Erik Stolterman at CMU

Erik Stolterman has been visiting Carnegie Mellon for the past few days, during which he gave a lecture on “The Design Paradox – and the nature of design research.” The premise of the talk, aimed at HCI researchers, was that HCI research, which is mostly aimed at improving design practice (his assumption), does not seem to influence practice. Hence, the paradox.

But the design paradox was not what interested me most. I was more intrigued by his argument that HCI researchers need to understand the nature of design; and for that matter, that designers themselves need to better understand what they are doing. Why? It helps practitioners to make the case for what they do. A more developed theory and philosophy of design will help designers recognize what they do and help other people understand that. This happens to be the basic premise of my thesis paper.

So what is it that researchers and designers themselves don’t understand? The rigor, logic, and discipline of design. “A good designer understands the rigor and logic of doing design in a disciplined way,” Stolterman says. After the lecture, I asked how we can better understand the rigor, logic, and discipline. He did not have an answer.

Nevertheless, the co-author of The Design Way had some great points about the nature of design and how it is different than art and science. In fact, Stolterman said he puts design on the same plain as art and science.

“Design is not art, design is not science, it’s its own tradition. It’s a choice to use design. An approach to change the world.”

As an approach, he argued, design gives us results that the other approaches don’t deliver. Design is set up to deliver unexpected outcomes. If we knew what we wanted, we wouldn’t use design, he said. Further, in understanding design, you must accept the complexities of design practice: mind set, knowledge set, skill set, tool set. In addition, must accept that design is mind and hand: sensibility and judgment; craft and skill.

He also provided a simple definition for judgment, which was great for me because I have been struggling to understand what this means in the writing of my paper. He said judgment is being able to recognize good quality. Now if I could just explain simply how a designer develops judgment, I’d be set.

As for interaction design, he said it is one of the most important fields in our society today. I got goosebumps when he said this, then quickly turned skeptical, then appreciative.

One remark that I didn’t understand was that someone who has no knowledge of the nature of design can move through the design process successfully. I thought I misheard him because it seemed like he was saying the opposite of this: that you need to understand the nature of design to move through the process successfully. This is a question I have pondered in my thesis.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity today to ask him to clarify the remark when he dropped in on our thesis meeting. Yes, he said, you can go through the design process without understanding design and be quite successful. But his belief is that understanding the nature of design will make you a better designer. I think I both believe this and disagree, and presume it will be on my mind for a while.

Overall, I really enjoyed the talk, even though it was very familiar. If you’re interested in these ideas, I recommend both The Design Way and Thoughtful Interaction Design, both of which I am referencing in my thesis.