As someone on the periphery of design—who thinks, writes, and speaks about it, does research within it, develops strategy for it, but doesn’t necessarily practice it in the craft-based sense—it is quite natural for me to take a broad approach to looking at design work. Not being caught up in the minutia of object creation can have its perks. And given that most of my literary training took post-structuralism as its jumping off point, it is difficult for me to think of designer intention as anything other than hopeful potentiality. I’ve written about designer intention before, resulting not in substantive conclusions but rather an exploration of the idea. This article will likely serve a similar purpose with the addition of new theoretical material.
Designing differs from “making” in the sense that design, at least in part, deals with intent. The designed object is never intended for the here and now but is rather always ahead of itself; it is designed for users to accomplish future goals, and thus the design (noun) and the act of designing (verb) are both aimed at creating an entity users interact within-order-to accomplish something else. The object itself is rarely the end point of the experience; a user is oriented toward a future accomplishment. To help users achieve that goal, designers are in the business of teleological instantiation, or making their intent manifest in the designed entity: they must accurately determine what those end goals are and then design a product or service that guides or points the user to attaining those goals.
What sounds like a simple equation becomes complex when we really begin to pick apart the nature of intention and what it means for design. Don Ihde provides a particularly post-structuralist reading of intention:
“[T]he designer fallacy is ‘deistic’ in its 18th century sense, that the designer-god, working with plastic material, creates a machine or artifact which seems ‘intelligent’ by design—and performs in its designed way. Instead, I hold, the design process operates in very different ways, ways which imply a much more complex set of inter-relations between any designer, the materials which make the technology possible, and the uses to which any technologies may be put.” (Ihde, 2008)
The post-structuralist movement saw the questioning of author intent. In a similar analysis to the current one, Wimsatt and Beardsley (1954) questioned the role of the author in terms of the reader’s interpretation of a text. They argued that once an author completed a text, s/he is no longer a part of it. Any interpretation on the reader’s part is completely independent of what the author meant to say, and therefore the author’s intention is not a valid component of literary criticism. The assumption that authorial intent played a role in interpretation is what Wimsatt and Beardsley called the intentional fallacy, which of course Ihde borrows when he talks about the designer fallacy. Not too long after the articulation of intentional fallacy, literary theorists werequestioning the role of the author, while others simply declared the author dead (this was before it was cool to declare things dead but then explain how they’re actually not).
Ihde performs a similar questioning of designer intent by linking it to the god-like qualities of creating an object toward a particular end. It is the one-to-one analytical conclusion that Ihde is questioning: just because a designer intends certain outcomes does not mean those outcomes will be the only results. The history of design is full of objects being used in unintended ways, leading Ihde to conclude that technology is multistable, which we will return to later. First, we have to go a little deeper into what intentionality means for design.
Many of the practitioner-based discussions of designer intention take a certain positivist approach: if we can determine what our intentions are and we can design systems that clearly articulate those intentions, then our designs will be successful in promoting the type of behavior we desire. This view assumes that intentions are clear, the ability to communicate intentions is simple, users will interpret intentions in predictable ways, and their subsequent behavior is both static and predictable. While the positivist view sounds good on paper, and clients love the illusory certainty it provides, it quickly becomes clear that human behavior is of course much more complex than we sometimes give it credit for. I contend that intention is very important within the design process, but I want to argue that it is not enough to say that design is driven by intention.
The key point to understanding designer intention is the differentiation between intention and actual behavior, or pre- and post-action intention. That is, what was the designer’s intention before introducing the designed object into the world, and how did that intention play out in user behavior? Malafouris (2013) summarizes John Searle’s two types of intentionality:
“The first type of intentionality, called “prior intention,” refers to premeditated or deliberate action in which the intention to act is presumably formed in advance of the action itself. The second type of intentionality, called “intention-in-action,” refers to non-deliberate everyday activity in which no intentional state can be argued to have been formed in advance of the action itself.”
Searle’s “prior intention” is a particularly Cartesian view of human-world interaction. There is an authoritative subject who plans and executes actions based on cognitive intentions. The second type, “intention-in-action,” is more of an embodied action, in which intention is formed in the moment of action, often in response to contextual cues. A simple example is driving a car: one might have a prior intention to visit the grocery store via car, but the the act of driving—accelerating, breaking, changing lanes, signaling, etc.—is mostly intention-in-action. The driver responds to his or her particular driving environment, behaving differently on a rural street, where one might be more relaxed and less distracted, versus a six lane freeway, where one needs to react to many variables at the same time. So the challenge is to somehow account for intention-in-action within the act of articulating prior intentions. But how are we to account for intentions-in-action, which by definition are practical use cases, before the action takes place? And when is the moment in time at which an intuition moves from prior to in-action?
Beth Preston (2006) differentiates between proper functions and system functions:
“A proper function is what a thing is supposed to do—usually understood in the case of artifacts as what it is designed to do. A system function is a contingent purpose a thing may serve on occasion without having been designed to do so. For example, the proper functions of spoons are stirring and transporting food. Among the system functions a spoon may serve are use as a percussive musical instrument, as a unit of measure for cooking ingredients, as a dibble for transplanting seedlings, as an opener for cocoa tins, and so on.”
According to Preston, we can distinguish between what a product is supposed to do and what it actually does; there is a difference between the encoded use intention and the emergent behavior that exists regardless of the original intention. The problem I see with this view is that Preston doesn’t seem to consider the designer. How are we to determine what is the “proper function,” which assumes there is a correct use, without knowing what the designer intended. Her example of the spoon seems too broad for the point she is trying to make. The assumption that a proper functions of a spoon are to ‘stir and transport food’ is a retroactive judgement call based on certain cultural norms of spoon use. However, Preston does avoid the problem of time mentioned above by focusing on almost a retroactive view from use to design, rather than design to use.
Vermaas and Houkes (2006) argue against the idea that designer intention drives object function by pointing out that actions taken with objects are often very different than the designer’s intention. At first, this seems like an elementary statement: of course objects can be used for more purposes than intended. But they expand the notion by separating out function and use. Vermaas and Houkes offer the example of a screwdriver. While a designer might have designed this object as a tool used to drive screws, users might also view it as a tool that a mechanic uses in order to earn money, or something given as a gift in order to make the recipient feel special on his/her birthday (albeit a lame gift). Their point is to separate out the functional uses of an object from the more culturally-influenced uses. If I give my father a screwdriver as a gift, it is not because I want to enable him to drive screws, it is because I want to make him feel special by receiving a gift. In this case, the screwdriver is not a tool for driving screws, it is a means of enacting emotion.
They further explain the difference between perceiving function and perceiving use:
“By our plan view of use, there is a difference between perceiving the function of an object and perceiving how an object can be used. The latter means that observers perceive an entire use plan by which the object can be used; whereas the former means that observers perceive merely the function the object has relative to a plan.” (Vermaas and Houkes, 2006)
In the screwdriver example, perceiving the object as a thing that drives screws is a narrow, functional approach based on a specific use plan, or the designer’s intention. A less functionalist would perceive the screwdriver within the context of multiple use plans: a tool, a gift, a lever for removing staples, a paper weight, etc. Or think about a product like Twitter, which has almost no use plans at all. It functions as a conversation platform, which enables many use plans to emerge based on those various conversations. It might be different for each user or different everyday for a single user: a promotional platform, emotional outlet, activist network, political discourse forum, etc.
Designers spend a lot of time thinking about user goals. When done well, user research helps map out the goals of a particular user group and subsequently helps designers create affordances to meet those goals. But this is only the first step. On a deeper level, we should be thinking about user desire, a point which I believe design thinking has articulated quite well. Research aims to not only point out the conscious goals of users but to also get at the unknown desires: the aspects of everyday life that drive behavior.
Jacques Lacan, a post-Freudian psychoanalyst, focused most of his work on desire:
“Desire is a relation of being to lack. This lack is the lack of being properly speaking. It isn’t the lack of this or that, but lack of being whereby the being exists. […] Desire, a function central to all human experience, is the desire for nothing nameable. And at the same time this desire lies at the origin of every variety of animation.” (Lacan, 1988)
Lacan’s notion of desire is literally that which drives all human behavior but cannot be named. While view might be a bit extreme for our purposes (after all, we need to name it), we can take away the idea that desire is usually not accurately articulated. What we say we want and what we actually want are often different, and this difference drives designer intention and user interpretation.
We might think of the difference between ‘using an object to…’ and ‘using an object as…’ as the difference between goals and desires. ‘Using an object to…’ implies a function; the user picks up the object in order to accomplish a goal, such as using a screwdriver to drive a screw. With ‘using an object as…’ s/he uses the object to replace a missing, or lacking, object, such as using a screwdriver to remove a staple in the absence of a staple remover. In the first case, the screwdriver is a goal-oriented functionalist object used for a discrete purpose. With the second case, its possibilities are open to multiple use plans, as the object is co-opted to fit an underlying desire.
Returning to Don Ihde, we see that he argued that technology is multistable: once introduced to the world, the ways in which they are used is unpredictable and complex. (Ihde, 2002) Multistability is the wrench in the designer intention machine; in essence, multistability holds that the potential uses for any particular technology are multitudinous, and once the object is released into the world, the designer’s intention is irrelevant. The user is the one who defines use.
We can think of multistability as a way to articulate the contextual nature of technology use. Technologies have multiple stabilities, many contexts upon which they can prop themselves up and function. The problem this view introduces to design, of course, is that the designer’s place ends at launch:
“The typewriter, for instance, was originally designed not as a piece of office equipment but as a device for helping visually impaired people to write. Scripts and intentionalities, therefore, come into being only within specific contexts of use, rather than having a predefined existence. This implies that there is no direct relation between the activities of designers and the mediating role of the technologies they are designing.” (Verbeek, 2006)
The extreme view of multistability holds that the designer’s role ends once the object is released. But how do we measure that transition? If we are designing, testing, re-designing, re-testing, soft launching, full launching…how do we pinpoint exactly when an object is being designed versus when it is public. Contemporary experience design practices are blurring the lines between internal and external, often involving end users in the design process as test participants, or even more explicitly as co-designers. The fading boundary between the design process and public use points to the idea that designs are not necessarily released, they are incorporated and appropriated.
Incorporation and appropriation play out in the idea of creative misuse. The typewriter example above is an example of creative misuse, as are hashtags moving off Twitter, many of the prescription drugs we take, and everyday examples like using a pen cap to scratch an itch (or a kettle), using a baseball bat to strike someone, or using a shoe to keep a door propped open. As Houkes (2008) points out, the nature of creative misuse does not necessarily render designer intent completely useless. It’s not as if intention means nothing. Rather, it incorporates users into the system in which an object or experience is designed, which raises a big question for design thinking: while decreasing the distance between designers and users sounds great, it is often quite difficult to achieve. Can we maintain a sufficient teleological distance between designers and users if the proximal and epistemological distance shrinks?
The teleological difference is an important one. A designer’s goal is almost always to create an object or experience that fulfills users’ needs, desires, and wants. The users’ goals are often much more complicated, which we discussed with the Lacanian notions of goals and desires above. And these differences between goals and desires play out within creative misuse: “[W]hen users manipulate artefacts in ways that are different to the use for which they was designed, we express this in terms of functions: if a screwdriver is used to extract small objects from cracks, we say that the user manipulates the screwdriver not as a ‘screwdriver’, but as a ‘lever’.” (Vermaas and Houkes, 2006) This goal/desire relationship and its manifestation in “using an object to…” versus “using an object as…” is becoming more complicated within digital spaces simply because we don’t have the proper language to describe the action. A hashtag on Twitter is also a hashtag off Twitter, but a user might be using the hashtag for a number of goals or desires: to make some thing searchable, to add emphasis, to add ironic emphasis, to contribute to an ongoing conversation, etc. The hashtag comes to symbolize the proliferation of multistable uses and meanings.
I don't have many conclusions to wrap up this article, but rather some questions I am currently thinking about and am hoping to work through in the coming months:
Implications of creative misuse
Is creative misuse something we can account for in the design process? Or is it an emerging behavior we simply cannot predict with any accuracy? My first instinct tells me that good strategy will likely point to potential creative misuse, but this deserves more attention.
Role of desire
What exactly is the role of desire, as separate from goal-oriented behavior, in design? Again, my instinct tells me that good strategy and research will get at the unspoken levels of user needs, but I would like to better articulate how we get to that point.
The problem of time and roles
What is the point at which we transition from designer attempting to instantiate his or her intent into an object and user interpreting that intent? How do we differentiate between designer and user when our design practices are purposefully blurring the line?
Houkes, Wybo. "Designing is the construction of use plans." Philosophy and design. Springer Netherlands, 2008. 37-49.
Ihde, Don. Bodies in technology. Vol. 5. U of Minnesota Press, 2002.
Ihde, Don. "The designer fallacy and technological imagination." Philosophy and design. Springer Netherlands, 2008. 51-59.
Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis. CUP Archive, 1988.
Malafouris, Lambros. How Things Shape the Mind. MIT Press, 2013.
Preston, Beth. "The case of the recalcitrant prototype." Doing things with things: the design and use of everyday objects (2006): 15-27.
Verbeek, Peter-Paul. "Persuasive Technology and Moral Responsibility Toward an ethical framework for persuasive technologies." Persuasive 6 (2006): 1-15.
Vermaas, Pieter E., and Wybo Houkes. "Use plans and artefact functions: An intentionalist approach to artefacts and their use." Doing things with things: The design and use of everyday objects (2006): 29-48.
Wimsatt, William K., and Monroe C. Beardsley. "The intentional fallacy ." William K. Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon. Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, Lexington (1954): 3-18.