Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book note: "Design Research Through Practice-from the lab, field and showroom"

I often complain in  this blog about the lack of books in the field of design thinking and research. I know that many would not agree with me since they would argue that new books about design are published all the time. That might be true, but at the same time very few of these new books contribute to an overall understanding of design, even though they can be both interesting and useful on a more concrete and practical level.

A new book that tries to do both is the book "Design Research Through Practice-from the lab, field and showroom" by Ilpo Koskinen, John  Zimmerman, Thomas Binder, Johan Redström, and Stephan Wensveen.  The authors have taken on the task of putting together knowledge that take "a bird's eye perspective" on the growing academic design research field, while at the same time being useful in the practical teaching of design at a more advanced level, and to add some understanding about the scientific method in relation to design. This is a very ambitious goal or goals.

With such ambitious goals it is difficult to fully succeed. To be both theoretically informed, rooted in practice, and relevant to both research and practice is challenging. I admire the project and find it highly inspirational.  I find that overall the authors have been able to do what they set out to do, even though I find the book to also have some issues. The book answers to some extent to the purpose that the authors mention. It is highly practical and it does relate and ground the text, concepts, and suggestions in research.  However, it is also the case that many things are very briefly introduced, defined and explained. Many sections are so short that when reading them it feels as if you only got the abstract. At the same time, the book covers many different aspects of design research.

The authors introduces many highly valuable ideas, concepts and techniques that are all clearly based on practical experience and they situate them in a larger context. They discuss the value of lab and field research and they introduce the notion of the showroom, all as valuable tools in constructive design research.

Overall, I find the book to be valuable, especially for MS and PhD students who are engaged in some kind of design research. The authors offer good arguments and support for using methods and techniques that are not necessarily common and accepted in more traditional research but are useful for design research.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The need for theoretical and philosophical books on design as a "big" thing and the passing of Kees Overbeeke and Steve Jobs

I have earlier written on this blog on topics similar to this post. The reason for writing about it again is my four latest blogposts. They are all about books that approach design as a "big" thing. These books examine design as something at the same level as science and art and of the same importance. There are of course many books out there about design and that has the word design in the title, but so many of them are about some specific approach, skill, competence, or tool. This is all good and well but in times when design is seen as the approach that will save business, a much deeper understanding is needed. And we do not have enough books at that level. We need many more. Write one.

When Steve jobs was asked about what design is and what his "obsession" about quality was all about, he answered something that supports the idea that we need more books that can provide a language and an understanding. Steve Jobs answered "“We don’t have good language to talk about this kind of thing,”

and he continued

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service. The iMac is not just the color or translucence or the shape of the shell. The essence of the iMac is to be the finest possible consumer computer in which each element plays together. ... That is the furthest thing from veneer. It was at the core of the product the day we started. This is what customers pay us for — to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.” [my italics]

Jobs gives a condense and distinct definition of what design is all about in this quote. To me, this is an extremely brief theoretical and philosophical formulation of design at the level we need to see more of.

My post is also triggered by the passing of Kees Overbeeke. Kees was one of the most influential thinkers when it comes to design as a "big" thing. He did see design as an alternative approach to change in its broadest sense. He did not hesitate to take on big questions and topics, such as "fun", emotion, or aesthetics. He did inspire many and we will miss his insights. He did write about his thinking but unfortuntely what could have become his major book presenting his understanding of design in its deepest and broadest way will never be written. And this at a time when we really need books from thinkers like Overbeeke.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

New MIT Press Book series on Design Thinking/Design Theory

For quite some time, my colleague and friend Ken Friedman and I have worked as Book Series Editors for a new book series with MIT Press. The book series is called Design Thinking/Design Theory. This is an exciting project. Ken and I have read many proposals and discussed many ideas for books from prospective authors. It has been fascinating to see what authors want to write about and how different the notion of design can be approached. Many are willing to propose a book, but few have what it takes to actually finish a manuscript.

So, today I got the first published book in the series in my mail. It is a highly interesting book by Thomas Binder, Giorgio De Michelis, Pelle Ehn, Giulio Jacucci, Per Linde and Ina Wagner. The title is Design Things.

More books in the series are on their way. If you have a book idea that would fit this series, let me know.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

How to define design

I have mentioned here before that all signs are telling us that our reality is becoming more complex. While we humans spend more and more time making our reality into something that resembles or fulfills our dreams, it becomes more connected, more intertwined, more complex. The question is if this new reality, this complex mess, is easier to understand and to design for than the old "natural" and "simple" environment.

It is clear that complexity is quickly becoming the new research front in many disciplines. Complexity is the new challenge. It seems to emerge anywhere and all the time. There are of course also many ideas on how to approach complexity in a way that can "tame" it and make it manageable, maybe even possible to manipulate and work with (for a good discussion of the "nature" of complexity see Donald Norman "Living with complexity"). This is all good and well as long as the purpose is to study, describe, and maybe predict the structure and behavior of complex "things". But when it comes to design, complexity has a different meaning and practical consequences and has to be dealt with in a different way.

In the article "The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research" I argue that there is distinct difference between what is commonly seen as complexity in a scientific way and what can be labeled design complexity. I also develop the argument that we make a huge mistake if we try to solve design complexity by applying the methods used in science. In the article I show why a design approach is needed when we attempt to design for and within complex systems.

One reason why a scientific approach does not work when it comes to design complexity is that by reducing a problem at hand to something possible to deal with, with the general principles of the scientific approach, we will not reach a rich enough understanding of the whole "system" from a design perspective. There is no possibility to be comprehensive in design or science, which of course mean that we always will deal with some unpredictability. The more we try to handle complexity by making it "tame", contained, or less complex the more we might end up designing based on an understanding of reality that is way too simplistic.

Design is always about the whole, it always involves all possible aspects of reality. It can never be reduced or limited in order to be more precise or "correct". A designerly approach to complexity is therefore very different from the scientific. This insight seems to lead to many definitions of design where design is described as the opposite to the scientific approach, that is, what it is not. This is why we can find so many definitions of design that defines a design approach as not rational, logic, and linear. This is very unfortunate. Design is rational. Design has a logic. Design is linear. That is not the difference. The difference is that design has a different rationality, a different logic and linearity. To advocate design  should instead be done in a positive sense, that is, what it is. In the article mentioned above, I make some attempts at doing that.

I is definitely possible to define the logic of design and the rationality of design. It is also possible to define what validity and rigor means when it comes to a design approach. Any designer knows that you have to be rigorous in your approach. More work needs to be done to formulate design as a rigorous, logic and rational approach.