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NextD Journal RERETHINKING DESIGN

24

Ladder of Fire: Unpacking Advocacies

Peter Merholz Founding Partner, Adaptive Path President (2005-2006), Information Architecture Institute Blogger, Peterme.com

GK VanPatter Co-Founder, NextDesign Leadership Institute Co-Founder, Humantific  Making Sense of Cross-Disciplinary Innovation

NextDesign Leadership Institute DEFUZZ THE FUTURE! www.nextd.org Follow NextD Journal on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nextd Copyright © 2006 NextDesign Leadership Institute. All Rights Reserved. NextD Journal may be quoted freely with proper reference credit. If you wish to repost, reproduce or retransmit any of this text for commercial use please send a copyright permission request to journal@nextd.org


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1 GK VanPatter: Welcome, Peter. I am not yet sure how they connect to each other, but I see Adaptive Path out in the world offering experience design workshops, and I see you weighing in with commentary on various aspects of the design community on your blog. Between the two I’m guessing that we likely have a lot to talk about. Perhaps we could start with the blog and go from there. I am guessing that you blogging might have something to do with the state of the traditional design industry press? When did you start the blog and why? Peter Merholz: I began blogging in 1998. I was working at Studio Archetype (Clement Mok’s design firm), and I participated in many web design mailing lists. From my participation on those lists, I was invited to speak at a conference, Web Builder 1997, on the subject of DHTML. I enjoyed the spotlight, and, since I was comfortable publishing online, decided to take my thoughts on interaction design to the web. My blogging had little to do with traditional design industry press and much more to do with the ease of personal publishing. I had written for magazines before, and I found the cumbersome realities of writing for that medium off-putting. The web was changing so fast, I wanted to get my ideas out while the topics were relevant. With their three-month lead times, stories could be out-of-date by the time they made newsstands.

2 GK VanPatter: Understood. There are now thousands of blogs around. What makes yours stand out? How would you describe the focus of your blog today? Peter Merholz: I don’t know if my blog does stand out any more. If it does, there are two things that contribute to that: a) longevity, and b) voice. I’ve been blogging since before it was called that, and over time have built up a readership. Being consistent is important to maintaining an audience. When I shut down my site for three months, I ended up losing a lot of folks. I have a fairly strong and somewhat idiosyncratic voice. I’m not afraid to call “bullshit” or to criticize my peers, even if it might get me into trouble. I’m still getting shit for a http://www.peterme.com/archives/000459.html post from March of this year, where I called MetaDesign a “dinosaur.” That said, I try to also be as passionately supportive as I am critical. I also have a very strong non-designer’s perspective on design. Though I’ve worked in the design field for 10 years, I am not a “designer.” I wasn’t trained as one, and I spend far more time in email, Excel, and Word than I do in Photoshop or Illustrator. This gives me a perspective that calls into question design orthodoxy. For example, the blogosphere was abuzz with criticisms of Microsoft’s visual presentation style, especially when contrasted with Steve Jobs of Apple. It’s an easy jab to make because Microsoft’s slides are overwhelming with elements, whereas Steve opts for a more spare aesthetic http://www.peterme.com/archives/000644.html Page 2 of 30


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made a point of suggesting, though, that what designers value isn’t necessarily what the intended audience cares about, and we have to keep that in mind. Bill Gates doesn’t get to where he is through ignorance. These days, my blog doesn’t have a focus. It’s about me. This definitely limits its potential – the most successful blogs are ones where the kinds of material can be expected. Over the last month, I’ve written about design, walking, getting bitten by a dog, RSS, simplicity, product innovation, and a good place to stay when visiting Minneapolis. With respect to what the NextD audience is interested in, my discussions of design have definitely shifted away from critical takes on design artifacts (I used to write more about what works and what doesn’t in web page design), and toward an appreciation of the intersection of design and business, and, specifically, how design can learn from business.

3 GK VanPatter: When you look out across the various mail list options in the community today, what do you see there? From your perspective what are you able to do on your blog that is not happening on the various design mail lists? Peter Merholz: Well, I am on too many mailing lists, and I realized something about them recently. None of them are truly satisfying right now. User experience design mailing lists tend to dwell on practitioner issues. And while that is clearly what’s of interest to the bulk of folks, I’m not finding lists that discuss issues more related to design management. Nor are there good lists for engaging in design esoterica. Whenever I try to engage in theoretical or quasi-academic discussions on mailing lists, it rarely goes anywhere. On my blog, I can address the subjects that don’t get traction on mailing lists. And I can get them in front a much broader audience of potential respondents. Mailing lists tend to be topic-focused. Because what I write about sits at a hub of technology, design, innovation, and even business, any one mailing list will only get responses from one group. Whereas a blog can get responses from all these groups. Blogs are probably doing more to blur boundaries than any other single force out there.

4 GK VanPatter: I am curious about your orientation in the world. What did you study in school? Peter Merholz: A little bit of everything in the humanities and social sciences. In high school, you would have pegged me for a math and sciences nerd, but by the time I started at UC Berkeley, I had committed to the softer sciences. I began by pursuing mass communication, but gave that up in favor of anthropology. Frankly, I was more interested in physical anthropology (essentially the study of human evolution) than cultural anthropology. I don’t define myself by my degree, though, because it really was just proof that I survived four years of college. Looking back, I have wondered if the anthro degree did set me on the user-centered design path. Even though I didn’t practice UCD [user-center design] until a good five

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to six years after graduation (by way of multimedia production and web development), I suspect I developed a worldview that directed how I approached problems.

5 GK VanPatter: OK I can see a couple of things here that we might try to discuss that are not being talked about elsewhere if you are up for that kind of conversation? Peter Merholz: I’m up for anything! Fire away!

6 GK VanPatter: I was puzzled by your statement regarding education. I was not sure if you were suggesting that you believe there are no bodies of knowledge behind all of the disciplines or just some disciplines? When you say that your degree in anthropology was “just proof” that you “survived four years in college” what does that mean? Isn’t there a body of knowledge connected to anthropology that ideally should be properly learned? Peter Merholz: Ah. Mostly, my response was flip, and, in being so, wasn’t clear. In my junior year at Cal, I realized that I was ill-suited to academia. I’m a synthesist across disciplines, but academia rewards those who plumb single subjects deeply. It actually relates to your last question. I have no interest in learning something “properly.” Doing so suggests aligning your epistemology, your worldview, with a particular frame of thought. I feared that doing so would close me off to other perspectives. I work best when drawing from a variety of intellectual sources. I realized I wasn’t going on to an academic career, but I also knew that I wanted to get a bachelor’s degree. I chose to major in anthropology – I had taken a few classes and enjoyed it, and figured it would be the easiest way for me to get a degree and get out. So I finished in four years, got my degree, and immediately started working in multimedia production.

7 GK VanPatter: What do you call yourself today? Peter Merholz: Well, that all depends on context. At work, I am the Director of Practice Development. I’m responsible for ensuring the quality of the work we do. Initially, that has simply meant hiring extremely talented and capable people. Moving forward, this will mean the codification and sharing of our methods and practices. In the world of professional associations, I call myself the President of the Information Architecture Institute (http://iainstitute.org/). I was elected to the board last October, and the board, in turn, named me President. When talking to my family, I tend to say “web designer,” though that’s becoming less and less accurate.

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8 GK VanPatter: Help us understand what you mean by the terminology “Practice Development”. Do you mean design practice? Do you consider your very successful company, Adaptive Path, to be in the design business or another business? Peter Merholz: By “practice,” we mean, “all the kinds of work we do, all the methods we employ.” Now, when you start asking about “design practice,” we’re entering shark-infested semantic waters. If I look at the internal wiki I’ve created to capture our methodology, we break our work down into these categories: Discovery, Research, Strategy, Content Analysis, Design, and Implementation. So Discovery entails the up-front work that we do to understand the business— stakeholder interviews, documentation reviews, secondary research, business value analysis. Research is about how we understand the user – methods such as surveys, interviews, observation, and card-sorting, and then the analysis and models that come from that. Strategy is a potential outcome of the discovery and research work, addressing implications for brand development, content strategy, organizational development, and the like. Content Analysis deals with understanding the nature of the content and functionality we are dealing with. It’s here that metadata and feature inventories are produced. Design focuses on the creative aspects that synthesize all that has come before – information architecture, interaction design, visual design. And implementation for us means client-side development (which we’ve been doing more of in order to get Ajax interfaces out into the world). So, to answer your question, design practice is definitely part of this. And some people would consider all of this as design practice, and I’d be fine with that. Your question about what business is Adaptive Path in touches on something I’ve been struggling with articulating, so forgive me if what follows is not wholly clear. I’ve realized of late that I don’t quite know what business we’re in, because we behave unlike other companies. We’re not in the “design business” the way a MetaDesign or Method or Pentagram is. Nor do we resemble the web integrators such as Razorfish, Organic, or Modem Media. We’re not a strategic consultancy like Bain or McKinsey. We’re not a usability house like Nielsen/Norman Group or Creative Good. And while our website calls us a “user experience consulting company,” that’s not quite right either. [During the course of this interview, the website changed, and no longer says that.] Most obviously because we do more than consult – we teach workshops, and this past year we’ve developed a product called http://www.measuremap.com. But more importantly, because I don’t think there is such thing as a “user experience” company. (Note, this is where I don’t agree with others at Adaptive Path, and am speaking simply for myself.) We, along with many others in our line of work, adopted the term “user experience” because “design” had become appropriated by graphic designers, and largely reduced to concerns with aesthetics and styling. However, I’ve noticed of late that when people say “design,” they often don’t mean styling. Business journalism stories

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on companies like IDEO, Design Continuum and what’s happening inside Proctor and Gamble, Whirlpool and Apple have helped folks realize there’s more to design than visual appeal. And when my colleagues talk about “user experience” as a discipline, they typically mean “web user interface.” So now our industry is guilty of the same kind of pejoration that happened to “design.” Now, where I believe “user experience” is still valuable is in describing an emergent quality of product development. A product or service can have a good or bad user experience. But it’s foolish to think that the user experience can be owned by any one group in an organization – it’s a result of the accumulation of actions taken by an organization. Now, to actually answer your last question, let me recant what I wrote earlier and say, yes, I do think we’re in the design business. In many fundamental ways we don’t behave like any other company in the design business, but at the end of the day, we seek to design solutions to address our clients’ challenges, or to teach others methods for solving those challenges themselves.

9 GK VanPatter: What I am hearing here is that you find yourself and your company in motion because the marketplace is in motion. What design once was and now is remains very much in motion. There are multiple moving patterns being transformed and reconstructed here. The new business press now plays a significant role in recasting some of those patterns. Before we talk more about this, let’s try to address one elephant sitting in the living room. Many of our readers are young people engaged in trying to make sense of what is going on around them in the marketplace and in the design industries. Imagine yourself sitting in a graduate design school reading this conversation. Help me do some sense making here around this difficult question: If you did not go to design school and did not learn/master that body of knowledge, however flawed it might presently be, how can you be in the design business? How are you able to act as a design community critic? How are you able to create workshops, that no doubt contain knowledge, and offer them to the design community? How do you explain what is going on there? What is it about design, about the industry, about you and your company that makes that possible? Peter Merholz: Oof. You like the easy questions, don’t you? What follows is long-winded, but I couldn’t figure how else to address your queries without some depth in my response. To answer your first question – I didn’t find myself in the design business, the design business found me. Starting as an Associate Producer at the Voyager Company, and then continuing as a web developer at Studio Archetype, I worked closely with brilliant designers, and admired they work they did. But I also found myself frustrated with an almost total disregard for the needs of the user.

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At Voyager, I worked on a CD-ROM of Don Norman’s books, and I know I’m not the only one who experienced a profound shift in perspective after finishing The Design of Everyday Things. I realized that I had a knack for user empathy – in my quality assurance work at Voyager, I reported as many user interface issues as I did technical bugs. At Studio Archetype, where I had been hired as a web developer, I found myself enamored of the information architects’ work, and got the company to pay for a semester-long night class in user-centered design and usability engineering. Immediately after I changed my job title, becoming the company’s first interaction designer. That was my first official design position, and it was followed by a brief stint at PhoenixPop Productions, a year of freelancing, a year at Epinions.com as Creative Director, and then the founding of Adaptive Path. So, to answer your first question, I can be in the design business because people pay me to design, and they pay me to design because I’ve demonstrated design ability. To address your second question, “How are you able to act as a design community critic?” I can only respond by saying, “By doing it.” I started my website, peterme.com, largely as an outlet for writing on interface design. My very first piece was a http://www.peterme.com/index050298.html report from CHI 98. Through writing on my blog, I built an audience receptive to my take on interaction design, information architecture, and other user experience concerns, including my criticism of the design community. In my work with Studio Archetype, Phoenix-Pop, Epinions, as well as my volunteering for the AIGA’s Experience Design community, I had a view into design firms, design practice, and design philosophy. Being an outsider (no formal training in design) with access to the inside gives me a valuable perspective as a design critic. Perhaps most important, I don’t see “Design” as the answer to all problems. I see design as one of many tools. It’s worth noting that not one of the founders of Adaptive Path had formal training in design. Our backgrounds range from history to journalism to anthropology to film. But before starting the company we had all engaged in design practices at a variety of companies. We had all realized that design was a tool for solving the problems we were facing, and we taught ourselves what we needed to know to succeed. And that leads me to the answer to your third question, “How are you able to create workshops, that no doubt contain knowledge, and offer them to the design community?” Our workshops are based wholly on our personal design experiences. We have mixed, matched, appropriated, and developed methods that have lead to success in design, and we share that with others. But because of our non-standard background, our design workshops have unexpected emphases. For example, in our two-day workshop, we don’t get into “design” practice until the second day. We start the workshop with a deep dive into Discovery, wherein we talk about ways to better understand the business, to understand the financial issues involved, to understand the politics at play. Prior to starting Adaptive Path, the founders had all experienced the immense frustration of having our design work not see the

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light of day. And the most common reason for this was internal politics or operations. So we made sure that in our practice and in our workshops we spend significant time addressing these business issues, because we know designs cannot succeed without accommodating them. I think this comes as a surprise to many designers, who, after getting a set of requirements, just want to dive right into creation. You end by asking, “How do you explain what is going on there? What is it about design, about the industry, about you and your company that makes that possible?” There are a number of forces at play. Perhaps the most obvious is the democratization of design. Because anyone with a computer can design for the computer, the barriers to design practice have dramatically lowered. Without formal training, it’s remarkably difficult to engage in other design professions – industrial design, or architecture, or civil engineering, or what have you. That’s not true of designing for computers, where anyone can whip up systems in HTML and have people *use* them. Related, but importantly distinct, is that design practice, and the design industry, is shifting its focus away from form, and toward process. Product design and graphic design are becoming increasingly commoditized, the former because of cheap manufacturing offshore, the latter because anyone with Photoshop and halfway decent skills can compete. Designers are finding it remarkably difficult to “add value” in these areas. So we’ve seen a shift towards designing for a more complete experience. And experience design requires multi-disciplinary teams, bringing to bear a range of skills and perspectives. And many of these team members aren’t “designers,” but they’re essential to the success of the design. And this dovetails into what is probably the most important factor, which is the ohmy-god overwhelming complexity that our products and services must grapple with, whether the complexity is in the product itself, or in how it integrates with other aspects of a person’s life. And current design practice and education is simply not equipped to deal with this. Frankly, I’m not aware of any formal training that can handle this. We continue to navigate uncharted waters, and, really, that’s what I’ve been getting at all along. That’s what makes all this “possible,” as you said. What we’re (all) attempting to do is still so new, so nascent, that no one can claim any ownership of it.

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10 GK VanPatter: Thanks for being willing to spontaneously talk about such difficult questions. I’m sure others will see aspects of themselves in your story. There is much to think about in your response. I can see lots of relevant, off the beaten path things that we might try to talk about and unpack here between us. One of the many not-so-much talked about things that took place during the so-called dotcom era was the streaming of thousands of people from many disciplines into a reconstituted field of design. I have not seen much research around what the long-term impact on the design community has been of that massive re-streaming. Regardless, I believe it became obvious to most people that a transformation of significant proportions occurred. As you know, many of those folks who streamed in during the boom years have since streamed out while others are still around in one form or another. I saw embedded in your story a little microcosm of that era. Virtually overnight demand grew high while capacity was relatively low. Of course a new kind of capacity was needed in order to address new levels of project complexity. Out of that need grew opportunities for many. From the design leadership perspective, I saw in your comments references to how a change in business context, in technology, drove massive change in the design industries, how a new set of complex project challenges changed the nature of how people were working, how you brought your previous knowledge and discipline orientation to that party, how you adapted, how, why, where and at what pace you acquired certain new knowledge, how you discovered early on that there was something missing from traditional forms of design, and how you found a place for your skills and for your outlook in that picture. A lot has been written about that era, but most seem to get caught up in the technology and business model aspects of what went down. We have always been more interested in exploring the knowledge, the human and the process dimensions. As you rightly point out, it is not just a historical story, but one that continues to unfold moment by moment in the marketplace. Of course, part of the problem in talking about design today is that it is a single word that describes numerous different activities or states as we call them. From our perspective, the design community spans many time zones, some with long histories, others just emerging. Through NextD and our own practice I talk with a lot of people inside and outside of the design industries. Through that interaction I have come to understand that there are hundreds of permutations of design practice active today. After some synthesis of what we were seeing, we introduced the Design 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 sense-making framework last year. It is a relatively simple ordering device that we use to make sense of a lot that is happening around us. Others seem to be finding it useful as well. If we start to distinguish between Design 1.0 and 2.0, I believe we will find some useful additional explanations for the difficult issues that I asked you about earlier. We can also find further explanations for why you at Adaptive Path would likely have a very different view than the folks at Pentagram or Meta, however I am getting ahead of myself here.

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Before we get to that and in the interest of sequential logic I would like to follow-up on a few of your comments above. In particular I wanted to ask you about one aspect of the story as it relates to the realm of design knowledge. I ask you to set aside all of the specifics about the dotcom era and just think about this from the knowledge perspective. Change hats for a moment and imagine a hypothetical situation in the marketplace (perhaps not so hypothetical) where hundreds of disciplines began to rapidly stream into the field of anthropology and into the anthropology business. Overnight this became the cool thing to be and to do. Everyone was jumping on the anthropology/ethnography bandwagon. All of a sudden everyone was calling themselves an anthropologist. Seeing business opportunity, one leading graduate school sought to cash in and introduced a one-year Masters degree in anthropology methods with no prerequisites. Not to be outdone, another school introduced a one-week Masters program. One of the new anthropology consulting companies just announced a one day workshop called “Beyond Ethnography.” Numerous books appeared hailing the democratization of anthropology. From your perspective, as a person who studied anthropology in some depth, what do you think the reaction would be – or should be – from the folks in that community who invested many years to obtain deep knowledge, however imperfect, regarding the science, art and business of anthropology? What should the anthropology community thought leaders do about what some refer to as the McDonaldization of ethnography as a field of knowledge? Would they, should they, shut up and say nothing? Is what the new players are practicing a new (and improved) form of anthropology, or is it something else? Is anthropology something that everyone does and anyone can do? Does the democratization of anthropology/ethnography make the field stronger or weaker? Is the democratization of anthropology a natural, inevitable evolution that should not be questioned or is it a path into the future that the anthropology community of knowledge should be concerned about? What would the anthropology community do if such a “hypothetical” was to occur? Your perspective is most welcome. Peter Merholz: As you recognized, this isn’t all that hypothetical. Applied anthropology and ethnography are becoming quite the flavor of the month in the business press. Fortune Small Business featured an illustration on its cover of Bill Gates in a pith helmet, referencing an article about how anthropologists at Microsoft are helping influence the design of new software. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fsb/fsb_archive/2005/06/01/8261971/index.htm Anthropology is a vast, deep, broad, and nuanced body of knowledge. Given my background, I feel like making some distinctions. Anthropology, as an academic field, has three sub-disciplines: social/cultural anthropology, archaeology, and physical anthropology (some consider linguistics a fourth sub-discipline, but in most places it is now on its own). What we’re talking about is the first sub-discipline: cultural anthropology. (Though I think it a shame that archaeological practice and thought isn’t better integrated, because, well, in design practice we’re typically focused on the creation of material culture, and archaeology is the study of material culture. But I digress.)

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Now, to address your hypothetical. I honestly don’t care what the field of anthropology should do in this situation. I have no personal interest in the territorial boundaries of knowledge communities. In fact, I think such barriers are pernicious, and they are exactly why I abandoned academia. I think what we’re seeing is that in this world of remix and pattern recognition, the notion of a discrete ‘knowledge community’ is breaking down. In this hypothetical, I think the anthropology community should greet anyone interested in their work with open arms. In fact, I think that the anthropology community in particular should do so, as they have endeavored, until very recently, to marginalize themselves to the point of irrelevance across the wider society. The democratization of anthropology can only be a good thing. I decided not to pursue anthropology seriously because anthropological practice, as I observed it in school, meant producing material for other anthropologists. There was little interest in engaging the public, or in engaging other disciplines. (Quick! Name a famous cultural anthropologist other than Margaret Mead.) I think the democratization of anthropology will have numerous benefits. It will breathe fresh air into what can be a staid and conservative discipline. It can provide those practicing anthropology a more practical outlet. It can introduce new methods into anthropological practice. It will engage more non-anthropologists with anthropological thought. Hmmm. Maybe I do care what the anthropology community should do.

11 GK VanPatter: I see. From your perspective should all knowledge communities, including design, “greet anyone interested in their work with open arms”? In your mind is there any difference between being “interested in their work” and calling oneself an anthropologist? I believe those are likely two very different things. In your response you seem to be suggesting they are one in the same. That would be a hard sell in most fields of knowledge. From the knowledge perspective, are business school-trained people anthropologists? Are designers anthropologists? Are anthropologists designers? Are business schooltrained people designers? It seems unlikely that all knowledge is interchangeable. Can anyone call themselves, market themselves and perform services as anything they want now? I am not sure if this is the direction you are heading with this, or are you suggesting something else? Peter Merholz: Yes, all knowledge communities should engage with those who are interested in their discipline. Or, rather, all knowledge communities should recognize that that engagement will happen. It’s up to them to figure out should they embrace and enjoy this interaction, or do they attempt to close ranks? I think there very much is a difference between being “interested in their work” and calling yourself an anthropologist (or designer or structural engineer). If I gave a different impression above, then I didn’t express myself clearly.

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There is a difference between engaging in a few methods from a field, and being a fullfledged member of that field. I conduct field research and a kind of rapid ethnography, but I am not an anthropologist. I try to appreciate the financial ramifications of the work I do, but I am not a business analyst. I conduct surveys, but I’m not a market researcher. I do all of these things to support what I consider my work, which is design. And I am willing to call, market, and perform services as a designer.

12 GK VanPatter: You earlier referred to anthropology as “a vast, deep, broad, and nuanced body of knowledge.” Would you describe design as a body of knowledge in the same way? Peter Merholz: No. Particularly in the subject of depth. Design is much more a body of practice than it is knowledge, and as such, it lacks the depth of a field like anthropology. I mean, compare the number of Ph.D. programs in design and anthropology. Unlike anthropology, design is not a research discipline. I also don’t think design is nuanced the way anthropology is. By nuanced, I mean that in anthropology there are many different shades and perspectives that revolve around a central core. The distinct sub-fields of cultural anthropology –medical anthropology, applied anthropology, visual anthropology, folklore – all draw from a core appreciation of “anthropology.” Whereas, I think our discussion has demonstrated there’s nothing nearly as coherent in the field of design. Interaction design, industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, environmental design, architecture, etc., etc. are not tied together by a recognized core. Instead, each is learned and practiced pretty much distinct from the others, and often are set in competition to one another.

13 GK VanPatter: OK, Peter, I think I am beginning to understand where you are coming from. We seem to be having a close encounter with the complexities and contradictions of design in the 21st century here. For better or for worse, this is without doubt an authentic view behind the scenes of what is really going on out there in the present day marketplace. I assume you must be aware that some people in the design community who were educated in undergraduate, graduate or postgraduate design schools, likely many, would perceive significant degrees of unbridled aggressiveness and presumptuousness in your approach to design as a field of knowledge. What do you say to those folks? Peter Merholz: “Show me where I’m mistaken.” That perception of me is probably accurate because I’ve spent much of my career fighting small-minded design thought, particularly in the world of graphic design where the cool, novel, and stylish is lauded over the useful, usable, and truly deeply engaging. I have to point no further than the

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“interactive” design annuals published by the likes of Communication Arts or Print, which celebrate pretty screenshots instead of tools that solve real problems. What I want to know is, why has the design community let this happen? This behavior allowed for the increasing marginalization of design. This is starting to shift as companies like IDEO and Proctor and Gamble demonstrate a truer and deeper value of design. With regards to my presumptuousness, well, it’s not like I haven’t attempted to engage with design as a body of knowledge. I attend myriad conferences, I read a variety of books, I’ve got a boatload of blogs I sift through. Too often, I’ve found designers aren’t really willing to participate in dialogue, so when I disagree with design dogma, I’m typically written off and ignored. What I say is, if I’m missing something, show me what it is. This all reminds of my first interactions with the library and information science community. The first IA Summit was an explicit attempt to bring together web designers and LIS [Library Information Science] folks. I gave a presentation where I blasted the “tyranny of hierarchy” and blamed LIS folks for wanting to bring monolithic structures to the Web. I was nearly booed off the stage. It turns out that there was much in LIS literature and practice that addressed my concerns, but that the LIS community had been horrible at communicating it outside their discipline. Some LIS folks, however, took up my challenge, and recognized that there was an opportunity to spread their wisdom to new fields. Now among the most popular talks at information architecture conferences are about such LIS notions as faceted classifications, content genres, metadata schema, categorization, controlled vocabularies, and the like. (Which, tangentially, is leading to a separate problem of information architecture being reduced to librarianship for the Web.)

14 GK VanPatter: Since our remaining time together is short, let’s both try to not get bogged down in details regarding what you and I think of various traditional design sub-systems. I believe there are bigger issues and opportunities here for us to talk about. Let’s kick it up a notch. . . :-) I am certainly not here as the design police. Our interest in such issues is not connected to stirring up old-style “You said, They said” confrontations, but rather more around trying to better understand the dynamics present within knowledge communities and organizations in the 21st century. We try our very best to step outside all of the emotional interconnections and just look at what seems to be going on here from a knowledge perspective and from a next design leadership perspective. After all, design leadership in the 21st century is already closely tied to knowledge leadership in one form or another. While organizational and community focused or sized questions were not an integral part of Design 1.0 and 2.0, they certainly are part of the Design 3.0 challengescape.

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From our perspective, this is less about Peter and more about a phenomenon that began to emerge some years ago in numerous organizations and is now full blown across several knowledge communities including the design community. What we are talking about here is a phenomenon that is not yet well understood or even acknowledged in the graduate design education community or in the design community in general. These are not academic or theoretical abstractions, but rather real issues facing many organizations today. Help me think about something here that is complicated and messy. I am not sure what all the answers are myself. I see many existing and emerging dynamics in the marketplace that design community leaders have not done a great job of addressing or even discussing in meaningful ways. Among other things, you are experienced in the realm of information architecture. Help me think about this from an ordering systems perspective. Presently the ordering system that is used in many organizations including design practices is discipline based, or at least it presents itself as being discipline based. The traditional way, still prevalent in most organizations, was to organize ourselves and understand ourselves in terms of titles linked to disciplines. Often these were one or two word headers or tags. Some refer to them as addresses. This conversation makes it clear that this ordering system alone is no longer working well. Although deeply rooted, it has lost a lot of its meaning and seems often to be out of sync with the complexity of the knowledge and innovation workplace. Bear with me for a moment. Let’s step outside of ourselves and try on a different, less emotionally charged perspective. Let’s call this Scenario 1. Let’s transport this away from Peter and to the context or scale of a meeting among a dozen people. Let’s think about what we would need to have in the room if the objective of the meeting was to solve a complex problem and create quality innovative results. In our Humantific practice we typically advise folks to have the following three fundamental things in the room regardless of the meeting topic: 1. Content Knowledge 2. Process 3. Process Skill Let’s pick a subject focus for the meeting. Say the meeting was going to be about heart surgery. Someone was having a heart surgery problem and a group was getting together to discuss it. If this was your heart surgery problem I’m guessing you would want to have some heart surgeons in the room as they would obviously have the heart surgery content knowledge. It is likely that others would be in the room as well.

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Now let’s change scale once more and transport this meeting to a larger organizational context. Let’s say the meeting is taking place in a hospital. Let’s call it Hospital X. Luckily Hospital X has 25 heart surgeons. Also inside the hospital are other humans with various forms of knowledge and expertise including business managers, general doctors, dermatologists, gynecologists, lawyers, accountants, security guards, librarians, cooks, engineers and many others. Just as the meetings are about to begin, the economy changes and the hospital leadership team decide to downsize the staff. Hospital leaders decide to fire all the heart surgeons. The leaders figure out that they can still claim to be in the heart surgery business if they change the titles of 25 other people on staff to heart surgeon. With this in mind, Hospital X changes the titles of 5 business managers, 3 librarians, 8 accountants, 1 engineer, 6 security guards, 1 dermatologist and 1 cook to heart surgeons. All 25 now engage in the heart surgery meetings as heart surgeons. How do the dynamics of Scenario 1 change the nature, focus and outcomes of the heart surgery meetings in the Hospital X organization? Scenario 2 follows the same route except that the economy takes an upswing requiring that the hospital seek out and hire 25 additional heart surgeons, for a total of 50 heart surgeons. In this scenario the CEO decides that cooks make great heart surgeons so Hospital X hires 15 cooks, 5 security guards and 5 gynecologists and gives them all the title of heart surgeon. All 25 now engage in the heart surgery meetings as heart surgeons along with the original 25 heart surgeons How do the dynamics of Scenario 2 change the nature, focus and outcomes of the heart surgery meetings in the Hospital X organization? Your thoughts on Scenario 1 and 2 are welcome. Do you see anything here in either of these scenarios that we can take away and apply to the design community of knowledge, our community of practice? Peter Merholz: My initial thoughts on both hypothetical scenarios are that they are ludicrous, at least at face value. And if I try not to take them at face value, but understand them as some kind of allegory, well, I still don’t quite know what is being gotten at. In fact, I’m realizing I cannot answer your questions without feeling like I’m wasting my time. Instead of dancing around bizarre hypotheticals, can we try to address the topic at hand directly? Because, to answer your last question, no, there is nothing in either of those scenarios worth taking away because I cannot identify any actual relevance.

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15 GK VanPatter: I will point out that earlier in this conversation you stated that whenever you “try to engage in theoretical, or quasi-academic, discussions on mailing lists, it rarely goes anywhere”. Later you said that “designers aren’t really willing to participate in dialogue” and when you “disagree with design dogma” you are “typically written off and ignored.” I am not writing you off and I am certainly not ignoring you. I am engaging you directly in dialogue. You might not always like that dialogue, but it is dialogue nonetheless. Now while NextD Journal prides itself in not being an academic publication, we do certainly strive to rise above the day-to-day operational focus of many design practices. Many of our readers subscribe because we are talking about issues concerning design in ways not found in most design businesses or the traditional design press. We recognize that in most day-to-day practice settings there tends to be an operational impatience with all things “theoretical.” By design we do not seek to bring that operational impatience dogma into the mix here. Realizing this goal does require that we ask our conversation participants to step outside of those operational dynamics if that is the norm that they are accustomed to in their day-to-day work. Some participants are more comfortable with that then others. Some start off by thinking this is some kind of promotional forum and then discover that a different form of sense-making exploration is going on here. Sense-making is powerful and often difficult. In the sense-making business we often use comparisons to enhance and accelerate understanding As you pointed out earlier, there are many operational type conversations going on elsewhere. No need to duplicate that here. In this NextD Journal context we engage and explore assumptions, ideas and challenges. In doing so we welcome the use of models, scenarios, metaphors, stories, case studies, hypotheticals, etc. All are useful in helping us get outside of ourselves to better understand the world in which we are as humans enmeshed. Sometimes a little distance is useful. It seems to me that this conversation is a great opportunity for you to fulfill your stated interest in engaging a designer willing to participate in dialogue. . . :-) From the NextD perspective there is a lot going on in and around design today. So much so that old arguments about whether or not graphic design should be more user-centered seem petty and microscopic in comparison to the many huge and pressing issues facing the community. Frankly speaking, those arguments are old news anyway. Richard Wurman (and others) have been talking about that issue for more then a decade. Richard did a lot to blaze trails in that direction and encourage others to do so. At this point I believe most people understand that the graphic design community will never be monolithic in purpose or approach. I believe that is a bit of a paper tiger you are fighting there, my friend The world has already moved on and to a significant degree so has design. It is not a monolithic move, but certainly today an entire segment of the design community is focused on human-centered design. It does seem a tad unfair that you would dismiss the entire design community because you

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have some concerns about graphic design or interaction design. There seems to be a bit of a mish-mash going on there. In any case, there are bigger fish to fry. . . :-) Personally I see many connections between Scenarios 1 and 2 and the challenges now facing the design community of knowledge, as well as other communities. If you do not see those connections, that is OK, too. We can leave it up to readers to determine what they see. Here we are interested in opportunity space. From our perspective there is an entire area of unexplored and hugely important terrain for next generation graduate design students to think about here. It may be of surprise to you, but we increasingly find those in design practice interested in this kind of opportunity space as well. Among other things, this terrain touches on the convergence and cross-pollination of knowledge and knowledge communities. It includes the questions: Where does knowledge come from? From institutions? From experience? How and with what do we now organize our teams? How are we using knowledge tags, title tags, and discipline tags? Are those tags still meaningful? How do we understand who is who in the post-dotcom era since many knowledge assumptions have shifted significantly? Certainly in the context of Design 3.0, the art and science of how we understand ourselves and how we understand teams is much more important then it was in the past. If you look closely at my conversations with many of the leaders of graduate design schools, there is often still an assumption being made that the makeup of multidisciplinary teams, the responsibilities among the team members, is based on nondisputed, conveniently compartmentalized knowledge. This is pre-dotcom era logic. In these models the engineer contributes the engineering perspective, the heart surgeons the heart surgery perspective, the psychologists the psychology perspective, etc. It is all very neat and tidy. Unfortunately, that model does not have much to do with what’s going on in the more complicated real world today, as is evidenced by this conversation. Let’s be honest. There is a largely unacknowledged knowledge navigation nightmare out there. This is the real world that innovation leaders now face. The shift towards working in teams has brought this complexity front and center in our day-to-day lives. The old ways of Design 1.0 and 2.0 are no longer enough to navigate the world that we ourselves have created in our own community. It does not take a rocket designer to see that new tools are needed. These are issues that designers working in the 3.0 space can get to work on and help with. In addition, this terrain that we stumbled into here touches on even bigger issues, including the impact of blogs and the internet in general on the shift of “authority” and presumed “expertise” away from community institutions to corporate organizations and the individual. Who decides what appropriate knowledge is today? Is it the professional schools? The professional associations? Or is it practices and individuals? What are the repercussions when traditional institutions fail? These are big questions for many knowledge communities including design.

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I am mindful that our time together here is drawing to a close and there are still many areas that we have not touched upon. I have been tough on you here asking you some difficult questions. The flip side is that you have demonstrated here and certainly on your blog that you are often very tough on design. I’m still a little puzzled by that, especially since you earlier described yourself as being a designer in the design business. I noted recently on your blog that you wrote a piece entitled “The Dark Side of Design.” Among other things you wrote: “While there is much good in design thinking, I think we have to not get carried away about designers' power. In my experience, I've seen many negative qualities of design thinking, qualities that have proven a detriment on projects and to the profession as a whole. . . Designers often hate the idea that their designs must live on in the hands of the users. They obsess over every detail as they plot a world of what should be. . . . Arrogance/condescension towards users While designers have been attempting to corner the market on empathy, the truth is that that shift is a remarkably recent one. When I began working with design firms (with Studio Archetype, in 1996), designers never attempted to appreciate the user perspective and provide the appropriate service. They instead designed what THEY liked, and assumed that users would appreciate their brilliance.” As we turn the corner towards home on this one, I’d like to ask you a three-part question. You seem to have a love-hate thing going on here with design. Looking at the picture that you have created, I am not sure if your intention is to fight for design as an advocate and design community change maker, against design as an antidesign force or something in-between. A) From your perspective, what is it that undergraduate, graduate and or postgraduate design school-educated designers are lacking that you and or Adaptive Path brings to the party here? B) What is it specifically that you are teaching in Adaptive Path workshops that is not already being taught in graduate design programs today? C) From your perspective, is designers having too much “power” really among the most pressing problems in the marketplace today? Or is something else going on when you make such statements? Peter Merholz: First off, I definitely cop to having a love-hate relationship with the field of design. My antipathy toward designers’ sentiments is due to my idealistic belief in the potential of design. Also, it’s coming across that I hate design school designers. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I’m thrilled we added an IIT/ Institute of Design graduate

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http://www.adaptivepath.com/aboutus/brandon.php and a Carnegie Mellon University graduate http://www.adaptivepath.com/aboutus/dan.php to our staff this past year. The perspective they bring us is exceedingly valuable. So, letter by letter: A) I think it’s unfair to characterize it as something that design school-educated designers are “lacking.” Given the complexities in the changing nature of design that we’ve discussed, it’s unfair to criticize design schools for not stepping up to address all that is going on. I mean, a design school program would have to last 4 or 5 years to touch on all the things that are necessary to practice effective design. Given the standard constraint of a two- or three-year program, the design schools of which I’m familiar are packing in a bunch of relevant content. That said, I think there are valuable points of distinction that we at Adaptive Path have developed over many years of working in this field, and realizing our successes and (perhaps more importantly) our failures. A key point is an appreciation of the entire experience separate from a focus on the form of any particular artifact. This, in turn, requires recognizing that design is not the only contributing factor in the experience. We’re not beholden only to design as a means of solving problems of user experience. There are many approaches to bring to bear. Obviously, design is a significant one, perhaps the one with the most impact, but it is not the only one. Something else that I believe sets us apart is how we attempt to engage in our clients’ actual business realities. We spend a lot of time digging deeply into the true value of solving the particular problems we’ve been asked to address. This means going deep with metrics, management, and finances, getting comfortable with terms like NPV and IRR and break-even. Not just getting comfortable, even, but understanding how the mechanisms of finance can actually inform our designs, make better designs that solve both user need and business need. Related, but distinct, is the effort we make in understanding how organizations work, and how they will internalize and metabolize our designs. We spend a lot of time grokking organizational idiosyncrasies and designing toward them because we want nothing more than to see our work out in the world. Continuing this thread, flexibility is a key elemental principle in our approach. We put the word “adaptive” in our company’s name for a reason. We seek to provide solutions that truly fit our clients’ needs. Unlike every large interaction design firm I worked for (and maybe things have changed in the last five years), we do not have an overarching process through which we run all of our projects. We employ a toolkit from which we pick and choose methods that best meet the needs of the problem at hand. B) There are a number of things we teach that aren’t reflected in standard design school curricula. Again, this is not because of any shortcomings in the design schools. They teach a lot that we don’t even begin to address. We see one of our roles as figuring out how to bring the practice of good design, the kind of practice

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taught in school, into the real world without compromising (too much) the integrity of that practice. As I mentioned in my answer to Question 9, we begin our core workshop, “Beyond Usability,” by diving deep into what we call Discovery – methods for understanding the client, their goals and objectives, their financial and other measurable concerns, and their operations. We feel that it is unlikely you’ll have a successful design without coming to grips with these concerns. Typically designers are simply fed “requirements” which specify the parameters for design. We encourage our attendees to challenge requirements and go deeper, in order to ensure that your design will be truly relevant. Additionally, we teach a model for understanding the business value of design, a model we developed in research we did on how organizations value user experience. http://www.adaptivepath.com/reports/businessvalue Something else that’s becoming essential for everyone to understand, at least at a high level, is what we call “content analysis”: a high-level discussion of issues from library and information science such as metadata, taxonomies, classification, etc. To a point you made earlier, most design practice (hell, business practice) still assumes that you tie job titles to compartmentalized skill sets. While not every designer needs to be a librarian, there’s no reason they can’t understand the basics of content analysis and appreciate what it can do for them. C) Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear because in no way do I think that designers have all that much power in the marketplace. They (we) are still marginalized and not given the responsibility and authority we deserve. The situation is changing, and designers’ stars are ascendant. Some forward-thinking businesses are recognizing the “power of design” (as BusinessWeek referred to it), and designers are getting an opportunity to provide their insights at earlier points in the product development cycle. This is great. However, this ascendancy, combined with the hype about “design thinking” (which no one has yet to adequately define), has led to a lot of froth in which anything associated with the concept of design was de facto good. As a natural-born contrarian, I wanted to balance out the discussion by identifying where I have found “design thinking” to be problematic. As I’m writing about this, I’m realizing a tie to a point I was making earlier. I, and my colleagues at Adaptive Path, are relentlessly focused on providing the best user experiences. We try not to be beholden to any particular approach, dogma, or school of thought. We pick and choose from a variety of approaches to solve problems. Often it means borrowing from our design toolkit, but other times it means utilizing “business thinking” – measurement and analysis obviously have their place. Or it might mean borrowing from “engineering thinking” – obsession with the material nature of the problem. Each of these forms of thinking have characteristics which, depending on contexts, can be helpful or hindering. What I was trying to do in that post is show that the design approach is not an absolute good, and it shouldn’t be adopted unquestioningly.

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16 GK VanPatter: I heard that Adaptive Path has sold its first product, Measure Map, to Google. Big congrats on that, Peter. We have covered a lot of ground in this conversation. It is clearer to me now that we have many things in common and many differences. It is our custom here to turn over the floor to our guest for final comments. Before I do that I wanted to take this last opportunity to share three small thoughts or bubbles of logic with you in closing. One bubble has to do with diversity and turkey dinners, the other with paradoxes and the final one on those folks in the world who find meaning in speaking for those without voices. Let’s try now to connect a few dots as we land this plane. OK, first the turkey dinner part quickly. (Love those metaphors!) Recently while sitting in my doctor’s office waiting room I found a great article about turkey dinners in the New York Times Magazine. It might sound a little strange, but in reading it I made an immediate connection to our conversation here. In the spirit of cultural diversity the Times editors had made an effort to include examples of not just one traditional model of a turkey dinner, but rather several types. It was a relatively simple gesture that had significant impact, I think. It helped me imagine that there are likely lots of turkey dinner models out there in the world. The diversity is now so vast that it no doubt includes some turkey dinner models that contain little and no turkey at all. All of this helped me think about how behind each turkey dinner model, the delivery mechanisms were likely very different. Clearly design is not turkey, but if any of us needed a reminder, this conversation shows that design is no longer just one thing. It can be and is being served up in many different ways. Likewise behind all of that serving up is now a vast diversity of thinking and delivery mechanisms. I can imagine that what you are serving up at Adaptive Path is very different from what we serve at Humantific, yet we both consider ourselves to be in the design business – not the old business but different versions of new or next design. I think it is important to point out that many of the changes underway in the design community involve more then the kinds of outside-in change that we have talked about here in this conversation. There is a lot going on in the other direction – inside-out – where design school-educated designers are deliberately, proactively seeking out other forms of knowledge and other tools to integrate into the process of next design. I have talked about this many times since 2002 when we launched NextD. At each iteration of design – 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 – design was transformed by adding new forms of knowledge not found in the earlier models. To the point that you made earlier, I for one would not want to convey the impression that the design community should close ranks and focus all of our energies on defending the traditional turf of design. Those days are long gone. I believe the only way for design to survive in a form other then hand labor is to get moving into more

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strategic territory. If that territory is presently occupied by others, so be it. The future of design leadership absolutely has to be proactive and expansive. Today designers are adapting their toolsets and their models to engage all kinds of organizational challenges that have been historically the terrain of other professionals including our friends who went to business school. So be it. We have made great efforts to invite and include others to the design party. In the same spirit, its time now to get inviting ourselves to other parties. Whether we call it cross pollination, invasion or something else, designers have to learn that game too, and we have to learn it better and faster then those arriving in our space. Rather then having the business folks coming in to tell us what design now is and how to improve design, I would like to see many more design folks moving into organizational settings helping business leaders rethink and reinvent their business models, and not just by adding more technology. In order to get there an expansive and adaptive view of design is needed. In addition to acknowledging the diversity of design models now in operation out there, we also have great interest in better understanding the conditions for designers and the role of design leadership inside the various models. Recently I came to the realization that we could tell a lot about what is likely going on inside various business models by looking at the top three levels of leadership. Organizing the various typical players in our industry – Design, Business, Technology, Science, Others – I developed a little sense-making system for myself that looks like this: B = Business school-trained T = Technology school-trained D = Design school-trained S1 = Science 1 school-trained S2 = Science 2 school-trained O = Other school-trained Etc.

Design Organization Type 1 looks like this: Level 1 Leadership: B Level 2 Leadership: B Level 3 Leadership: TDO

Organization Type 2 looks like this: Level 1 Leadership: D Level 2 Leadership: DT Level 3 Leadership: T

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Organization Type 3 looks like this: Level 1 Leadership: T Level 2 Leadership: TB Level 3 Leadership: T

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Organization Type 4 looks like this: Level 1 Leadership: D Level 2 Leadership: DTB Level 3 Leadership: D

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Organization Type 5 looks like this: Level 1 Leadership: B Level 2 Leadership: BTDS Level 3 Leadership: T

All of these models (and hundreds more) are delivering some form of design, but what they value and how they operate are very different. Each combo has different attributes. Of course, as the number of operating models with B, T, or O occupying the upper two realms of leadership begin to outnumber those where D is present, there are many profound implications for the design community. OK, here is the paradox part: As I travel around the world talking with designers, design managers and design business leaders, I often find three dynamics or paradoxes appearing in the models where B, T, or O dominate the two upper realms of leadership. Not surprisingly these three paradoxes have made appearances in this conversation as well. Paradox 1: Widen design culture/Narrow design process Paradox 2: We need diversity/We need monoliths Paradox 3: Designers are us/Designers need parents In real life, Paradox 1 looks something like this: In those design practice models where the principals (or lead players) come from other disciplines, we often see the idea of what design is being opened wide enough to include them and then narrowed to one small sub-set step in a broader process no longer called or considered to be design. Once reduced to a small sub-set, it is then suggested that there is a lot going on outside of design. Rather then being expansive and alive, in these models we often find design being compressed and frozen. From my very unscientific observations it is rare to find Paradox 1 occurring in organizations where design is represented in the two top tier leadership levels. I am sure it is no surprise to you that I often find myself advocating the presence of D at leadership levels. Paradox 2 presents itself slightly differently. Here the suggestion often is that the design community should diversify, but once that takes place we see some who entered in the spirit of diversity now advocating one particular type of design.

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Paradox 3 looks like this: In design practice models where those who have arrived on the scene from other disciplines not just to participate in the design business but to take the reigns of “design management,” we often see an odd paternal power dynamic in the works. It is a dynamic that effectively seeks to position those managers as natural leaders while simultaneously positioning designers as twelve-year old kids in need of strong parental guidance, some would say control. With a straight face it has even been suggested to me that design school-educated designers really have no business managing design or participating in important decision-making. All of that important stuff should be left up to folks who have no design education background. I’ve even been told that design works best when no design school-educated designers are in the room. I kid you not. This is being sold everyday in the marketplace, most often by folks who have entered the design space from other disciplines. Guess who occupies the high paying positions when Paradox 3 exists? Some are building entire companies around this orientation. The force of some of this stuff is rather breathtaking. If the truth were told, there is a lot of this going on out there. You won’t read about it in the traditional design press, but it’s out there. While Procter & Gamble and GE are held up as the poster cases for design leadership integration, the unfortunate reality is that the phenomenon of Paradox 3 is much more widespread. It is essentially a virus that continues to take its toll on the design community, penetrating and now residing in many of our institutions. Paradox 3 is already so HUGE that I believe the future of designers participating in design at significant intersection points is already in serious peril. Frankly, it is so widespread that I am not sure if designers can ever wrestle back their own community. There are days when I see things going on that make me think it is already gone. It is with this awareness in mind that I read your quite forceful “Dark Side of Design.” It saddened me, not as the principal of a design company, but rather because I am deeply aware that many young people out there are facing Paradox 3 on a daily basis. I felt badly for them as I believe the problem of Paradox 3 to be far greater in scale and much more pressing then the problem of designers having too much power. I viewed the “Dark Side” as a deflection away from what is actually going on. I was reminded of the “Diverter” character on Saturday Night Live as I read your “Dark Side” piece. All of this brings me to the last bubble of logic that I wanted to touch on here today. Last, but hopefully not least, is the notion of giving voice or voice advocacy. In this conversation you have referred to yourself as a contrarian and a “devils advocate,” so let me address this one quickly. You may or may not be aware that in Design 3.0 we are not only interested in understanding user behavior, we are also interested in better understanding our own behaviors that impact innovation. Design 3.0 contains knowledge to enable and accelerate innovation and thus disable old behaviors including the “devils advocate.” In the innovation acceleration community of knowledge the “devils advocate” is one of several infamous behavioral devices often found in team settings serving the purpose of introducing preemptive judgment. Why humans do that in competitive environments is a conversation unto itself. Suffice it to say that studies have shown that the most judgmental, critical person in a

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group is often perceived by team members to be the most intelligent, knowledgeable and authoritative. It’s an old trick. Those old games go out the window when you make the dynamics visible, when you raise awareness and introduce new skills. That happens in Design 3.0. Apart from that, I am guessing this is not really what’s going on with you anyway. I see something other then a “devil’s advocate” here. My sense is that you are engaged in something deeper, something that connects you deeply to the user-centered part of design whether you know it or not. At its core user-centered design is not really about being a “devils advocate”. No. To put a finer point on it, user-centered as an orientation is about being empathetic. Of course, long before user-centered design or the so-called empathy economy came along, there were humans in the world who had natural empathetic orientations. I am not exactly sure how to tell you this, but although you and I come from very different backgrounds, I believe we have a few fundamental things in common. You may be fully conscious of this. I have no idea. I am much older then you so I will just tell you that it took me many years to figure out what I was exactly doing in my professional life and why. I don’t mean what I thought I was doing on the surface, or what my job title was, but what I was really doing underneath. I will keep the story of how I figured it out for a private conversation some other time. Suffice it to say that underneath much of what I have always done in my professional life and still do today is about voice advocacy. A long time ago I discovered not only that I could add value by speaking up for parties not adequately represented, but that this was my natural orientation in the world. In my early life it took me quite awhile to figure out that not everyone naturally had this interest, this orientation even in design school. It gets more interesting when you look inside the mechanics of voice advocacy. Typically there is an opposing forces dynamic – not necessarily a good guy and a bad guy but more typically a big person versus a little person, a heavily represented voice versus a voice not being represented, sometimes a dominating force of aggression versus an entity in need of voice help. Voice advocates gravitate to taking up the voice that they perceive to be absent in one form or another, either physically absent, absent in capability or absent in some other way. It is no secret that many naturally empathetic people have found meaning and purpose in the user-centered design business. As you well know, in the context of user-centered Design 2.0 this orientation has been harnessed and mainstreamed, most often taking outbound form as in being empathetic to clients, their companies, their users or others outside of ourselves. In the context of Design 3.0, this also takes inbound form as being empathetic to and protective of the various forms of thinking on the team. Underneath your “Dark Side of Design” story, your “Microsoft” story and much of what you have said here about the design community can be seen the strong presence of

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voice advocacy. Many people would not think that they need to speak up on behalf of Microsoft or their interests, but in your story you did. In that story you seem to see designers, in particular those who are not user-centered, to be the dominant force in need of course correction. The same dominant force designation can be seen in your “Dark Side of Design” story. Of course underneath my own stories about the field of anthropology and the Hospital X Scenarios voice advocacy can also be seen, albeit embodied in a different style. While it is clear to me now that we are both voice advocates what is most striking is that we seem to be on opposite sides of advocacy. Your dominant forces of aggression seem to be a sub-set of the force that I see in need of advocacy. The dominant forces that I see, as identified in Paradox 1, 2, 3 are the forces that you seem to be aligned with and are often defending, whether that is your conscious intention or not. This often confusing opposite sides dynamic can be seen through out our conversation here. I could leave it there, but to be fair I think there is likely another wrinkle to the story. In addition to being a voice advocate for next design leadership, I am also an advocate of change in the design community. We always say there is a yin and a yang to what we do here at NextD. Our yin is promotion of user-centered next design leadership, an emerging model. Our yang is the message that design leadership needs to change and adapt in order to realize that model or anything close to it. I am trying to get my brain around how the equivalent works for you. I can see that you frame your advocacy as being user-advocacy, most often depicting design as a dominant force of aggression. What complicates your user-advocacy yin message is that you seem to have a couple of trailer issues attached. Included in your yin seems to be advocacy of the idea that design is not a field of knowledge, with the follow-up advocacy of the idea that anyone can be a designer. Your yang message seems to be that design needs to change by becoming more user-centered. I believe you will find no-shortage of folks in the design community who subscribe to that yang message and will agree with you there. In addition, many are already operating in the user-centered space and have for many years, long before the arrival of the dot-com era. It is the trailers attached to your yin message that seem to present a bit of a mind bender. It is one thing to advocate being more empathetic, being more user-centered or even that various competitions should reflect this value. It is quite another to advocate that design is not a field of knowledge or that anyone can be a designer. I’m sure you must know that these are gateway positions with considerable cascade. All of this reminds me of the “Everyone is a Designer” movement that cycled through during the dotcom era some years ago. Needless to say, I never subscribed to that movement. Including everyone – users, clients, adults, children, dogs and cats – in the process of designing and/or innovation is a notion that we advocate, but assuming that everyone is naturally a deeply skilled and knowledgeable professional designer is something quite different. My guess is that many in the community who jumped on that “Everyone is a Designer” bandwagon never really understood what the cascading

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implications were. That was a gateway. It strikes me that ripples from that movement are still reverberating through the community. Some have taken great advantage of it. I’m sure we could extend this part of our conversation on and on, but our time together here is short now. In closing I want to make it clear that I acknowledge your considerable skill as a voice advocate. I believe you are a natural. Combined with writing skill and blog technology, you have become a formidable force. There is a lot to celebrate in that and you certainly do not need me to tell you that as with any skill there is also responsibility. All of us enjoy the freedom of being able to take on any advocacy that we choose and I am certainly not here to tell you otherwise. Suffice it to say that how you and I wield that voice advocacy power is now going to be more closely watched and hopefully better understood. . . :-) What I am really hoping for here is that you will at least occasionally rethink the “Dark Side” thing and come over into the light to join in advocacy that will help propel design into the future. My sense is that this is your underlying intention. Design faces enormous challenges and, frankly, we need all the help we can get. I’ve learned a lot from this conversation. Thanks again, Peter. I hope to see you out there on the bright side of design. The floor is all yours for final comments. Peter Merholz: I applaud your thoughtful and robust statement. My “turkey dinners” are definitely non-standard, as I don’t like turkey. For years, my family ate at a Chinese seafood restaurant in San Francisco for Thanksgiving dinner, so my “turkey” was usually a sea bass or catfish. http://sanfrancisco.citysearch.com/profile/917701/san_francisco_ca/yuet_lee.ht ml I want to respond to your discussion of voice advocacy. I think I’m more on the side of design than you give me credit. You labeled my attitude towards designers as “aggression.” I think a more accurate label is “frustration.” And my frustration with designers stems from my appreciation of the potential of design. You comment on organizations headed by Bs and Ts, and how it leads to Paradox 3, where you mentioned, “With a straight face it has even been suggested to me that design school educated designers really have no business managing design or participating in important decision-making.” There’s a reason for this, and it’s directly tied into how I advocate. Designers have spent a long time focusing on the wrong thing, or, perhaps more fairly, on the inconsequential thing. My post on the Dark Side of Design Thinking, and my other criticisms of designers are to shine a light on the behaviors and expressions of designers that have lead to their marginalization.

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You would be right in saying my empathy is not with designers. I think that’s a very limited expression of empathy. My empathy, my voice advocacy, is with all those who want to Do Right and are struggling against external forces. Whether it’s Do Right By Themselves or Do Right By Their Organization or Do Right By Their Customers/Clients/Users/Constituents. I work as a designer and I engage with the design community because I see design as a powerful tool for Doing Right. I think a point of clarification is in order. You seem to have interpreted my hostility as one focused on design. That’s not true. I distinguish between design and designers, and any hostility I have demonstrated is aimed directly at designers. Designers who fail to live up to the ideals and potential of design. You remarked how odd it seemed that I would advocate for Microsoft. I don’t think I was advocating for Microsoft so much as expressing frustration at foolishness being exhibited by designers. It’s remarkably easy for a designer to bash Microsoft. But it can also be short-sighted. I would rather designers try to understand why Microsoft is as tremendously successful as it is, than take potshots at cluttered presentations. But designers, with their facility to focus on the meaningless thing, dismiss Microsoft because they don’t approve of its aesthetics. It’s that kind of thinking that allows designers to be marginalized. It’s that kind of thinking that frustrates me to no end. One thing I finally realized in this last statement of yours is that not only do you call yourself a designer—your identity is wrapped up in being a designer. And I think that has colored your view of my arguments, mistaking criticism and frustration for hostility and aggression. The moment we attach our identity to a label (“designer,” “information architect,” “engineer,” “New Yorker,” “San Franciscan,” “Catholic,” “Jew”) we lose perspective. We perceive criticism as personal slights. Your colored view seems to have misinterpreted earlier statements of mine. I do not profess that “Everyone is a Designer.” My answer to question 11 explicitly addresses this, yet you seemed to have ignored it in favor of sticking with flawed presumptions, which I can only figure is due to this issue of identity. Also, I never said design is not a field of knowledge. You asked if design was a field of “vast, deep, broad, and nuanced” field of knowledge like anthropology, and I said, “No.” We never discussed whether design is another kind of field of knowledge, which I think it is. But it is fractured, rootless, and without a core. It doesn’t have anywhere near the depth or nuance of anthropology. I also think that this colored view caused you to shift the discussion when it was getting pointedly uncomfortable. It’s an easy rhetorical move to dismiss me as simply concerned with issues of “user-centered,” and to claim that designers get “usercentered” and it’s time to move on. However, both stances are fallacious. I’ll start with the latter. Many in the design field do NOT get user-centered practice. That’s a fact. You may dispute it, and, yes, leading design practitioners do embrace user-centered approaches. But if you think this is the norm, you’re misleading yourself.

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But more importantly, I object to having been placed inside a ‘user-centered’ box, essentially in an effort to casually dismiss what I consider the issues I have with contemporary designers. You misread my perspective. My discussion of users (whether in this conversation, or on my site), is not because I’m interested in users for users’ sake. It’s because I’m interested in developing successful designs. If design can succeed without users, than I’m all for it. My issue is that designers have often expressed a faulty notion of success. Designers believe they are successful if they’ve won an award, or delivered on-time and on-budget, or if they’ve made the client happy. And while these are all fine things, if this is your definition of success, you will continue to be marginalized. I think designers need to be dissatisfied with their results until they’ve demonstrated they’ve delivered real value. That is a true, honest, rational measure of success that transcends disciplines. Yet many designers will fault things that are successful if they don’t measure up to some arbitrary criteria they’ve set out, usually one of aesthetics. And every time a designer publicly discredits successful products and services, it allows non-designers to dismiss them as foggy-headed aesthetes. You may think that the profession of design has elevated beyond such behavior, but my everyday experience (on mailing lists, reading blogs, interacting with clients) suggests otherwise. You finish with the statement, “Design faces enormous challenges and frankly we need all the help we can get.” I agree, and this is what I endeavor to do with all my work. And I believe in the power of design to make enormous positive change in the world. But as the saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.” It’s useless for me to profess the opportunities of design to non-designers as long as designers continue to behave in ways that undercut their ability to have an impact. I think it’s valuable for me to hold a mirror up to designers, to help them see how others see them. (Saying that probably makes me come off as an arrogant prick, but I’ve found that having my friends and colleagues hold that mirror up to me has been helpful in my personal and professional evolution. Heck, I think you have been a pretty good mirror-holder in this conversation.) Ever since I’ve worked closely with designers, I’ve witnessed their self-proclaimed victimization. In my experience, designers are victims not of the actions of others, but of themselves. They have let others come and define their roles for them, dutifully accepting requirements, iterating on whims, and then bitching about it over beers after work. I argue that designers need to stand up and define their own work. Make their voices heard throughout the product development processes. Demonstrate that their contributions go deeper than form, to the core of the product (and business) itself. To be willing to be held accountable for their work – to accept the risk and reward given their non-designer colleagues, to be lauded for their successes and chastised for their failures. When that happens, we’ll see designers sitting in their

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rightful place alongside other leaders of business, society, academia, politics, appropriately influencing matters across a range of concerns. I thank you for this opportunity to deeply, thoughtfully, and often uncomfortably grapple with issues of design as it heads into the 21st century. Good luck to NextD for the next 94 years!

NextD Journal RERETHINKING DESIGN

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Ladder of Fire: Unpacking Advocacies