Contemplating the impossible

Lévy, P. (2018). Contemplating the Impossible, presented at Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, The Netherlands. October 19th, 2018.

⌈Abstract⌋ Times ago, discussing this symposium with Stephan, the idea was to have one eye looking back at what Kees brought to us and hoped for the design community, and to have the other eye on the future trying to tell our current students, to remind our alumni and ourselves some aspects Kees carried through his work, that we may bring further. I have the honour and the challenge to operate this eye gymnastic and to share with you today what I see.



First, I would like to thank Stephan Wensveen for the organisation and for making this day a such a special one, from start to end (although who knows how it will end…).
I am very glad to be here. It is an honour to participate to this symposium, and to have the role of opening the series of presentations. It is also a challenge I must say. Kees has been enriching the life of many of us, and I believe many of us would have something valuable to tell based on sharing experiences with Kees. I am very conscious of this privilege.

Times ago, discussing this symposium with Stephan, the idea was to have one eye looking back at what Kees brought to us and hoped for the design community, and to have the other eye on the future trying to tell our current students, to remind our alumni and ourselves some aspects Kees carried through his work, that we may bring further.
I have the honour and the challenge to operate this eye gymnastic and to share with you today what I see.

Contemplating the impossible

Today, in this speech, I will try not to bore you with details of the inaugural lecture of the late Prof Kees Overbeeke, “The Aesthetics of the Impossible”, that he gave in 2007, 11 years ago in exactly a week. Today offers an occasion for me to bore you with a contemplation of some of the key ideas raised during this lecture, and to contemplate them from where and when I stand today. And much have happened in between.

Today is also for me the occasion of getting bold again in the tradition of DQI. For the ones who hoped this was the past, bear with me and I’ll promise I will try to be soft. For the ones who miss it at times, hope you can enjoy.

For the ones who did not meet Kees, I would like to briefly introduce him. Late professor in our department of Industrial Design, Kees had a significant impact on the design and CHI communities all over the world, especially on the topics related to embodiment in design for interaction. But that would not tell much about the guy, by far. If he is remembered and celebrated in such a way as today, is because his ideas, his generosity, his friendliness and appreciation to all, impacted many individual lives, many of us both intellectually and humanly. He is, for many, one of these very few people that significantly meant something to us. He is a moment in the development of thoughts and attitudes.

His inaugural lecture was entitled “the aesthetics of the impossible”. The notion “impossible” demands here a little clarification, which is to me twofold:

  • Aesthetics, which is the core of design for interaction is ungraspable. It is only when and where it happens, in the here and the now. And then it is gone, suddenly as it happens. It is unique and impossible to grasp. Standardisation is impossible and actually not wished, as it would lead towards an extreme level of boredom and dissatisfaction. Systematic research is difficult but should be challenged.
  • Impossibility is also in the complexity we encounter in design: that is, in the variety of disciplines our students are facing (challenging skills, knowledge and practices), and in the inherent complexity of interaction and of experience. To address this impossibility, design approaches require a greater balance between making and thinking (supported by reflection on action, which I will address again later).

Therefore today, to contemplate the impossible, I will especially focus on three aspects: believes, teaching and research, making and thinking. And I will do so by freely mixing what Kees said (at least the way I understand it) and by my reflection on it. For the flow of my discourse, I will often borrow from Kees’s inaugural lecture without systematically mention it.

Contemplating believes

Kees explains:
Every scientist, as well as every designer, has a body of knowledge, as well as a galaxy of believes (that is my wording).

Knowledge is established through research activities and transmitted through teaching. It is about how things are. Believes contribute to envisioning how things ought to be. They result from philosophy, intuition, awareness, experience, from our being-in-the-world, in a giving culture, in a giving timeframe.

Believes are guides for where we go, where we look, we what we do, and what strikes us. They condition our engagements, our motives, our stance and our actions in the world. Less than a month ago, Bill Buxton, lecturing here at TU/e, was reminding us the importance, and actually the necessity of having a compass and a horizon in design practice and design research. It is essential for good design (given that this design intends to contribute to the making of a better world).

In the current context where the most striking thing we know is that we do not know where the world is going, because of its complexity, because of challenges that we are aware of but do not fully comprehend, because of tensions we feel but that are not clear to our sight. This is made even more complex by our relation and use of technology: as we praise it and support its development and its use in society, yet questioning it at the same time.

Knowledge and believes then are necessary in design practice, design education, and design research.

A few believes that Kees mentioned during his inaugural lecture, are worth remembering:

  • “Design is about people. It is about our life and dreams, about our loneliness and joy, our sense of beauty and justice, about the social and the good. It is about being in the world”.
  • Meaning emerges in interaction and cannot be detached from action. This demands a primacy of embodiment and a primacy of action.

Considering these two first points, a few consequences can be suggested here. The first two ones are also stated by Kees:

  • A design theory must be a theory of action (and I would add of transformation, which I will discuss later). This theory should focus on embodiment in the first place, and on meaning in the second place. Reflection in/on and for action is a source of knowledge and a creator of new and valuable perspectives on and for design, on and for the world.
  • Design research and practice are powerful source of knowledge. As I will discuss it later, research and education should be highly interwoven.

To these two considerations, I may add the following:

  • Design research is not solely an applicative research but contains also, and actually is for a large part, a theoretical research, with the condition that we give space to it. Design theory, constitutive of design research, is a theory of action. If design would to be a science (in the modern sense of the term, which I have throughout the years got progressively to agree with), it would be a transformative science, as any other science with transformative outcomes, such as engineering or chemistry (when it tries to create a new molecule for example). Design is not a descriptive science, such as ethnography, physics trying to describe the phenomenon of gravitation, or chemistry trying to describe a natural chemical reaction.
    Design (being practice, education, or research) is about transformations, and is specific as it is about action, about people, and about ethics.
  • Therefore, I would challenge any reduction of the world or the experience of it, to data. In this crucial moment, where data related technologies become so predominant, with incredible and promising outcomes, design practitioners and design researchers should obviously embrace such technologies, as well as not forgetting that the experience of the world is embodied, is affective, and symbolic. We are beings with a history, culture, ethics, visions and dreams.

Contemplating teaching and research

This is especially important when considering the necessity of aligning research and teaching. Kees reminded us clearly and simply the necessity to align both activities for the academic world.

He told us: “expressivity, beauty and meaning are at the core of design”. In 1999, I (being Kees while in Delft) pointed out the mismatch between teaching and research. Research was about structural aspects of perception, and teaching was about beauty of interaction. I could not change the teaching, so I changed the research. “Emotion became important, which is not obvious as a research topic in the technical background that was then in Delft and now here.”

The PhD of Stephan Wensveen is one of the first and a clear example of research work on emotionally intelligent products. Already then he noticed the challenge and the necessity of interacting in a continuous and simultaneous way with products (topic that was still challenged in the PhD of Jelle Stienstra just 2 years ago). Many related topics were then developed further in various ways throughout most PhDs executed in the DQI research group. And I am no surprised that Stephan today pushes the research further and focuses on questions related to the “aesthetics of the intelligence”.

Recently, our students are facing a progressive increase of topics the design community is engaging in (design based on big data, A.I. and other learning algorithms, but also service design, social design…). All these increase challenges and complexity in their education and their future work. They also face a progressive increase of technological solutions at hand to make their designs.
Now that teaching is challenged by many other topics (related to technology and society), I think It is important for us, as a leading academia in design, to keep focusing where our skills are: as we interact with data through interfaces, being either sensors or actuators… “how do these become meaningful and beautiful to us?” is our core question. Mastering data management (among others) is certainly important, however, providing meaningful, rich and beautiful interactions is the heart of design.

This demands to care for human and their actual experiences as beings-in-the-world, and to keep design teaching and research focusing on this. Only then, when students will embody that by being curious, sympathetic and independent, only then they will embody and act the richness design may provide. Taking again the lines from Kees: “But the only way to develop curiosity, sympathy, principle, and independence of mind is to practice being curious, sympathetic, principled and independent. For those of us who are teachers, it isn’t what we teach that instills virtue, it is how we teach. We are the books our students read most closely”
“Let us practice what we preach”. Let us care, through our teaching, what our students learn and become.

Contemplating making and thinking

The electronic and digital interfaces are loaded with buttons that demands little of our motor-perceptive skills, and too much of our cognitive skills.
This situation leads to standardized and efficient interactions, as well as to boring and poor ones if we consider the human being in its entirety.

Making simple buttons by default is, to my point of view, a triple failure:
First, as we already mentioned it, it fails the possibility to provide beauty in interaction, beauty and care in the experience. It fails the heart of design.
Second, it is defeating the idea that design is about challenges and only addressing these challenges will help, in the long term, to find novel, effective, rich and beautiful ways of interacting.
Third, the button degrades our contact with the world. When there is no experiential relation between the activity of pressing a button and the functional and experiential consequences of doing so, there is also less space for grasping the world, that is for sensemaking. Proposing poor interaction solutions (by opposition of making rich interaction solutions), makes us designer and us users less to experience our being-in-the-world, and therefore inepter (or more moronic is you prefer).

The button here is obviously only the archetype of a quick and easy decision making, yet leading to boredom, poverty in life experiences, and flattening both designers’ and users’ minds.
Our design skills exploring possibilities of rich interactions are therefore not only a way to make user’s experiences and life better, but also a way to advance in design research: exploring through making (using design skills well), and reflecting in and on action is what design can do best, and contribute to the most in the world of academia in the first place, and in the world in the second place.

Finally, as Kees reminded us, we need to keep in mind that we are too many that know, and not enough that make. Reflection on action should be the drive to push design practice and design research further. “in our effort to understand reality, we have been too much abstracted from it”.

Contemplating transformation

As mentioned before, design is about transformation, transformation of practices in societies and in our everyday life. Understanding reality, which means understanding our everyday life, is to transform it:

Étudier la vie quotidienne serait une entreprise parfaitement ridicule, et d’abord condamnée à ne rien saisir de son objet, si l’on ne se proposait pas explicitement d’étudier la vie quotidienne afin de la transformer. Guy Debord

Studying the everyday life would be an absurd undertaking, and anyway fated to catch nothing of its object, if studying the everyday life would explicitly be with the intention to transform it. Guy Debord

And I would like to conclude with this notion of everyday transformation, being actually my research topic which I believe I have built partly on the considerations I have discussed today.

Although this word, “everyday” is so much used in the world of design, addressing it is not as obvious as it seems, and is often actually avoided or subverted. As things become part of our everyday, a process called quotidianisation, they escape from our attention, giving us peace of mind. They stop questioning us, and we stop questioning them. This way, they progressively disappear from our awareness. Perec even speaks about amnesia, rather than lack of attention. What can be extraordinary when new, becomes infra-ordinary through the process of quotidianisation.
Questioning the everyday requires exploring the infraordinary, which demands exploring tiny and often personal details that we are obviously not aware of in the first place. Exploring the everyday to transform it demands to get aware and to understand its most tiny details, which as Coyne & Mathers explain “often appear irrational from a third-person perspective, but most often rational from a first-person perspective”. Therefore, designing for the everyday demands a continuous and structuring dialog between an exploration at the first-person perspective, to create a rational, observing and transforming ones’ own everyday life to comprehend these rationales, and a third-person perspective that enables us to design for others.

I have found the sensibility, the attention to tiny details and the beauty in the everyday in the Japanese culture and philosophy, from which I have elaborated a theoretical framework for designing for the everyday. This framework relies indeed on Japanese philosophers and thinkers, such as Nishida Kitaro or Yanagi Soetsu who through their work have pointed out where beauty relies in the everyday, as well as designers, such as Naoto Fukusawa and Kenya Hara who through their work have not only designed but also reflected on their making to show the values of paying attention to the everyday towards human and social elevation, and have made it existing in our societies all over the world, through companies such as Muji.

Designing for the everyday is to me a clear example of what design claims to do, yet actually (and for now!) fails to do properly. The hope of making design research education and practice an actual unique and yet not isolated contributor to a betterment of our world, goes through a repositioning on what design can do best: focusing and creating meaning in interaction for people’s experiences, using at full reflection in and on action to make sense of the world as it is lived, making sure to enrich the beauty of our everyday life. All that stands in the way of abstraction, standardization.

Contemplating the impossible

To finish on Kees’s considerations: “It is our role, scholars and industrialists, to define a new project for design. We have to avoid remaining in a problem-solver perspective, and to wake-up and let grow the challengers that is in each of the designers we are educating.”

We must dream, to give youngsters hope.

Thanks to Kees for all this teaching, that even in challenging times remain constitutive of our design compass.
La reconnaissance est la mémoire du cœur.

Thank you