Ever since having graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2001 (almost a decade ago! sigh) and roaming across the Valley through various companies, I’ve been asked many times what exactly did I learn from the CMU design program, particularly the infamous seminar taught by Dick Buchanan, former head of the design school. Well, at long last I’m finally sitting down to articulate some of that :-)

Now, admittedly it’s not a nicely compact summary of UI patterns and formulas. No rules of how to arrange buttons or A/B tested page designs. Instead, the knowledge imparted involved a wonderfully diverse, mystifying, enlightening, and stimulating exploration of concepts & methods that enable an architectonic approach to design: rhetorical, strategic, pluralistic. Whoa!

Quick movie reference: Remember in The Matrix when Neo first met Morpheus and how Morpheus prefaced the “journey down the rabbit hole” with his radical insight and knowledge of what awaits Neo? The whole “splinter in the mind driving you mad” speech? Yep, walking into Dick’s seminar was like that. Totally mind-blowing and radically different from your typical UCD/HCI/IxD seminar, by far!

Here are the key nuggets that I took away and which still serve as the foundation of my own personally evolved approach as a designer, which I have illustrated as a series of diagrams, per Buchanan’s whiteboard notes. These diagrams require some…meditation ;-) They were amusingly referred to as the “triangles and crosses” by students and alums, for good reason.

Critical takeaway from Buchanan’s grad seminar

1. Four interpretations of the concept of “interaction”: The seminar was based upon an extensive understanding of the concept of interaction, which required a deeply thought-provoking survey of theories from philosophy, psychology, cybernetics, mathematics, semiotics and rhetoric. What are the range of possible relationships between people, objects, environments, and cultures? What are the range of interpretations of data and reality? What are the sources of meaning and how it becomes expressed and mediated?

We examined four such interpretations: existentialist (person to person), essentialist (person to environment), entitative (person to objects), and ontological (person to cosmos or cultural/spiritual ideals). The terms were a kind of special language with rather esoteric origins reaching back to Buchanan’s mentor, Richard McKeon and his examination of how to interpret various systems of thought (eg, “philosophic pluralism”).

But what’s important for designers are the opposing types of interactions and how interaction and communication interrelate to shape a human experience of the “other”–a person, an object, an environment, or a culture. Each interpretation or mode presents a specific outlook on reality and meaning (ie, existentialist projection of self’s meaning vs essentialist meaning arises from a “doing and undergoing” with the context), while in actual design practice we mix up in varying levels each of these interpretations. Ultimately, they help decipher the complexities of reality and suss out the problems to be tackled.

2. The nature of a product: What indeed is a “product”? There are certain core elements that are commonly defined, per writings from Moholy-Nagy of the Bauhaus. A product has a form, materials, function, and also agency (tools & skills) that make the product embodied and actualized for usage by someone for some purpose. Each of these terms are meant to be open for interpretation and playfulness of meaning. For example, what is “form”? Is it the physical shape? Or perhaps the “shape of the activity”, a dramatic performance with a beginning, middle, and end? Again, the idea is to provide a conceptual toolkit to help designers thrown into complex situations, parcelling out the issues at an essential level of abstraction and simplicity.

3. The elements of an argument: At the heart of the Buchanan approach to design is the notion of rhetorical argument–persuasive communication based upon discovery and invention of arguments that shape attitudes and behaviors, like a well-composed speech. There is a multi-lateral, coordinated appeal to functional or rational logic, the speaker’s own credibility and personality, and the audience’s sense of empathy and emotional sway. This balanced blend of what is useful, usable, and desirable enables the creation of a “well-designed product” and positive experience overall.

4. The liberal arts as related to design: Buchanan was educated in the arts & methods of rhetoric per his studies with McKeon at Chicago (and McKeon himself studied with John Dewey at Columbia–indicating a strong intellectual lineage!). He perceived a deep connection between the four liberal arts (rhetoric, poetics, grammar, and dialectic) and design thinking/making. This breakthrough insight was critical to the course’s fundamental nature and the goal of evolving a generation of design leaders schooled in broad-based liberal education, again to aptly dive into complex situations and distill issues into essences via the arts of strategic conversation, deliberation, argument for whatever context.

Obviously, these are not the expected lessons from a seminar on design–no particular “rules” of good web design or metrics for how to organize tabs and buttons. Those are mere tactics, exceptionally diverse and learnable from a book at Borders, frankly. The aspiration instead is towards creating leaders armed with conceptual toolkits that can dissect any complex problem (from software to organizational design to process design to sustainable design issues) with profound confidence and intellectual rigor.