Friday, May 20, 2011

BOOK COMMENT: NIgel Cross "Design Thinking"

Nigel Cross has for a long time been one of the most prominent researchers of design. He has a background as an architect and industrial designer but has mostly been doing research on and about design. His notion "designerly knowing" has had a great impact and influenced many design thinkers. He has also been instrumental in fostering international design research institutions, such as the DRS. He is also the Editor in Chief of the influential journal "Design Studies".

His new book "Design Thinking" is just out, ironically at the same time as Bruce Nussbaum has claimed that design thinking is dead. Over the last few years there has been an enormous interest in "design thinking" especially in some parts of the business and management community. Design thinking has been seen as an approach to innovation that can radically change business as usual and that can transform organizations to be able to act and respond quickly to new demands and challenges in a creative and designerly way. As always when an approach gets this kind of attention it also rather quickly becomes a fad, it loses it richness. Many over-simplified interpretations are spread by those who see the new approach more as a business or consulting opportunity than a substantial new philosophically sound and knowledge-based approach. Anyway, the people and especially researchers who for many years have studied design as a distinct approach for thinking and action are of course still working and producing new insights and knowledge that are far from being simplistic or a fad.

In this new book Cross is bringing together a lot of the existing research, solid research, that has been done on how designers think and act. This research is not just individuals reflecting on design based on their own subjective experiences but produced by people who have conducted serious studies of designers in interview studies, experiments, case studies, observations, etc. Cross goes through a lot of this research and shows how the findings from many of them have led to similar results and can be seen as providing the base for a more overall comprehensive and coherent understanding of design. 

The book is an excellent summary of good design research in the field. And Cross does a good job in identifying some common patterns from the individual studies he draws upon. The book is highly valuable for anyone who is interested in design thinking and who wants to know more than just some over simplistic journalistic versions found in popular business settings and in magazines. Cross also provides a good source of references to the actual research he references.

At the same time I have some problems with the book. These problems do not at all reduce the value of the book for what it is, but should probably more be seen as a wishlist from me for what it could also be.

My issues about the book comes from the perspective of someone who has a very similar understanding of design as Cross and is also doing research on the nature of design. To me, the book is unfortunately very short and each aspect of design thinking is treated briefly and not in the rich and developed way that I think is needed for it to leave a substantial contribution to the field. To me the book does not really provide any new theoretical or conceptual understandings of design that extends the sources that Cross uses. The conceptual structure of the book and the writing is also more textbook like than offering any conceptual or theoretical framework of how to understand design. This also means that there is nor really any argumentation going on in the book where opposing views and interpretations of design is examined. The text becomes quite neutral and reporting. Even though the book must be seen as primarily reporting on empirical studies of design thinking, I do miss references to more theoretical and compositional attempts to understand design thinking, such as the fairly recent books by Krippendorff, Dorst and Lawson, Nelson and Stolterman, and others.

However, even with these critical comments I am really happy that this book is out. This is one of the first books that takes on design thinking based on research knowledge and studies (even if this is to some extent also done in Lawson & Dorst). This focus on empirical studies of design sets the book apart from many other similar books that to a higher extent try to promote or sell design thinking as a (simple) approach to innovation and change built on an over simplistic understanding of design thinking. Cross shows clearly that design thinking, and to act in a designerly way, is a highly complex process that has it own rich logic and rationality that requires training and a developed understanding of the design process itself. Design thinking is not an approach that anyone can just decide to pick and use, it is not a simple prescriptive program for innovative thinking. Instead it is a complex and rich approach that requires theoretical and reflective thinking and also intense practice and training of skills and competencies. Designerly thinking is as specific, particular, and demanding as scientific thinking and Cross shows some of that complexity and richness in the book.

I think anyone who is engaged in design of any kind should read this book. The book will help us all to make a good argument when design thinking is challenged and questioned or even stated as being "dead".

Monday, May 16, 2011

BOOK COMMENT: Richard J. Bernstein "The Pragmatic Turn"

The philosophical tradition that I have always found most appealing and suitable for the kind of work I do is pragmatism. This philosophical theme has been around for about 150 years and include famous thinkers as Charles S. Pierce, William James, John Dewey, and George H. Mead, on to present days representatives such as Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam. Of these thinkers, Dewey and Rorty are the ones that has captured my attention over the years.

In a new book, Richard Bernstein goes through the history of pragmatism, how it emerged, who was involved, how pragmatism is related to more traditional schools of thought such as the analytical tradition and the continental. Bernstein is himself an important contributor to pragmatism and has influenced many, especially with his book "Beyond Objectivism and Relativism"(1983), a book that influenced me a lot when it was published. I read it with great interest and learned a lot.

The new book "The Pragmatic Turn" is interesting and full of exciting exmainations of how philosophers have influenced each other over time and how pragmatism can be seen as closely related to other schools of though, and individuals such as Wittgenstein. especially the first chapters are interesting and of course the last chapter that focuses on Rorty. However, overall I found the book a bit disappointing. It did not really give any deeper insights into pragmatism, even though the historical perspective do bring some new understanding to its role and place in the history of philosophy. But I did not really find the book to help me to further develop my understanding of pragmatism. It is more rewarding to read the main thinkers own texts, especially Dewey and Rorty.

Pragmatism is maybe the most suitable philosophical -ism for design theory. It would be great if someone would like to write a book on how pragmatism and design are related and how pragmatism can support and strengthen design theory. The best attempt so far is of course the works by Donald Schon who was himself a trained philosopher and who wrote his dissertation on John Dewey. The ideas and theory of Schon is therefore a good example of how pragmatism can lead to great design thinking.

Friday, May 13, 2011

CHI 2011, the field, development, grand challenge, and the need for more books

Back from this years CHI conference. This time in Vancouver. Bigger than ever before. Amazingly well organized for a conference of this size.

CHI is changing. It is not easy to really understand what the changes are when you are at the conference, but compared with just a few years ago it is easier to see that there is a difference.  The conference is broader, more diverse. I had the chance to go to several sessions and it is exciting to see that not only is the diversity growing but I also found the quality in general to be better than usual.

One clear change to me is a new interest in theory. I was very pleased to see a design theory session filling two large rooms, and so did the more theoretical design methods session. I hope that this is a sign that the field is getting more eager  to find ways to synthesize findings and results from all the studies, experiments, and designs projects.

A field of this size need people who can bring things together, who can conceptualize, theorize on a level of abstractness that covers the whole field or at least larger parts of the field. To me this also means a strong need for more books. The field produces a lot of books already, but they are mostly textbooks or focused on a particular issue, method, or technology. This is of course fine an also needed, but we do need more general books that in more philosophical terms can help us all to find ways to think about the field, what we are really doing, what we should do, and what we should strive for. For this to happen, we need many more theoretical investigations into the core and foundation of the field. This is of course not done by one person in one book. This can only be achieved if many thinkers in the field in their own way contribute their view of the field. A field can only develop when there are a certain amount of friction between different and diverse sets of theoretical views.

At the moment it seems as one way of coming up with conceptual maps of the field is by looking at the sessions at CHI. I met people at CHI who count sessions in different areas and compare to earlier years as a way to determine if and how the field has changed, even though the session design is not a result of any deeper reflection of the field or the content of the papers. However, counting of sessions is one way of developing an understanding of a changing field. It would though be more valuable to have a spectrum of different interpretations of the field by people who take on the task to create  overall theoretical understandings of what is going on.

So, to repeat what I always argue for, we need more books. We need books that allow for broad philosophical and theoretical descriptions and interpretations of what HCI and interaction design is all about. Books that deal with the major issues of how a field like this can stay current, make a contribution to society and be relevant. I don't only see this as something needed from within the field, it is also something that I truly believe is lacking in the society at large. Since  interactions between humans and digital technology will continue to grow and will without a doubt influence every corner of our society and peoples everyday lives, our field should be able to contribute some grand ideas and grand theories based on the perspective and the knowledge that we have developed over the last thirty years. The interactive society at large would welcome theories about what is going on, where it is going, if we as a field took that larger challenge in a serious way. I do not see any other field taking on this challenge....