Cover story

XX.6 November + December 2013
Page: 42
Digital Citation

Matter of transformation

Caroline Hummels, Pierre Lévy

Fluenci is a breast pump that draws from the experience of breastfeeding a baby at home, operating as naturally as possible to reduce stress and discomfort. The shape and temperature invite a more intimate way of holding; recorded baby sounds trigger lactation; and the pump starts, stops, and adjusts its speed in a natural way. The point suggested with this design is that relaxation should be seen not as a requirement for optimal lactation, but rather as a value for obtaining well-being and resonance with the world.

Designed by Jaap Knoester for his graduation project in collaboration with Philips Design, Fluenci (see Figure 1) shows how designing offers the opportunity to sculpt tomorrow through values and to create alternatives. Yet, what valuable tomorrows can we sculpt together?

Let’s now consider LinguaBytes (see the article “LinguaBytes” on page 22), developed by Bart Hengeveld for his doctoral research [1]. LinguaBytes is a tangible language-learning system for toddlers with no or little verbal communication skills that respects the highly diverse needs, wishes, skills, and desires of these children. Rather than making digital learning tools as a means to learn language, Hengeveld develops embodied learning tools as a means to learn to act and communicate in the world and develop as a person.

Can we explore alternative ways of engaging with the world, ones that require all our skills, that uncover new possibilities and disclose new worlds, using technology that invites us to find and reveal ourselves through our skills? Can we create a tomorrow where we dare to take the risk of failing in order to learn and create freedom to discover?

Finally, let’s look at Rights through Making (see Figure 2), the doctoral research of Ambra Trotto [2]. Can the power of making, combined with local design culture, pave the way for a new way of thinking? Is it possible to design products and systems that entice people to reach the ideals contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Consider what it would be like to recharge your mobile phone while hugging someone, as the design Beehugged does. Trotto sees technology as a means for engagement and respect instead of a means for efficiency.

Can we create alternative ways to engage with the world, based on trusting our senses? Where intuition is as valuable as logic? Where commitment and engagement are valuable assets for growth? Where people can take a first-person perspective and be in the moment, instead of forever worrying about efficiency?

How do we sculpt a tomorrow where those who are interested can have the patience to focus on quality and to develop and master skills? That is, how can we value craftsmanship, simply having the desire to do a job well for its own sake [3]? How can we facilitate an embrace of ambiguity, resistance, complexity, and open-endedness in daily interactions? How can we sculpt a tomorrow where people can also access sensitivity and quality?

Here, we will discuss our proposal for how to engage with the world through designing. We would like to offer an alternative way of interaction and invite you to reflect on this alternative and, if tempted, to try it out yourself. We will first describe the theoretical foundation of our work, and then explain and show, with examples, the implications this theoretical stance has on the act of designing; on the interaction with products; on supporting frameworks, methods and tools; and on research and education. We conclude by showing how this approach influences and transforms the attitude of all stakeholders and their perspectives on the world.

Phenomenology and Related Theories

Through designing, we explore and propose possible tomorrows, placing meaning and beauty in interaction at the core of our approach. To do so, we take a philosophical stance that explains practically and eloquently how we are and how we live in the world, which can be synthesized through designing toward our preferred alternative engagement with the world.

The captivating documentary Being in the World by Tao Ruspoli (2010) explains this philosophical stance in word and action. Here, we introduce this position and its consequences on designing, on knowledge, and on attitude by inviting you to engage directly with the original philosophical and scientific body of knowledge. We specifically focus on phenomenology and pragmatism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, these philosophies turned the dominant Cartesian Western worldview, which emphasizes the primacy of the mind along with the subject-object and mind-body divisions, inside out. They suggested there is no divide between subject and object. Meaning is neither inside the mind nor outside in the world: It is in-between the human being and the world. We perceive the world in terms of what we can do with it, and by physically interacting with it we access and express this meaning. Meaning is created in interaction. To cope skillfully in the world from day to day, we do not need a mental representation of our goals: Our body is simply solicited by the situation to find the right balance so as to gain a maximum grip on the situation [4].

These notions of embodiment and skillful coping arise not only in philosophy but also in other fields such as psychology, anthropology, pedagogy, and biology, and across cultures. Within embodied cognition, for example, Lucy Suchman [5] argues that people do not execute an internally created “plan for action” but instead act in the face of concrete circumstances in the world: situated action [6]. The concept of affordance plays an important part in the sensorimotor perspective on embodied cognition. James Gibson, establishing an ecological theory of perception, introduced the concepts of affordances and effectivities to show that the characteristics of the human world (e.g., what affords walking on, squeezing through, reaching, etc.) correlate with our bodily capacities and acquired skills [7]. For example, a skateboarder can perceive a surface or object as jumpable if he has the proper body, skills, speed, and courage.

Related to this notion of affordance is Francisco Varela’s notion of enactment, “a process whereby a living being creates and maintains its own domain of meaningfulness, in generating and maintaining its own self-identity as an embodied organism” [8]. In other words, the “environment” we inhabit does not exist before we come to inhabit it: Each creature, based on its sensory capacities and its behavioral repertoire, brings forth both itself as well as its environment. The user “enacts” a world of meaning by interacting through the artifact. The essential element for making sense of the world is the sensorimotor coupling between a person and its environment [6].

According to Merleau-Ponty, the concept of embodiment, which is core in phenomenology and enactment, includes three ways the world opens up to the body [4], three ways why the ridge is jumpable for the skateboarder. First, the world opens up through the actual shape and innate capacities of the human body; the ridge is jumpable because the skateboarder has legs that can bend and stretch to generate the power to jump, and he has two feet that give him stability on the skateboard. Second, we have skills for coping with the world, and as we refine these skills—for example, by practicing jumping with the skateboard—things show up as soliciting our skillful responses, so that as we refine our skills, we encounter more differentiated solicitations to act. Thus, while improving his skills of jumping, the skateboarder perceives his environment differently and sees more and more possibilities for jumping. Third, and last, the cultural world has a relationship with our body. Only because we Western Europeans are brought up with skateboards in concrete cities where it is okay to jump on benches, specific ridges solicit the skateboarder to jump on them. So, meaning is created in interaction by the skateboarder, who is trying to get a maximum grip on that specific situation.

Transforming by Phenomenological Inspiration

When inspired by phenomenology, designing brings an alternative way of engaging with the world. We see a tomorrow in which we can face our societal challenges by using technology to embrace embodiment, exploring a possible paradigm shift through innovation, and creating an alternative by starting from a different set of values based on embodiment, all of which will (re-)open the world.

What does a design approach inspired by these philosophies entail? We see four implications of our philosophical stance, related to the way of working and to the results of design activities, namely:

  • the act of designing;
  • the interaction with designing systems, products, and services;
  • supporting methods, processes, frameworks, techniques, and tools; and
  • the way of doing design research.

These implications have been explored and reflected upon for more than 25 years in design research and education. For the past decade, this exploration has been situated in the Designing Quality in Interaction group at Eindhoven University of Technology, of which both authors are members (see However, this work began with the former Form Theory Group at Delft University of Technology with Gerda Smets, Kees Overbeeke, Pieter Jan Stappers, and Caroline Hummels in 1993.

Moreover, these implications affect the way we educate future designers. Along the same lines suggested by the aforementioned philosophies, as educators we are inspired by constructivism to support our students in finding their way in life, in their passions, in their skills, and in becoming excellent designers who will help co-shape tomorrow’s world. Constructivism shares with these philosophies, among others, the notion of activity: It is the learner who creates meaning, affected by and reflecting on his or her sociocultural environment. It is about learning and performing through practical application while simultaneously acquiring theoretical skills and building knowledge, where experience plays a crucial role [9].

Students learn to learn (what, how, and why) and we facilitate their learning. Attitude is crucial in this approach. Within our continuous, lifelong, competency-centered learning model, we stimulate our design students to develop the ability to learn from experience, to reflect, to self-regulate their learning, to take responsibility, and to assess themselves. The assessment is on their growth, their competence in designing, and on their vision and identity, not on their performance. Assessment involves feedback from educators, which is always discussed with students. There are no grades or exams.

This way, educators are not an authoritative source of knowledge but rather a facilitator of learning. Education is based on trust, on taking responsibility, on tapping into students’ intrinsic motivation, and on trusting their intuition and letting them make mistakes [10]. It is certainly not an easy approach, neither for students nor for staff, but it is a rewarding one that can result in a new type of designer with an active role in shaping a valuable tomorrow.

We will now elaborate on the previously mentioned four implications of our philosophical stance, starting with the act of designing.

The act of designing. In the perspective of our philosophical stance, designing can be seen as the act of creating opportunities for meaning to arise in interaction in a specific sociocultural context. As is often thought, designing is not about problem solving, which would imply that the solution space is already determined by the problem definition. Rather, it is about opening up, exploring new territories, and reframing and imagining things that do not yet exist. Designing is not about wanting to organize and control the situation or the problem from the start. It is about surfing the waves of complexity, of uncertainty, of open-endedness, and of resistance, and about finding new worlds by engaging in the situation.

According to Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman, designing is about creating desirable and appropriate compositions and not about creating real solutions or finding the truth [11]. It is a combination of action and inquiry. This designer attitude is appealing more and more to other disciplines. Richard Boland and Fred Collopy, for example, advocate that managers should adopt a design attitude and realize that they (the managers) are not merely decision makers [12].

Given the importance of embodiment and of creating meaning in interaction, making is quintessential for designing. By building and offering a variety of so-called experienceable prototypes [1] through quick iterations, designers facilitate access to and the expression of meaning in an everyday context, which informs the designers about potential directions to take. This would be difficult to do with abstract ideas alone, since these cannot be experienced or interacted with (beyond imaginatively). Moreover, making enables designers to explore the unknown by trusting their senses, exploring expressivity, and tapping into their intuition. Intuition is usually not considered an official modus operandi within the scientific world, as a process driven by intuition cannot be repeated by others. Yet because of the complexity of design processes and the intrinsic complexity of people, intuition is an indispensable component of design and design research—it is the tool that empowers us to make choices in the iterations of a design process [13]. Ap Dijksterhuis and Loran Nordgren show that intuition, or unaware thought, is better suited to dealing with complex matters, which design embraces, than conscious thought [14].

Yet designing is more than an intuitive act. It opens up the abstract to the sensorial. It connects the intuitive to the analytical, imagination to reason, and making (synthesize and concretize) to thinking (analyze and abstract). Designing creates insight and knowledge through the mechanism of reflection in and on action [9, 15]. Or, as Donald Schön suggests, by entering into an experience without judgment and responding to surprises through reflection, we learn from our actions [15].

The interaction with designing systems, products, and services. Taking phenomenology and embodiment as a starting point for designing systems, products, and services aligns human-product interaction with behavior and action instead of cognition and language.

An example of this direct approach is the Augmented Speed-Skate Experience (ASE) by Jelle Stienstra (see Figure 3). This design enables professional speed skaters to assess and to improve their technique by translating qualities of their movement into auditory feedback. The amount of pressure is translated into the amount of sound (i.e., the loudness), coupling the left speed skate to the left ear and the right speed skate to the right ear. The balance between leaning on the front or back of a speed skate is coupled to pitch; gradually shifting from front to back will result in a gradual shift from a high to a low pitch. Although the coupling is direct, every skater creates his or her own meaning of this sonification in action [16].

In this regard, the advent of electronics as a major technology for highly interactive and intelligent products has become both a challenge and an opportunity for designers. It is a challenge because electronic circuits and microprocessors have broken the intrinsic link between functionality, appearance, and actions (bits and bytes do not offer a mechanistic structure like a bolt or a cogwheel). It is an opportunity because it gives designers the freedom to create what we envision and prefer. Miniaturization, networked technology, Wi-Fi, unlimited processing power, smart materials, and many other advances give designers plenty of opportunities to sculpt a valuable tomorrow—but how?

As already mentioned, the current dominant perspective on interacting with our technological appliances relies mainly on cognition and efficiency. Vending machines are a clear example of such a perspective: Simply enter a number and get your drink. Yet Friendly Vending, developed by Guus Baggermans, offers an alternative way of interaction based on embodiment and direct manipulation (see Figure 4). The Friendly Vending Machine tracks the movements of the consumer and responds accordingly in a friendly and elegant way. It offers the goods at the point of interaction.

Friendly Vending is about usability, coming from embodiment, and opening up to sensory richness, expressiveness, and aesthetics of interaction. It invites users to engage in aesthetically rewarding experiences and find value, including usability and functionality. It is easy, not in the sense of efficiency but in fitting what users do, and in combination with richness it makes the experience more rewarding and can even result in a feeling of resonance, of being perfectly in sync with a product [17].

By moving toward embodiment and aesthetics of interaction, people are supported to use, to stay attuned to, and to develop their bodily skills. And since meaning is created in interaction, aesthetics and value are not absolute things, but rather person- and context-dependent. Our apparent preference for making the interaction with products efficient, optimized, and numerical is often at odds with this quest for beauty, expressiveness, and resonance, which demands diversity, subtlety, richness, and, at times, imperfection.

Finally, BeTouched! (see Figure 5 and, designed by Kim van Iersel, Sebastiaan Pijnappel, Jurrian Tjeenk Willink, and Josje Wijnen, shows a beautiful alternative direction for intelligent products and systems, based on expressivity, subtlety, and sensitivity. BeTouched! was designed during a one-week module to gain more insight into the reciprocal interplay between the perceiver and the perceived, the topic of Eva Deckers’ doctoral research [18]. It is a sensual dynamics artifact that is able to sense and react to a person, inviting movements that enhance perceptive experience. When BeTouched! is tickled, it moves away from the touch; when it is touched on the front, where it likes to be touched, it moves strongly toward the hand, moving the whole length of its sensitive area along the hand. Such an artifact is therefore at the same time the object of the experience and a trigger for a greater sensory experience [19].

Supporting methods, processes, frameworks, techniques, and tools. A design approach inspired by phenomenology requires new kinds of support: frameworks, methods, processes, techniques, and tools that support embodiment and open up to one’s skills, that enable the sensorial/intuitive to connect the abstract/analytical, that stimulate making next to thinking, that facilitate reflection in and on action, and that support designing opportunities through which a person can create meaning in a specific sociocultural context. We will briefly explain three examples of this new kind of support, starting with a design process we developed called the Reflective Transformative Design Process (RTDP—see Figure 6), which is a flexible and open (meta-)design process for designing the future generation of highly interactive systems and products [20]. RTDP gives equal weight to making and thinking, independent of the phase in the process. Moreover, it supports developing opportunities for exploration and designing open propositions through which a person can create meaning in his or her sociocultural context.

Developing design solutions, placed in the center of this model, can be seen as a process of making decisions based on too little information, but to the best of the designer’s experience and knowledge at that point. The RTD process has two axes. Vertically, designers can use two drives for information gathering: envisioning personal, social, and societal transformation; and exploring and validating design decisions in an everyday context with citizens even beyond launching the system, product, and services in the market. Horizontally, designers can use two strategies to generate information to direct and support these design decisions, which reciprocally provide focus for each other: design making (synthesizing and concretizing) and design thinking (analyzing and abstracting).

Depending on the person, the context, the project, or the phase within the design process, the designer or team determines where to start, how often to swap from one activity to another (although a high pace is recommended), and the order of activities (with a prominent role for making). With every jump to another activity (represented by the multiple arrows in Figure 6), there is a natural moment for reflection. This reflection can even be facilitated by software applications, as shown with Freed (see Figure 7), developed by Philip Mendels [21]. Freed visualizes in multiple views the relationships between digital content created during the design process, thus boosting reflection in, on, and for action.

Quickly switching between making and thinking, intuition and reason, senses and mind is often difficult within the design process. Therefore we develop frameworks, methods, and techniques to support design students and designers to quickly make these connections. One of our frameworks is Designing in Skills (DiS), illustrated by Table 1 and developed by Trotto and Hummels [22]. DiS nurtures personal engagement and the skills of designers; it supports designers toward what we call the first-person perspective, enabling application of individual sensitivities in order to evoke resonance with the individual sensitivities of the user. DiS guides designers through a series of activities, all documented in videos to stimulate the reflection process. By going through these steps, DiS aims at encouraging and educating designers toward (bodily) skill-based designing and using the power of doing and making in their everyday design practice.

The way of doing design research. Designers typically operate in a constantly changing context that can never be accurately modeled [23]. Thus, we would expect that a reductionist approach to addressing this context and the situations within it would fail [24]. Consequently, and in keeping with our earlier explanation, we encourage design researchers to embrace the richness of a complex design situation and act in a way appropriate for the specifics of that situation using a research-through-design (RtD) approach. Often RtD is associated with Bruce Archer’s “research through practice,” which is a process in which scientific knowledge is generated through a sequence of cycles of designing, building, and experimentally testing wealthy experiential prototypes in everyday life settings [25]. This implies that RtD aims at studying an effect in a possible future, instead of understanding the world, as is the objective of traditional science [26]. Such an approach will consequently result in conditional regularities instead of general laws or “the truth.” The prototype is the physical, experiential manifestation of this, the carrier of integrated and contextualized knowledge, and the physical manifestation of a design rationale.

Designing and design research are highly interwoven with society. With the exponential increase of technological possibilities, also known as Moore’s law, in combination with our societal challenges, we see possibilities for design research to explore and envision our tomorrow in new ways, for example, by using the Experiential Design Landscapes (EDL) method [27]. EDLs are infrastructures in neighborhoods where all stakeholders work together, creating experienceable propositions for citizens that evolve over time. EDLs exploit the phenomenological stance that meaning is created in interaction, which is used to foster long-term societal sustainability. Through an exploration of new propositions outside the current frame of reference of citizens, sense-making becomes part of their everyday living environment. Consequently, the developed propositions, called Experiential Probes (EP), are open, sensor-enhanced, networked product-service systems that enable citizens to work toward new, individual, and emerging behavior and, in parallel, foster detailed analysis of the emerging data patterns by researchers and designers as a source of inspiration for the development and fine-tuning of future systems, products, and services [28].

Transforming Attitude and Perspective

Here we would like to propose an alternative way of working, which originated from a conflicting yet constructive situation within design: dealing with and learning from different disciplines. Design has always connected different disciplines, but it also has its own way of working and its own attitude, and this is sometimes difficult to reconcile. However, with our current societal challenges, we need the whole spectrum of experts and citizens to sculpt a valuable tomorrow. We need different kinds of people and expertise to bring our society into existence. That means we need to invest in the craft of cooperating: the dialogic skill of understanding and responding to one another in order to act together [29]. We hope this story on phenomenology-inspired design is interesting or usable for designers as well as people from related and other disciplines—to stimulate dialogue, to share perspectives, and to get inspired and refreshed, as we are inspired and refreshed by other fields such as philosophy and psychology.

This need for seeing, experiencing, and understanding each other’s perspectives is rooted in another consequence of a phenomenological approach to designing, namely, the point of view. Merleau-Ponty [4] showed that we do not perceive ourselves as one more object in the world; we perceive ourselves as the point of view from which we perceive/conceive the world [30]. Consequently, for us, designing is rooted in a first-person perspective while intermittently taking a third-person perspective. Throughout our years of educating, we have seen that even designers tend to remain in the cloud of abstraction (third-person perspective) without deliberately putting themselves—their points of view, their experience, their skills, and so on—into the design space (first-person perspective). Especially in teams, these hidden first-person perspectives (since there always is a first-person perspective, but it is often not explicitly on the table) will get in the way if the student/designer attempts to restrict himself or herself to an objective viewpoint. Most likely the team members will disagree on this third-person perspective, so it is better to have the first-person perspective out in the open [6]. By taking a first-person perspective, designers are a part of their designs: They bring in their own value system and skills and are not objective, which is again (like intuition) not an official modus operandi within the scientific world.

A first-person perspective fits with the attitude we believe designers prefer to have, as we described earlier in the section on the act of designing. The act of designing is about localizing (making a matter concrete), questioning (reflecting on its quality), and opening up (expanding its sense). It is about dealing with ambiguity and resistance, about the (non)-need of preciseness, about the (non)-need of clarification, and about claiming the value of beauty. And, very important, we value the craftsman approach of doing something well for its own sake and making physical things well [3].

This face of design requires new frameworks, methods, tools, and techniques, and also new ways of communicating, sharing, and documenting knowledge (including tacit knowledge) and assessing design research. For example, simply using the guidelines and procedures of classical science doesn’t do justice to the character of design research, especially regarding the first-person perspective. Along with the scientific institutions in the Netherlands, we are currently developing a framework with quality indicators specifically for design research, which will be used to assess design research and grant national funding. But we are also exploring new ways of communicating design research in addition to papers.

We do realize that by working in a design research and education environment, we are in the privileged position to have the opportunity to explore and show alternatives: alternatives in what to do, alternatives in the way to do things, alternative ways of looking at the world, alternatives in living, and so on. It enables us to go as far as we can by letting phenomenology influence us as much as it can—influencing our theoretical basis, our way of approaching and viewing the world, and our attitude and way of living. Our method of innovating is not about finding better or more efficient ways to use technology. It is another way of valuing technology. We look at what beauty technology can bring to the world, how it can open up people to alternatives, how it can open up the world to other people, and how it can bring in poetry. We wish to show how different technology and the world can be. We wish to invite people to consider alternatives. We do not intend to persuade people to go toward one specific alternative: We simply want to stress the importance of alternatives, and we are passionate about phenomenology-inspired design.

Consequently, we are exploring not only ideas but also flows of ideas. Our focus is not on one idea or concept, but rather on a stream of concepts that stress the flow of idea-creation dynamics. We are not creating models, but instead are aiming at creating frameworks that can bridge theory and practice and at making theory tangible and applicable.

As a concluding point, we invite you to exploit these ideas, to explore them in depth, to reflect on them, and to criticize them. We have tried over the past 25 years to do what Richard Sennett says: make matter concrete, and to question, reflect on, and open up to it in order to expand its sense [3]. We invite you to sculpt a valuable tomorrow together—we are looking forward to meeting you on the way there!


The work described is based on well over 25 years of design research and education; it has been and is a true group effort. Therefore, we would like to thank all our friends from the Designing Quality in Interaction group at Eindhoven University of Technology, as well as our national and international friends, colleagues, students, and alumni with whom we collaborated closely to develop our alternative way of interaction in the world.


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Caroline Hummels is a professor of design theory of intelligent systems in the Department of Industrial Design (ID) and head of the Designing Quality in Interaction group at Eindhoven University of Technology. Her activities concentrate on developing frameworks, tools, and concepts to support designing toward transformation. Her work addresses, for example, aesthetic interaction craftsmanship, skills, phenomenology, health, and multi-stakeholder cooperation and innovation.

Pierre Lévy is an assistant professor in the Designing Quality in Interaction group in the Department of ID at Eindhoven University of Technology. Born in France, he earned a Ph.D. in kansei science at the University of Tsukuba, Japan (2006). He is currently highly involved in the kansei research communities in both Japan and Europe. His research focuses on designing for immediate experience.


F1Figure 1. Fluenci.

F2Figure 2. Beehugged, made for Rights through Making.

F3Figure 3. The Augmented Speed-Skate Experience (ASE).

F4Figure 4. The Friendly Vending Machine.

F5Figure 5. BeTouched!

F6Figure 6. The Reflective Transformative Design Process.

F7Figure 7. Freed.


T1Table 1. Illustration of the Designing in Skills (DiS) framework.

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