Design, Science, Art and Craft: among facts and abstractions.

What’s the difference between Science and Design? What about Art and Craft? Is design about something concrete (an object), a process, an line of thought? Further, by taking User Experience (UX) and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) as knowledge disciplines, what’s the relation of UX with Science? Does UX belong to Craft or Art? What can we tell about HCI? These are very difficult questions to answer, and they require to take a philosophical stance—at least, I assume—in order to create arguments and hence generate discussion. So, what’s the point of this post any way? Although I think I don’t have the answers to all these questions whatsoever, I would like to share my perspective on how these big words relate each other by means of the following schema.

Relational space between Science, Design, Craft, Art, Actuality and Abstract.
Relational space between Science, Design, Craft, Art, Actuality and Abstraction.

In regard to the description of this relational schema, I would like to start commenting why I took the continuum Art/Craft. In 2008, I wrote this idea in Spanish

El diseño implica arte pero el arte no implica necesariamente diseño.
La ciencia implica diseño pero diseñar no implica necesariamente hacer ciencia.
Aun así, la ciencia implica hacer arte.

The literal translation is as follows,

Design implies Art, but Art not necessarily implies Design.
Science implies Design, but to design not necessarily implies doing Science.
Yet Science implies doing Art.

The last part, “Yet, Science implies doing Art”, seems to make no sense in English. The adequate translation could be,

Yet Science entails Craft.

My point here is that “doing Science” in real life is not that rigid as it looks in paper. To me, it involves both aspects of Craft and Design. Further, this phrase indicates the underlying implications of using a particular language at the moment of reflecting and philosophizing. Regardless, the selection of this continuum is somehow influenced by the perspective of Howard Risatti when comparing Art and Craft—although I don’t share his vision regarding Craft and Design in this “Theory of Craft”.

For the case of Science and Design, I consider the relation between these two as discussed by Nigel Cross and Harold Nelson & Erik Stolterman. As I tried to embed it in my phrase above, I state that it turns out difficult to outline strict boundaries in the relation of Science and Design. All depends on what type of definition, questions, and the place where those questions are made.

The third continuum entails the consequences of Art/Craft and Science/Design in relation to the real world. Thus, I consider—at least—the range that goes from abstraction to actuality. That is, from ideas to things that people can interact with. This continuum is theoretically related with ideas such as the “ultimate particular” and “design inquiry“—as a compound of the inquiries into the real, ideal, and true respectively—by Nelson & Stolterman.

The relational schema presented above doesn’t have the intention of being prescriptive. It corresponds to my personal viewpoint and a attempt to formulate my position as HCI/UX researcher regarding the type of research/discourse generated in my near context. That is, among the faculty and colleagues at Indiana University Bloomington. Further, since I have interest in schemas/diagrams/sketches, I generated it as an example of how schemas may function as a means for argumentation.

My purpose here is for you to take this schema and tear it up. Make it your own.

However, before you go and destroy this relational schema, let me show how it helped me to sketch the answer to the aforementioned issues.

UX and HCI in the relational space

As we observe from the schema above, the relational space is conformed by three axis, each of them representing one of the continuums describe above. Then, I perceive User Experience (UX) as a discipline highly design-oriented, focused on concrete outcomes, and with a high flavor of craft in its practice. I think these qualities make it different from other approaches regarding interactive artifacts-systems such as Software Engineering, ICT, or Computer Science.

UX in relation to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.
UX in relation to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.

On the other hand, I locate Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) in a different place within the relational space. I perceive HCI as more scientific discipline focused on concrete outcomes, yet with certain nuances of craft in its practice. I remark that I’m talking about a general or traditional perspective of HCI. In other words, a practice—and also its research—more emphasized on the first and second waves of HCI.

HCI in relations to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.
HCI in relations to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.

I consider that HCI influences UX, more than the other way around. Although HCI provides foundations and methods to UX, the latter seems to lack of impact regarding HCI in this fashion. Of course, this discussion could be very extensive and profound. So far, I remark this influence with an arrow, just to indicate that HCI may entail a more traditional approach whereas UX corresponds to the designerly approach.

Designerly and non-designerly approach to HCI/UX.
Designerly and non-designerly approach to HCI/UX.

In the attempt of describing the relation of HCI and UX and the implications that each has on the other, I’ve observed that within the HCI track—in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington—theory plays a critical role. It provides the discursive components to understand the aforementioned relation. Thus, in this milieu I’ve heard of design theoretical topics such as Slow Change Interaction Design, Sustainable Interaction Design, Feminist HCI, HCI Criticism, Participatory Design, Critical HCI, Design Theory, and Design Pedagogy, Practice and Methods. All of them gathered under the big umbrella of Design Theory (DT).

Design Theory in relation to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.
Design Theory in relation to Art, Craft, Science, Design, the abstract and the concrete.

From my current perspective, UX influences DT since it provides the input to start theorizing about design. The consequences of UX are actual design cases. At the moment (design) researchers start analyzing those cases, a universe of study is created. By picking one planet, system, or galaxy of such universe, the (design) researchers cannot avoid to meet a philosophical situation since there’s an intrinsic relation between the researcher and the piece selected to study. And just as we may observe from the last sentences, the attempt to understand becomes a matter of (design) philosophy.

The relation between UX and Design Theory.
The relation between UX and Design Theory.

So far, we’ve observed from above the relations of HCI→UX and UX→DT. The question is now, in terms of DT and HCI, what is the discipline more prominent to influence or affect the other? I want to remark that it’s not my intention to be prescriptive. Based on my experience, I think that DT→HCI marks the relation within the type of research I’m currently involved. That is, DT provides HCI with theoretical foundations, which are in turn employed to generate frameworks.

Not necessarily connected with the latter, (design) methods are located very close to HCI in the path of this connection. Nowadays, more that thinking about their degree of applicability, I think that the so-called design methods could work without a deep—and hence philosophical—understanding of DT. I conjectured the latter based on my early experience with HCI, particularly as an undergraduate and latter getting involved with HCI researchers.

The relation between HCI and Design Theory/Theories.
The relation between HCI and Design Theory/Theories.

Research as an act of reconciliation

As I mentioned above the relational schema has the purpose of helping myself what’s my position as HCI/UX researcher. The relational schema is limited in order to respond to such statement. However, it provides a means to make an approximation for such goal.

I notice that more than talking about a precise position as (a possible future) researcher within the relational space, I can better reflect on the interrelation of UX-HCI-DT to understand on what research field I can work at. For instance, in the schema below, I picture a research field with big emphasis on the actuality and Art dimensions—although the connection with DT will always be there. Any change on this membrane represents a different framing on what to pay attention as HCI/UX researcher.

Research on design as reconciliation of HCI, UX, and Design Theory.
Research on design as reconciliation of HCI, UX, and Design Theory.

There are as many membrane variations as HCI/UX researchers. In my case, I know that my academic/professional past as designer and my current formation as scholar influence on how I frame the research field I’d like to work when I reach the dissertation stage. In this sense, I remark that relevance of the context. My advisor Marty Siegel, my mentor Erik Stolterman, the faculty, my colleagues PhD students from all the tracks, and the master’s students from the HCI/d program have a huge impact on shaping my particular membrane.

Questions come along more often than answers. I guess it’s a natural consequence regarding the formation as scholar. Yet I look forward to create many schemas that help me to understand this journey better. 🙂

Walter Benjamin’s notion of aura and Experience Design

Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887). The Art Institute of Chicago. Instagram: @omitzek

In “A Short History of Photography“, Benjamin Walter introduces the concept of aura as follows,

What is aura, actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be. While at rest on a summer’s noon, to trace a range of mountains on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer, until the moment or the hour become part of their appearance—this is what it means to breath the aura of those mountains, that branch.

In other words, we can interpret aura as the quality derived from perceiving something, which involves intertwined stages of contemplation, admiration, reflection, and analysis. For instance, when we visit a museum and we find a piece of art of our predilection, we cannot avoid to be engaged with it. We take our time for observing, contemplating, measuring our level of admiration for the piece and the artist, or analyzing the technique or the historical context for that piece. At that moment we magnify the experience, and we take piece of art (and all the meaning around it) as unmeasurable and distant.

Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887). The Art Institute of Chicago. Instagram: @omitzek
Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887). The Art Institute of Chicago. Instagram: @omitzek

Later Benjamin adds,

Now, to bring things closer to us, or rather to the masses, is just as passionate an inclination in our day as the overcoming of whatever is unique in every situation by means of its reproduction. Every day the need to possess the object in close-up in the form of a picture, or rather a coy, becomes more imperative. And the difference between the copy, which illustrated papers and newsreels keep in readiness, and the picture is unmistakable. […] The stripping bare of the object, the destruction of the aura, is the mark of a perception whose sense of the sameness of things has grown to the point where even the singular, the unique, is divested of its uniqueness –by means of its reproduction.

Here, Benjamin is pointing out that aura is threaten by reproduction. Because we become aware of the piece’s (or phenomenon’s) aura during the actual moment of perceiving, reproduction devalues the aspects of uniqueness and authenticity. By relating these ideas with HCI and design, I could not avoid thinking of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The extensive use of social networks implies a massive conversion of real-world phenomena into multimedia objects, facilitating their circulation all around the globe. Reproduction is not limited anymore for those who can access and control technology. In this sense,

  1. Have ICT and social networks killed  the notion of aura?
  2. Or are we just witnessing an evolution on Benjamin’s notion of aura?
  3. How aura and experience design are connected?

Although these questions may lack of basis, we could sketch some arguments by paying attention to our own experiences with any of the aforementioned social networks. For instance, I understood (in Benjamin’s words) that what I enjoy is breathing the aura of nature. As a designer, I like to listen what nature says to me about design principles. Nature’s aura facilitates my reflection about design. Although I understand that I can’t keep the state of mind caused by facing nature’s aura, I know that my reflection should be recorded, so I can remember and revisit it in the future. For doing this I use Instagram.

Beauty is in rhythm. Picture of one of the moments on which I try to ground design principles form nature. Instagram: @omitzek
“Beauty is in rhythm”. Picture of one of the moments on which I try to ground design principles form nature. Instagram: @omitzek

Once that moment is materialized into a digital picture, I have no control on who will watch it, share it, or even modify it. Further, what I contemplated, admired, reflected, and analyzed –in other words, experienced– might not be the same that my Instagram friends (or any potential owner of the picture) will experience. Notwithstanding, I wouldn’t argue that aura is being diminished as consequence. It just changes.

At the moment other users interact with Instagram (with the digital picture as one substrate of the use experience design) a variation on the original aura is present. Now, we talk about the combination of perceiving the digital photo and the experience of interacting with the system. Moreover, since the context of use can vary –type of users, geographical location, devices, and culture– even for a group of Instagram friends, the manifestations of the “new” aura are plenty different. Aura becomes an inherent element of the experience design. Certainly, the latter generates more questions than answers for experience design practitioners. So far, I glimpse matters of literacy, culture, aesthetics, and materiality. Further third-wave HCI research could contribute to a better understanding of the relation between Benjamin’s aura and experience design.