Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Something Old About New Design Ideas

Last night I found a post by David Armano about a recent Bob Jacobson speech, promoting a new approach to Information Design: "Designing for Experience." [links to these are below]

As I've said elsewhere, there's not much fundamentally new about these ideas. We can save ourselves from endless theoretical wrangling if we invest a little more energy in a pragmatically philosophical education.

Philosophers like John Dewey, William James, Charles S. Peirce, and A. N. Whitehead (who've been neglected by the profession, in favour of more analytical approaches, that have almost nothing to do with real life), worked out many of the same theoretical problems that businesspeople and designers are just now struggling to articulate for themselves.

Let me clarify. I'm talking about "the same theoretical problems." We're on our own when it comes to creating practical solutions. But when we're dealing with the degree of uncertainty and change as we are now, it's impossible to think in just practical terms.

But people's thinking has been spoiled by the economic growth of the last half-century. People haven't had the time, need, or objective distance to think about the biggest and hairiest problems of life -- those involving metaphysics and epistemology -- to the degree that many people (including, or especially, professional philosophers) have argued that such problems aren't important, and that we can't or shouldn't think about them at all.

Contemporary philosophy doesn't say much about the "big" American thinkers and their work, so normal folks like you and me just assume that philosophy doesn't have anything to offer.

But since I've been fortunate enough to be unsuccessful in my career, I accidentally stumbled upon the great American philosophers a few years ago, recognized their relevance to our current problems, and decided to get my education through them (and through my own creative responsibility) instead of passively subjecting myself to a conventional graduate program.

Compare Jacobson's speech (or just Armano's excerpt) with these lines from from Dewey's Art as Experience (1932):

"It is significant that the word 'design' has a double meaning. It signifies purpose and it signifies arrangement, mode of composition... The characteristic of artistic design is the intimacy of the relations that hold the parts together. In a house we have rooms and their arrangement with respect to one another...."

"Only when the consituent parts of a whole have the unique end of contributing to the consummation of a conscious experience, do design and shape lose superimposed character and become form. They cannot do this for long as they serve a specialized purpose; while they can serve the inclusive purpose of having an experience only when they do not stand out by themselves but are fused with all other properties of the work of art."

"... In art the forces that are congenial, that sustain not this or that special aim but the processes of enjoyed experience itself, are set free."

Far out man.

[Update: ... Not that I believe that my pointing this out is itself anything new. Bob Jacobson certainly knows it isn't. I've been looking at his writing at Total Experience some more, which I'm really impressed with. And at the end of this piece he says that experience designers who can "incorporate an appreciation of spirituality into their work... might be... The Next New Old Thing."]


Steve said...

Brian - Dewey certainly hits the nail on the head. I also think that philsophy turns into action when the market demands it. Experience design is hitting mainstream because corporations are starting to realize that they can charge premiums for an experience as opposed to their products or service alone.

Brian Frank said...

Thanks Steve. That's an insightful way of putting it: "philosophy turns into action when the market demands it." (And I have a feeling Dewey said something about that somewhere too...)