Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Collaborating Designers are (part of) the Solution

The title of  Nathan Shedroff's excellent 2009 book  Design is the Problem: the future of design must be sustainable identifies a key challenge of our time: how can we best design so that what we create is sustainable?  What are the principles for designing things, policies, business models, organizations, services processes etc. which would lead all of these to be resilient and sustainable?

Shedroff provides an introduction to a very wide range of the current sustainable design approaches, tools, techniques, frameworks.

However, while Shedroff's introduction is excellent, it has a key weakness:  he doesn't explore in depth what sustainability might mean in general, in the context of the design process and outcomes, nor whether the material he presents is consistent with such an understanding.

John Ehrenfeld, considered by some to be one of the founders of the Industrial Ecology movement, attempts exactly such a deep dive in his excellent 2008 book Sustainability by Design: a subversive strategy for transforming our consumer culture.

One of the many useful ideas which emerges from this is a wonderfully inspiring definition of sustainability, which he defines in a style that is similar to how one might define fairness or justice:

The possibility that human and other life can
flourish on this planet forever.

The book proceeds with a deep, daring and worthy attempt at deriving design principles which, if followed, would reliably create flourishing.  This is in itself a must read: Dr. Ehrenfeld explores the parameters and considerations for such design principles.  He starts with a diagnostic of humanities current mode of "having" (as opposed to "being") and then builds from an exploration of fundamental human (and non-human) needs by Manfred Max-Neef.

Unfortunately, by his own reckoning, he doesn't succeed at identifying sustainability design principles.  This is rather frustrating, although given the complexity of the goal entirely understandable; indeed it appears that Dr. Ehrenfeld himself is disappointed.  Having clearly establishing the knowledge frontier he is unable to see through the fog beyond.

So where might one turn for such principles?  What was the barrier that prevented Dr. Ehrenfeld from penetrating the fog of the unknown?

Oddly perhaps, an idea struck me while reading the latest work by Donald A. Norman, who some consider the father of Human Interaction Design (HID, often called Human or User Interface Design).  As examples: in the 1980's he helped establish the Apple Human Interface Guidelines and then in the early 1990's wrote the seminal Design/Psychology of Everyday Things (to be revised fall 2013 with new chapters on Design Thinking and Design in World of Business).

What's odd?   As far as I am aware, at least professionally, Dr. Norman has never expressed views or an interest in environmental, social and economic sustainability; although of course a good user interface based on empathetic understanding of the user is a (small but vital) component of enabling human flourishing.  This latter idea is one Dr. Norman has consistently made.

So how did the connection between HID and Sustainable Design principles arise in my mind?  Let me tell you the story.

In Living with Complexity Dr. Norman does two important things.  

Firstly presents a mea culpa of sorts from his prior works.  He (finally) recognizes that simplicity should not be the goal of Human Interaction Design; rather the goal should be the presentation of the complexity necessary and inherent in all human activity in ways that facilitate learning, and efficient and effective use of a socio-technical system's functionality.  

It is clear that this re-framing of the problem that HID attempts to solve better aligns it with finding solutions to the problems arising from necessary complexity of the simultaneous integration of the environmental, social and economicAs Dr. Ehrenfeld points out, this integration is required for human flourishing, and of course, is generally ignored by profit first businesses (at an every increasing risk to their shareholders)

Secondly, in light of this realization, Dr. Norman updates the design principles for effective and efficient Human Interaction Design.  These can be summarized as:
  • A clear conceptual model of the interaction 
  • Clear signifiers to indicate the place and nature of the possible actions (commonly, but inappropriately, called 'perceived affordances' 
  • Discoverability, where a person could determine the potential actions at any time through inspection
  • Feedback to disclose what action has just taken place.
Dr. Norman goes on to state
"These are fundamental principles of interaction derived from understanding the psychology of the users. As a result, these are independent of the platform and the form of interaction. Whether the interaction is controlled by buttons  and levers, steering wheel and foot pedals, mouse and keyboard, gestures in the air or touchpad, these fundamental psychological principles still apply. The principles will be implemented differently for different systems of control and interaction, but they must be followed if the resulting systems are to be understandable."
(The above from 2012 Communication of the ACM article which amongst other things summarizes some of the books key points: reference below) 

So this in my mind led to a question: might these principles be the basis for the sustainable design principles which Ehrenfeld failed to find?

Might this profoundly empathetic approach to HID design be at the heart of the design of sustainable and resilient things, policies, business models, organizations, services processes?

 Collaborating Designers
So returning to the title of this post... perhaps Shedroff is only partially correct in his assertion that "design is the problem" and that "the future of design must be sustainable".  

I wonder if a collaboration of designers, and a synthesis from their respective works, for example Ehrenfeld and Norman might not also be required.

Imagine if Norman's socio-technical HID principles could be applied to the deep systems oriented understanding of the sustainability and resilience problem space which Ehrenfeld has developed?  How cool could that be? 

I will be attempting to get Ehrenfeld and Norman to comment on this idea...  if you know either of them, and think this idea has merit, please bring this post to their attention!

 Further Reading
  • Ehrenfeld, J. (2008). Sustainability by design: a subversive strategy for transforming our consumer culture. New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A.: Yale University Press. 
  • Norman, D. A. (2011). Living with complexity. Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A: MIT Press.
  • Norman, D. A. (2012). Yet another technology cusp: confusion, vendor wars, and opportunities. Communications of the ACM, 55(2), 30-32. doi:10.1145/2076450.2076460
  • Shedroff, N., & Lovins, H. L. (2009). Design is the problem: the future of design must be sustainable. Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.: Rosenfeld Media.


  1. John Ehrenfeld replied by email:

    I have read this post. It inspired me enough to get Norman's Complexity book from the library and read it. Excellent book. I used this quote in a recent blog. “Complexity describes a state of the world; complicated describes a state of mind." That by itself is worth the read. I agree with just about everything Norman says about design. I tried to make many of the same points in my book, but lack the depth in design that he brings to the party.

    Your post is very good and captures what I believe is needed to make technology line up with sustainability. As I firmly believe that technology as it is now designed and being used produces the unintended consequences that constitute unsustainability, maintaining a neutral stance on design and the role of artifacts leaves flourishing (sustainability) to chance. Norman understands the normative potential of technology and makes a case for it. Shedroff does not. His book (I read it some time ago) is, as I recall, pretty techno and focuses on the environmental impacts of the design. Here's a blog i wrote back in 2009.

    A New Book: "Design is the Problem" (April 27, 2009)

    Industrial designer Nathan Shedroff has recently published released his latest book, Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable. He explores many of the ideas and themes in a long interview with Core77's Editor-in-chief Allan Chochinov.

    Chochinov raves about the book.

    Filled with insanely pragmatic advice, persuasive argument, and impassioned calls for action, Nathan's book is essential reading for all designers, design students, business people, business students, innovation specialists, and advocates of all stripes.

    Shedroff clearly does understand the power of objects to affect people's beliefs and values.

    Connecting to people's values and meanings is going to be critical in order to change behaviors and choices and reach more sustainable goals. There's nothing inherently off-putting about sustainability at all. I challenge you to find someone who is in favor of purposely ruining the future. The problem is in helping people become aware of their impacts and connecting their perfectly adequate values to the effects their activities have. Most of the issues and imperatives around sustainability are simply invisible to people and if we can make them visible, in their languages, we can get more people on board. It's more than merely design but design thinking and processes can contribute tremendously to making this happen quickly.

    But like so many other designers, he appears to have failed to recognize that sustainability is much more than greening or reducing unsustainability. The main chapters of the book ring with familiar themes: reduce, reuse, recycle, and, a new one for Shedroff, restore. I have ordered and will read the book, but if the interview tells the whole, or most of, the story. I suspect I will be disappointed. But only in that designers continue to follow traditional paths. They have power to change behavior towards authentic satisfaction and true sustainability, not merely to respond what the market tells their clients.


    I had an interchange (see the post, Sorry, Nathan, but I Really Do Disagree. (June 21, 2010) with him a little over a year later over a distinction I always push. He, like so many others, confuse (IMHO) reducing unsustainability with creating sustainability. What he and Norman argue for (So do many of the European industrial designers) fail to to carry the fundamental normative vision I attribute to sustainability.

    Your point about getting all of us together is very important. Many issues run through this conversation; so many that no single discipline or practice has the requisite answers.


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  3. You've identified some key first principles from cognitive psychology that guide interaction design decisions. These principles are necessary for human factors in user interaction and interactive products.

    You’ve captured the essence of Don Norman's interaction design principles, but they do not apply directly to the organizational scale. For that you need Design 3.0 and 4.0 methodologies, such as in the Design for Care book and in work we've done with Humantific.

    You could see this difference by finding the signifiers for action and feedback for responses at the collective co-creation level. There are analogies, but its best to study the sustainable business model problem in its organizational complexity.

    A business model is not a sociotechnical system, not in the way IT-enabled work, healthcare practice, cognitive work are. There's no "work" even though it is a system.

    A SSBM is a map of multiple sociotechnical configurations that are constructed to support collective value networks and values systems. In this way its more a map of a service system, not the service system itself of course. So the design principles for the organizational design and mapping are different than interaction.