Saturday, December 9, 2017

getting centered



I am presently reading LeonardoDa Vinci written by Walter Isaacson which has reminded me once again of the long history of ‘human focused’— i.e. humanistic—inquiry reaching back to the ancient Greeks and beyond. The Renaissance period bracketing Leonardo’s lifetime was a time when humanism was rediscovered as a focus for human agency and inquiry after a long period of neglect. The most recent interest in ‘user centered’, ‘customer centered’, and ‘human centered design’ (IDEO et. al.) is just a faint echo of those earlier periods of human centered literature, art, and engineering etc. The recent emergence of interests in ‘(something) centered design’ is an opportune time to look more closely at what the intentions of such centering of design activities are. Additionally, it is a good time to think about what may be desirable additions to such centering strategies in the future.

There are several frames of reference for depicting design centering activities nowadays that are often treated as indistinguishable from one another (see fig. 1 below) when not oppositional. But it is more helpful to see each approach as uniquely fitting the intentions of the designers involved, and the contexts and the environments of their designing behavior.





fig. 1 approaches to centered design


At present, some of these approaches are being used with ‘success’—that is success as defined or assumed for each strategy. But the world is becoming more complex and people’s expectations for dealing with complexity in competent and beneficial ways grows as well. Traditional centering approaches to designing, which are presently the norm, need to be augmented by approaches that better fit the complexities of rapidly changing realities and the growing expectations for better, more sustainable and desirable designed outcomes.

Normative centering approaches to design:

‘Artifact centered’ design is well developed having been established and expanded as a result of the consumer societies that have grown over past centuries because of advances in the practical arts, applied sciences, and engineering—including the industrial revolution. The focus here is on instrumental objects and organizational systems that provide functional assistance to utilitarian systems and individual enterprise. The Anthropocene Age is the result in great measure of this focus.

‘Human Centered’ (e.g. ‘consumer centric’) design has grown exponentially over the past few decades providing consumables, technologies and services to customers. These products and services are designed to ‘fit’ people ergonomically including social ergonomics. They are also expected to be transitory due to progress or changes in taste. They are meant to appeal to people and are not valued on their own.

Nascent centering approaches to design:

‘Human’ Centered design focuses on the self-organization of an individual’s growth and development. The focus results in well-rounded humans in general and in competent professionals (e.g. designers) in particular. This focus—not the same as the selfie centered focus so popular nowadays—is on attending to self-interests and self-improvement. Self-awareness and introspection are the primary instrumental means for action at the heart of this centering approach. The ‘design of a life’ and concomitant skills and abilities is exemplary of this approach to centering design.


‘Human-Centered’ design focuses on the creation of ties or bonds between and among people in social systems and social networks. The focus here is on the design and operationalization of ‘rules of relationship’ or protocols between or among individuals. Synergies and emergent properties are the consequences of these systemic interactions.


‘Purpose Centered’ design focuses on intentionally determining and setting the directions and outcomes of design cohorts working within the boundaries of their social contexts and environments.


‘Life Centered’ design centers on the creation and maintenance of emergent, essential properties for living systems made viable and whole. It is the basis of intentional evolution made possible by the freedom to steer change rather than merely react to change.


Where to locate the locus of centered design is the key question. Centering should not be positioned by only looking ‘at’ situations or things. Centered design is most effectual when applied at the conjunctions of constituent elements or parts of complex systems and assemblies. The loci for effective designing lie ‘in-between’ (see fig. 2) where relationships, links and connections occur.




fig. 2 conjunctions ‘In-between’


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Chapter in Major Online Reference

A chapter I have authored, The Promise of Systemic Design, will soon be available in a major on-line reference work:
AECT-Springer Online Major Reference Work (MRW) 
An online Major Reference Work (MRW) co-sponsored by AECT and Springer entitled Learning, Design, and Technology: An International Compendium of Theory, Research, Practice and Policy has been launched covering topics concerning research and practice related to the design, development, implementation, and evaluation of learning environments, instructional systems, and performance technologies. This is an ongoing effort with an evolving collection of contributions that have been peer reviewed.  

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What's the 'trick"?



Many articles on Steve Job’s tenure at Apple have focused on the mystery of Job’s approach to his work. The articles are representative of the ongoing desire to uncover the recipe or secret sauce that made Apple’s products so dominant in the market place. The focus on design is often mentioned as Apple’s essential core competence during the Job era.

Job’s character is often critiqued, but mostly the center of attention is on trying to discern his—i.e. Apple’s—design approach, processes and methods during his time at the helm. As a popularized guess, ‘design thinking’ has become the normative category to use when referring to these or anyone’s methods or approaches to successful designing. That was not Job’s approach but ‘design thinking’ has taken on a life of its own.

‘Design thinking’ in fact has become a highly touted approach for businesses and governments to take whether focused on products or services. ‘Design thinking’ is being pushed in text and video as the strategy for solving complex dynamic problems faced by business and governmental agencies in today’s admittedly complex and rapidly changing world.

However, ‘design thinking’ is not the same thing as design inquiry, or design action—i.e. designing—and this confusion has serious consequences. ‘Design thinking’ is defined as a set of steps that, when followed, guarantee good outcomes by revealing the right solutions for clear problem statements—an ideal bureaucracy. However, designing is not primarily about solving problems. It is about something quite different.

By taking a problem focused approach to design, leaders, decision makers and stakeholders constantly skirt taking responsibility and accepting accountability for their decisions and actions by focusing on externalized methods, thus avoiding the courageous by grasping for the certain. Rollo May’s classic The Courage to Create and Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces are examples of an alternative perspective of what it means to be courageous and willing to take risks and why.

Courage is not the same as the aggressiveness acted out in office politics and political governance. A deeper look into what courage can be provides an alternative perspective to the solitary, command and control individual. It is dramatically different from the kind of ‘take charge’ hero of popular culture that is the anathema of those championing the dominance of the group over the individual—in the process, diminishing both. Both May and Campbell provide a view of the systemic interdependency of courageous individuals and their essential connection to the well being of collective lives.

Few business or governmental leaders are representative of this type of interdependent heroic figure and it seems their constituency like it that way. Most everyone colludes in demanding a risk-free environment—no risky decisions, and no accountabilities or responsibilities. People in charge are happy to collect their rewards for following prescribed rules, routines and approved procedures; arriving at the right answers, just like we were shown how to do in grammar school.

As Russ Ackoff points out, panaceas are ever in demand in business, governmental agencies and other social organizations. One look at a typical Harvard Business Review’s table of contents reveals that the dominant focus is on numbering—numbered steps, numbered categories, numbered certainty. We all like the safe feeling of limits set by solid numbered sequencing. A methodological certainty that saves us from having to take responsibility for our making sense of the chaos we face daily and making difficult judgments about what actions we ought to take in any situation—all without having guarantors in place to protect us from failures and unintended consequences.

Design is about courage and not about guaranteed outcomes. It is about competency, skill, ability, and character, brought into the service of others—clients, stakeholders, society and the greater good. It is a ‘conspiracy’—a breathing together—of people who understand the true nature of the challenge and the necessity of taking it head on without a bag full of ‘tricks’. There are plenty of people with bags of ‘tricks for treats’ that feed the need in organizations and institutions for easy, accessible and certain approaches to overwhelmingly complex challenges. One of my favorite political cartoons by Danziger published in the Christian Science Monitor several years ago, caught the spirit of our political and business leaders’ habit of always looking for ‘the trick’ rather than looking to themselves for the courage and competence to become designers of the real world.




Saturday, September 2, 2017

Design Intelligence

Without knowing exactly what ‘intelligence’ is, the term is used liberally nowadays especially in relationship to ‘computer intelligence’ aka ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI). It seems fair then to initiate a discussion concerning ‘design intelligence’ (DI) in this context. Design intelligence is a form of ‘human intelligence’ (HI). DI is not as studied and discussed as AI, which is a concern. Design intelligence is what makes us human. Other forms of intelligence may be shared by animals or machines but DI is our distinguishing competency.

The world is flooded with news concerning ‘artificial intelligence rivaled only by news about big data. The push for big data is pretty clearly economic while it is not as clearly the same for AI, although there are obviously mercantile interests present. There are warnings about the dangers of AI to human welfare  and there are questions about the challenges of being human in the presence of ubiquitous AI.

It was drilled into me when I was a young student that it was unacceptable to anthropomorphize nature and technology. But computer technologists nowadays speak freely and openly about computer ‘intelligence’, ‘learning’, ‘brains’ and ‘minds’ as well as making statements that AI machines are ‘smarter’ than humans. This type of technology has two strategies that guide its development in general. The first strategy is to replace humans because they are inferior while the second strategy is to augment human disabilities and short-comings.

‘Human intelligence’, which is inclusive of ‘design Intelligence’ and the multitude of other types of intelligence as postulated by Howard Gardner, is essentially absent from the technologic feeding frenzy fueled by AI and big data at the moment. It is necessary, however, to pay attention to the distinctions between DI—as a domain of HI—and AI to make sure that both are developed equally and to strike a prudent balance between them in applications. 

Expanding on the metaphor of finite and infinite games developed by James Carse the distinctions between DI and AI are seen to be significant:

Computers play finite games                   Artificial Intelligence         AI
Designers play infinite games                  Design Intelligence            DI


Significant differences between the two become more apparent in the absence of obfuscations from anthropomorphic references. For example, computers are limited to appearing to be intentional while designers are intensional

DI           intension & intention          direction / aim / purpose / outcome
AI           intention                                purpose / outcome



Designers set direction for human endeavors while computers primarily assist in maintaining direction and helping to realize intended outcomes. AI is not superior to HI or DI because they are fundamentally different in character and cannot be contrasted and compared as if they were mere alternatives to some more fundamental approach. DI brings the world of AI into existence. The accountability and responsibility for what kind of AI is designed and innovated ought to be that of DI. Too often the genesis of AI is obscured by market forces and technologic determinism. The wringing of hands over the danger or threat of AI as well as the hyping of its promises needs to be balanced out with the presence of reflective design intelligence—DI.