Thanks for Dan Saffer’s keynote @ ixd09

Ok a bit overstated, but I’ll just say it emphatically– Dan Saffer’s keynote address Saturday evening at the 2009 Interaction Conference in Vancouver was a nicely compact, inspiring, profound and positive statement of what needed to be said to a frankly (imho) dysfunctional organization that’s been wandering about trying to shape a coherent, holistic identity. Let’s face it, ixda is a richly diverse, motley crew of people who somehow (in whatever tenuous degree of reach and affiliation) associate themselves with “user experience” and “designing interactions”, from usability gurus to wireframe experts to user facilitation consultants to flash prototype maestros. Whew! A great diverse range of folks (and ideas, values, attitudes, etc.) which is awesome. But Dan, in my view, simply said some things that needed to be said, which many folks probably didn’t want to hear but needed to…

1. We need to stop arguing ad infinitum about design definitions and just start making good designs, basically prove yourself as a designer (regardless of titles: as he says, moving among UI to IA to IX to whatever per project/situation/context/client).

2. Aesthetics matter, period: people value beauty, and we need to cultivate this in our practice and attitude.

3. Design is just as much art as it is science: sorry cog sci/behavioral sci experts, but designing does involve a creative, expressive ingenuity beyond quantifiable studies, to provide a distinct sense of delight and wonderment in the product encounter.

4. Stop fetishizing simplicity (some things are just complex…and interestingly so) As Maeda says, some things are complex and cannot be made simple.

5. A good designer moves among frames: UCD vs. ACD vs. Genius vs. whatever designer approach, not hung up on labels…And knowing Dan from CMU (and I chatted briefly afterwards about this) he’s carefully bringing about the CMU-inspired approach to design, associated with the Buchanan philosophy of rhetoric/topoi/argument.

I sensed this immediately when he mentioned “frames” in his talk. By frames I suspect he’s closer to Buchanan’s concept of topoi (from Aristotle), which is a conceptual place of invention and possibility, not a fixed categorical definition of limited meaning. In other words, as designers, we fluidly move across different positions for a project, per the situation/context/client goals, etc. leveraging what makes sense, per our experience/judgment/understanding which of course comes with time and education.

And perhaps the most important thing, i think, is that we need to move from “design thinking” towards design thinking AND design making (paraphrasing Obama’s quote from his inaugural about the makers who helped shape this nation of opportunity/prosperity, etc.)…and as Kolko iterated in the panel discussion earlier, designers still need to make something, from posters to toasters to wireframes to prototypes to diagrams to proposals/documents. A solution must be made that takes some form–be it a napkin sketch or a diagram of a process re-vamp. If you’re just a “user facilitator”, then I’m sorry but you’re not a designer, plain and simple. Which is fine, just need to come to terms with your professional identity, and a precise/accurate sense of your value offering to clients/companies/teams, etc.

Indeed, it’s becoming my view that, well frankly there are some within ixda who kinda perhaps too easily assume the self-identity and functional role of interaction designer but really are not designers (I know, sorry!). They may be more appropriately analysts, researchers, strategists/planners, or even corporate therapists or organizational managers (And this is all good! We need that in the profession at large.) but not designers who actively and habitually sketch, imagine, empathize, express, passionately defend, and create novel engaging solutions to various problems or suggest speculative demonstrations of what could be (visions, storyboards, etc.) as improvement to daily annoyances.

I hope Saffer’s talk serves as a veritable wake-up call to everyone within this organization of great potential and world-reaching gains, to help substantiate the community’s professional value and integrity towards design excellence.

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