and it really opened the door for me to design theory!

Simon's book is a must in the area.

Maybe the most influential book for me.

Lawson, Bryan. "How Designers Think"
Lawson's book really helped me to form my own understanding of design.

Dunne, Joseph "Back to the Rough Ground"
Probably the best book ever on practical knowledge and judgment.

The best contemporary book on design theory.

Lawson, Brian. & Dorst, Kees. "Design Expertise"
A really good introduction to what it means to be good at design.

This book was first published in 1969 and is a wonderful book on the relation between craft and design, functionality and aesthetics.

Alexander, Christoffer. "The Timeless Way of Building"
Even though Alexander is more famous for his pattern language work, this is the book that is fundamental.

Of all the readings in philosophy of technology, this is the one that has influenced me the most. A wonderful critique of contemporary design and technology.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Still one of the best and maybe only books in psychology that has direct influence on how to think about design.

A book so full of great ideas that it is almost too much. Latour makes the case for reality in a way that makes sense to design theory, it is all about the particular, about here and now.

Marcuse, Herbert. "One-Dimensional Man"
All about the consequences of getting stuck in our understanding of the world, and why we have to critically break out of dominating thought figures. 

and finally some self-promotion...

Nelson, Harold & Stolterman, Erik. "The Design Way - Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World"
Well, our book is out of print, but we are working on a 2nd edition that  will be published by   MIT Press in 2011 (if Harold and I can finish our writing).

Well, I will maybe update and add more later.....

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Book comment: Robert Nozick "The Examined Life--philosophical meditations"

As a philosopher Robert Nozick is mainly known for his 1975 book "Anarchy, State and Utopia" where he develops his arguments within political philosophy. But to me, it is one of his later books that has inspired me, and that is "The Examined Life--philosophical meditations" that came out in 1989.

This book contains about 25 essays that cover highly diverse topics even though they all have to do with how to live a life and the meaning of life. I read this book many years ago and it made a strong impact on me. I have recently started reading it again and realize even more that it has a lot to offer for anyone with an interest in design theory.

The basic theme in the book is the notion of reflection or examination. Nozick writes "examination and reflection are not just about the other components of life: they are added within a life, alongside the rest, and by their presence call for a new overall pattern that alters how each part of life is understood." This idea goes of course back to Aristotle and his famous notion about the "examined life". Nozick's book is an attempt to support such reflections and examinations of life in a way that is less philosophical (or theoretical) and more related to everyday experinces, such as, death, love, aging.

One of the core themes in the book is about value and meaning. Nozick devotes several chapters to the question about how we can know what makes something valuable and meaningful. All his reasoning resonates well with an everyday and intuitive way of thinking. For instance, he writes "Still, when all other things are equal, the more concentrated thought that goes into making something, the more it is shaped, enriched, and laden with significance." (p 14).

I have over the years used two of the chapters in the book in my teaching and also sometimes in my writing and that is the chapters "14. Stances" and "15. Value and Meaning". In our book "The Design Way" we use Nozick's model from chapter 15 as a way to discuss and analyze value and meaning when it comes to things and systems. This is a wonderful chapter and should be read by anyone who is interested in what makes an artifact or system valuable or meaningful. Nozick's analysis is simple, clear, and highly useful.

I know that a lot of people have problems with Nozick due to his early writings and his political views, but I find this book exciting and intriguing, and completely liberated from political philosophy. It has an style, tone, and language that you seldom find in book from professional philosophers. Another favorite example of a similar book in this style is Richard Rorty's "Philosophy and Social Hope". These are not typical philosophy books. They do not require the special and intricate knowledge and language of the professional philosopher, but they still rest on a stable foundation that can only be provided by someone who really knows the topic.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The new reality of interaction design

Recently we have seen some amazing new technologies entering the scene of interaction design and HCI. First came the Wii, then the iPhone and apps, and now the Kinect. Just in a few years the technology that can make up the interface of artifacts and systems have radically changed. We are moving into an era of highly physical, tangible, and haptic interfaces while at the same time seeing technology that makes the physical and tangible interfaces disappear.

All these new technologies are radically expanding the design space for interaction design. In the "old" days (just a few years back) almost any kind of interaction was all about the screen, keyboard, and mouse interface on a computer and more than often in relation to the web. Now, the same design includes questions about what device to use (desktops, laptops, iPads, iPhones, cell phones, cars, buildings, environments, appliances) or maybe develop a new special device manifested in any material, shape, and form, and also choices about what interactivity style to use (touch screen, voice, movements, etc).

This development makes interaction design broader, more complex, more technical, less technical, more physical, less physical, less predictable, etc. As if these more technical aspects are not enough, any interaction design also has to include all possible questions about potential social and collaborative aspects, social media, etc.

All this makes any interaction design a daunting task, and a question of systems. Any designer has to struggle with if the design should be intertwined with other artifacts and systems. Any design of a car today has to be done in relation to the design of other digital artifacts, such as, smart phones and iPods. Any building has to be designed from an interaction perspective in relation to all the interactive artifacts that will be hosted or "living" in the house. At the same time, any small device has to be designed to fit the interactive environment it will move around in.

Interaction design is apparently not getting easier. The degrees of freedom is increasing, and so is the number of design choices. Interaction design is not something anymore that can be approached from just one perspective. It is no longer a question if interaction design is a multidisciplinary activity. Interaction design requires a multidisciplinary competence. Of course, this is not a competence that any individual can possess, it can only be a matter of team work.

But, and here is maybe the point, until now it has been possible to have design teams where each member brought his or her own specific competence to the table but did not really participate in the design process. The engineer only made sure that the final design was feasible, the graphic designer only cared about the visual design, etc. With the increasing complexity, all competences about such aspects as interactivity, visuals, functions, structures, information, content, construction,  etc. have to be actively involved in the design process.  To make this happen requires that everyone who represents a certain competence has to on a fundamental level understand the design process and know how to work in a designerly way.

I find this development to be fascinating and challenging. It will be quite interesting to see what companies will be able to accept the challenge to develop an understanding of what such a designerly approach requires in a real sense and also able to make it happen. It will also be interesting to see what kind of new educational programs will be developed in answer to this challenge.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Clay Shirky "Cognitive Surplus -- creativity and generosity in a connected age"

Clay Shirky's latest book "Cognitive Surplus--creativity and generosity in a connected age" takes on the same topic as his previous books, namely how new technology changes our society when it comes to who has the power to be an information consumer versus a producer. The main claim in the book is that we (the people) have an enormous amount of "cognitive surplus", that is, time that we at the moment are not necessarily using for anything important, so there is a surplus of cognitive "power" that can be harvested. Shirky's prime example of the surplus is the amount of time people spend watching TV. This time is, according to the author, time that could be used for other purposes. The book is mainly a long parade of examples of people who has managed to use the new social technology to do things that only a few decades ago would have been impossible, or only possible for those with power or money. The examples are all exciting even though they are in several cases quite well known.

The book is very easy to read. Straightforward with clear examples and easy to follow reasoning. At the same time, after a while I got a bit bored. The examples became quite similar and they function mostly as confirmations of the overall argument the author is making. Taken together, the examples make a strong case and they are convincing. But, there are some things I would have liked to see more of. For instance, it would have been interesting with some more detailed examples and analysis of failed attempts to use the new technology. It might be difficult to find those examples, but at the same time they could provide us with some other insights. I suspect that most attempts to use the internet in the way described in the book do lead to failures, that is, not to any substantial self-organization or growth in participation or impact.

In relation to that it might be interesting with a historic perspective (since the author contrasts today with before internet). Even during times without the new technology, people were able to organize and influence society, for instance, through community involvements leading to labor unions, religious congregations, ideological parties, etc. So, without technology how was that possible, how could they organize, did they have even more "cognitive surplus" in those days since these attempts probably took much more time and energy than they would today (at least according to the author). I am not sure how well such a historic comparison would work out, but since the author only focuses on successful examples, it might be interesting to see how they are  similar or not to historical successful examples.

Another aspect of the phenomenon that I miss in the book is the dark or evil side of the same "revolution". Even though the author touches on that here and there, I was waiting for a more in depth description of some examples. This is not a "tool" that only can be used for good. It can, and has, been used for anti-societal purposes. At least some chapter about that would have been interesting.

Anyhow, overall the book is valuable, especially to those who has not payed that much attention to how internet is changing things but is realizing that something is going on. To those who is more aware of the field and is engaged in the discourse, the book do not really offer that much when it comes to new insights.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Hofstadter, Dennett and the "rough ground"

I have always been fascinated by philosophy about the mind and about human thinking. A great moment for me was when the book "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter was published in 1979. The book was so different from anything else I had read in philosophy or any other academic field. The writing was so clear! It was direct, challenging, and provocative. Hofstadter took on questions about the mind in a logical and beautiful (!) way. The book made me continue to read other philosophers and particularly Daniel Dennett.

The book "The Mind's I" (1981) by Dennet and Hofstadter had probably an even greater impact on my thinking and I was overwhelmed by the rhetoric, the argumentation, and the logical reasoning. Over the years I have continued to read Dennett, maybe less for the ideas themselves (even though they are interesting) but more for the style, the logic, and the reasoning. I have always strived to be able to argue in a similar fashion in my own works, sadly with little result.

What Dennett and Hofstadter (and others) are so good at, is to reduce the complexity of an issue to a well defined logical question or distinction. They make questions "clean" and clear. They operate with surgical precision. They remove the fluff and the unnecessary, they unfold and make visible what is covered, and reveal what is confused by our intuitive ways of understanding things. They work with logical definitions and mostly with thought experiments. It is a wonderfully skilled exercise in precise definitions and argumentation. At the same time it is salutation to the power of thinking. I was charmed and impressed and enjoyed reading their works. But over the years I have realized that even if my own  work to some extent has to do with how people think and also with concepts such as intention and reasoning, I have never used these theories in my work.

I have on my desk the latest of Hofstadter's books "I am a strange loop" from 2007. I have read parts of the book and while reading the last chapter the Epilogue, I realize that the text does not provoke me, challenge me, or intrigue me, in the way I expected. I do find the reading enjoyable. But I find it difficult to care about the "problem" that Hofstadter is struggling with.  Why is that? I deliberately added the notion of the "rough ground" in the name of this post. Dealing with design and with creating real thing in the real world, struggling with issues that all have to do with richness, messiness, complexity, all manifested more or less physically in the world of the ultimate particular has influenced my interest to be directed towards ideas and theories about human thinking that addresses that richness. So, while I still find these thinkers (Dennett and Hofstadter) to be exciting on a personal level, I realize that others better serve thinking about the "rough ground".

Sunday, November 21, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Graham Harman "Prince of Networks -- Bruno Latour and Metaphysics"

As someone who has a lifelong interest in what could serve as a philosophical  foundation for design, I have for many years admired the work of Bruno Latour. I have read most of his books and have seen him as one of the most important contemporary philosophers. However, Latour has not received the same recognition from the professional philosophical community. He is by many seen as a sociologist and not as a philosopher.

The book "Prince of Networks -- Bruno Latour and Metaphysics" by Graham Harman makes a great case in presenting  the ideas of Bruno Latour as a philosopher and someone who actually contributes to foundational metaphysical questions. Harman's book is basically divided into two parts where the first is a wonderful presentation of Latour's writings and ideas. In the second part Harman elaborates on his own philosophical thinking which of course rests solidly on Latour's, but deviates in some crucial and important regards. I must say that I really enjoyed the first part of the book which is an excellent presentation and explanation of Latour's ideas, while I did not to the same degree enjoyed the second part and that for two reasons. I will briefly comment on those two reasons before I write a bit more about Latour and the first part.

In the second part of the book Harman takes on a point where he deviates from the original ideas of Latour. The particular question is about the notion of 'object' and if objects should be seen as solely existing due to their relations of if they do have some internal or 'real' core. Harman argues that objects have to be seen as having some kind of 'real' core and he develops some arguments for this. I find this whole enterprise to be a mistake and is not a small deviation from Latour, instead I see it a major departure. It is difficult to see why Harman calls 'sensual' objects, which he distinguishes from 'real', as less real in a Latourian sense. It seems to me that Harman gets caught up in the issue of an object's 'real' core to the degree that he falls into the trap of dividing things into real versus made-up, or natural versus human. To me the prime example used by Harman where he writes about the difference between real cats and a made-up "monster x" is a mistake. The "monster x" could have a stronger existence and could even develop  internal relations with enough work (as Latour states it) would be put in.  It would take this blog post too far to fully develop this argument. Anyhow, the other issue I have with the second apart of the book is that becomes way to limited in scope and approach. Harman gets into highly detailed and internal arguments with other philosophers who subscribe to the same overall philosophy as he. The texts sounds in parts like a reconstruction of a workshop where some like-minded thinkers have really gone wild into their own little field of ideas. So, to someone who is more interested in the larger issues, the second part of the  book becomes less exciting.

So, back to Latour. After reading Harman, my respect and understanding of Latour has grown and I realize that there are so many aspects of his philosophy that makes sense from a design theoretical perspective. For instance, Latour's extraordinary strong claim about the "absolute concreteness" of objects or in Latour language "actant" clearly resonates with the notion of the "ultimate particular" that we have developed in our book "The Design Way". Harman summarizes Latour's idea about concreteness like this "Since every actant is entirely concrete, we do not find its reality in some lonely essence or chaste substrate, but always in an absolutely specific place in the work, with completely specific alliances at any given moment" (p 16). This is the reality for a designer. The design does not exist as abstract or universal idea or "thing", the design exists only in a given time and place and is what it is--an absolute particular. Its constitution and quality and existence is a result of its relationships to all other objects and actants.

Another aspect of Latour that makes sense for design is the notion that objects are created  by creating alliances, and by building relationships. All this, is for Latour a question of hard work. To make sure that a design will exist and "win" (another Latourian term) is a matter of it will connect to its surrounding objects, which in design terms is all about composition.

All the ideas of Latour that Harman eloquently presents in the first half of the book are possible to incorporate in a philosophy or theory of design. Of course, reading Harman about Latour should be complemented by reading the original, and my two Latour favorites are "We have never been modern" and "Pandora's Hope"-- two wonderful books.

I would really like to write much more about this book and about Latour, but I have to stop. I wish that we could start to see a more serious interest in Latour and his philosophy. The interest that has dominated so far is a quite shallow and uninteresting "use" of his ideas in the form of Actor Network Theory.  I find a lot of the work done under the name of ACT to be so far from Latour and so simplified and distorted that it has almost nothing to do with the original ideas. To use Latour's ideas methodologically without a deep understanding of the philosophical foundation leads to serious misunderstandings of the ideas and of their potential applications in daily research endeavors. Instead we could use Latour as a way to support a designerly perspective and to give it a strong philosophical foundation.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"The Dark Side of Creativity", book comment

One of our PhD students (Samantha, thanks!) pointed me the other day to a new book with the intriguing title "The Dark Side of Creativity". The book is edited by Cropley, D, Cropley, A, Kaufman, J, & Runco, M. and contains 20 chapters on the notion of creativity.

I need to point out that this blog post is not a book review since I have only read the first two chapters plus the last one, so, I will restrict my comments and not review the book as such.

It is obvious that the title of the book is intriguing and inviting for anyone who is dealing with studies of any kind of creative human activities, which for me of course is design. The editors make the observation that creativity is in our society seen as a completely positive "thing",  in some quarters almost revered in religious terms. This fact is in itself enough for a book that in serious fashion takes on the potential "dark side" of creativity. This is also the reason for the book according to the editors.

It was interesting to see how the discussion (in the few chapters I have so far read) relates to the notion of "The Evil of Design" that I and Harold Nelson develop in our book "The Design Way". It seems, in the chapters I have read and in our own writings, that an examination of creativity as an activity in itself,  leads to the understanding that creativity is a quite simple cognitive "tool" that can be used for any purpose. To cope with this one has to bring in intention as a central concept in the analysis. This is also the reason why Harold and I did not discuss creativity in our book. Instead we focused on intention and judgment which are the two concepts that do have a direct and concrete impact on the potential good or evil of a human intervention in the world.

Anyway, the book do ask some good questions and I had to reflect on how I define and think about creativity. For anyone who has any kind of interest in creativity this book opens up some unusual perspectives and is also written by people who has a expertise and experience in studying creativity.

The Design Way, 2nd Edition

Some of you may know about the book "The Design Way -- Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World" that I wrote with my good friend and colleague Harold Nelson. Well, we have since it was published in 2003 struggled with our publisher who has been unusually difficult to work with. So, we are at the moment working on a 2nd Edition of the book. We also have a contract with MIT Press for the new edition, which will make things so much better. Now we just have to make sure that Harold and I  will be able to develop the new version, if so, it may be published in 2011. A couple of  new chapters, some parts removed, and some changes. Looking forward....

Monday, October 04, 2010

"Back to the rough ground" by Joseph Dunne

After many years, I have gone back and started to re-read the book "Back to the rough ground--practical judgment and the lure of technique" by Joseph Dunne. I first read this wonderful book when it came out in 1993 and it immediately became one of my favorite books overall. It is therefore exiting and interesting to go back and read it again. Not surprisingly, I see other aspects of the text now and I understand it much better (I think). At the same time I wonder how much of what I have thought are my own ideas actually comes from my reading of Dunne. To be honest, I also find the book now to be less overwhelming and intimidating than I remember it even to the degree that I now can find arguments and sections where I can see potential improvements. Anyhow, the book is a wonder of detailed argumentation and analysis.

What is still the most amazing aspect of the book is the fact that the reason Dunne wrote the book was that he was trying to "solve" a concrete practical problem and he ended up having to conduct severe philosophical examinations in order to find a solution. The problem he worked on can simply be stated as Dunne does in the Preface "My purpose of this book is precisely to 'open up for inquiry' about practitioner's knowledge and to look for adequate conceptual resources to 'describe' it" (p. xv). Dunne is trying to find a way to understand practical knowledge and does that by grounding his analysis in two of Aristotle's types of knowledge, namely "techne" and "phronesis". However, Dunne is not satisfied just by going back to Artistotle, he also conducts "conversations" with five more contemporary philosophers, namely John Henry newman, R. G. Collingwood (who has always been my favorite philosopher), Hannah Arendt, Hans-George Gadamer, and Jurgen Habermas. This is not a group of everyday ordinary thinkers--they require some serious examinations and that is also what Dunne does. Well, I have only started my reading and did not intend to write about the book right now, maybe I will  come back later on and write more.

Just another note. I am convinced that anyone who has serious ambitions to understand practice and practical knowledge in any professional field should read this book, or at least parts of it. I think the book is even more timely and needed now than when it was first published. Dunne  offers a solid philosophical foundation on the notion of practical knowledge that in many ways resonates with contemporary design theory. More to come....

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker

In the October issue of the New Yorker there is an article called "Small Change, why the revolution will not be tweeted" by Malcolm Gladwell. I found this article to have all the typical good Gladwell qualities such as an interesting topic, a bit counter intuitive and also challenging mainstream ideas. In the article Gladwell  makes an interesting argument about social networks and their potential power to support or produce societal change. Gladwell makes the case that serious and real societal change can only be done through activism that is a different sort than what happens in social networks. He makes the case by contrasting "weak ties" with "strong ties" when it comes to relationships and friendships. He also contrast the "network" with the "hierarchy". The overall argument is that for real activism to happen the preconditions are the presence of strong ties and hierarchy, while social networks only provide weak ties and networks. I am quite sure that this article will produce a lot of discussions and I can see a lot of defenders of social network jumping on Gladwell's arguments. However, his argumentation is clear and straightforward and fact based so it will be difficult to find convincing counter arguments. I highly recommend the article.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Book comment: Paul Virilio "The Original Accident"

I have for many years liked the ideas of Paul Virilio. He is a fascinating and highly challenging thinker. Unfortunately his writings are quite complex and sometimes erratic. I am at the moment trying to read his "The Original Accident" published in English in 2007. I am intentionally writing "trying to read" since it does take work and effort without any promise of success in increased understanding.

Virilio is highly self centered and seems quite uninterested in others ideas and theories. Anyway, the basic idea in his writings is that "speed" is a dangerous power in our society. This is such a simple and powerful idea. Based on the idea of speed he also argues that every technology carries its own inherent accident or even distaster. He writes that the accident is "an invention in the sense of uncovering what was hidden, just waiting to happen". The airplane has the crash built in, the nuclear power plant has a Chernobyl accident built in, etc. The accident is "integral" to the technology itself. He argues that in our society we (especially researchers and engineers) o not put enough energy into uncovering the integral disasters in technology. He blames "the poor progress of 'scientific' knowledge" (p. 7).

He also addresses information technology. He is a brilliant thinker while at the same time obscure. For instance, this is how he explains what globalization leads to when supported by new technology. "If interactivity is to information what radioactivity is toe energy -- a contamination and disintegrating capability -- then the integral accident in time causes conflicts in the socius and its intelligibility to accumulate, making the whole world opaque little by little." (p. 53). Well, there you go, interpret that!

Anyway, still, Virilio is fascinating and has ideas that are intriguing and well worth the struggle....

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Design theory and rationality

In my class on design theory we read some of the more influential design thinkers for the last decades. Tonight I read an article that I will talk about tomorrow. I did use this paper last year too, but did not read it carefully. Tonight I did--and what a great paper. The author is Armand Hatchuel and the article is "Towards Design Theory and Expandable Rationality: The Unfinished Program of Herbert Simon" ( Journal of Management and Governance Volume 5, Numbers 3-4, 260-273, DOI: 10.1023/A:1014044305704).

Hatchuel analyzes the work of Simon especially his notion of "bounded rationality". Hatchuel discusses the problematic issues with Simon's approach and makes a wonderful argument where he shows that Simon is  "stuck" in a problem solving paradigm where "design" is seen as a special case of problem solving, while in fact it is the opposite. Hatchuel develops this arguement in an elegant way and presents his own notion of "expandable rationality" which opens up for a nice definition of design as an approach with its own rationality. Looking forward to class tomorrow when we get a chance to discuss this paper. Anyone who is interested in what makes design unique in relation to problem-solving should read this paper.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Book review: "Designing Things" by Prasad Boradkar

It is always nice to find a new book with an intriguing title that resonates with ones own interests. That happened when I recently found the book "Designing Things - A critical introduction to the culture of objects" by Prasad Boradkar.

This is one book in a growing stream of writings focused on 'things', objects, and artifacts. There seems to be an increasing interest in the material world and especially in the world that consists of designed objects. There exists of course a long history of  research and studies with the 'thing' in focus, but never with the same intensity and richness as right now.

Boradkar has written a book that takes this growing interest in material things as a starting point. The book is presented as providing a 'map of the rapidly changing field of design studies'. Boradkar does indeed present a 'map'.  Even though there is an underlying theoretical perspective that the author favors, most of the book, with its different chapters, presents a large number of perspectives of 'things' and existing theories and approaches common within each of these.

Boradkar sets out to give an overview of how 'things' have been theorized over time. For instance, he presents a section called 'A brief history of the philosophy of things'. In about twelve pages he goes through the history from 'Thales to Verbeek'. I find the selection of thinkers to be appropriate and relevant and also in line with my own thinking, however the section is so short that it becomes more a brief abstract. I think that it will be quite difficult to understand and to get something out of this overview for those who are not already knowledgeable of this literature.

After this first chapter, 'Theorizing Things' which is a nice overview, Boradkar continues with eight chapters each devoted to one particular aspect of things. These aspects are: values, labor, production, aesthetics, needs, consumption and sustainability, objects as signs, and obsession of possession. In each of these chapters the author presents the most common theories, ideas, and work that have been done over time when it comes to that particular aspect of 'things'.

Even though I was quite excited to find the book, I have to admit that I am a bit disappointed. I was expecting some kind of critical analysis, a developed philosophical perspective, but the book does not provide any of that. It is instead a 'map' as it is presented as. Even though the author in the introduction does take a stand and positions himslef in a broader philosophical landscape (as a thinker within the general philosophy of Latour, Harman, and Verbeek) the the rest of the book is more a textbook that presents a large number of theories, models, frameworks, and ideas in a way that is quite introductory and without any serious critical analysis.

It is obvious that the author has not intended to present any emerging larger argument concerning the nature of philosophy of 'things' that would find a place in any existing discourse. When reading the book the author becomes more and more invisible the longer I read. In the introduction and first chapter there are attemtps at making a case, at pursuing and developing an argument, but this gets lost in the rest of the book and a textbook language takes over.

Anyhow, apart from not being a philosophical contribution,  the book can probably be quite valuable for anyone who is interested in how to think and analyze 'things' and do not know where to begin. The different chapters might help in finding out what aspect of 'thing'-studies might be of personal interest. The chapters also give the reader a good starting point when it comes to what to read. It is obvious that the author has a good knowledge of a large landscape of ideas and theories related to the 'culture of objects'.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The DRS 2010 Conference

Back home after the DRS 2010 conference in Montreal. I had a good time these and the conference went well, except for the really hot weather. I had the opportunity to listen to some really interesting papers, participate in some great discussions, and also meet old and new friends.

I found the quality of the papers to be  better than ever before in the DRS conference history. This is a good development and I hope it will continue. However, there were some interesting discussions on the future of the conference and what its purpose is in relation to all the new design conferences that are within different disciplines. What can a general design conference deliver that the more focused ones can't. I think there is a possibility to make the conference into the top general design conference that is not connected to any particular design discipline. But this also makes it important that the conference and the papers takes on the challenge to be non-disciplinary and general in a sense that makes them interesting to anyone in any design field. I hope this is what will happen, but I am not sure it will....

Saturday, July 03, 2010

New writings...

Lately two articles that I (together with some colleagues) have been working on for quite some time have been published. Here are the references and the abstracts:

Janlert, L. and Stolterman, E. 2010. Complex interaction. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 17, 2 (May. 2010), 1-32. DOI=  (

An almost explosive growth of complexity puts pressure on people in their everyday doings. Digital artifacts and systems are at the core of this development. How should we handle complexity aspects when designing new interactive devices and systems? In this article we begin an analysis of interaction complexity. We portray different views of complexity; we explore not only negative aspects of complexity, but also positive, making a case for the existence of benign complexity. We argue that complex interaction is not necessarily bad, but designers need a deeper understanding of interaction complexity and need to treat it in a more intentional and thoughtful way. We examine interaction complexity as it relates to different loci of complexity: internal, external, and mediated complexity. Our purpose with these analytical exercises is to pave the way for design that is informed by a more focused and precise understanding of interaction complexity.

Stolterman, E. & Wiberg, M. (2010). Concept-Driven Interaction Design Research. Human Computer Interaction, 25(2), 95-118. doi:10.1080/07370020903586696

In this article, we explore a concept-driven approach to interaction design research with a specific focus on theoretical advancements. We introduce this approach as a complementary approach to more traditional, and well-known, user-centered interaction design approaches. A concept-driven approach aims at manifesting theoretical concepts in concrete designs. A good concept design is both conceptually and historically grounded, bearing signs of the intended theoretical considerations. In the area of humanñcomputer interaction and interaction design research, this approach has been quite popular but not necessarily explicitly recognized and developed as a proper research methodology. In this article, we demonstrate how a concept-driven approach can coexist, and be integrated with, common user-centered approaches to interaction design through the development of a model that makes explicit the existing cycle of prototyping, theory development, and user studies. We also present a set of basic principles that could constitute a foundation for concept driven interaction research, and we have considered and described the methodological implications given these principles. For the field of interaction design research we find this as an important point of departure for taking the next step toward the construction and verification of theoretical constructs that can help inform and guide future design research projects on novel interaction technologies.
If you are interested in these articles and can't get them, you can email me.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book review: "Vibrant Matter" by Jane Bennett

Through history humans have debated how to understand and relate to their surrounding reality. We have all heard about societies that believed that every object and thing has a soul. Today this is commonly seen as a primitive and outdated view. The  dominating modern view is instead that reality consists of the human, spiritual, world of life, and on the other side the dead, material, world of matter. This division of living things from dead things is highly influential in the way humans think and act on their world.

However, in modern philosophy there is a new trend that is bringing the importance of objects and matter back into our focus. In a new book by Jane Bennett "Vibrant Matter-- a political ecology of things" one such position is presented. Bennett claims that her ambition is to develop a positive ontology of 'matter as vibrant', and to dismantle the divisions between the binaries life/matter, human/animal, organic/inorganic, and to do this with the purpose of strengthening a political analysis that  better can account for the contribution of "non-human actants".

The overall topic and the political aspects of Bennett's work is on environmental sustainability. Her claim is that we need a new understanding of our environments, of our material "things", if we will be able to find strategies for sustainability that are 'sustainable'. She writes that if we are able to find a relationship to 'things' that are built on another understanding of their nature it "might augment the motivational energy needed to move selves from the endorsement of ethical principles to the actual practice of behavior". With this she means that we need new incentives, a new motivation, that can give us the energy to engage effectively in behaviors that are positive for the environment. The argument is that it is not enough to understand intellectually that our behavior needs to change, we need to have ethical reasons for actually doing it. And if 'things' are seen as co-actants in our world, we will start to see our world differently and start acting differently.

Of course, this is a difficult argument to make and it feeds into all kinds of  'new age' ideas of living matter, spiritual thinking, energy forces, etc. Bennett does make a great case though and builds her argumentation on a solid philosophical foundation. It is not a surprise that Bruno Latour is one of her major references even though her approach differs in many and important ways from the philosophy of Latour. However, it is clear that Bennett falls into the new trend where Latour is a major thinker together with others such as Graham Harman, Peter Paul Verbeek, and what by some has been called an Object Oriented Ontology.

Overall, I am attracted by the ideas Bennett presents. They lead to new ways of thinking about things and artifacts, and for those of us who are used to think about embodied interaction, user experience, etc. many of the ideas are not that far fetched. I am curios to see how this and similar new philosophical attempts will be translated into more concrete activities and approaches relevant for design. This new evolution of ideas concerned with the status of 'things' and of the material world is highly interesting and with Bennett's work we have another example of why we need it and how it could be used. I am convinced that we will see many more examples of this philosophical development in the near future. And I am curious to see how it will influence the world of design which is a natural arena for such ideas.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Book review: "Everyday Engineering" edited by Dominique Vinck

Ok, time for another book review. This time it is "Everyday Engineering -- An Ethnography of Design and Innovation" edited by Dominique Vinck (MIT Press). First of all, I find the study of practice to be one of the most exciting forms of research in design. So, this book has a promising title and the introduction also lives up to my expectations--it does aim at studying and describing practice without being prescriptive.

The book is written by a group of French engineering researchers and sociologists. The idea of the book is wonderful, it sets out to explore the complexity of 'real' engineering practice in relation to the 'simplistic' form of understanding that dominates engineering education and textbook based prescriptive models and methods.

The book also delivers, at least here and there, and is an interesting read. For instance, I liked the first chapter about the experience of a young and newly graduated engineer in his first job at CERN. The story is quite well told and shows how the young engineer slowly starts to understand that the complexity of his task is not an inherent quality of the engineering task itself but a consequence of social and organizational aspect, and in the end all about communication. There are also some other chapters that in a similar way reveals a kind of practice complexity that is not a result of the engineering task but of the surrounding situational organizational environment.

However, overall the chapters do not deliver what I had hoped for. The approach is fine, the purpose is great, the assumptions are also reasonable and interesting, but I find the overall analysis to be a bit repetitive and the theoretical reasoning is not as insightful as I hoped for. Each chapter ends with an 'operational summary' that mostly takes the form of ethnographic findings, that is, statements and descriptions of interesting observations grounded in the case that the chapter has examined. But, these summaries do not elevate from the level of observations and I really miss any form of theorizing that could have lead to some emerging  theoretical framing and formulations, to explanations and statements of more general scope. This unfortunately means that what I get out of the book is less intersting and useful than it could have been. But the book and its chapters do have value (and for some I guess even a lot of value) as a repository of stories describing the complex everyday reality of engineering.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Book Review: "The Design of Business" by Roger Martin

One of the most interesting and surprising developments in design and particularly design thinking has happened at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Few if any other business schools have payed any attention to design as a potential philosophy of inquiry and action suitable for management. The Dean at the Rotman School is Roger Martin who has been instrumental and the force behind this development. Being a professor of strategic management he has pushed the school to adopt design thinking as a major approach when it comes to business strategy and management. He has earlier developed some of his ideas in the book "The Opposable Mind" (2007, and is now continuing to formulate his thoughts and approach in his new book "The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage".

This is a book whose audience is primarily people in the world of business and who do not know design thinking but might have heard the buzz. It is quite interesting to see how Martin takes on the challenge to introduce design thinking in a world dominated by other and strong traditional forms of thinking. Martin does a good job by introducing design thinking as a way to move business from the reliance on what he calls "reliability" to the realm of "validity". He also introduces his "funnel of knowledge" which is a simple model describing how humans approach a problem and transforms a situation into reliable actions.

I think the book might be of value to those in business who are interested in this new thing "design thinking", but for people who are knowledgeable of design, design thinking, design theory and design research, the book does not really add anything new, which is fine since that is not the purpose. The purpose is to reach those who are involved in traditional business and management approaches and theories, and for that purpose the book probably does well.

For anyone who is alsready into design thinking, the book is very easy to read and gives some interesting and good cases of how to go about when bringing design thinking into large and traditional companies. This aspect of the book is also of great use for already accomplished design thinkers since they might not be aware of the existing and sometime contradictory ways of doing things dominating the corporate world. It can help designers to be more aware of the existing culture, to understand why that culture don't understand or easily can accept a design approach, etc.

Overall, I see this book as a sign of a change going on in the traditional business world. I am quite sure Martin and his school will be followed by many. I am sure that management will adopt design thinking as one possible and valid approach to change among others. We should all be thankful to the work done by Martin to push for this and for his work in making this happen.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Book review: "Change by Design" by Tim Brown

Tim Brown is the CEO and President of the famous design company IDEO. In his new book "Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation" Brown explains his own view on the notion of design thinking. Brown has a long and successful experience as a designer and has many great stories to tell to support his claims about the benefits and nature of design thinking.

As we all know, design and especially design thinking has received extraordinary attention these last few years. It seems as if design thinking is seen as the solution for almost anything from modern product design, the new field of service design, organizational design, etc. Design thinking is in Brown's new book defined as the way to think as a designer but he also describes what that means when it comes to the process and activities.

I really like this book. For people who have heard about design thinking and do not really know what it is, I think this book is a great first introduction. It is easy to read, ideas are illustrated with great stories from real cases. For people who already have a good understanding of design thinking, the book does not really offer anything new and it does not really go into any particular aspect of design thinking in depth. Brown is aware of this and he writes that if you already understand design thinking maybe the mind map he offers is the only thing you need to understand his perspective. Even though I found this to be true, the real design stories he offers are valuable also to those who already "get it".

Even though I really like this book and it is obvious that Tim Brown has a deep understanding of design and design thinking, as a design researcher I would really like to see him go much deeper into some (or one) aspects of design. Maybe just focus on one of the aspects he covers in the book and see what he can do with that particular aspect if he devotes time and energy and focus to it. I would expect to see some really interesting thoughts and probably theoretically interesting ideas emerging. That would of course not necessarily be of interest to the broader audience but would appeal to graduate students in design, design researchers, and advanced practitioners. There is a need for that kind of more precise and in-depth analysis. However, I am also happy with what Brown is actually doing, which is to spread a good understanding of design thinking amidst all the present hype and popular writings that are unfortunately not always based on a solid understanding of design.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Things take time....the history of Apple tablets

This is a nice little story about one part of the history behind the Apple iPad. It is important to see what has been done, why it did not happen earlier, etc. A lot can be learned....

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Designerly Tools

Last week I was invited to the 6th Student Interaction Design and Research Conference, this year at the Umeå Design Institute. It was a great event and I had the chance to do both a workshop on "Design Judgment -- how to become a good designer" and a keynote presentation on "Designerly Tools". The students, from several design schools in Europe, were great, they asked good questions and participated in the discussion.

I also had the pleasure of listening to Heather Martin from the design company "Smart Design" (the Barcelona office). She gave a great presentation on the nature of design.

My presentation on designerly tools is based on a couple of studies that I have done with some students were we have interviewed professional interaction designers about what tools they use in their design process, and particulaly how they make their choice of tool and why. We define tools quite broad, anything that a designer can use in the process (pen, whiteboard, software, etc. but also any kind of method, technique, theory, approach, etc). It is interesting to see how and why designers do select their tools and it was clear that the students did recognize the results and I think they confirmed our findings, at least if based on their nodding and smiling :-)

It is also clear that how designers select tools is an important aspect of the design approach that has not been enough studied and I think our results are therefore really interesting for both researchers and practitioners in the field.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Web content curation--are journalism coming back?

We all experience the overwhelming flood of information on the net. Social media has not necessarily made the task of being informed easier. Even among experts and the people at the forefront of the new media this problem is recognized. As a potential solution the notion of curation is discussed as a idea that refers to the act of collecting, refining, and presenting information in a way that can be trusted. Sounds like traditional journalism to me.

For instance, at this panel description at the SXSW conference recently: "With all the stuff we weed through online, good filters are crucial. Who's best-suited to determine what's best, curators or the crowd? People have their religion about one or the other, however this panel will focus on the overlap, the grey areas and how curating and crowd-sourcing enrich each other."

I believe we need large broad public well-developed arenas (by professional journalists) where important societal issues are described, reported, and discussed and I still find the book by Sunstein to be one of the most important, challenging, and valuable contributions to this debate. Why not go back and read it again....

Monday, March 15, 2010

Upset by Bad Design or Inspired by Good Design

A lot of design writings are based in the "mantra" that the world is filled by bad and terrible designs and we need to change that. I do not like that approach to design. To me it often (not always) implies that good design is both possible and almost easy to do. Good design is possible, I agree with that, but design is far from easy. The world is not filled by bad designs because people do not care or do not try. There are bad designs all around us because good design is difficult. I am much more fascinated by the fact that, despite the difficulty of design, good designs can also be found all round. It is amazing how often good designers are able to come up with designs that defy the complexity and difficulty of the challenge at hand. So, let us be inspired by good designs and let them prove to us that amazing design is possible. Even in the most restricted design situation, the design space is (relatively) infinite. Within this space there are opportunities and risks to come up with a bad or good design. Great designers are those who surprises us all with a wonderful design when we thought the situation did not lend it self to any possible good designs.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Toyota Problem, Interaction and Complexity

I guess everybody has heard about the Toyota car problem. This is a terrible situation for Toyota, of course. At the same it also exposes some interesting interaction issues. Without knowing anything about what has really happened and how much Toyota really knows, I think this is a kind of situation we might see more of in the future.

When artifact complexity increases as a consequence of growing features "need", new problems emerge. The blend of mechanical/physical material with digital material seems to be part of the Toyota problem. A spokesperson said something about "not being able to locate the problem". A modern car is highly complex and is an example of an system where parts "collaborate" in a highly intricate way. So, is the gas pedal issue a mechanical problem or a digital problem. According to an (TV) expert, Toyota is hoping and praying that it is a mechanical issue, since it will be possible to locate and hopefully add or remove some mechanical parts. If it is a digital issue then "locating" becomes increasingly difficult. Maybe the problem only happens with a highly improbable occurrence of combination of system states, mechanical as well as digital. It might actually be an untraceable problem. And it might be impossible to test. No usability testing, no matter how comprehensive, might catch or isolate the problem. However, every day millions of drivers round the world conduct a full scale usability experiment, in rare situations with drastic consequences.

As a coincidence, my colleague Lars-Erik Janlert and I, will have an article in the ACM ToCHI in a few months where we explore interaction complexity and actually use the brake system in a car as a core example. I can't see any simple solutions or obvious things to learn from the Toyota case. Well, there might be one systems that have reduced complexity so they are possible to comprehensibly test.

In our article we discuss how less system complexity usually lead to increased interactivity complexity. For instance, ABS brakes move control from the driver to the system, since the brakes almost becomes an on/off digital button while the mechanical brakes relies on the exact (analog) pressure from the drivers foot. So, there is a design choice---safety in form of brakes that can adjust to the surface or safety in form of a brake system that is less complex? That is where we are today with many of our artifacts.

As a side note, I wonder how often old cars had mechanical problems that led to serious accidents? Maybe the problem is not that today's cars are less safe, of course they are not, but that the acceptance of malfunction is being reduced to a ridiculous low level.

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