Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Service design performances at Parsons DESIS Lab, March 2011

Guest post: Derek Miller: Design Ethics for International Peace and Security

This is a guest post by Derek Miller, founder of the Policy Lab and senior fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). The Policy Lab provides research and design services at the policy, organization, and field-levels to reduce barriers, create conditions, and design solutions for strategic engagement with local communities. It is the successor to the Security Needs Assessment Protocol (SNAP) project of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva (2006-2010). The SNAP project was an innovation initiative to explore the potential for best process approaches to the design of local action on security matters by UN operational agencies. With Derek and his colleague Lisa Rudnick, and ethnographer Gerry Philipsen of the University of Washington, I co-organised a three-day conference on Strategic Design and Public Policy at Glen Cove, NY, in June 2010, the brought together specialists from design, policy and cultural research to explore the idea of bringing local knowledge to the design of local action in the context of security and disarmament.

Design Ethics for International Peace and Security
October 2010

Lecture delivered to the University of Gothenburg, Business and Design Lab, 6 October 20101
by Derek B. Miller

Thank you for coming today. I hate it when I’m booked into a large room and no one comes. I have to suffer the double indignity of talking to myself and then having my own words echoed back at me.

My thanks as well to professor Ulla Johansson, whom I met at a conference in Cleveland on the convergence of design and management.

I do want to discuss a topic that I believe is important. It is not a topic I have seen addressed in any great detail or with particular urgency, and yet the topic deserves both. If we to boil it down to just a phrase, I’d say the topic is design ethics, and my particular concern is better ensuring that the ever-closer relations that design is forming with public policy is informed by the necessary seriousness of mind required to achieve some real good in the world. Underlying that aspiration is also a concern. The concern is that failure to do so could mean that we actually cause a harm.

As designers look towards ever-new domains for social innovation, especially in public service, it would be wise to ensure that this aspiration towards social betterment is guided by the tutored consideration of our actions and their impact on others.
My perspective on design comes from outside the field looking inward. My vantage point for reflecting on design has been Security Needs Assessment Protocol project at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. Started in 2006, SNAP was an innovation initiative into the design of community-level peace and security projects and programmes by the United Nations. I designed and ran that programme with Lisa Rudnick.

SNAP was supported by the Swedish, Dutch and Norwegian foreign ministries and its purpose was conceptualize, design, and test new ways to A) generate local knowledge at the community level and B) turn it into a strategic asset in the design of local-level interventions. Our work was thematically concerned with community security — that is, attending to matters of violence — though the applicability of our work extends rather farther.

Recently, I’m pleased to say, the 22nd Biennial of Industrial Design (BIO 22) being held at the museum of Architecture and Design in Slovenia selected SNAP as one of the “good practice examples” in the field of Service and Information Design to recognize this innovation in bringing social research, design, and international peace and security closer together. I’d like to add that our introduction to the field of design was assisted by our colleagues at Live work in London and Oslo. This wasn’t a client relationship but rather, since 2008, has been an on-going conversation into the relationship between our professional domains. Our conversations with Lucy Kimbell at the Said Business School at Oxford further contributed to our induction into the profession of design. Those conversations continue.

The process of bringing together the professional domains of socio-cultural research, design, and international peace and security was a revealing exercise. And today, albeit briefly, I want to share a few things it revealed. The center of gravity for this discussion might be termed “responsible design.” The framework for considering responsible design is the topic of ethics.
To discuss this properly, I find it helpful to begin with a distinction. The distinction is between an ethos for doing good, and the ethics of doing good. An ethos is a general orientation, or set of guiding principles. It is like choosing a direction, like facing east rather than west.

Many designers today, especially the younger generation of designers, want to do some good in the world. They no longer seem satisfied simply creating objects of desire for profit. This is laudable. But for the good intentions of the design profession to actually result in some good, it is going to be necessary to carefully attend to how we design. Design is both a social process, with implications for others who are participants to that process, and also brings something new into the world that may have social force. Attending to both matters responsibly will be essential as the field moves forward.

This is especially true as design steps into the wider world of international peace and security — given that the issue here is not consumer value but life and death.

If an ethos is an orientation, then ethics is the set of rules we establish and enact to guide and judge to our actions.
There is some limited discussion about ethics in design, but in comparison to codes of conduct in, say, anthropology, architecture, and medicine, one would be forgiven for finding them undeveloped. Design ethics appears to be under-theorized, and under- codified given that design research is now crossing the borderline into social research, including ethnography, which involves research with or on human beings. It is worth recalling, for example, that since 1947 and the establishment of the Nuremberg Code, the voluntary consent of people to research has been treated as “absolutely essential” by many organizations. Though written in direct response to medical experimentation, design research is now stepping into a world, as mentioned, where the process of learning, and the outcomes of learning both have social implications. It is time to turn an eye towards the ethics of design research.

Perhaps even more importantly, design is also stepping into the area of social action, through such activities as social innovation, whereby the outcome of a design is a social change in the world. This invites a rather obvious question. What, exactly, is guiding your conduct? It is a profit motive that allows the market to regulate value? Or will you uncritically adopt the mandates and missions of the organizations that hire you? Will you trust your own inner voice to lead to you to proper conduct, or will you endeavor to determine what common ethical grounds can be created for cooperation? How will you do that?

We are not going to solve this today. But we can take some preliminary steps to map out the terrain that we are going to face. That terrain is conceptual. It is a place of ideas, and the relations between ideas that in turn guide our actions. Clarity is helpful in that regard. So let’s first try, for just a moment, to conceptualize and situate design in continuum between knowledge and action.

Close your eyes for a moment. Try to remember the world before Powerpoint. Imagine two circles beside one another. They do not touch. The circle on the left will be labeled knowledge. The circle on the right will be labeled action.
What is the relationship to be between knowledge and action? And where does design fit in that relationship both conceptually and procedurally?

In my field, of international peace and security, we can actually see the institutionalized distinction between knowledge and action. The university system and think tanks, policy centers, and research NGOs constitute the “knowledge sector.” They get money from governments to go generate knowledge and then bring that knowledge across the street to the decisionmakers in the operational agencies as well as to the politicians. These latter people are the decision makers. They are the consumers of knowledge. (If we’re lucky). This is not ideal, but it is real.

Those who generate knowledge are welcome to advocate for certain types of actions. But ultimately, it is the elected leaders, representatives or the civil servants who will really decide. (I’m speaking here about liberal democratic systems, and the international institutions modeled on them. That might not be the whole world, but it is that part of the world that cares about design.)

Notice how something interesting has happened here. One of the inadvertent functions of democracy is to keep knowledge distinct from action. Action is to be a product of democratic choice, and bureaucratic implementation, not professional knowledge.

That is, action comes from decisionmaking, and decisionmaking is a political process, subject to political correction. You don’t like the decision, you throw out the decisionmaker and elect another one. Design exists only in debate. Not as a process for moving knowledge to action.

What is absolutely crucial to understand here is that the legitimacy of actions by decisionmakers — whether they are policymakers or civil servants — is derived from the political philosophy of democracy itself. Liberalism. The social contract. Self-government. We the people. That sort of thing. That is why it’s OK for them to do things to you. Raise your taxes. Tear up your roads. Go to war on your behalf. Change your health system. Legitimacy, in political processes, is presumed by the system. Is not a product of the system.

Here’s what’s good about the democratic model: It allows for, and creates, systems and processes to try and ensure that the will of the people is expressed in the action of decisionmakers — whether at the highest or lowest levels. Said differently, social action is meant to be derived from democratic processes. Insofar as democracy is good, social action will be legitimately enacted.

Here’s what’s bad about it: There’s no mechanism for good designs to be introduced into the system, because no one is really wondering what to do. When answers are dictated by political processes, people don’t entertain a lot of questions. Instead, they are given platforms, mandates or missions to fulfill. Because that’s what people want. The knowledge-to-action nexus simply does not create space for design process.

So is that end of the story? If there’s no design space in public policy, isn’t that the end of the road for design?

Actually, no. I think it’s just the beginning. And here’s why. The times are changing. Deep in the bowels of democratic nations, the very definition of legitimacy is starting to evolve. People don’t just want a voice anymore. They don’t just want to elect people who will advance their will. They are starting to demand results.

If at one time governments simply had to make hard decisions about peace and war, the economy, and other matters, today, the systems into which they are making decisions is so complex, so non-linear and dynamic, that sheer force of will and character is no longer enough. Climate change, global terrorism, the depletion of fossil fuels and the energy crisis, the shortage of clean water, the threat to the nation-state system in most of Africa and the Middle East, the breakdown of almost every social service including transportation, health, and education... these aren’t decisionmaking issues. They can’t be solved by leadership alone.
These are design issues. They require tutored and fastidious attention to the process of both generating knowledge, and moving it to action through processes of design.

I think the door is opening for design if we conceptualize design as a process for moving knowledge to action in innovative, rigorous and ethical ways. Design is the application solution for knowledge.

It's time to go back to the circles. I want you to push those two even farther apart now and make space for one right in the middle. And we will label that one “design.”

If we see little space for design in public policy due to certain philosophical premises in democracy — which become manifest as routines in bureaucracies — we do see comparably more space for design between knowledge and action in industry, where results somehow depend on the design of solutions to problems. Here, legitimacy isn’t presumed. It’s earned.

It is no wonder, then, that designers and business leaders are thinking that design can now be applied to public policy.
After all, if people want results, and we design results, it should be a pretty smooth transference of skill sets. And so, with energy and a whole lot of money, design is stepping into the unknown and promising that it can lead.

And yet, for those of us who are serious researchers and are serious public policy people, one can’t help but sense a certain loose relationship between design today and the simple notion of rigor.

I had a professor at Oxford who once said, “the less you know about something, the easier it is to develop a theory about it.”

As design moves away — or at least broaden from — its creation of objects of desire to social processes and systems, it is reaching a point of creative tension with its own premises. These premises are challenged as it steps into new domains, and also as it steps into new cultural systems. Premises about value. About utility. About rationality. About social relations. Even about the very nature and use of time.

This is a wonderful moment because design now has a chance to step through the open door being offered by the re-imaging of public services and government. It is a formative period too, because the directions you set out on will have profound implications down the road as the paths further diverge. Get it right, and design will take it’s place between the philosopher and the king at the high tables of social influence. Get it wrong, get distracted, go the easy route, and design will be a trendy, marginal field that could never gets act together.

My concern right now — as I advocate for design in public policy — is that the field is adopting some rather under-developed theory at what seems to be alarming rate, at a very formative moment. In the rush to be useful, to be seductive, to be creative, to be responsive, the professional field of design might be taking shortcuts that will lead it quickly to irrelevance. There could be a “design bubble” developing and it could pop.

One way to avoid this is to not mistake the panic of industry to find new ideas with the quality of ideas its finding. Panic buying tends to push the price of ideas, and therefore the investment in them, down. In a panic, any old idea will do.
However. If the goal here is really to achieve some social good in the public service, lead design into a more socially influential future for the greater good, and actually mainstream design at the nexus between knowledge and action, then we might just need to slow down, and grow up.

Those are two odd requests for design because, historically, it hasn’t needed to. But as design looks towards public service, and as business looks towards emerging markets, fragile states and conflict zones, business as usual is going to get people killed.
That’s not a mere turn of phrase. Here are the topics I deal with at UNIDIR, in no particular order. Small arms and light weapons, landmines, conflict prevention, crisis management, post-conflict reconstruction, peacebuilding, weapons collection, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants, crimes against humanity, child trafficking, gender-based violence, conflict analysis, conflict sensitive operational programming, and that’s just the small stuff. Add biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, weaponization of space, terrorism and counter-terrorism, state fragility and just basically war, and we’re starting to fill out the topics that come up on Monday mornings at 11 at UNIDIR’s staff meetings.

These are real, grown up issues that need real, grown up attention by people who are committed — professionally – to trying to figure out what is wrong with their own ideas, and not what is right about them. Designers are worryingly not involved in that process. Design is trying to prove itself, rather than disprove itself. It is the latter, though, that will serve the social good.

Allow me to explain. What my don at Oxford meant by his quip was that every idea seems like a good idea until you learn what’s wrong with it. And generally speaking, you learn what’s wrong with it by trying to.

There is a very strong school of thought in science, and I count myself in this camp, that believes we cannot truly prove things. What we can do, however, is disprove things. We try to figure out, not what’s right about a given course of action, but what’s wrong with it. If you turn it over and over and over again in your mind and can’t think of anything, you give it a go. We haven’t proved it’s a good idea. But we’ve hopefully weeded out the worse ideas and in doing so raised our confidence in the course of action we’ve chosen. Karl Popper is a key reference here.

Today, design does not seem to be centrally concerned with building theory or processes that can be disproved. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be interested in process at all. It seems to be interested in thought. And yet, thinking and acting are not the same. If one can engage in “design thinking” then it stands to reason that one can have “design thoughts.” But ... now what?

The problem with so-called design thinking is that it is about just that ... thinking. Mapping out — or just speaking metaphorically — about ways of thinking is not the same as producing systems, processes or frameworks for mobilizing thought to action.

Design thinking — though a catchy slogan to be sure — is not a developed analytical concept, is not distingusiable as a means of thoughts from other forms of thought, and let me go on record saying it is not a “methodology.” In the words of Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there. If it cann’t be distingusihed, defined, enacted, or falisfied, I’m not sure what it can do other can sparkle and hypnotize.

For “design thinking” to be worthy of serious consideration, rather than just rhetorical appropriation, it will need to evolve into an actual analytical framework that tells me something about the world, and in turn allows me to differentiate it, genuinely, from other forms of thinking. Right now, it doesn’t. In a nice blog entry at the Harvard Business Review, Peter Merholz (9 October, 2009) shared a smiliar lament. He wrote, “We have librarians, and historians and fine artists. All of these disciplinary backgrounds allow people to bring distinct perspectives to our work [in business], allowing for insights that wouldn’t be achieved if we were all cut from the same cloth. Do we need to espouse ‘library thinking,; “history thinking,’ and ‘arts thinking.’” Merholz was right to call this absurd and to point out that design thinking is merely clever repackaging of some social science — but sadly, not good social science.

The reason this troubles me, rather than just distracts me, is that “design thinking” is directing creative attention away from the pursuit of intellectual clarity, and the progression of design as a serious endeavor. And part of that failure is ours. Ours as a design community. And at this point, for this reason, I will include myself among this world of designers.

Our collective failure to demand clarity from ideas — especially when our ideas lead to actions of moral consequence — is an expression of moral weakness. It takes courage to demand clarity. To stand in front of the masses and say, “I don’t understand. You are going to need to explain that again.” And an idea continues to make no sense, we must entertain the notion that the fault is not ours. Some things in the world are wrong. And it requires courage to say so.

I would like to see a new contract formed between design and public policy. But only if that contract is well written.
I want to end this presentation by briefly mentioning what we’ve done to establish a new agenda and programme of work for design and public policy.

In June of this year, the SNAP project at UNIDIR, in cooperation with the Said Business School at Oxford, and the Center for Local Strategies Research at the University of Washington, hosted an agenda-setting event called Strategic Design and Public Policy. It included top thinkers and practitioners in cultural research, design, and international peace and security. It put together a real and serious agenda. It is not as shiny as some of the other things on offer today. But I assure you, isn’t dull either.

In considering those three circles again, it is now clear – following that event – that there are serious issues between and among all three of these thematic areas that are going to need attention if a new model for legitimate and socially beneficial design is to be developed. We need to step away from metaphor and mystical thinking, and get serious about strategic design.

The Strategic Design and Public Policy agenda, created at Glen Cove in New York, explicitly notes the theoretical, methodological and practical gaps between the generation of knowledge and its application to design processes, on the one hand, and the integration of design processes and products into public policy on the other. We view these as matters for attention, and challenges, not obstacles.

In the discussion that drew the event to a close, participants from cultural research, design (especially service design) and public policy suggested next steps as an agenda for strategic design and public policy. These steps are already being implemented in at least half a dozen organizations including UNIDIR at the UN, the University of Washington, and live|work, among others. It is a detailed agenda, but there are four categories for action.

These are:
1. Supporting cooperation to develop new methods, tools and practices to learn more about each others’ ways of working;
2. Developing resources for cooperative action;
3. Promoting awareness of strategic design and its value for public policy and programming; and
4. Pursuing solutions for social betterment through social action.

This cooperative agenda opens possibilities for research, design, and public policy to start working in closer synergy in a rigorous, ethical and systematic manner to build the foundations we all need to take more confident action for the public good. And I hope you’ll join us.

I’m delighted to speak here at Götenberg on this topic, and my hope is that is the beginning of a conversation and not the end.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Making Crafting Designing, 2011

Image: Dials showing different levels of near real-time twitter activity in several locations, British Library

This is a short summary of the MakingCraftingDesigning symposium held in February at the wonderfully-named Akademie Schloss Solitude, near Stuttgart, organised by Sarah Owens (Zurich University of the Arts) and Björn Franke (Royal College of Art, London). Attended by around 100 people, mostly from design schools in Europe with a sprinkling of others, the event was particularly enjoyable in the way it ranged from discussions of design thinking and practice to questions of new sites for human activity in creating the artificial such as bio- and nanotech. By drawing such a huge canvas, I think the organisers succeeding in raising some big questions about whether the term design is useful to cover both the former and the latter. As usual please be aware I may have misunderstood the speakers and any mistakes in presenting their ideas are mine.

Richard Sennett (New York University/London School of Economics) is a well-known sociologist, recently fashionable among designers because of his book The Craftsman, which asserted the importance of material skills and practices within a range of contemporary contexts, not just those we call 'craft' industries. Sennett gave his keynote on the first night, giving some insight into his next book which he had just finished. The basic idea seemed to be about the difficulty and critical importance of co-operation in the contemporary world especially getting along with and working with those we don't like or understand. Sennett made a distinction between the dialectical and dialogical underpinnings of cooperation and also between sympathy and empathy. Acknowledging difference was an important part of this thinking.

The rest of the symposium took place the following day. Sarah Owens and Bjorn Franke gave an introduction explaining a series of distinctions they wanted to make between making, bricolage, crafting and design, the latter seen as detached from specific design disciplines, with a higher level of abstraction than the other three terms, and a greater level of planning and awareness of the possibilities and consequences of productive action.

Rick Poynor, a well-known design writer and critic, kicked off the day with a wide-ranging review of key developments in design over the past decade. He mentioned four, starting with Design Thinking in its various, not-always-complementary instantiations including the Kyoto Design Declaration, Tim Brown's book and Roger Martin's book. He noted "There's a lot of stories we could tell about design but Design Thinking is the one getting attention." Second was Critical Design which for Poynor started with Bruno Munari, author of Design as Art (1971), as well as Jan van Torn, about whom he has written a book, and Dunne & Raby. The point of critical design, he thought, was to make it clear that design is loaded, and to reveal the codes by which it is produced and consumed. The third theme he noted over the past decade was design criticism, with a wide range of print and now online journals and sites for discussion. As a co-founder of Design Observer, Poynor knows what he is talking about - a fast-changing, urgent hunger to make sense of the worlds we have made and which make us. Finally, Poynor raised Design as Politics, the title of Tony Fry's new book, which offers an important challenge to how design is currently understood within and without design practice and education. (Rick's description and photos of the environment in which the conference took place is a beautiful read.)

Next up was activist (in Reclaim the Streets) and cultural theorist Stephen Duncombe (New York University). His talk "The Art of the Impossible: The Politics of Designing Utopia" reminded us of one important aspect of design and art practices - creating artefacts that fire the imagination. He talked about how Thomas More's Utopia was both satirical and sincere. The point, he said, was that if a designer or writer leads you into an imaginary world, you begin to question what is normal or absurd. The self-conscious absurdity built into More's Utopia is a prompt for the reader - what is proposed is so ridiculous that it has to be modified, and this is the starting point. Contemporary examples he gave of people doing this included Julian Bleecker, and the Yes Men. "These impossible dreams open up new realities..they ask what if, without seriously saying, this is what...They are models that stimulate invention...left out for all of us to imagine with..."

Next was my talk, Designing Future Practices, which I will publish below. This paper speculated that what designers are designing is future practices.

Susanne Küchler (University College London) is an anthropologist whose background includes extensive fieldwork in Papua New Guinea and Polynesia but who has been studying contemporary design more recently. Kuchler reminded us that in ethnography, researchers repeatedly ask "What difference does something make?" She emphasized the long-standing preoccupation with material artefacts that is part of anthropology which has revealed something about how designs shape cultures. But now, she said, maybe it is the end of any idea of there being a unified idea of design because of the advent of new materials. She described the recent development of materials libraries and where these come from and what they are doing. There are new materials that have been designed and developed way before a product design or architecture project might happen. Materials scientists and engineers are involved in inscribing properties into new materials that in a way makes design proceed in a particular direction - design before design(ers). She asked what kinds of thinking and making environments do we need in the 21st century to liberate ourselves from the stranglehold of existing disciplines? And how can we develop a language to engage with scientists who are designing things that design? Since I mostly notice the intersection of design and anthropology focussed on designing new things/services/organisations, it was fascinating to hear an anthropological discussion about design that focussed on the thingness of materials before designers get their hands on them.

Alas at this point, the adrenaline had worn off and I was less focussed on the presentations by the next speakers, to whom I apologise. One was by philosopher of science Alfred Nordmann (Technische Universität Darmstad). He described how technoscience is trying to do things that exceed the imagination but result in the creation of mundane things in the world that evade rational control. His concern seemed to be challenging to the idea that technoscience can steer human nature in planned and predictable ways, something that I would hope designerly designers would be modest about. Finally, Oliver Müller (University of Freiburg) used the idea of Homo Faber to reflect on the implications of biotechnologies that support to enhance humans. By interfering directly with our biological selves, he suggested, we are the craftsman, tool, and product all at the same time.

Designing future practices

Notes for talk for MakingCraftingDesigning, Akademia Schloss Solitude, February 2011

Lucy Kimbell
Director, Fieldstudio
Associate fellow, Said Business School, University of Oxford


The question I want to pose today is, what is it that designers are designing when they do design? We think we know the answer to this because it’s clear that many designers design things: stuff. The tangible and digital objects that are part of day-to-day life.

But in the past decade something has been happening in professional design practice, and in other fields that traditionally we didn’t think of as design, that makes it important to revisit this question.

There are design agencies that say they help tackle big social challenges. There are design entrepreneurs who set up new ways for public services such as the police to engage with the public. There are consultancies using design-led approaches to design new social ventures to reduce dependence on the state.
There are multi-disciplinary teams who say they use a design process to re-think environments, products, experiences, and curricula for schools. There are people working in international security who want to work with professional designers to redesign disarmament programmes within the UN context using local knowledge to design local action. And of course there are conferences and workshops at which people come together to try to make sense of all of this.

Ways of thinking about what designers design

First let’s review some of the different ways of thinking about what designers design.

1. The first is the artefact-centred approach. This is embedded in the ways that most Western design education is currently taught, as you can see from this slide from a well-known art and design school. This institution offers post-graduate courses based on different kinds of designed thing, from communications to textiles to products.

Although there are projects and indeed courses that challenge this convention, with moves to “post-disciplinary design” or to a generalised “design thinking”, the artefact-centred categorization is broadly true. To be more accurate, the focus of design is not just an object, but the object and a user’s engagement with it. An echo of this object-based division of design is the idea of there being “four orders” of design which are signs, things, interactions and action (Buchanan 1992; 2001).

However there are a number of problems with this approach. The most important is that a focus on specific types of thing, such as a toothbrush, can miss the situated nature of our engagements with designed things in relation to many other things in our social worlds. Taking one type of artefact and idealised user in isolation from the practices and contexts that link it to many others, amputates many of the important sets of relations that make things meaningful and purposeful.

2. A second way of thinking about what designers design is to say they design systems. This has been developed by scholars and practitioners influenced by anthropology and sociology over the past two decades. Key names here are Pelle Ehn, Winograd and Flores, and Lucy Suchman, and others working in the communities known as participatory design and Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), working mostly on the design of computer-based systems. Their insights came from studying not just artefacts – although those are important – but what people do with them, in spite of them, around them and in relation to them. The focus on users’ work practices shifted attention away from artefacts to the idea of designing systems that are both social and technical. An important idea here was that agency was distributed – it wasn’t just the user that mattered (privileged by a humanistic or rational approach), or the artefact (as hoped for by some designers), but rather the integration of people and things in places in relation to many of other socio-material arrangements that constitutes the world of design.

I cannot hope to summarise this huge body of work. But I will refer to a paper from 2008 by Pelle Ehn, in which he does so, and directly addresses the evolving object of design. Using Wittgenstein’s language games, Ehn talks about design games and focuses on two kinds of game. The first design game is what happens in design projects, when the focus is design-for-use before use. The tradition of Participatory Design with which he was very involved in developing has a strong focus on designing with people and understanding their uses of things. The second design game takes place after a design project, at what Ehn calls “use-time”, when the designers are finished with their work, and are possibly even dead, but still people are using their designs. Thinking ahead to use-time, the object of design is then to create design games which users will engage with in their own ways, understanding that this can never be final or complete.

Although this is useful, there are still questions to explore. One is how to conceptualize in more detail design-after-design: what happens when users engage with designs and infrastructures after project time, at use time; and what happens when they engage with artefacts in quite different contexts to the ones the designer imagined and designed for. A first question is working out an analytical category that helps us think about what that future use is. Can we talk about designing design games when the actors are extremely dispersed in time and space? A second question is, how do some kinds of usage stablise and become routine? A third is, how do different timeframes affect the idea of designers designing design games for design by others after design?

3. In search of ways of understanding this better, I have been drawn to work by scholars in the social sciences who offer another way of thinking about the social world in which designers design, specifically theories of practice. Key writers here are Theodore Schatzki and Elizabeth Shove, drawing on earlier work by thinkers such as Bourdieu, Foucault, Giddens and also Heidegger.

Now, Ehn’s work is centrally concerned with use as practice, based on the idea that it is through our practices that we construct reality. Further, he says “As designers we are involved in reforming practice” (Ehn, 1988: 147). But he stops short of saying this is what designers design.

In what follows I will aim to show why thinking about designing future practices offers something useful to theories of design, and suggest what the consequences might be.

Designing future practices

The proposition I want to explore is that what designers are designing is future practices. I want to see what the opportunities might be of thinking of design in this way.

There is not time to go into practice theory in detail. One important idea is that practices are made up of several elements, which cannot be taken in isolation. Andreas Reckwitz (2002) describes practices as “a routinized type of behaviour which consists of several elements, interconnected to one another: forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, ‘things’ and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge” (Reckwitz 2002: 249). A second idea is that practices are dynamic – they can change over time as different elements change. A third is a focus on routines – the repeated, mundane activities that constitute the social world.

As Elizabeth Shove has pointed out in her work on the environmental impact of everyday practices of consumption, new designs for power showers lead to much higher individual water consumption at a time when authorities in many countries want us to conserve water. But instead of looking at bits of what goes on in showering in isolation, Shove argues that we understand how the contemporary practice of showering has come to be – combining both materials, stories and images, and knowledge and skills. Trying to change one of these, without attending to the other entwined elements of the practice, is, she argues, unlikely to be successful.

The idea of practices, therefore, presents a way of ordering what happens in the future in relation to designed artefacts. It shifts attention away from infrastructures or design games that some designers had a hand in designing. In the future, at use time, there are people and their bodies and minds engaging with stuff within particular sets of relations, which constitute particular meanings. Design is always unfinished because practices mobilize artefacts and people and bring them into new kinds of relation with one another.

Ways of revealing practice

Most designers don’t think about their work in this way, although there are inklings of it. The consultancy IDEO, for example, talks in terms of cell-phoning, rather than cell-phones. But in general the default concepts in contemporary design practice are things, users, and contexts, but not social structures and ordering.

I want to offer up an artefact from professional design practice, which is heading in this direction, specifically the customer journey map created by designers of services.

Service designers see their work as concerned with designing all the tangible and intangible elements of a service, both the digital and material touchpoints and scripts within the service encounter. Although service designers do not talk in terms of designing practices, all the elements I outlined earlier are there in the customer journey map – there are people, minds, knowledge, stories, artefacts, structure and agency. The customer journey map is not the only artefact that is required to do this design work, but it is one that tries to articulate the multiple dimensions of using a designed thing in practice, and understanding these routines to be situated, embodied and relational.

I think this view of what designers design is relevant not just to designers of services but to designers of products, communications, buildings and also policies and strategies. It does not diminish the need to pay attention to artefacts – far from it – but it understands the meaning, value and effects of artefacts to be constituted in practice in relation to bodies, minds, stories and knowledge.

Practices presenting a choice

I said earlier that Ehn’s work was based on the idea of practice but that he drew back from stating that designers design practices. For Ehn, what designers design are cultural-material design games (1988; 2008). The context of his early work was a Scandinavian approach to system design that found ways to involve workers in the design process for political reasons. This involved doing system design differently to serve the users – to make the resulting computer artefacts work better in relation to people’s work practices ie to design new computer artefacts that fit with practices, and sometimes creating new ones.

In contrast, Tony Fry (2007; 2009) has argued designers should design new practices to change habitus, to use Bourdieu’s term. Fry’s concern is how design is implicated in making an unsustainable world. Designers need to understand the effects of their stuff on the world and their role in reproducing a way of living which is not sustainable, and to change it into one that is. His response is to propose a “redirective practice” with the ambition of designing another habitus, so that as humans we have a different way of being-in-the-world.

So here is an interesting dilemma – whether to design future practices that are based on how people are now, as Ehn argues, or whether to design future practices that change how people are in the future, as Fry suggests. The former comes out of a Scandinavian commitment to a particular kind of democratic participation; the latter emerges from a deep concern with whether there will be a future in the future. Both are political but have a quite different set of implications.

Clearly there is no right answer to this, but even framing the question highlights the importance of design’s role in world-making.

Implications for teaching and learning and practice

Briefly, I finish with some suggestions about how this approach might change how designers practice and how they are educated.

Although some designers have been moving towards a kind of dematerialized design thinking or to trans-disciplinary design, away from objects, people still need to design stuff. So my proposal is, that designers design stuff but understand the objects they make to be part of existing practices or involved in creating new routines in the future that are unfinished, contingent and, importantly, to some extent unknowable.

The practice-based approach affects how designers of stuff conceive of what they are doing in these ways:
1. It draws our attention to how new designs can create new meanings, knowledge and skills, and potentially new ways of being in the world.
2. It highlights the unintended consequences of designs, which cannot always be known in advance, yet for which designers might consider themselves accountable.
3. It emphasizes the dispersed agency of the various actors that constitute future designs: and makes the designed stuff always in relation to other stuff and people.
4. It raises questions about the time-frames over which designers’ work has effects.

How to bring these ideas into teaching and learning? I speak as someone who for over five years has been teaching exactly this approach to MBA students taking my elective in design. As managers and entrepreneurs, these students are already doing a kind of design activity although they rarely think of it like that. They design products, services, projects, ventures and organizations which create new kinds of practice involving both bodies, minds, things, agency and so on, disrupting existing practices and seeking to modify or replace them with a new kind.

Among other things in my class I
(a) Disrupt the conventions of the lecture theatre arrangement designed for Harvard Business School style case teaching by having students arrange themselves as they want to around the room creating visual artefacts together in teams, a symbolic disruption of one form of education by another;
(b) Create opportunities for people from non-design backgrounds to understand the importance of material artefacts in organizations and their various instantiations as products and services within organizational practices; and
(c) Give them opportunities to use designerly methods such as mapping the service journey or visualizing the service ecology.

Whether this approach is taught to MBAs or to more conventional design students, one important question is then what kinds of knowledge are required. I would say a passing knowledge of sociology and anthropology is essential now that design has realised it is profoundly social. But if you trawl the websites of design schools, the Venn diagram you usually see shows intersecting circles labelled “design”, “business” and “technology”. Ignoring the social worlds in which designed artefacts acquire their value and meaning is a weakness in much current design education.


To conclude, I have argued that although we still fall back on the idea that designers design stuff, it’s more than time to bring in work from Participatory Design, CSCW and other design-based fields that have drawn extensively on anthropology and social studies of science. The contributions here have included attending to users’ work practices; to see agency as distributed; and to be concerned with thinking about design-after-design at use time. I then explored work from theories of practice that offer a slightly different way of thinking about the things that designers design emphasizing routinised ways of doing things – the habits that we take up and the habits that take us up. I believe this is a resource for designers – whose stuff already has unintended consequences. Thinking in terms of future practices offers one way of bringing these more directly into view. However whether designers want to change practices to serve people better, or change practices to change people, is a question that designers must answer for themselves.


Thanks to Simon Blyth and Cameron Tonkinwise for their feedback on earlier drafts.

Note: This essay is likely to be revised considerably for the proposed book which comes out of this conference. Comments welcome.