On the Relevance of
Theory to Practitioners…
Jon: Subtley embedded in this issue is Molly
Wright Steenson’s article on Christopher
Alexander and pattern languages. Many recognize Alexander’s work on patterns, but few are
familiar with his work on design methods. He was
a proponent of the methods movement, and was
fundamental in positioning design as an intellectual creative endeavor rather than a craft and
hand-skill activity. Yet his work has largely been
absent in the professional discourse, and many
practicing designers don’t know of him or his
writing at all. How is it that professional designers, strategists, and managers can do their work
without the larger intellectual context of theory
and academic discourse?
Richard: Christopher Alexander has largely
withdrawn from all such discourse, and the text
Steenson references the most was never published.
However, many professionals have neither the time
nor the inclination to understand the relevance
of theory and academic discourse. And, of course,
sometimes—or perhaps often—there is little relevance, which lowers that inclination even more.
Obviously, you and I are trying to do something
about this, and Steenson’s article reflects that, as
does other content in this issue.
Jon: One of the rules we have for submissions
is the actionable relevance for practitioners—
even supertheoretical work must have some sort
of applicability for daily practice. I feel context
helps that applicability come to life. For example,
Dimitris Grammenos’s article is incredibly reflective, but when juxtaposed against the very pragmatic contributions of Whitney and Whitson, we
can start to see a way of applying his metaphor in
the context of a real-world problem: identity theft.
Do you think there is a way to contextualize academic work to make it more... useful?
Richard: I do, and as you’ve described, I think we
are doing pretty well with interactions. But I wish
more conferences and professional programs did
a better job at this. However, not all work useful
to academics should be useful, or made useful,
to practitioners. And not all of what we publish is
about contextualizing academic work, though not
all work useful to practitioners is of a nature that
we would ever publish in interactions.
Mark Vanderbeeken’s article outlines several of
the issues that we do and intend to address—the
data avalanche and human control, distributing
technology to distribute power, and the human
experience of sustainability. Some people might
question how such articles achieve the publication
criterion of actionable relevance for practitioners.
Jon: As a practitioner, Vanderbeeken’s article
resonates for me loudly. At least at frog design,
we don’t just make “stuff”—there must be a
human and emotional impact to what we design.
And I know my friends at other major firms feel
the same way. The heady and intellectual issues
Vanderbeeken addresses become a thematic drive
behind the more pragmatic wireframes, use cases,
and comps. Designers at all firms are at an interesting milestone: Our role isn’t yet recognized
entirely as grounded in intellect, but we’ve successfully moved beyond the simplicity of “craft”
and “style.” Do you coach your corporate clients to
think more intellectually about problems? Do you
reference the more academic articles that make it
into our magazine?
Richard: Most definitely. And as we discussed in
the September+October 2008 issue, design has a
critical role to play in addressing such heady issues
in addition to all sorts of narrower, intellectual
issues—business issues—that companies commonly address. Do designers need someone like
Christopher Alexander to step into the limelight to
make this happen more quickly?
Jon: I’m not sure. I’m starting to feel that the
Chris Alexanders are already out there, and the
practitioners are just ignoring them. It might be
time to shift the burden: Instead of demanding
that academics become more relevant, perhaps
it’s time practicing designers started paying more
attention to the huge amounts of theoretical discourse that already exists. Perhaps it’s time practitioners became more thoughtful.
© 2009 ACM 1072-5220/09/0300 $5.00