Interactions Cafe

XVI.2 March + April 2009
Page: 80
Digital Citation

On the relevance of theory to practitioners…

Richard Anderson, Jon Kolko

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Jon: Subtley embedded in this issue is Molly Wright Steenson's article on Christopher Alexander and pattern languages. Many recognize Alexander's work on patterns, but few are familiar with his work on design methods. He was a proponent of the methods movement, and was fundamental in positioning design as an intellectual creative endeavor rather than a craft and hand-skill activity. Yet his work has largely been absent in the professional discourse, and many practicing designers don't know of him or his writing at all. How is it that professional designers, strategists, and managers can do their work without the larger intellectual context of theory and academic discourse?

Richard: Christopher Alexander has largely withdrawn from all such discourse, and the text Steenson references the most was never published. However, many professionals have neither the time nor the inclination to understand the relevance of theory and academic discourse. And, of course, sometimes—or perhaps often—there is little relevance, which lowers that inclination even more. Obviously, you and I are trying to do something about this, and Steenson's article reflects that, as does other content in this issue.

Jon: One of the rules we have for submissions is the actionable relevance for practitioners—even supertheoretical work must have some sort of applicability for daily practice. I feel context helps that applicability come to life. For example, Dimitris Grammenos's article is incredibly reflective, but when juxtaposed against the very pragmatic contributions of Whitney and Whitson, we can start to see a way of applying his metaphor in the context of a real-world problem: identity theft. Do you think there is a way to contextualize academic work to make it more... useful?

Richard: I do, and as you've described, I think we are doing pretty well with interactions. But I wish more conferences and professional programs did a better job at this. However, not all work useful to academics should be useful, or made useful, to practitioners. And not all of what we publish is about contextualizing academic work, though not all work useful to practitioners is of a nature that we would ever publish in interactions.

Mark Vanderbeeken's article outlines several of the issues that we do and intend to address—the data avalanche and human control, distributing technology to distribute power, and the human experience of sustainability. Some people might question how such articles achieve the publication criterion of actionable relevance for practitioners.

Jon: As a practitioner, Vanderbeeken's article resonates for me loudly. At least at frog design, we don't just make "stuff"—there must be a human and emotional impact to what we design. And I know my friends at other major firms feel the same way. The heady and intellectual issues Vanderbeeken addresses become a thematic drive behind the more pragmatic wireframes, use cases, and comps. Designers at all firms are at an interesting milestone: Our role isn't yet recognized entirely as grounded in intellect, but we've successfully moved beyond the simplicity of "craft" and "style." Do you coach your corporate clients to think more intellectually about problems? Do you reference the more academic articles that make it into our magazine?

Richard: Most definitely. And as we discussed in the September+October 2008 issue, design has a critical role to play in addressing such heady issues in addition to all sorts of narrower, intellectual issues—business issues—that companies commonly address. Do designers need someone like Christopher Alexander to step into the limelight to make this happen more quickly?

Jon: I'm not sure. I'm starting to feel that the Chris Alexanders are already out there, and the practitioners are just ignoring them. It might be time to shift the burden: Instead of demanding that academics become more relevant, perhaps it's time practicing designers started paying more attention to the huge amounts of theoretical discourse that already exists. Perhaps it's time practitioners became more thoughtful.

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