Design and Meaning: An Interview with Nathan Shedroff

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Founded in 2008, the Interaction Design Association Conference brings together practitioners interested in all things around interaction design. Interaction 12 took place in Dublin, Ireland on 1–4 2012. Interactions 13 is set to take place in February 2013 in Toronto.

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Nathan Shedroff is a leading author in experience design and the increasing value of design. His book subjects have included experience design (the 2001 experience-in-itself-book Experience Design 1), design thinking  (Making Meaning, 2006) and sustainable design (Design is the Problem, 2009). He is currently the head of the Design MBA Strategy at the California Institute of Arts (CCA).

Shedroff spoke to me about the difference between businesspeople and designers, his upcoming foray into sci-fi, and what designers wanting to get involved in sustainability can do.

VT:You’ve had an interesting history, starting in automotive design. How did you get interested in user experience?

Nathan Shedroff

Nathan Shedroff

I think that user experience was always an interest of mine but back in the 80s it wasn’t framed as a common or even legitimate part of the design discussion. I remember proposing a project in my Ergonomics course at ArtCenter to evaluate the organisation and functionality of car engine compartments and my instructor couldn’t see how it related to ergonomics. I certainly didn’t know enough to frame the investigation as “user experience” and that my users were mechanics back then, but the driving and owning experience was a large part of what interested me about cars.

From there, I moved into information design in a publishing context [TheUnderstandingBusiness and the award winning Vivid Studios]. That was clearly all about user understanding and experience, even if the medium was more narrow – in some ways -than what ultimately is available today in electronic media.

Your first book ‘Experience Design’ was published in 2001. What’s changed in the field since then?

Experience Design (2001)

Experience Design (2001)

Mostly, what’s changed is that “user experience” and “customer experience” is now, nearly universally, considered an important, legitimate part of an organisation’s offering – even by those that only pay this lip-service. This doesn’t mean that they practice it or do so well, but it’s recognised by nearly every consumer organization and many B2B companies as well. Similarly, even many of those vocal pundits back in 2001 who complained about the term “experience design” and how vague it was are full-fledged proponents of it, using that very term to differentiate their consulting.

What hasn’t changed is what experience design has always been about and its dimensions and elements. While I’ve added text to the updated book, Experience Design 1.1, the same topics are just as relevant today and will be just as relevant in 100 years as these are universals about human experience. For sure, many of the online or digital examples are gone so I’ve kept some and replaced others, but the teachings about why these elements are important, and what designers need to think about when building experiences will probably never change.

Excerpt from Experience Design - IDEO's 'The Kiss' Prototype

Excerpt from Experience Design 1.0 - IDEO Kiss Communicator

Making Meaning took a far more business-minded (or ‘design thinking’) approach. What was different talking to business rather than design?

Making Meaning

Making Meaning

Business people have their own language and focus more on certain management issues. In addition, the vast majority of those who go into “business” are more comfortable with certain processes and modes of thinking. Many rely on consistency and structure to manage processes in predictable ways. They want regularity and to eliminate deviations. Many designers specifically go into the design field because they don’t like these conditions. They like serendipity, challenge, and novelty. They hate it when everything is the same, day in and day out.

Both are required processes, of course. Roger Martin speaks eloquently about the need for both in his books. However, practitioners of both approaches believe, in their own little worlds, that theirs is not only the superior way to build and manage businesses but often the only valid way. This is a fallacy and often the seed of eventual destruction – of offering, of market share, and of culture.

Making Meaning was, by all means, a business book. It began as a business case for experience design. Steve Diller and I had outlined the dimensions and elements of experiences and we kept banging into “meaning.” We knew it was important but we didn’t know how to model or describe it. After some investigation, it was Steve who proposed a model for how meaning worked in experience and it was at that point that we realized that this was not only the most important and strategic aspect of experience, but that it had incredible potential for businesses. So, we turned the book inside out, around meaning, and rewrote the book around meaningful experiences and the processes and steps organizations could use to make them.

we realized that [the concept of meaning] was not only the most important and strategic aspect of experience, but that it had incredible potential for businesses.

The language of the book is more geared to businesspeople and managers but the meaning and experience models are just as appropriate for designers and the language shouldn’t preclude anyone from understanding it. Unfortunately, none of the diagrams for this made it into the book so I’ve made them available on my site in my various slide presentations on the subject. I think these are much easier for designers, and some businesspeople, to understand.

Diagrams from 'Creating Meaningful Experiences' Presentation

Diagrams from 'Creating Meaningful Experiences'

Your most recent book ‘Design is the Problem’ is a guidebook for designers to use their skills in the field of sustainability. How did you get involved in sustainable design?

Design is the Problem

Design is the Problem

I earned my MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in 2006 and Design is the Problem is essentially what I learned about sustainability through that journey from a design perspective. It was clear to me in 2004 that not only was “business” the future of “design” (in the sense that designers needed to understand business issues, processes, and language if they were to have the influence they thought they should), but that “sustainable business” was the future of “business.” So, when a friend suggested that I join her at Presidio, I decided to drink my own Kool-Aid(™) and explore this double-jump into the future.

I very much value my degree but I don’t think it’s realistic to think that every designer is going to take two years to learn about sustainability and business. Yet, it’s critical information that every designer needs to understand. My book is an attempt to get designers up-to-speed quickly, in one book, without sacrificing the principles behind a real understanding of sustainability. The resource list, in the back of the book, helps them move further in whatever direction that is interesting to them, after having gotten a good foundation in the intersection of design and sustainability.

One of your main points in Design is the Problem is the importance of a systems approach to design – something that many designers don’t find particularly interesting. How have designers responded to the book and frameworks?

Very positively. In fact, the only negatives I’ve heard are reactions to the title by designers who haven’t yet read the book. Mostly, I’ve heard a lot of relief and gratitude for laying-out an approach for understanding the principles, frameworks, tools, and design strategies for sustainability. I’ve since started calling this set of concepts, the “sustainable innovation model” and I think it can help anyone quickly come up-to-speed on the domain. It’s probably not complete but I think that all of the basics are there, especially in terms of systems thinking, and there’s a lot in the strategies that designers, engineers, and managers can put into practice immediately. It’s not meant to be the only book you’ll ever have to read on the subject but, instead, the first book that can orient you to the complexities without overwhelming you.

[Design is the Problem is] not meant to be the only book you’ll ever have to read on the subject but, instead, the first book that can orient you to the complexities without overwhelming you.

Sustainability Helix from Design is the Problem

Sustainability Helix from Design is the Problem

Your books have ranged from storytelling to life cycle analysis. Is there an overall theme to the areas you write about, or do you see it as how design is developing?

I think it’s more about how my interests intersect where design is going. I’ve been lucky to have hit on subjects that were important to me that also became important to design. I doubt that this will always be the case. However, it’s clear to me that business, design, and sustainability can no longer be approached or practiced separately and that one of the most powerful points at this intersection is meaning. My last four books have been right at that intersection.

My next book, Make It So, co-written with Chris Noessel, is about a completely different topic: what interaction designers can learn from science fiction interfaces. It’s a book I’ve wanted to write since 1989 and it’s so much fun to work on. I doubt it will be where “design is developing” in the same way that the last four have been but it will probably be more successful because, really, what designers don’t like science fiction (and even a little sex thrown in!)?

business, design, and sustainability can no longer be approached or practiced separately and that one of the most powerful points at this intersection is meaning.

What other projects are you working on now?

Along with books and speaking, my main focus for now is on CCA’s MBA in Design Strategy and Leading by Design Fellows programs – I’m still building an alumni network and career function to have ready by the time our first graduates finish in May of next year. I always have a few projects on the back burners that will get pulled to the front after that.

Having worked across so many fields, what would a dream project for you be?

I’d like to redesign the experience of television news – and television itself. I’d like to work on rethinking publishing as a model and industry. I’d also like to rethink how the government provides services to citizens. I think smartphones need a more useful front-end for communication (and if the iPhone’s APIs were more open, we could build it).
I also like big questions: What does a post-consumer world look like? We don’t yet know. We need to rethink consumerism, meaning and growth. These don’t have the same contexts anymore and they aren’t serving us in the ways they have in the past.

Can you tell us about what you’ll be talking about at Interaction 10?

I’ll focus more on what interaction designers can do with the principles of sustainability. Often, interaction designers look at the design strategies and think “this is all about physical products and material impact and my work doesn’t deal with these.” This is somewhat true but there are several ways that interaction designers can make a positive impact in their work with regards to greater sustainability, whether that’s ecological impacts, social and cultural impacts, or financial impacts. At the very least, I want people to leave my talk with a foundation that gives them some confidence – if not courage – to start exploring more and being able to start a conversation within their organisations and with their clients about these issues.

Finally, if our readers wanted to start incorporating sustainability into their own design companies and client work, what’s something they can do right away?

Design things that are truly useful, usable, and desirable.
Design things that are meaningful
Look at the systems involved before designing anything and think about providing value through services instead of only through objects.
Dematerialise products, services, packaging, transportation–everything that you can.
Learn and have fun doing this.

Interaction 10

If you want to meet Nathan Shedroff in real life: he is one of the keynote speakers at Interaction 10. It is the third annual conference hosted by the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). Each year, IxDA aims to gather the interaction design community to connect, educate, and inspire each other. This year it is held in Savannah, Georgia (USA).

Image Credits
Kiss Communicator picture taken from Experience Design Books
Making Meaning diagrams from ‘Creating Meaningful Experiences’ PDF // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Sustainability Helix from Rosenfeld Media Flickr set // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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.

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