Thoughts, links, and essays from Peter Merholz
petermescellany   petermemes


Archives before June 13, 2001

RSS Feed

Adaptive Path (my company!)

About peterme

Most of the Time
Oakland, CA

American history around the time of the Revolution, figuring out how to marry top-down task-based information architecture processes with bottom-up document-based ones, finding a good dentist in San Francisco Oakland
Designing the user experience (interaction design, information architecture, user research, etc.), cognitive science, ice cream, films and film theory, girls, commuter bicycling, coffee, travel, theoretical physics for laypeople, single malt scotch, fresh salmon nigiri, hanging out, comics formalism, applied complexity theory, Krispy Kreme donuts.

Click to see where I wander.

Wish list
Show me you love me by
buying me things.

Track updates of this page with Spyonit. Clickee here.

[Editor's note: began as a site of self-published essays, a la Stating The Obvious. This evolved (or devolved) towards link lists and shorter thoughtpieces. These essays are getting a tad old, but have some good ideas.]
Reader Favorites
Interface Design Recommended Reading List
Whose "My" Is It Anyway?
Frames: Information Vs. Application

Interface Design
Web Development
Movie Reviews

Thoughts on Design with a Capital D. Posted on 07/07/2002.

A few weekends ago I attended a retreat for UC
Berkeley's new Berkeley Institute of Design and their Human-Centered Computing Group. (The BID site is currently down, so here's an article explaining
what's what

I'm interested in BID for a number of reasons. Most obviously, its attempt to provide a home for the research and practice of Design with a capital D definitely resonates. Also, I live about 5 miles south of campus. Particularly, though, I'm curious as to how Cal will deal with a program dedicated to making things. See, I went to Cal (B.A., anthropology), and was often frustrated by the university's promotion of theory over practice. A school of design, by necessity, requires practice, and I suspect there's a bit of an uphill battle to get the rest of the institution to buy in.

The retreat itself was pretty interesting. I finally met "interaction design guru" Alan Cooper, who was extremely friendly and convivial. I got to heckle world-renowned interface designer Aaron Marcus (by encouraging dilletantism... hey, it's worked for me!). I read a bunch of student posters presenting various projects at the Group for User Interface Research. Most interesting to me were The Designers' Outpost, a tool that uses normal Post-It Notes to interact with the computer; and DENIM, a web-site prototyping tool that looks like it ought to support the way I work.

Initially, John Canny, the main force behind BID, put forth that the idea for BID was to exist at an intersection of three disciplines:

bid_three_circles (5k image)

Though purposefully chosen to represent the departments that will be funding BID, it also was a decent attempt at putting a finger on what's going on here. Simplistically: architecture is concerned with people and how they interact with their environment; engineering with the physical construction of things that people interact with; and information technology can imbue and extend these interactions with software.

A discussion arose around these three circles, because it was felt that a key component was lacking. These circles are concerned with the act of designing the product. But, a key element of product design, often the most difficult (probably because it's formally overlooked), is communicating the value and functionality of the product to others. Designers don't simply take requirements and turn them into products. They must make it clear to others what they are doing and why they are doing it, whether its to materials engineers or investors or marketers or whomever. So, the circles were thusly amended:

bid_four_circles (7k image)

Venn diagrams always leave me feel wanting. And what was lacking here was that it still didn't capture the complete picture. Sure, these four disciplines need to be integrated as we think about the future of design. But we can't expect every designer to be an expert in each. So, what do we do? Well, it got me thinking that we need to break these down further into constituent "core" practices for design. These practices would be the loam from which design grows. Here's my initial list, in no order:

- Visual Design
- Computer Science
- Materials science/engineering
- Social science
- Writing

Again, not that people need to be experts in each, but they must be well-read in each in order to be optimally effective as designers. They must be effective communicators, of anything from specs to value propositions -- thus visual design and writing. They must understand the basics of computer science, of programming, of databases, of interactivity. They must understand the materials with which they are working (which can be a very abstract concept when dealing with purely screen-based software design). And they must be aware of methods for understanding humans, how to suss out their needs and desires, and the basics of cognitive science, perception, attention, information processing.

Anyway. Something to think about. I'd love to hear from "the community" on thoughts like these, other necessary disciplines, other ways of presenting the four circles (I hate that the overlap is so teeny... I tried other visualizations, like a table with each discipline being a "leg", and the table-top being "Design", but, well, it looked terrible).

10 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Care about a Caravan."
Next entry: "Talking to "users"? Read this."


Lou Rosenfeld and Jess McMullin had similar ideas (and diagrams too!) here and here.
Posted by Gene @ 07/08/2002 09:21 AM PST [link to this comment]

Of course it's important to cross-train outside our core approach/philosophy/discipline. First, so I can have a meaningful conversation outside my own little navel-gazing community, and second to gain insight and perspective that inform my own practice (management types dig 'disciplinary synergy'). It's that whole "T-shaped person" thing - broad knowledge across a range of things (not just design disciplines, but politics, economics, etc.) and in-depth knowledge of a specialty (see Wellsprings of Knowledge or other KM-type lit.)

It's a harder question - how broad, and how deep? Where's the balance?
Posted by Jess @ 07/08/2002 10:16 AM PST [link to this comment]

I agree with the table. Except that social science can be interpreted so many different ways and I presume you have a specific idea of what you mean there, like things-that-contribute-to-user-research and not just any ol' cultural anthropology approaches.

Was there any contrast with established design programs, like Cranbrook or IIT? I'd like to think they've combine design+tech+social science.
Posted by Victor @ 07/08/2002 11:29 AM PST [link to this comment]

Yawn. Please wake me when design schools have finished co-opting all other creative disciplines.
Posted by jjg @ 07/08/2002 12:11 PM PST [link to this comment]

Thanks for the post. I wrote to John Canny about the Berkeley Institute of Design a few months ago, but never got a reply. It's good to hear that the University is moving forward with the program.

"Multidisciplinary" is the current hot buzzword at many Universities, including Stanford - at least as far as the University administration is concerned. Bio-X is one of those multidisciplinary programs. It sounds like BID is similarly multidisciplinary. My point in bringing this up is that, clearly, the next big thing coming from Universities is not going to come from the traditional departments, but rather, from where the work of two or more departments intersect.

While I agree that even with the addition of communication design, the diagram is still lacking, I don't think your list goes far enough either.

Your list is good, but still seems to be based on the existing organization of the University. Considering the involvement that both Robert and Alan from Cooper have had with the conceptualization of BID thus far, I'm surprised to see "Interaction Design" absent from the list.

I agree that your list contains essential core competences, but I just don't see how teaching within those disciplines is necessarily going to teach students the stuff that lies in between. I think Interaction Design is one of those in-betweens.

I guess I don't know enough about the goals of the program to speculate further...maybe this information is on the BID website. I'll wait until it's up and then perhaps continue my rambling.

Thanks again, Peter. This was good food for thought.
Posted by Brad Lauster @ 07/08/2002 12:56 PM PST [link to this comment]

Hrm. Well, that's not contributing to any dialog, eh?

I think a key point of difference between the good stuff Jess and Lou did, and what BID is going at, is the inclusion of physical products and environments. BID is very concerned with a Post-PC design future.

Also, I don't think it's about co-opting. It's simply a recognition that the processes of design are currently kinda broken, particularly when dealing with products that have computer intelligence and are networked. Entities like BID are attempts at responding to what is a very real need.
Posted by peterme @ 07/08/2002 12:58 PM PST [link to this comment]

(my "contributing" comment was directed at comment #4, not #5)
Posted by peterme @ 07/08/2002 12:58 PM PST [link to this comment]

Weekend retreats of designers talking to other designers doesn't do much to contribute to any dialog either.
Posted by jjg @ 07/09/2002 03:50 PM PST [link to this comment]

I'm starting to suspect that it's only possible to have the expertise on board for a given project by having a group working together. That is, we can't really define a single role or career path (or encompassing expert status) that covers enough ground to cover the whole Venn diagram Peter shows (or even its various permutations that never made it out of his evil-Peter lab [grin]).
Eventually, as projects become more and more complex, anyone who works square in the middle of this diagram will eventually not know much of anything that's very useful in terms of a skill for completing production of any of the deeper areas of expertise.
The one thing they'll *have* to be an expert in is how to manage groups made of disparate skillsets and far-flung mentalities. That is, some dilletantism will help, so they'll know how to talk to and translate between experts, but their area of expertise will be managing, motivating, and facilitating.
I wonder if any of that is taught in design school? I wonder if it's taught *anywhere*?
Posted by andrew @ 07/14/2002 01:13 PM PST [link to this comment]

Isn't this one of the foundations of the Bauhaus?

The Bauhaus considered design as a whole thing devoted to BUILD (or "design"). For that matter the designer had to be a craftsman as well as an engineer, and also had to learn from many sources: architecture, industrial design, sculpture, writing... to be able to understand the foundations of creation serving the people.
Posted by Javier Caņada @ 07/21/2002 05:12 AM PST [link to this comment]

Add A New Comment:


E-Mail (optional)

Homepage (optional)

Comments Now with a bigger box for text entry! Whee!

All contents of are © 1998 - 2002 Peter Merholz.