Summary of CMU view of design

I’ve written a few posts in the past several weeks so as to articulate the core of Dick Buchanan’s view of interaction design (and design in general) which shaped the overall school philosophy and approaches. I just want to briefly summarize those postings here (since they’ve gotten lost in the WordPress archives). Through future postings and periodic recap summaries, my hope is a fuller, richer portrait of the CMU way of thinking will emerge with greater fidelity/crispness over time. Enjoy the journey :-)

“Interaction design emerged in contemporary consciousness around problems of the digital medium and the relationship between people and computers. However, interaction design has greater significance than its application to the digital products that increasingly surround us and influence our lives. Interaction design offers new insight into visual communication, physical artifacts, activities and services, and the systems and environments within which all products exist.” — R. Buchanan, PhD.

From Graduate Design Seminar syllabus

Essentially the CMU School of Design mode of thought and practice is centered on design as a “humanistic, liberal art of technological culture” focused on the “conception, planning, and shaping of the artificial” directed towards “individual and collective purposes”. Let’s unpack all that…

  1. Humanistic: It may seem like splitting hairs to some folks but this term considers the totality of being human, not just objectified “users” to be statistically analyzed to the nth degree. This includes the emotional, aesthetic, and expressive qualities of people and humanizing technology to support that full range of dimensionality. Beauty, trust, freedom, emotion, and control are all human values that take center stage when designing new products and services.
  2. Liberal Art: Just like in a typical college education, referring to a liberal arts degree that is well-rounded, thus provides a total perspective on human issues and problem-solving. It is expansive, exploring new territories of thought and meaning, and inventive possibilities drawing from various disciplines. Plus it is an “art” (as opposed to method-driven); per Dick Buchanan, an art is a long-term, strategically oriented set of concepts, connected in some systematic, disciplined manner with a holistic, total view in mind of a situation or problem. A method is tactical and diverse in nature (there are hundreds of methods to choose from, but only a select few arts that guide one’s thinking) targeting immediate issues in a tightly constrained manner. I agree it’s a subtle distinction, but worth pondering the slight but powerful differences…
  3. Conception, planning, and creation: Sounds like core phases of the design process! This refers to the human-driven ability to conceive, plan, and create something that solves human problems and improves conditions.
  4. Individual and collective purposes: Refers to creating solutions that solve problems for single person’s goals OR for groups, teams, organizations, even entire societies, to help them achieve their cumulative goals and fulfill their purposes (think of goal-directed design).

And technological culture…This refers to the modern day of course, but this label can be applied to any time period or culture/society/community where technologies (whether mechanical or digital or beyond) influence and shape people’s behaviors and attitudes about living, working, playing, etc. Designers equipped with this humanistic perspective can help invent valuable solutions where the technologies better fit human needs and concerns.

So there you have it, a brief sketch of the main ideas that define the profound and powerful CMU approach to design. Much of this comes from Buchanan’s work on the “rhetorical dimensions of design”, regarding the product as an argument. (see Wayne Booth, Richard McKeon, John Dewey, Aristotle)

In addition, the following posts where I’ve quoted Buchanan extensively, will drive a fuller understanding of the CMU approach:

Core ideas of design

Core design abilities

Purposes of design

And here is my definition of interaction design, for what it’s worth :-)

Finally, I highly recommend reading the following books by CMU Design alumni:

Thoughts on Interaction Design by Jon Kolko

Designing for Interaction by Dan Saffer

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