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Comment on "Measuring the Design Process"
by Spencer — Mar 23
I couldn't agree more with the vast majority of what you say in your post, but I think it's surprising that Einstein is the example that you turn to at the end of your piece.

Einstein is an interesting example to use because he's neither a computer scientist nor a designer (at least not in the traditional sense of those words). The importance of Einstein for you is that he is "...a scientist and a dreamer." I think that's an important thing to note.

I think that design and philosophy have a lot to learn from one another. Almost everything you say about art applies equally well, if not better, to the discipline of philosophy.

This idea gets a lot of flack from the CS and engineering crowd (not to mention a fair amount from the Art/Design people), but reading Foucault has only increased my appreciation for design.

I think the thesis of your article is near the bottom when you say:
The one indisputable advantage humans have over data is imagination. I realize this is often overplayed and sounds like hyperbole. But I mean it literally. The ability to step outside of what you've seen and consider how something that doesn't exist yet may yet exist is at the center of everything we do. Imagination is what allows us to consider if we should try to gather a different kind of data.

I would like to take issue with this in a way that I think expands its terms.

Not only is data incapable of imagining by itself, there is no such thing as data by itself. Data doesn’t really exist in any pure form, rather it exists only in the interpretations we make of it, in its collection, in our preconceptions of what it will be. Data only ever exists in a social context, and it’s only ever possessed by individuals.

I think there are two readings of your argument. The first would hold it as saying that data only describes the world as it currently exists, and imagination is the capacity for thinking outside the world, for making something entirely new.

I take issue with this reading. Foucault tells us that we learn who we are, and we learn how the world works. He says our freedom in the world comes from our ability to combine, interpret, destabilize and reunderstand the ways in which we have learned the world.

If this is the case, it means we cannot imagine things outside of the world. Design never happens in a vacuum; there is no originality in any sort of pure form, originality is only a useful way of combining forms of knowledge we have inherited.

This is the basis for my second reading of your argument: Data and perspectives on design and existence that attempt to be solely informed by data (although I disagree that such a thing is possible for the Foucaultian subject) violently deny the very things that make the act of design the exercise of freedom.

The future exists for us not in the narrow sense of the continuation of the present with “better” stuff in it. The future is a limitless horizon that expands the way in which things can exist. This means we have to avoid limiting ourselves by sticking to the data. New ways of doing, being and thinking will emerge out of the chaos and instability of the world we inherit.

This is the promise of good design: that it can be the embodiment of freedom. Good design pushes things forward. It invokes the arts and skills of the present to create objects and ideas that expand the ways we can experience the world. Its new-ness and the way we can appreciate it comes not from its “originality,” so to speak, but rather from its constant reaffirmation that we are not limited by the ideas of the present.

Einstein was, admittedly, kind of a badass. At the same time, he was informed by a lot of discourses that hold on to what I feel is a really limited view of what humans are and what they can do. Design is important because everything we do can be thought of as design.

We design doorknobs and papers. We design computer software and websites. We design our personal styles and communication forms.

The primary argument of Foucault’s I’d like to use is that there are no neutral statements. The things we leave out are as important, if not more, than what we choose to include. Leaving out a “humanistic approach” to design isn’t about “not including it”; it’s a deliberate exclusion. This is because data only exists in context to the people who collect, code and employ it.

Similarly, adopting a data-less approach is an exclusion of the way in which our understanding of design has been created in relation to data. It is a political choice that says that one thing is more important than another.

I use a Mac because I feel like the people who make it are passionate about pushing the envelope and creating new ways of thinking/doing/being. They make design choices that are not necessarily informed by what has been successful in the past, but by what expands our computing experience for the future by creating new interfaces, new ways of interfacing.

Sometimes they make huge mistakes. That’s why I think every good design team should have Foucault scholar. That doesn’t necessarily make mistakes impossible, but it helps to make those mistakes move things forward in powerful ways that affirm freedom.
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