From hunch to research direction to design concept

The hand

The most common issue service design students face is project paralysis in the face of infinite possibilities and the synthesis of a mass of research material. Services are often complex and the interconnectedness of problems can soon appear too difficult to tackle. Taking the leap to tentatively develop an idea, and letting go of the need for it to be the best idea possible is often a real challenge, especially when the concept remains an abstract and complex.

I wrote a post over on Medium titled Getting From Here to There about moving from a hunch to research direction to concept. It looks at what the service design equivalent is of an architect’s rough sketches of a large project as opposed to the detail of a single touchpoint. It started as a mail to my service design students, but I thought others might find it useful in teaching, learning or practice too.

I’d love to hear your feedback in the margin comments on Medium.


Coursekit is a free online learning management system. I’ve used a lot of the heavy duty, clunky systems over the years, such as Blackboard, WebCT and Moodle and most of them feel stuck in 1996. Right now I use Omnium for my online teaching. It’s something I’ve put a lot of time into helping shape in the early days, but I’d be fibbing if I said it couldn’t do with a bit of an UI update.

I haven’t used Coursekit yet – these days I mostly create a blog for my students and let them use whatever tools they like – but it looks promising and is really how these systems should look and feel. Light, uncluttered, user-friendly. Obvious, really, except to university IT departments.

The only worry is its financial model, which is the build it and hope they will come approach. I’d like to know they’ll be around in 5 years’ time.

Via Veronica Grow (@oldschoolthenew)

Mentoring Creative Minds


The current issue of COFA’s Incubate magazine has a piece by me in it called Mentoring Creative Minds, which is a reflection on 15 years of teaching (that I have been teaching that long came as a bit of a shock). They also used a scarily large version of my head logo (I can see some bezier points that need work there).

You can download a PDF copy of the magazine here (14.4 MB) to read the whole thing (my piece is on page 33), but here is an excerpt I wanted to share:

Unfortunately, the Vice-Chancellor does not whisper the secret to success in your ear while handing over your testamur. Fortunately, I can deliver it to you here: there is no secret.

Getting students to trust in this, and the knowledge that some projects succeed, others fail and that there is always another one around the corner, is really what teaching is all about. I’m sure there are academics who thrive on being the source of brilliant knowledge. For me, nothing beats the moment when the smart, creative student sitting opposite me realises their own brilliance and doesn’t need me anymore.

I’m sure my current students will be only too willing to remind me of this, but it’s true.

Teaching, Learning and Mazes

The COTEN project is gaining momentum and there are some excellent discussions going on. A lot of the conversation is about different teaching and institutional structures and the styles of learning they encourage or discourage.

I just wrote a response to a post, which delves a little bit into my PhD subject, which is about understanding interactivity through play. As I came to the end of my PhD I realised that the principles of interactivity that I developed (more on this soon) held true for a number of other areas, including teaching and service design. I posted a response on the COTEN forums, but I’d like to air it here as a blog post in its own right:

Teaching, Learning and Mazes

Over my years of teaching I’ve tried all sorts of approaches, from leaving things very open to having things very structured. I have found it to be totally context dependent. Some students love to be left to their own devices while others crave structure. The challenge is to cater for both. It also depends on individual courses and the backgrounds of those taking them.

I also realised that the more I hands-on helped, the more helpless my students became because I was doing all the learning on their behalf. When I first started teaching, it took me a semester before I realised that helping them less actually helped them more because they worked things out for themselves and learned by doing.

Finding the right balance is the main skill of teaching I think and you really have to go with your intuition combined with direct student feedback and ignore most of the other pedagogical literature. I’m sure colleagues will shoot me down for saying that, but I found this when I did study the literature and work on this on a short post-grad course in teaching at higher education level – in the attempt to create the perfect course, it just got over structured and sapped the life and energy out of it for both me and the students.

Writing my PhD on interactivity and play, I developed a set of principles for understanding interactivity through the lens of play that I think applies here. Bear with me, because it’s going to sound like I’m going way off topic, but we’ll come back to the point:

The central principles, among others, are about finding the “magic circle” – the space of play that defines being in play and out of play (such as the lines on a football pitch, the sides of a cardboard box, etc.) and the rules of play. These rules allow for different behaviour during play (e.g. you can tackle someone holding a ball to the ground) than during “normal” life. One of the things that I argue is that knowing these two things is essential to any interaction – from interpersonal through interface to society. On the interactive interface front, users need to understand what game they’re playing and the interface needs to be set up in the right way. In this way you can explore, analyse and design for both tightly controlled UI environments such as an iPhone app or a part of an operating system, but the principles also allow for the same analysis of an interactive art installation. The key is understanding the context. In the latter example, it might be desired that the interactor is deliberately tricked or gets lost or that the interface is ambiguous unlike the clarity of an iPhone app. On the other hand that iPhone app might have playful elements that encourage you to explore the boundaries of the play space (the magic circle) and help you to learn the interface without ever really feeling like you’re learning at all, such as the iPhone’s “one free interaction”.

In the art installation example, the critical aspect of getting the interaction right is that interactors understand that they are meant to be lost. That is, they understand that they’re supposed to not understand the interface straight away and that discovering how it all works is part of the experience. Experienced videogamers will understand this idea straight away, because in most videogames the point is not to read the rules and then play the game, the point is that finding out what the rules are is part of the gameplay experience.

It struck me a while ago as I was deconstructing all of this how much it parallels the learning experience. Learning, by definition, involves a journey into unknown territory, otherwise you would not need to learn it (because it’s not unknown). This is often and usually inherently uncomfortable – nobody likes to feel stupid or confused. It’s rather like being in a maze – at least it is if the teaching and learning experience is going well, because when you are in a maze you know that you are meant to be confused and that somewhere there is a way out and/or if you yell out, somebody will come and help you. This kind of learning experience is usually very positive and why we hear so much terminology of good teachers being ‘guides’. But simply giving someone a map would be “cheating” in play and game terminology and we all know that this takes the fun out of playing.

Another kind of learning experience that is extremely negative is feeling lost, but not knowing you are in a maze that you are supposed to work your way out of. When that’s the case, you just feel lost and confused and it’s all pretty scary because wherever you turn it seems like a dead end. In this example, a map of the maze is equivalent to the tools and methods and technology or techniques that lost students often cling to at the expense of the learning experience they might have if they could work out their own way out of the maze. It’s a completely understandable emotional state, but it doesn’t lead to much lifelong or long-lasting learning.

In both cases you are in a maze, so the context is the same, but the overarching difference is the conceptual space you are in mentally. Setting up this space – the magic circle and the rules of play – seem to me to be the skill that not only the teacher needs to bring to the learning experience, but also that the institutions structures need to encourage.

Most of the time it seems that a lot of effort is spent on making maps to the maze and not on trying to develop the mental space. I think this is because the former is concrete and feels manageable and measurable, while the latter is highly personal and not directly measurable (but the results do show). It’s rather like the difference between Apple’s approach to usability and Jakob Nielsen’s obsessively warped understanding of it (in which he exclaims that, “users don’t know where they can click” when referring to a multitouch device).

Moving Between Consulting and Academia

Jon Kolko’s article, Out of the Frying Pan, into the Fire: Life lessons from consulting to academia, and back again over at Core77, was a particularly pertinent read for me. As someone who still operates between both academia and consulting (and working as a journalist) I find myself alternately frustrated and relieved by both sides of the fence.

Kolko breaks down several myths of academia and consulting, one of which being the amount of work (or not) that academics do.

On paper, two thirds of the year as vacation seems like a dream come true, and I suppose it actually is for a number of people. But upon reflecting on my five years of teaching, I realized that I was working harder, longer, and on more things than ever before. Between mentoring students, writing papers, grading papers, structuring classes, attending presentations and lectures, traveling for conferences, sitting on committees, and—oh, right, teaching classes—I was approaching the seventy or eighty hour work weeks that I was used to from my previous life as a software designer.

Now, it’s true that in every institution there are some academics who basically scam the system and are “dead inside” as Kolko describes. But there are a equal numbers of those that work very hard indeed, care about the students and their education as well as trying to build up departments, etc.

The difference is that it’s much harder to fire the slackers in academia (and that includes the students).

I’ve worked equally hard in the commercial world, but it is more bursty and less relentlessly grinding. Also, teaching takes it out of you if you do it properly. If you don’t believe me, try standing and painstakingly explaining how you do what you do to out loud for eight hours. Plenty of great, talented people are completely exhausted from writing and giving a one-hour talk. Once.

The best thing about Kolko’s article is that it highlights what both sides can learn from each other. Too often academics believe those working commercially are intellectually inferior sell-outs. Designers and consultants working commercially think academics are talentless eggheads. Yet if the commercial world had some of the ethics and rigour of academia and the academic world had some of the zest and speed of commercial decision making things would be much better all round.

It’s one of the reasons I like to do both.

[tags]academia, education, teaching, Core77, Kolko, design, consulting[/tags]

Starting as Gastprofessor at the Bauhaus

Bauhaus Library

I’m off to Weimar tomorrow to start a six-month stint as Guest Professor “Gestaltung medialer Umgebungen” at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar in the Faculty of Media.

It feels quite odd (and rather flattering) to be following in the footsteps of luminaries such as Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius, Vassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee (to name but a few), though things have changed quite a bit since then. There are still plenty of the original buildings though (including original murals and relief sculptures on the wall).

Bernd Hopfengärtner's Hello World project

Photo stolen from Hello World.

My predecessor, Ursula Damm set a project which resulted Bernd Hopfengärtner’s excellent Hello World! work – a Semacode measuring 160 x 160 meters was mown into a wheat field near the town of Ilmenau. I’m planning some playful interactive works (I hope!).

So, if any of my exchange students from Weimar or other folks that read this blog are there, get in touch. I’d love to meet up and see the sights.