“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Intra-technological age (1/2 baked, but gotta get it out there)

I have had this idea in one shape or another for a few weeks now. It all started during the days of the heavy debates on the IAI and IxDA lists about the nature of our communities and the relevance if any to the term UX for me in particular and our total practice more generally. Where I landed is a very unstable place, but a place that has been getting constant shoring up by peers and circumstance.

I’ll just put on the plate the BIG DEAL.

Technology as a focus of attention of “design” is over.

What I mean by this is a lot broader interpretation of technology than meer computers and networks, but any medium: print, audio, structures, etc. One might even interpret “technology” to be “medium”. A strong statement, eh?

I believe that the Digital Age of the last period which is really the “Information Age” if not over, is waning. Wow! that’s a statement. As social networks are exploding and the application of technology to new situation seems endless, how can one make such a statement?

I am coming from 3 places:

  1. Not that technology can’t do great things.
  2. However, focusing on technology or medium’s will never lead to great solutions
  3. More will be done by applying existing technologies in new ways, or by transforming ourselves around existing technologies then any change created by wholly new technologies.

Some might think that I’m restating Robert Fabricant’s thesis from the Interaction 09 | Vancouver keynote he made where he made 2 bold statements:

Interaction Design is not about technology

The medium of Interaction Design is Behavior

But, in this half-baked blog post, I’m positing something more. I’m saying that “medium focused” design is flawed. That any design practice that defines itself first and foremost from its medium will always start in some way from the position of “what?” while in this day in age, the most important first question for designers should always be “why?”.

Are you asking “why?”

This notion also flies in the face of those who call themselves user centered designers who probably would say the first question would be “who?” I counter this charge on 2 levels. In this day and age where transformation against the “will” of the user is one of the primary missions of design’s largest challenges, “who” and “for whom” and even “why whom?” (motivations & goals) is secondary to the more dire goals of the planet, and society.

But putting that aside for a moment It is important to realize that there is something big going on. Industrial Design is changing. A design discipline who’s focus was on 3D form is now becoming THE design discipline focused on “why?”. It is the one next to IxD that is moving the Service Design, Sustainability, and Design Thinking elements in the design community more than anyone (just my opinion, but I’m stickin’ w/ it). It understands that “why?” is the only way to move these concerns forward. It’s not that there aren’t elements in other design disciplines taking on “why?” but I would argue with less vigor and total commitment. From IDSA, to Core77, to IDEO, frog design, etc. the very heart of ID practice and organization is focussing itself on issues of “why?”

Before this realization of mine, I was convinced that only IxD really dealt with designing for “why?” but even then too many of my co-practitioners are still way too interested in designing “what?” for “who?” But at the core of IxD is still the greatest message of “why?” I have seen in a single design discipline (if not practice).

At this point, this may be a bit disjointed, but I’m convinced more than ever that only through cross-disciplinary teams can “why?” ever truly be answered appropriately or well. Our pre-dispositions spoil us. We need to have reflection from other positions. Self-reflection is a trap, that is just a feedback loop. In the world of design this cuts in 2 different directions:

Verticals: Those who’s origins if not current practice focused on a specific medium. Graphic Design, Architecture, Industrial Design, Interactive Design, Fashion Design, etc.

Horizontals: Those disciplines that transcend all mediums and have been sussed out through the advent of networked computational technologies (that isn’t to say they are limited by it, but they were born from it). Information Architecture & Interaction Design

It is important that there are people strong in verticals. These people are necessary to be the craftspeople who can carve out the prototypes to model the solutions of tomorrow. It is equally important to have people strong in the horizontals who can guide the questions that are beyond mediums and answer the real questions of developing problem statements outside of technology and embedded in people.

So there are 2 parts of this half-baked thesis (Damn! I wish I had some 1/2 baked Ben & Jerry’s).

  1. We are in an inter-technology period where our biggest changes are going to come by applying existing technologies towards the goal of changing our organization: transformation
  2. Because of #1, we need to re-think the ways that design disciplines are organized both in academia and in practice.

It is this 2nd point that I’d like to tackle next:

I’d like to propose that all design schools change their organization (including my own). Due to the pervasiveness of technology, the tools and the solutions have led to a universal truism. No discipline of art or design is devoid of computational, networked technology. Ergo, having programs that focus on technology is meaningless for a design school. Technology should be considered foundational as much as color theory or art history to these programs. But also equally foundational is how to teach students to design from the “why?” Then, they can work on gaining practice in medium’s craft at higher levels.

I’d like to suggest 2 years of foundation where students learn traditional foundation, but then learn a new foundation:

  1. Research Methods: ethnography, evaluation, etc.
  2. Social Sciences: Sociology, Economics, Political Science, Psychology, Anthropology
  3. Business: Finance, Marketing
  4. Creative thinking
  5. Horizontal design: IA & IxD
  6. 3 Verticals: (Intros): Product, Communications, Interactive, Architecture

Then the next 3 years (yes, 3 years) of undergraduate education are a collection of studios that help a student either focus deeply on 1 vertical, or combine 2 to a level of relevant competency all the while applying horizontal design disciplines in either case.

Ok, this is as far as I can take this for now. I’m sorry for the hob-gobblin of ideas, but if I didn’t get this out of my head, I’d explode. Your help, insights, criticisms, etc. in helping me suss this out, would be appreciated. Be gentle though.

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  • Charlie Gongora

    this is my first time bloging in my life. so here we go….it is very interesting what is happening with design and the areas that technology have push in to the new disciplines as IxD and the other acronyms that I haven’t learn yet. However as in the industrial revolution call for new disciplines as Industrial and graphic design and maybe in those days them were consider horizontal disciplines.

    there is a concept of a T design that means a person has one vertical specialty but manages an horizontal discipline as well companies as IDEO ask for this kind of profesionals. the disciplines that they ask for are even more broad, like industrial designer and antropology, or a social network guru with economy. and I think that is becuase they can understand better the whys. that whappens as well is that whys involve whos and whats.

    I am an industrial designer and when I learn what my discipline was I learned that a product can be either an object or a service I learned as well that in order to understand truly the whys interdisciplinay teams are the best and they are conformed for T people. I will continue later this a tornado is about to hit

  • http://capcloud.com Martin Polley

    Hey Dave,

    More will be done by applying existing technologies in new ways, or by transforming ourselves around existing technologies then any change created by wholly new technologies.

    But doesn’t new technology open up whole new vistas, enabling behaviors that were not even possible before?

    I’m not sure Gutenberg envisioned newspapers and the great dissemination of timely information that they provide when he invented the printing press. He wanted to make the bible more widely available. But without this new technology, we wouldn’t have newspapers or books for the masses.

    Sure, without applying the technology in new ways (as you mention), we wouldn’t have things like newspapers.

    But my point is that you need both. Without the new (arguably technology-driven, rather than user-needs-driven) technologies, you can’t apply and adapt these technologies to people’s needs.

  • dave

    @martinpolley I’m not saying we should stop the invention of new technologies. I’m saying that mediumcentric design disciplines like graphic, product, arch, interactive are not useful or helpful.

    But I do think we are in a point in history where technological additions are going to have a backseat to organizational transformation as the major point of innovation. We are not anyplace close to finding the next guttenberg. One could actually say that we have been on a slow trail from Stanford & PARC for the last 40 years with very little relevant technological innovation/creation, the exception would be chip technology advancement which enables the former. But the cellphone, the GUI, even the hyperlink were well understood decades ago.

    The other part of my thesis is that no one design discipline “owns” the digital domain, or owns “technology”. Technology as we now call it is a by-product, or a veneer on everything we do. Info Tech especially is just there. Call digital technologies “technology” in our vernacular today is as absurd as calling the internal combustion engine technology.

    Like I said, the ideas aren’t all fully formed, yet. ;)

  • http://capcloud.com Martin Polley

    But beware the Black Swan. A new technology could come along tomorrow that will change the world in completely unforeseen (and unforeseeable) ways.

  • http://brsma.de Sascha Brossmann

    Dave, one might actually wonder how taking the conceptual step back and pose some questions first instead of getting blindly to work right away would still be worth discussing. At least considering that this has been the educational standard practice in quite many (i.e. most that I know of) “better” institutional programmes since many (at least 15–20) years [1]. And not regarding the type of educational curricula that is obviously more committed to producing well-behaved worker bees for the more or less “creative industries” who just do. Which is admittedly not my personal preference, but still fine by me as long as the people themselves are happy with it. No need to evangelise – the different kinds of design practice may coexist quite well in my opinion. It should just be made clear, which one is talked about. As far as I understand you are trying to address the first kind which could be described e.g. as reflective, conceptual, inquisitive, …

    Over here in Germany, for example, this kind of practice has been taught for already quite long. Not necessarily broadly, but nonetheless. It has partly been there at the Bauhaus, mostly during the time in the late 20ies when Hannes Meyer, who was more interested in social processes than in “pure” architecture, was heading it. It has definitely been there, and quite massively, at the HfG (Hochschule für Gestaltung) Ulm. As a matter of fact, large parts of what you are trying to describe above heavily remind me of the conceptual foundations of the HfG from the 2nd phase on (after Max Bill left). You might want to have a closer look at what happened there, including what went wrong. And you might want to have as well a look at what Gui Bonsiepe (who had studied at Ulm) has tried to achieve at, when he headed KISD (Cologne) from 1993–2003. Especially as most people I talked to about it consider his discipline-agnostic concept (or at least the particular implementation then) mostly a failure. One of the main problems: over-generalisation and lack of focus (which for many students translated into lack of guidance and resulted in lack of depth, both in skills and otherwise).

    Soemthing else: I still would like to argue that Fabricant’s thesis of behaviour being the medium of design is either nonsense or irrelevant. The fuzz currently being made about it (IMHO more a tempest in a teapot) actually slightly puzzles me, given the obvious fallacies with this line of thinking. The whole idea is SO overly general and hence so unsuitable for differentiation that it does not get you anywhere. There are, e.g., just so many other (professional) human activities coming to my mind that deal with the behaviour of other humans: behaviour is as well the “medium” of design as of your run-of-the-mill sales clerk, politician, journalist, educator, executive, law-enforcer, … Where is the DIFFERENCE resp. what makes one? Needing to _consider_ behaviour does not mean _designing_ it. Admitted, you may and propably should quite well design _for_ behaviour (including cognition). But your _medium_ is still something else, then. Bonsiepe has tried to argue that all design in the end was interface design[2], defining “interface” more generally according to Maturana as a “structural coupling between information/artefact and human body”.[3] One might not totally agree here, but still be able to conclude that _choosing suitable media_ and(!) _giving form_ to them could be _the_ indispensable parts to every design practice. And still so if it is driven by concepts and abstract processes (including modeling those).

    Sorry, I’m running short of time & can’t elaborate further for now.

    [1] Including the one I went through, and where I am now also teaching

    [2] Bonsiepe, Gui: Interface – Design neu begreifen, 1996 (transl. “Interface. An approach to design”, 1999)

    [3] He further employs some Heideggerian terminology (which I might not be able to translate sufficiently well ad hoc) to differentiate between something which is “vorhanden” (available/at hand), and which design could turn into something “zuhanden” (ready-to-hand).

  • dave


    Thanx for the thoughtful reply. It underscores a few things for me that is so interesting. How insular IxD is in the US. Our deeper connection to euro-design is sorely lacking.

    But in this regards can you tell me more about YOUR background. I feel that understanding the audience helps me better compose the appropriately worded or targeted response.

    — dave

  • junu

    Thanks for the article Dave…I just wanted to write some thoughts in response…

    I think Technology IS a medium. The people that know it best are actually are people that make stuff with it (coders, hackers/tinkerers…etc) or are familiar with it enough to imagine new uses and possibilities. Just like how the Eames used injection mold technology to design new ways of sitting. And just like how Frank Ghery used aerospace CAD systems to design his building surfaces. Or how John Maeda imagined new ways to use code to visualize information. Designers are always in the craft of finding new ways to use technology–new or old.

    So in talking about mediums I think if interaction designers had a craft (of their digital medium)–it would be prototyping (flash, physical computing…etc). And if I were to go to a school for interaction design; I would choose to learn the medium as best as possible (the code), on top of the traditional design process and methods for defining and developing the ‘Why’. If I only knew the ‘why’ part of design, I’d be a ‘design thinker’, writer or interaction design manager.


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