Stolterman and Manovich: Round One

I’m going to lay claim to the Stolterman and Manovich question with some quick answers that I hope to flesh out over the course of the semester!

Stolterman comes from a phenomenological tradition. How do I know this? First, we asked him. Second, a great example comes to mind from his book Design Way in which Erik talks about how designers work with the “real” and not an objective “true.” Erik believes that designers can not penetrate the sensory “wall” we discussed and instead must work off of that perceived sensory data which is filtered through our particular “repertoire” (via Schon) which might as well be called our lifeworld or horizons.

Manovich seems to come from a more structuralist position. How do I know this? Let me count the ways.

1) A Google search reveals a nice document written by one Jeff Bardzell in which Jeff claims the following.

[referring to structuralism in HCI] structuralist analyses remain ubiquitous; a fine example is Lev Manovich’s Language of New Media, which explicitly disavows structuralism, before embarking on a project whose methodological reliance on structuralism is palpable (beginning with the title of the book).

2) The title of the book includes the word “Language” and as Jeff notes, that’s a pretty big clue considering structuralism was loosely born from linguistics.

3) By page 12, Manovich is describing a series of definitions (almost sound like rules) for language, object and representation. Language and object are core tenants of structuralism. Representation sounds a lot like syntax. Objects (words) acquire their meaning in relation (syntax) to other objects.

I’m sure by the end of the semester I will develop a better argument for Manovich’s structuralist approach, but I hope I’m on the right foot and that Jeff didn’t post that document to grief me. After all, it is located inside his image folder.


  1. jeffreybardzell

    You are a cheater. Let me count the ways.

    (1) You asked Stolterman, rather than reasoning it out for yourself. Tsk tsk.

    (2) You found that crazy old New Media Primer of mine, which I probably need to take down.

    (3) Your point 2 is explicitly redundant from the Googled quote provided in point 1.

    (4) You overrelied on syntax in your explanation of Manovich. OK, that’s not cheating; that just means I still have some work to do to explain structuralism. Just you wait, Enry Iggins; its coming.

    BUT–excellent post overall, detective. This is all on the right track. And ill-gotten gains are still gains, after all.

  2. Tyler Pace

    1) The bit from Design Way is 100% mine. Erik never brought that up!

    2 and 3) Neither you or I can prove which came first. My finding the primer or thinking “Language” is a pretty big hint at structuralism.

    4) 200 pages from now I hope to rely less on syntax, but in 16 pages it’s all I can authoritatively comment on given my current understanding of structuralism.

  3. Tyler Pace

    I should also mention that Erik does not like to be purely classified as a phenomenologist. He also mentioned strong roots in pragmatism and overall has a very holistic view of philosophy (relating thought traditions to musical genres) where he enjoys his right as a designer to enhance his lifeworlds by picking and choosing good thoughts from any tradition.

    Okay, he didn’t say lifeworlds but he was thinking it. I swear.

  4. jeffreybardzell

    Okay, he didn’t say lifeworlds but he was thinking it. I swear.

    And the fact that he was thinking it is evidence! Not to mention I have heard him say it many times. Seriously, phenomenology is a very large tradition with a lot of room in it. Even if he is broadly a phenomenologist, that doesn’t mean that he’s a Heidegger acolyte or somesuch.

  5. Dave Roedl

    Another dead give away that Erik works in a phenomenological world: his life work has been focused on the activity of design. Rather than studying and critiquing designed objects themselves (though I suppose he does a little of that) he primarily researches and writes about designers–how designers see the world and what designers try to do. According to The Design Way, from the tradition of design, change is viewed as a result of human intention. Erik has stated that a motivation of his work is to empower people to see the world in this way. Thus, he wants us reflect upon the role of human intention in shaping the world, whereas a structuralist would ignore this and focus only on the ‘syntax’ of the world as it is.


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