Good IxDers borrow, great ones steal ….

When you’re knee-deep in wireframes or CSS it’s all too easy to end up in a bubble of IxD books and blogs. One option is to take inspiration from vintage art and nature, but what about what other smart people are doing in their respective disciplines? In other words, why not steal from them? Here are my picks of a few other fields with ideas worth appropriating, or at least glancing at.

Social Sciences (Anthropology, Sociology)

Easy pickings: Genevieve Bell, Michael Wesch
If you’re keen:
Erving Goffman, Bruno Latour, Claude Levi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, Joseph Campbell

Why: Social scientists are starting to get noticed by IxD, whether they’re being hired by top technology companies (Genevieve Bell at Intel) or keynoting at conferences (Michael Wesch at the 2008 IA Summit).

Their training (by the way, anthropology deals with people and cultures, while sociology focuses more on the structures and systems of society) specifically makes them very useful when it comes to seeing how people use technology.

“When people research technology [they often start at] the point at which someone picks up the telephone or starts typing on the keyboard. For me that’s already far too down in the process.You want to know; Where does that PC live in someone’s home? How did they acquire it? What else is around it? And even one step back further than that: What do people care about? What motivates them? What gets them up in the morning? What do they do when they get up in the morning?”

Genevieve Bell, Intel Outside interview, January 2007

But what is it that they actually do that’s so useful to design? Social scientists are essentially professional observers, using ethnographic tools to understand what they see, and manage any potential biases they might have. My favourite ethnographic technique or term is that of ‘thick description’: coined by Clifford Gertz as a way to sum up how we should analyse objects including their multiple meanings, rather than just what it was (a ‘thin description’).

Other concepts worth knowing about via sociology/anthropology are:

  • Erving Goffman‘s idea of front and back stage actions (for example, how waiters act in the public part of the restaurant vs. behind the swinging door, amongst other examples)
  • Cultures use myth, storytelling, and rituals in similar ways to help make meaning and sense out of the world – Joseph Campbell lays this out in his book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”, while Claude Levi-Strauss does it more densely in “The Raw and The Cooked
  • Actor-network theory (ANT) – created by Bruno Latour and others with the main gist that a lot happens between people and other agents (even inanimate objects), and that this is in a continual state of change.

Also, if you just want a reference of anthropological imagery and diagrams, this flickr collection is a must.

The general steal: ways of understanding people and societies, and methods by which to observe them.


Easy pickings: Stewart Brand, Christopher Alexander
If you’re keen:
Kevin Lynch, Bernhard Tschumi, Situationist International (SI)

Why: While architecture may seem to be at the opposite end of the design spectrum to IxD – we deal with the personal and ephemeral, they the collective and permanent – it has a few points worth noting:

  1. a need to deal with complex living systems
  2. a history of encouraging research in their field (something that pushes it far ahead of say, industrial design)
  3. and a general philosophical bent to their work (no wonder Ayn Rand was able to set a book and ideology behind an architect!)

It’s also worth keeping in mind that Italian design schools traditionally trained all their design students as architects, no matter what their professional speciality would be later in life – and they’ve turned out some pretty cool designers (even more recently in interaction design).

Many of the concepts we are dealing with in interaction design about use and patterns have already been touched on in the past in architecture. For example Kevin Lynch explored what we’d now describe as experience design back in the 1960s in his book ‘An Image of the City’:

“The observer himself should play an active role in perceiving the world and have a creative part in developing his image. He should have the power to change that image to fit changing needs. An environment which is ordered in precise and final detail may inhibit new patterns of activity. A landscape whose every rock tells a story may make difficult the creation of fresh stories. Although this may not seem to be a critical issue in our present urban chaos, yet in indicates that what we seek is not a final but an open-ended order, capable of continuous further development.”

Kevin Lynch,  An Image of the City, (1966), p6

Stewart Brand took a similar route with his book (and later adaption into a 6 part TV series) How Buildings Learn, investigating how people adapt their dwellings after architects move out.

Toyo Ito has created fascinating structures based on virtuality and space.

Tower of Winds - Toyo Ito

Tower of Winds - Toyo Ito

If you really want to go into spatiality, there was an entire movement from the 1950s-70s known as SI (Situationist International) movement, concerned with looking at the nature of space.

If you’re more interested in mapping and patterns, again there are some interesting things to be had from architecture. Bernard Tschumi, a prominent postmodern architect was exploring mapping back in the early 90s back with his ‘The Manhattan Transcripts’, a project that “offer[ed a] different reading of architecture in which space, movement and events are ultimately independent, yet stand in a new relation to one another, so that the conventional components of architecture are broken down and rebuilt along different axes.” – p10

The Manhattan Transcripts – from

And well before that, Christopher Alexander wrote a book called A Pattern Language (1977). Despite the subtitle ( Towns, Buildings, Construction) the book of 94 patterns is now arguably more acclaimed in IxD than architecture!

The general steal: architecture has tried to deal with the big issues of design for a long time, and explore ways of managing people and spaces.


Easy pickings: Indy Young, Don Norman, Oliver Sacks (albeit a bit off topic)
If you’re keen:
J.J Gibson, Carl Jung, Max Wertheimer (and other Gestalt psychologists)

Why: Mental models didn’t start with Indy Young, and affordances didn’t start with Don Norman. Some of the ideas behind affordances can be traced back to the Gestalt theorists – a school of thought believing in the importance of patterns and that the sum of something is greater than the parts.

Elements of gestalt theory

Archetype Diagram

Archetype Diagram

J. J Gibson (later appropriated by Norman to give the word ‘affordance’) emphasises in his book ‘The Ecology of Perception‘ that affordances are meant to capture the potential of objects and their relationship to people. (For more on the difference between Gibson’s and Norman’s affordances, check out a great comparison article from

Other psychologists worth having some knowledge are Jung and his archetypes – these sets are today often used in branding to help identify psychographics and what stories to tell them, and Oliver Sacks for his case studies/vignettes on mental illness (“The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat“) and more recently on music (“Musicophillia“).


Easy pickings: Lakoff and Johnson, Richard E. Nisbett, basic semiotics
If you’re keen:
Derrida, Habermas

Why: There’s been a growing discussion in the last few years on the role of language in design, including Adaptive Path and Cooper. However, linguists assert that language has a profound effect on how we perceive the world in general. Lakoff and Johnson’s ‘Metaphors We Live By’ is a classic that suggests we have fundamental linguistic metaphors that shape our lives e.g.:


However, it’s also worth keeping in mind that different cultures think differently. Richard E. Nisbett’s ‘The Geography of Thought’ highlights the differences in language and perception between the USA and China (for example, books for Western children focus on objects and the self, while those for Chinese focus on community and relationships).

Beyond that, we get into semiotics – a field of linguistics that separates reader from writer, sign from signifier and signified, and also investigates the communication channels.

Magritte's painting is a famous example of the difference between signifier and signified

Magritte's painting is a famous example of the difference between signifier and signified

A nice 101 guidebook is available online. Also worth looking at is Roland Barthe’s Mythologies – essays on (then current in the 60s) popular culture. Those brave enough to venture into what Barthes coined as “death of the author” or deconstructive criticism will want to read Jacques Derrida’s “On Grammatology” (excerpt)

The general steal: It’s easy for us to underestimate the power of words, language, and symbols. Linguistics helps us be more aware and thus more informed.


Easy pickings: William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Douglas Adams, Italo Calvino
If you’re keen: Nicholas Baker (The Mezzanine), Emile Zola, Jean Baudrillard

Why: Interaction design or experience design is about just that – interactions and experiences. Literature explores these thing – slowly, carefully, leaving room for interpretation. It’s easy to take this as a meaning to rush towards sci-fi novels (on that matter, there’s a great list of the Top 10), and for that matter, there are treasures to be found there – William Gibson (not relation to J.J!) has inspired many a designer with the cyberspace of Neuromancer and the Sandbenders computer in Idoru, and even Douglas Adams provided some stunning insights into gadgetry with such things as the Babelfish translator. However, where literature really becomes interesting and useful is when it begins to deal with real life.

Sci-fi writer turned social commentator is one type of example of this (Shaping Things is a classic), but beyond this we can venture into more naturalistic pieces such as the Mezzanine, with stream of consciousness commentary about his shoelaces, lunch and being on an escalator (benign but so detailed as to be engrossing), short (each chapter is less than 200 words!) poetic tales of “Imaginary Cities” by Italo Calvino, witty aphorisms and musings of Jean Baudrillard and (for those with the reading stamina) the works of Emile Zola.

The general steal: The ultimate in low-fi experience prototyping, literature can give inspiration and a method of slowing down.

Science and Horticulture

Easy pickings: David Holmgrem , McDonough and Braungart
If you’re keen: Gregoire Nicolis

Why: As I’ve mentioned before, it’s pretty common to take inspiration from nature, be it in terms of aesthetics or more scientifically through biomimicry.

But what exactly is it that we can get from the sciences? Apart from a sense of beauty in the real word (for example, see this -270Mb size PDF – astonishing book of flora and fauna illustrations ) we can also get an understanding of complexity and structures. This is touched on in Alex Wright’s book Glut, and also beautifully shown in the Powers of 10 video by Ray and Charles Eames below:

Should you wish to go into more depth on this topic, books include “Exploring Complexity” by Gregoire Nicolis.

On the horticultural side: it’s no surprise that the word ‘ecosystem’ seems to be the buzzword of the last few years, as IxD more actively embraces systems, something ecology is about nothing if not about. One rising mix between ecology and design is the permaculture movement. While much of this is related to sustainability, some of the other principles are more general, such as the O’BRIEDEM technique:

  • Observation (understanding functions and relationships)
  • Boundaries (physical and abstract)
  • Resources (people, finances, potential)
  • Evaluation (taking stock)
  • Design
  • Implementation
  • Maintenance (adjustments to keep an optimal state)

Anyone serious about ecosystems should also read “Cradle to Cradle” by McDonough and Braungart.

The general steal: Nothing we’re working on can be anywhere near as complex as what happens in the world of science. Here are methods of managing complexity without sacrificing beauty.

And …

What other fields do you steal from? Please leave your comments.

Title image: / CC BY 2.0
[Update 28 October: there’s also been some great discussion on the IXDA list around the topic – well worth checking out.]

Vicky Teinaki

An England-based Kiwi, Vicky is doing a PhD at Northumbria University into how designers can better talk about touch and products. When not researching or keeping Johnny Holland running, she does the odd bit of web development, pretends her TV licence money goes only to Steven Moffatt shows, and tweets prolifically about all of the above as @vickytnz.

12 comments on this article

  1. Great list Vicky! Now I’ve got whole new disciplines to explore– Science and Horticulture?!

    I could see an entire section added for “Behavioral Economics” with folks like Richard Cialdini, Barry Schwartz, Daniel Gilbert, Dan Ariely, Amos Tversky, George Loewenstein, etc.

  2. This is indeed a fantastic list!

    I’d second Stephen’s suggestion of behavioural economics (including people such as Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein and Dan Goldstein) but also other research on decision-making by people such as Gerd Gigerenzer and Gary Klein. Scott Plous has written a great, easy-to-read introduction to the subject which is almost begging for someone to go through and find a ‘design’ example for each cognitive bias or heuristic he discusses. Herbert Simon’s work also touches on so many aspects relevant to modern UX, from cybernetics to satisficing. Cybernetics in general is in fact incredibly applicable to many aspects of interaction design, even though many designers might be initially put off by the formalism. See some of Hugh Dubberly’s recent work, e.g. this do a great job in applying cybernetic concepts to design.

    Looking at my bookshelf I would argue that B F Skinner’s work on behaviourism is also inspirational, even if it’s not the approach most UX designers would intentionally take. It’s also worth thinking about the field of _security_, which is, at least to some extent, about trying to design systems which involve a human component of interaction. If you look at writing by people such as Bruce Schneier or Ross Anderson, so much of it is really about interaction design, or even service design. Cranor and Garfinkel’s ‘Security and Usability’ makes this very clear.

  3. Niels on

    I ‘m gad that you mentioned linguistics, because I’m convinced that metaphorical concepts that people develop are quite important to consider when designing interfaces, very nice!

  4. Nice list. Very inspiring!

    Two angles I would like to include: science of happiness/well-being (as part of (positive/hedonic) Psychology, Genetics and Sociology) – Daniel Gilbert, Mihaly Czikzentmihalyi, Bjorn Grinde, Ruut Veenhoven, Dan Kahneman. If you are serious about delivering a positive/optimal user experience.

    Next to that Evidence Based Design ( that has the potential to give design initiatives more scientific credibility.

  5. This is a fantastic list. I might add anthropology & media(McLuhan) as well as business & organizational theory(Drucker).

    It makes me wonder if the discipline being talked about is really IxD, or if there is a budding discipline here waiting to be developed. It would be a shame to put all of these components together and only get wireframes and CSS 😉

  6. Ashim on

    At the risk of sounding crazy..
    I steal a lot from television/film industries.

    Making movies require a lot of multi-disciplinary people working together (Writers, Artists, Cameramen, SFX, Investers, Promotional). We, as UX also have to design based on inputs from other departments.

    The process too have lots of parallels- story ideas and feature creeps (thinking of the most appropriate feature and saying no to the rest), storyboarding and wireframes (to see how the product will behave), pilot episodes and user testing (getting feedback and updating). The end result of both is to provide a great experience!

    I love to hear film directors (Brad Bird, for example) talk about the challenges they faced behind filming a great scene or how they reworked the story according to budget cuts and technical constraints.

  7. Psycholinguistics is a sub-field that nicely combines much of what inspires me as a designer from the fields of psychology and linguistics. I recommend starting with Steven Pinker.

    Also, so many designers are unaware of this, but I’ll point that there is an entire area fo design the deals primarily with language: voice interaction design. In it linguistics is not inspiration, it is the engine of the medium.

    Many of the other fields you list, as well as those mentioned in the comments, also come into play in my work.

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  9. Susan on

    Why didn’t Industrial Design make the list? Too obvious?

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