XXI.4 July + August 2014
Page: 36
Digital Citation

Undesigning interaction

James Pierce

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This article has no pictures.1 I don't want to disappoint readers who are expecting glossy images, straightforward examples, or prescriptive methods. I'm not going to give any.2

Instead I want to reflect on exclusionary action as design. Typically we think of design in positive terms such as creation, introduction, production, and object. But what about design as negation, destruction, removal, elimination, absence, inaction?

The point of this article is to motivate "undesign thinking" and rethink the familiar forms of interaction design. I want to recast with positive connotations the words we have for articulating what is objectively negative. Doing so will hopefully allow us to speak and write more openly and productively about designing to inhibit, displace, erase, or foreclose.

But beyond speaking and writing about design, I want to suggest practical design action. Not just the type of practical action we typically think of as interaction design, but forms of design that may seem too different or else too trivial to fall within the scope of interaction design. Indeed, thinking in negative terms about design may require us to broaden our understanding of "practical action."

Is replacing a digital technology with a non-digital technology interaction design? Is replacing a high-tech digital display with a paper display interaction design? Is removing Wi-Fi interaction design?

What about eliminating a harmful interactive technology? Or making an interactive artifact to cast doubt on technology itself? Or designing products that give people options to inhibit their own use?

Can merely refraining from design be a substantive mode of doing design? Can the introduction of literally no thing be a good design?

At the very least, such intentions, actions, and outcomes suggest both opportunities and responsibilities for interaction design—regardless of whether we call them undesign, design, or something else altogether.

back to top  Why Not Design?

As designers and researchers of interactive technologies, we're concerned with designing things that solve problems, enrich experience, and add value to people's lives. We work with some of the latest and greatest technologies. And we value novel applications. So why would we want to "undesign" the types of things we create—even the very things that you or I have literally designed?

The motivation for undesigning comes from two directions. There are things we might consider bad, evil, or merely unnecessary. We might desire to completely eliminate such things, or wish they had never been designed in the first place: Nuclear power plants that, in retrospect, were not safe enough. Interactive children's toys made with toxic materials. Consumer electronics waste (that does the greatest immediate harm to distant others). The skyscraper that could have been a park and now blocks someone's view. The newest software update that runs slower and works no better than the old version.

Then there are things we consider to be good, useful, or even necessary, but might be even better in restricted or lesser forms: Massive archives of digital images (compared to ephemeral Snapchats or a handful of printed photos). iPad games for children or adults (instead of playing outside). 24/7 Internet access (versus a voluntary or imposed hiatus from email or Facebook). Driving or flying everywhere (rather than walking, biking, or staying put). Choosing among 100,000+ streaming videos (or choosing one of 10 films currently playing at the movie theater). Googling an answer (rather than figuring it out, or wondering).

Threats to our health, our environment, our core values, and our collective future represent design imperatives. From the other direction, design opportunity is suggested by the subtly subversive character of using Snapchat or a Polaroid camera today. And the shaky moral ground in between represents an entanglement of design ambiguity: Is less technology better? Is "green design" actually sustainable? Are we too busy? Do we spend too much time online? Do we actually want the newest thing?3

Through design, we can shift this moral ambiguity in either the direction of a negative design imperative or positive design opportunity. Or else we can give form to this ambiguity itself, creating designs that function to ask questions, foreground issues, engage people politically, and encourage personal reflection. (Think critical and adversarial design4.)

back to top  Undesign (in Theory)

In one important sense, undesigning can be understood as an intrinsic, inexorable counterpart to a positive characterization of design. For example, designing a new mobile app undesigns what otherwise might have existed in its place (other apps, technologies, interactions, experiences, skills, practices, values, and so on). And undesign decisions to remove, omit, or discard aspects of a design always factor into a typical design process.5

But the point of the term undesigning is to emphasize an intentional and explicit focus on the negative portion of the equation: Design is creation (and destruction).6 Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman aptly characterize design as a form of inquiry and intentional action: "Design is the ability to imagine that-which-does-not-yet-exist, to make it appear in concrete form as a new, purposeful addition to the real world."7 Undesign suggests a conceptual inversion: design as the ability to understand that-which-currently-exists, to make it disappear in concrete form as a new, purposeful subtraction from the real world.

But undesigning is not a black-and-white, either/or proposition. Instead we need to think in terms of gradations of undesign. In more familiar terms, we can think about inhibiting technology at the level of individual interactions. More broadly, we can think about displacing technology at the level of routine social practices. And in the most absolute terms, we can think about utterly erasing or foreclosing technology at the societal or existential level.

Inhibiting, displacing, and erasing and foreclosing can be viewed as a spectrum of undesigning.8 As a conceptual framework, it's a tool for thinking about what we design and what we don't. This spectrum ranges from things we're already familiar with to those outside the scope of interaction design, or perhaps any established design tradition.

back to top  Forms of Absence and Negation: Conceptual Examples

9,10 Conceptual cleverness and poetic expression can be useful tools. But if undesigning is what we require, surely this requires that we go on designing something.

back to top  Undesigning Practice

When it comes to doing undesign, what do we actually do? What do we actually make?

I want to not label anything in particular as undesign. On the one hand, interaction designers already undesign. And on the other, there are surely yet-to-be-realized forms of undesigning that are difficult to conceive within current design traditions. Naming and labeling are indispensable verbal tools, but they can also foreclose possibilities. An illustrative design case might clarify things, but it might also prematurely delimit (un)design boundaries and limit (un)design thinking. And it might divert us into less important debates about whether a particular something should be labeled undesign or simply design.11

Instead, consider a few directions that occupy the fuzzy territory between the terra firma and terra incognito of HCI and interaction design.

Inhibitive features and options. Can interactive technologies help or entice us to restrict our own use? Recent pop-cultural keywords like disconnecting, unplugging, slowing down, and digital detox suggest latent, underserved needs and desires.12 A major tenet of user-centered design is that users can't always articulate what they need or want.13 What if users can't fully articulate their needs and desires for digital disconnectivity? And might this be because designers haven't offered them useful and appealing disconnective features and options? It's not clear if we need or want such options, but does it not make sense to explore such opportunities?

Perhaps we need more technologies that also directly support disconnectivity—technologies that inhibit themselves. Thinking in terms of undesigning, we should be exploring potentially underserved, under-articulated needs and desires related to self-inhibition, constrained choice, and dis-integrative options.14

Undesign rationales, arguments, and implications. If what is needed is not a digital thing, what do digital designers do? And if what is required is "no thing" at all, what role can design positively play? Doing nothing is certainly an option. But a problem with this option is that not articulating anything may have no lasting impact.

Verbal criticism, recommendations, and guidelines are not only viable routes to undesigning, but in some cases might also be necessary ones. In both academic and commercial settings, design practice often involves user studies, lab evaluations, and fieldwork. Such studies yield verbal design recommendations, guidelines, critiques, concepts, and proposals. In HCI research it is common practice to conclude research reports with "implications for design." But what about the "implications for undesign"?

As technology designers and researchers, why do we so rarely articulate rationales for inhibiting, displacing, erasing, or foreclosing technologies? For example, what about implications to displace technologies linked with environmentally unsustainable practices? Or to foreclose the proliferation of more e-waste? What if this means designing less electronic junk? If the implications for undesign have not at least been considered, how much trust should we place in the implications to affirmatively design technology?

Material (counter)arguments. Communicating new designs and prototyping new technologies are core activities of interaction design. But what about designing things less for practical use than for rhetorical argumentation? What about designing things we think we shouldn't actually make? Or making things we believe shouldn't be mass-produced or widely distributed? Or distributing things people probably won't want to adopt and integrate into their lives?

Take issues of privacy and surveillance. Google Glass might be the next great thing. Or it might irreversibly erode privacy we value. Exaggerated and subversive surveillance devices are created by artists to question and critique current surveillance technologies. Maybe interaction designers need to be making more things with clearer aims of inhibiting use, displacing routine practice, and foreclosing technological possibility.

Designers are in the business of presenting people with new possibilities. Far from neutral, these possibilities inevitably embody designers' own values and ideas about how people should live. Whether derived from processes that are user-centered, participatory, or otherwise, designers ultimately exert some authority and help shape morality through the things they propose and make.15 So why do we not also offer people designs that clearly embody things we should not value or ideas about how we should not live? Should we not be counterbalancing our positive material arguments with negative ones, by designing things we perhaps shouldn't make, shouldn't mass-produce, or shouldn't uncritically use or adopt?16

As interaction designers, we uniquely possess skills, tools, and perspectives to positively provide such negative designs. Do we not also possess a unique responsibility to do so?

back to top  Author

James Pierce is a designer, researcher, and Ph.D. candidate. He lives in Oakland, California and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

back to top  Footnotes

1. But I have included many notes, and plenty of negative space. (Thanks to the Interactions editors in chief, editorial staff, and art department for working with me to accommodate my layout proposals for this submission.)

2. And my reasons—which will hopefully become clearer—are only partially for dramatization. (How else is an article without images to vie for attention here?)

3. Concerns with environmental sustainability in HCI exemplify a design imperative for undesigning. Concerns with busyness and overwork exemplify design ambiguity motivating undesigning. And design that challenges the status quo to create more pleasurable and meaningful experiences exemplifies negative critique recast as positive design opportunity.

4. See Carl DiSalvo's recent discussions of "adversarial design" and Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby's writings on critical design. DiSalvo, C. Adversarial Design. MIT Press, 2012; Dunne, A. and Raby, F. Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. August Media, Boston, 2001.

5. Written "(un)design," this term simply reminds us that designing anything entails undesigning something else, and any design process involves making decisions about what to design and what to undesign.

6. This idea is captured in the concepts of creative destruction and disruptive innovation. Tony Fry has recently argued that creative characterizations of design overshadow its equally destructive nature: "The very way design is reduced and presented in relation to bringing goods into being fails to grasp design's ambiguity as an agent of both creation and destruction ..." Fry, T. Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics, and New Practice. Berg Publishers Ltd., Oxford, 2008.

7. Nelson, H.G. and Stolterman, E. The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World, 2nd Edition, MIT Press, 2012.

8. For a critical treatment of sustainable design focused on the more extreme end of this spectrum, see Tony Fry's writings on elimination design (see note 6, Fry 2008) as well as Cameron Tonkinwise's forthcoming book chapter. Tonkinwise, C. Design away. In Design as Future-Making. S. Yelavich and B. Adams, eds. Bloomsbury, 2014, in press.

9. "What we re-quire is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking." Cage, J. Lecture on nothing. In Cage, Silence. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1961, 105.

10. Conceptual cleverness and poetic expression can be instructive sources of inspiration and guidance, especially when the object of concern is as amorphous as material absence and negation itself. Artists have published books consisting entirely of footnotes to absent text, articles consisting of missing pages, and works consisting of blank sheets of paper. And in the opening of this article I promised no pictures, and plenty of notes and negative space (even though Interactions magazine "strongly encourage all authors to supply photos, illustrations, or illustrative concepts along with their manuscripts"). Design inaction—as a conceptual practice—suggests inaction that is intentional, thoughtful, purposeful, and impactful. Design inaction that is unarticulated in any form can be impactful, at least momentarily; refraining from designing some thing can result in the maintenance and deferral of something else. But for design inaction to be lasting, it needs to be continually articulated in some manner (through thought, gesture, speech, behavior, text, image, object, environment, and so on). And for design inaction to be acknowledged and recognized as such, it must be materialized. Introduced absence—as a conceptual design outcome—is materially ambiguous. What are the material forms of absence? One of the practical problems with literally not designing anything is that nothing is made, nothing is perceptible, and hence nothing can be referred to or credited. You can't win design contracts or contests by literally not designing anything at all. To overcome or instead play into this paradox, clever tricks can be employed to materially scaffold absence. John Cage delivers a "lecture on nothing." Josip Vanista prints a completely blank issue of the journal Gorgona. Simone Pallotto wins a Greener Gadgets "Notable Entry" award for her submission "No Gadget" (composed of a written statement and set of images). But clever conceptual tricks can quickly lose their novelty and inhibit straightforward reuse. Or worse, they can be rejected as extravagant and conceitful. How many times can "no gadget" win a sustainable design contest? How many not previously executed "blank works" can artists and designers go on creating? How do you literally sell nothing in a commercial context? Or get paid to design nothing? How does an interaction designer "undesign interaction" without actually designing an interactive technology? Design inaction and introduced absence reveal practical paradoxes while suggesting practical possibilities.

11. "Pure theory" can be of service to actual practice, even if this theory concerns something as practical as design. A crudely drawn design sketch can encourage divergent exploration, productively postponing eventual convergence on a final design. In a similar manner, abstract theory can underdetermine design practice and outcome, ultimately serving as a practical conceptual tool with greater utility than step-by-step recipes or fully worked out examples. This idea should resonate with designers that eschew cookie-cutter methods and overreliance on someone else's formalized process. An anonymous reviewer of a 2012 CHI paper I wrote on "undesigning technology" criticized the submission for its lack of "real design case studies": "This paper would be immeasurably strengthened if the authors would heed their own call 'by actually conducting research (e.g., running studies, designing technologies, publishing results).' The arguments here would be strengthened immeasurably by being situated in a real design case study, in which taking this approach could be shown as productive in furthering design. At least, illustrating the various kinds of 'undesign' with compelling suggestions drawn from HCI would make a more convincing argument." While I'm sympathetic to such criticism, I do not believe "real design case studies" are the only viable route to constructing a useful—or, to the extent that it matters, valid—argument for design. Refraining from including an exemplary, concrete design case leaves me open to the criticism that none exists or could be created. But keeping concrete examples at a distance from conceptual discussions has its benefits. And with undesigning, the most suitable, most ideal "real design case study" might actually be more of an ideal design than a real one. See Pierce, J. Undesigning technology: Considering the negation of design by design. Proc. of CHI 2012.

12. For example, see the Fast Company articles filed under their hashtag #unplug.

13. Alternatively, new design offerings can be understood as stimulating new demand and creating new needs and desires. As an example of a combined perspective, Shove, Ingram, and Watson propose "a cyclical model of designing and consuming: one indicating that consumer practices stimulate design; and that new products stimulate new practices." Ingram, J., Shove, E., and Watson, M. Products and practices: Selected concepts from science and technology studies and from social theories of consumption and practice. Design Issues 23, 2 (2007), 3–16.

14. Phoebe Sengers has previously urged us here to "think not about how technology can give us access to more choices, but about how we can design technologies that help us create constraints on our choices." In a similar vein, Ellie Harmon and Melissa Mazmanian highlight two common tropes surrounding smartphone discourse in popular culture, "one calling for increased technological integration, the other urging individuals to dis-integrate the smartphone from daily life." Sengers, P. What I learned on Change Islands: Reflections on IT and pace of life. Interactions 18, 2 (2011), 40–48; Harmon, E. and Mazmanian, M. Stories of the smartphone in everyday discourse: Conflict, tension and instability. Proc. of CHI 2013. ACM, New York, 2013, 1051–1060.

15. For a recent articulation of this perspective on design, see Peter-Paul Verbeek's Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things. University Of Chicago Press, 2011.

16. Which raises the question, what about things we can't sell commercially? Commercially viable undesign represents a particularly perplexing paradox. Research and art are, in certain regards, more viable routes for extreme forms of undesigning, although issues of research we can't publish and art we can't exhibit will always persist. More important, the traditional artistic and academic outlets of art galleries and research publications are severely limited in their ability to materially and practically engage at the level of retail outlets and commercial products and services. What we need are perhaps alternative hybrid forms of production and distribution for (un)design. Ideally such outlets would help "counterproducts" to compete on similar material ground as their counterparts.

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