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Reflective Conversation with Materials

An interview with Donald Schön


John Bennett



“There is no direct path between the designer's intention and the outcome. As you work a problem, you are continually in the process of developing a path into it, forming new appreciations and understandings as you make new moves”



John Bennett

-- Expert user-interface designer for 30 years at IBM.

-- His experience in software design serves as a background to bring out

Schön's broader analysis of design and expertise


Donald Schön

-- Senior staff member in the industrial research firm Arthur D. Little, Inc.

-- Director of the Institute for Applied Technology in the National Bureau

of Standards at the US Department of Commerce.

-- Co-founded and directed OSTI (Organization for Social and

Technological Innovation).

-- Visiting professor at MIT , then Ford Professor of Urban Studies and

Education there.

-- Served as chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

-- Ford Professor Emeritus and senior lecturer in the School of Architecture

and Planning.


-- Displacement of Concepts (1963) (Invention and the Evolution of Ideas)

-- Technology and Change, The new Heraclitus(1967)

-- Beyond the Stable State(1970)


Donald Schön contd..

-- The Reflective Practitioner (1983)

-- Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1988)


Reflection and Kinds of Reflection

-- Reflection in action Vs. Everyday action

-- Reflection in action has a different character: It is closely tied to the

experience of surprise. For Example:

-- Improvisation and response to surprises produced by other

players among a set of Jazz musicians in a concert.

Kinds of reflection

-- Smooth, without stopping.

-- Designer(Architect) is reflecting in action, both on the

phenomena he is representing through his drawing and on his

previous way of thinking about the design problem


Kinds of Reflection Contd...

-- Stop and Think

-- Designer exhibits a reflection on action, pausing to think back over

what has been done in a project,

-- Explores the understanding that she has brought to the handling of

the task.

-- Might construct a new theory of the case, reframe the problematic

design situation & redefine interactively, both means and ends

-- Reflection on Practice

-- Designer may become aware of having fallen into an unfortunate

pattern of design behavior.


Design as a process or an activity

  • An artifact or a system includes :
    • -- materials,
    • -- A sense of purpose
    • -- Constraints as the designer sees them
    • -- People who would eventually use them.
  • The Key issue
  • -- Sense of complexity and unpredictability that is central to the design
  • process.
  • In other words :
  • -- There is no direct path between the designer’s intention and the outcome.
  • Example :
  • -- Gillette Corporation

A conversation with the materials

-- Progressive relationship of the designer

-- Making judgments along the way.

-- Designer's judgments have the intimacy of a conversational relationship

Where the designer :

-- Is getting some response back from the medium,

-- Is seeing what is happening

-- Is seeing how her creation is being used.

-- Is making judgments about what she is seeing.

In particularly the designer would “backtalk” as she reflects

into the situation

-- Interesting Example of Scotch Tape

(World War II product by Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing)


Usability : An Aspect of Software Design

Author: Michael Polanyi (Physical chemist, who became a philosopher)

Book:The Tacit Dimension (1966)

"What is a machine?"

A machine is an abstract system whose elements are functions, such as the function of the calculator, the function of the spark plug in the automobile engine, the function of the lever, or the function of the spring. The question of the materials used in the composition of the machine is not pertinent, unless a component fails. Then the issue of what the machine is made of becomes important; until that point, unless the machine fails, its composition is not important at all.


Experience from the study of design students at MIT

Project : Project Athena-MIT's integrated educational computing


Researchers: Sherry Turkle, Schön and their graduate students.

Research: Studied what happened as students were using experimental

software built by that the faculty members

Result : Amazing difference between the intentions that the faculty had

for their software and the experiences that people had in using it.


NOT "How do I make this artifact usable?"

BUT "What is this artifact?"


Taste of Good Designer

-- The tastes of the designer lies in the ability to make judgment of the quality in

many different ways.

-- Taste of a good designer can developed over time.


-- Taste can’t be characterized in terms of specific attributes.

Good Designer :

When the designer is able to bridge the gap between personal and technical – and

works with the medium, reflect on surprises and in the end produce a design that works both for the designer and for the audience.



Apple Computer Interface Design Project,

-- Initiated by Joy Mountford in 1991

-- Shifted their emphasis in the direction of design.

-- Recognized the lack of interdisciplinary skill among student &

started a competition called the “Interface Design Project”

The Royal College of Art : London's Royal College of Art (RCA)

-- Initiated in 1989 by Gillian Crampton Smith.

-- Program in Computer-Related Design

-- The teaching was centered on studio courses that developed the

skills of the artist-designer(Chap 3).

-- RCA projects tend emphasize the visual aspects of the interface,

and the design of the interactions.


Stanford University

-- Initiated by Winograd, Hartfield, Kelley, Liddle, Bennett, De Young

-- Program in Human-Computer Interaction Design (HCID)

-- Series of courses within the computer-science department, at the masters level.

-- Innovative research on computer interfaces by the communications department

lead to Microsoft's Bob

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

-- initiated by Kapor, Kuhn

-- Program in Media Arts and Sciences programs in human-computer


-- Wide variety of course work and a multidisciplinary team is developing a

course entitled the Software Design Studio, employing the design-studio

method that is traditional in architectural and urban design.