Do we dare design anything?

Disclaimer, this was sitting in my unpublished drafts for at least a week or more. Sorry about that.

OK so my title is alarmist and/or tabloidish, but honestly after listening to Jeff’s lectures this week, I am fairly convinced by his syllogistic logic. The tools used to create “amateur” media (and mainstream media too, but we’re not in telecom) today significantly shape what kinds of things are produced. Amateur media shapes mainstream media. Mainstream media affects our society profoundly. Follow that through, and it almost makes you not want to design unless… oh the power! But we should only use it for good, right?

On a slightly more serious note though, it reminds me of some of the topics that have been coming up in Erik’s Theory of Design Class, this kind of very real concern can lead to analysis paralysis or value paralysis. No matter what our concerns, how important the issues involved we need to find a way to continue on with the project and design.

So how do we take these kinds of issues seriously AND not get paralyzed, and create good designs?

Yet another tension the designer must deal with I suppose, I will follow up with more on this later in the week.



  1. jeffreybardzell

    You’ve set up the problem like a champ. Now take off your gloves, and get in there!

    Stick your neck out and actually offer an answer to your question:

    So how do we take these kinds of issues seriously AND not get paralyzed, and create good designs?

    Alternatively, if that is too much to ask (it might be), then offer us some thoughts on ways we might approach such an answer. Surely people who make films, write novels, develop elementary school curricula, and produce the news also struggle with these issues. How do they deal with them? How much of that is applicable to HCI?

    Get off the sidelines! (Note: this applies to all of us!)

  2. laurabrunetti

    One thing that I’m still trying to wrap my head around and come to terms with is that technology has inherent qualities as I always used to say something along the lines of technology being a tool and that it is people and the way it’s used that make it “good” or “bad” etc. Now I’m beginning to see how the argument for things having inherent qualities do indeed affect the intended result and so as designers we should be aware of this. But maybe just the fact of being so comfortable with a belief I held for so long (solidly founded or not) makes it hard for me to give it up.

  3. laurabrunetti

    By the way, all that thinking and questioning is the direct result of having had to read Erik’s book (Thoughtful Interaction Design), just so you know where I’m coming from.

  4. jimmypierce

    It’s an excellent question, Erin, one I think we all think about often and that can easily lead to analysis paralysis and value paralysis. I personally I like the solution Erik provided in the HCI Theory course: Just Do It! That is, the answer to your question is that we DON’T take the kinds of issues seriously, at least not all the time. It’s the whole reflection-in-action thing, when your thinking is mostly in response to local moves regarding the situation at hand, not these larger, global issues.

    That’s the first part, at least. The second part is doing things like asking the question you just asked — stepping back and trying to look at the whole picture in order to inform future actions. It’s that whole reflection-on-action thing.

    Of course then we come right back to where we started… Still, I think this is the whole point. You do stuff. You think about the stuff you did. Maybe you think about how you thought about the stuff you did. But eventually, you ARE going to just do it, at some level.

    Personally, this is why I love design — you work at so many different levels and it’s all meaningfully related. As Stolterman and Lowgren put it in TID, “Design deals with profound and existential issues in a very tangible way.” As designers, one minute we are working close to the ground, creating a particular software interface. The next minute we find ourselves going all meta, considering the long-term global impact our particular interface will have on the world. Although personally, I feel we need to see more of the latter, both for the benefit of our global collective fate as well as our individual satisfaction and enjoyment.

  5. chmbrigg

    Yep, this is a fantastic question. My recent take on this is an extension of what others have nicely stated here – that as designers we must get in there and do it.

    1. To NOT design is a commitment just as much as TO design. And if people like us who are concerned about doing “good” in the world don’t design things, then others who are concerned with other things will certainly do it instead (and they do, to be sure). This is of course an oversimplified take on a much deeper moral question, but i am sure you all get the point.

    2. Once we get in and start designing, as Tim stated, the imperative for the designer is to reflect and adapt the design as quickly and as often as possible. An extremely apropos theory emerged out of the partnership between Chris Argyris and Donald Schoen, who did a lot of work in “Action Science” and “Learning Organizations” – specifically centered around a very very powerful (and best of all simple) concept called “double-loop learning,” which is designed to promote “reflection in action” for individuals and for entire organizations. For the designer, the more frequently our process includes this double-loop learning (questioning or core assumptions or as the theory calls them “governing variables”, rather than just the strategies we employ to support those core assumptions), the more quickly we can avoid catastrophic design outcomes.

    A nice concise overview of the concept can be found at

  6. chmbrigg

    A quote from Argyris/Schoen about their theory. I think the analogy to the designer or design team is fairly obvious:

    “When the error detected and corrected permits the organization to carry on its present policies or achieve its presents objectives, then that error-and-correction process is single-loop learning. Single-loop learning is like a thermostat that learns when it is too hot of too cold and turns the heat on or off. The thermostat can perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and take corrective action. Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.”


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