The Corruption of Making in Design

At the core of designing is to make. Anyone who would argue against this would be taking on a fool’s position. But there is a real question we need to ask, which is, “what is making when we talk about design?” and “why is making required for design?”

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Making in design probably serves many purposes and the honest truth is that every individual designer has their own personal reasons why they make things as a designer. In my mind, however, there are two reasons to make: experiencing and communicating.

There are some who would argue that designer’s main reason to make is to execute or to produce. For this article, what I mean here by execute is to contribute towards the artifacts that will be part of the final consumed version by end users.

The interactive designers

The interactive designer I understand completely. Their tradition is rooted in technology as an art form, like painting or sculpture, where the artist was the producer of their vision. Their penetration into software design in my mind has had many positive attributes. I see the tinkering movement in interaction design directly connected to this group of artists who have always been explorers of the medium.

But there are others from many hybrid sources of skills and education. People have been mostly working in the areas of web design and mobile native app development. It’s those people who I feel have have been seduced by a false rhetoric of technology.

Interaction designers love technology. I would even suggest that we may have lost our way, by becoming too enamored by technology. We have ostensibly drank the Kool-aid of a promise of technology and have given up our precious ability to be critical towards it.

Technology promises us efficiency and speed, not just in our final solutions, but also in how we execute all the pieces of our process. If we couple this with the lack of design foundation in the practice of interaction design it is easy to see why so many designers have given in to this engineering-centric rhetoric. This would have us criticize the worst historical moments of software design, which completely ignores the more real and complex design-centric history of interactive software and media. We have made the engineering call for efficiency and speed a higher calling over what is so special about design: beauty as manifested through holistic systems thinking.

Short-term focus

A recent warning to this kind of thinking has come in the guise of criticizing the capital of the technology startup world, Silicon Valley, and by one of its poster children, no less. Mark Zuckerberg, in an interview at Y Combinator’s Startup School, challenges the notion that Silicon Valley is the best place to start and run a technology company:

If I were starting now, I would have stayed in Boston. [Silicon Valley] is a little short-term focused and that bothers me.

Further, he alludes in the same interview to a conversation with Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos who says,

“There’s a culture [in Silicon Valley] where people don’t commit to doing things. I feel like a lot of companies built outside of Silicon Valley seem to be focused on a longer-term,” he explains. “You don’t have to move out here to do this.”

How has this manifest itself in the interaction design community?

Simply put, by the corruption of making in design to focus on execution and production as the core attribute of ‘making.’ This has been manifested through the interaction design community’s response to two separate but related movements (for lack of a better term) Agile development process and Start up culture.

Both have had positive outcomes in some respects. In a recent Twitter debate about the value of LeanUX (LUX) I ended my part of the conversation with the following tweet:

 

But both movements have great issues when it comes to their most basic premise, which is that artifacts outside of direct production of code provide little value to the process of making software.

Why do I make things?

With that, I’d like us to talk more about “why do we make as designers?” – experiencing and communicating. Further, I have to ask “Why do we experience?” – to deconstruct.

Design is a deconstructive process. At our core we make things, these we can tear apart, so we can build something completely different out of the previously disparate components. Without the ability to deconstruct in this way, we are no longer doing design and we are losing all that makes designing special.

So I make to deconstruct and this plays out to bring value to me in various ways: It means I make things to compare them. This requires that I make a plentitude (to take from Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experience) of artifacts.

It means I make things to associate. Again, this will lead to a plentitude of artifacts because each artifact regardless of how ridiculous the idea that is being communicated serves the purpose of being part of the collection of ideas that inspire all the ideas that follow – not just the next iteration’s worth.

It means I make things to critique. Criticism is not just something one does. It is something that is created through making. We make many artifacts in order to help us develop the language of design that evolves towards our principles of design. Principles are not just conceived, but they are grown through a collection of artifacts.

It means I make things to understand and clarify. The things we initially create often are more than what we know we need. It is not our intention to maintain scale or complexity, but rather we create in order to understand scale and complexity. This helps us to better clarify and to reduce complications of the systems we are designing (for and within as well).

Of course, part of what I need to understand is the material(s) out of which my designs will finally be carved.

It means I make things to generate new things. Great designers are open to the ‘generative.’ That means creating artifacts whose purpose is to generate new things – artifacts, experiences, conversations, etc. – that lead towards designs and designing.

All of this isn’t to say that I can’t make to execute if I am so inclined and skilled, but this is not design. Execution is production work and in the world of software, making is usually done by and using processes geared towards engineers. This isn’t bad. But it not being bad doesn’t mean it is good, nor make it design.

Design is influenced by art

There is another angle to all this that adds even more confusion. Much of design is influenced by art. Art also makes. But art executes. In my sister program here at SCAD, Interactive Design and Game Development, they execute what it is they conceive. They also make for many of the same reasons I mentioned above beyond execution, but they differ in other core aspects of applied knowledge and process that are beyond the scope of this article. Their program’s history is from art where the painter paints, and the sculpture sculpts, etc. Few painters ever had someone else paint for them their idea except as exercises for their apprentices who in essence were the metaphorical equivalent of their master’s brush.

But since many who come from the world of ‘new media’ also have this connection to interactive art, there are many designing interactive systems who also execute their ideas. This multivariate influential space of interaction design leaves a sense of conflict between the industrial design side of interaction design and the ironically formed engineering and art side of interaction design.

To conclude

For me, I do not mind that there are interaction designers who can and want to execute design. What I mind and take offense to are statements that conflate traditional design with the idea of ‘making’ through statements like, “LeanUX makes sense, because design is all about making and this puts designers in the role of making instead of creating artifacts that are not about production.”

It assumes that making is only equal to execution and while I can see and have seen a great work where designers do execute their ideas, I will not abide a world of design that defines making only as execution without acknowledging its more important purposes – communication and experience.
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Book image NC-CC by olivepress

David Malouf

Professor of Interaction Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design

2 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: The Corruption of Making in Design | UXWeb.info

  2. Philip van Allen, Art Center on

    I agree wholeheartedly. Designers think through making, and to short circuit that is to deny one of the essential parts of the design process. It also positions design as subservient to the conceptual development of the idea, rather than as an integral part of it. Didn’t we fight that battle already?

    Design is not about simply manifesting the idea in a usable or pretty way. It’s about exploring a conceptual space through the making process. A successful design process may result in a completely new approach and direction for a project. That only happens through an iterative, discovery-led making process. Especially in Interaction Design, where we as designers, truly “see” it only when we interact with a working prototype.

    An example of this misunderstanding of design was much of the criticism of the recent Microsoft Office future vision video. The argument was, why is Microsoft wasting time making things like this, when they should be shipping real product? To me, that completely misses the point of design explorations. How do you turn a hugh ship like Microsoft to go in new directions? Design is one way of doing this.

    Unfortunately, much of the Microsoft video is bad interaction design (not to mention that, apparently, in the future there are only frighteningly perfect, rich, mostly white people who fit stereotypes). But the design is what we should be critiquing, not the fact that at least Microsoft is trying to look into the future and rethink how we interact.

    One last point. A place where the ideas of agile development and design can coincide is in the making of prototypes. Far too often, the fidelity of prototypes is too high, when a better approach would be to get something done quickly, and in a rough state. This way, the iterative cycle can go faster. This is perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that Microsoft made. The potential design ideas in the future vision video were lost in the high production value and glitzy motion graphics.