Reflections on Design and Worldmaking

Learning From John Rheinfrank


There are evolving theories about how humans learn language. Plato began the debate by arguing that word-meaning mapping was a built-in human condition. Later, Noam Chomsky expanded on that theory by stating that language was a “universal grammar”, a common grammar innate to us. Most recently, Steven Pinker argues for a “language instinct”, saying the mind is a Swiss Army Knife that adapts to evolutionary changes. For three years in the mid-nineties, I had the fortune of learning a new language of design from John Rheinfrank, the co-founder and first co-editor of “interactions” magazine through a user-centered baptism of sorts. When I was asked to write an article about John it occurred to me that a whole generation of interactions readers may not know who he was or what he contributed to the field of design and, specifically, interaction design. He was a giant in the field.  

Simply put, without John’s work you wouldn’t be able to:

  1. Fix a paper jam in your office copier without calling a repairman
  2. Use a smartphone
  3. Take pictures with a camera that makes you a better photographer
  4. Casually compute
  5. Practice human-centered design
  6. Read “Interactions” magazine

John pioneered a formal school of thought and practice around design languages – the means by which complex systems inherent in products, services, organizations, buildings, cities, and even policies get created. In an article for Terry Winograd’s book, “Bringing Design to Software”, John and interactions co-founder Shelly Evenson defined the theory, rationale, methods, and application of design languages in practice. Their basic approach for creating a design language consisted of five steps [1]:

  1. Characterization, which involves challenging the assumptions of past and present conditions in order to create a new point of view to design from.
  2. Reregistration, or reframing a problem and an opportunity with a new set of assumptions shaped by the behaviors of the people that might use what you design.
  3. Development, the embodiment of a new concept in a demonstrable form, story, or sketch.
  4. Evaluation, or placing the new design in typical contexts of use to see if it resonates with people.
  5. Evolution, the ability of a design to change to the needs of its time.

Over the course of three years, John’s way of seeing made me re-think what I thought I knew about how to design. My language was based on modernistic standards of form and function. Its nouns consisted of shapes, forms, colors, and flat space. But, it was almost entirely lacking of verbs, narrative, empathy, transparency, meaningful expression, provocation, response, affordance, and change. John challenged me to recast myself as a different type of design thinker and doer and taught me a new grammar.

Assumptions

In 1993 I was 25 years old, living in a one-room efficiency apartment in Temple, Texas, and working for Texas Instruments’ Personal Productivity Products group. My job was to design marketing materials and packaging for TI’s line of laptop computers and printers. On occasion I showed an interest in user interface design and probably because I was the only one there with graphic design experience I was handed the job of designing a branded, proprietary “shell” that would ship on all TI laptops. The release of Windows 95 was accompanied by a UI shell hysteria. In fact, even Microsoft itself got in the game with Microsoft Bob. Spatial metaphors were popular back then perhaps because users where still navigating a plastic box of stuff (the World Wide Web was in its infancy). Packard Bell released the Navigator. Apple created At Ease and Xerox’s XSoft group developed TabWorks, both of which used physical folder metaphors in an attempt to simplify the organization of files and applications. Our solution was called TILE, an acronym for “Texas Instruments Living Environment”. It enabled users to switch between sessions and desktops through a little cube-like icon that sat in an upper corner of their screen. They could spin it around to select different sides and states and open it up to launch one. After completing a working animation of it in Macromedia Director, I considered myself an interface designer and changed my business card to say so. However, the design ultimately proved to be, like many competitors products, corny, limiting, and unscalable. The product never shipped, but it got me an introduction to John Rheinfrank.

Characterization

At TI’s Dallas headquarters our design leadership had secured permission from CEO Jerry Junkins to re-imagine what the next generation of portable and mobile products might be like (predominately those that we use today). Wisely, they enlisted John, Shelley, The Doblin Group, e-Lab, and core faculty from IIT’s Institute of Design to consult us on the ways of human-centered design. John positioned himself as the day-to-day consultant that would lead this initiative on site and he actively sought young designers interested in working with him. I wasn’t one of them. So, after I introduced myself and showed him the software interface that I had designed he warned me that I would have to learn a new way to design starting immediately and that it wouldn’t be easy. 

John and Shelley’s first step in creating a design language included challenging all the existing assumptions and conditions around the thing that was to be designed in order to express it anew. They called this “Characterization”. When they were hired by Xerox to refashion their copier they began by stealthily videotaping executives and their administrative assistants trying to use their own copiers and failing repeatedly. Then, they showed them the footage. This evidence gave their team the permission to affect the whole product system which led to the green handles and litany of affordances that we still depend on today in order to operate these machines. 

In like manner, after sizing me and my design skills up moments after we met, John saw another young designer that needed a dramatic shift in perspective and he extended that cautionary invitation. Accepting his offer began the process of learning a new vocational language.

Reregistration

It began with a trip to Chicago in the fall of 1994. John worked with our leadership at TI to arrange for the design department to tour a firm that was practicing human centered design and design planning and visit the academic institution that was formally teaching its theory and methods – the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The second step in creating a design language is to reframe the situation at hand, so that’s what he did.

We started with a visit to the Doblin Group. They were located in a Chicago landmark, The Jeweler’s Building on 35 East Wacker Drive. The architect Helmut Jahn occupied the top floor. Jay Doblin started the firm in 1972 after leaving Unimark, an international graphic and product design firm, and Larry Keeley, Doblin’s understudy, eventually worked his way into the leadership position there. John Rheinfrank was a Senior Strategist. The place was white, black, gray, and yellow from thousands of post-it notes. In what was to be typical form, John filled an entire whiteboard with a diagrammatic narrative of why we were there (I don’t recall him ever using PowerPoint or the Texas Instruments standard “foils” – transparent sheets of plastic placed on an overhead projector to cast the contents of a presentation). We toured the office, met the staff, and saw the beginnings of the program that many of us would touch and be inspired by over the next few years. The day spilled out into the streets of Chicago where a friend of the firm gave us a boat tour of the city’s architectural gems. Then at dusk the small ship made its way North to Evanston, where we docked and rode a bus to the Rheinfrank’s splendid Victorian home. John and Shelley had enlisted some of our design managers to assist in the preparation of a three course meal served outside in their backyard on a brisk fall evening. When I arrived, I entered a house that embodied so many of the patterns from Chris Alexander’s book. I saw my bosses in a magnificently old kitchen wearing aprons, making apple pies, washing dishes, and setting tables. And as the night progressed I watched John choreograph an experience that served as an object lesson for the new set of conditions that we would be designing in – those that required participation, negotiation, and co-design. On the last day of our immersion tour we visited with key staff from the Institute of Design to see first-hand the greenhouse of the methods we would be using to re-imagine what a mobile and connected lifestyle in the 21st century could be like. Moving forward, the design group at Texas Instruments would be working under a new set of assumptions with a framework that would transform the business, and for many of us, our careers.


Development and Demonstration

The User Understanding Lab at Texas Instruments was established soon after returning from our trip to Chicago. Its mission was to change the way the corporation saw and used industrial design and its case study was a program called Livegear. TI’s calculator and notebook computer businesses were reaching maximum growth, so the company, with the backing of CEO Jerry Junkins (who tragically died during the course of the project) set about transforming it. We began by recognizing a trend towards increasingly networked and information-based mobile work and saw that our current product offerings were in no way optimized to support the behaviors of these users. So what exactly were people doing and where? And how would we go about creating new, more relevant product categories and products for this emerging market?

Enter John Rheinfrank.

He began by facilitating a research effort that would place us directly in the lives of students, lawyers, construction managers, and physicians. We would “shadow” them for days, noting when, why, and how they changed contexts and what they used to make the transition work for them. It was the first time I had ever really paid attention to the variety of places that a college student studied, distinguished the “grunt work” from the “core work” in a typical office environment, and documented what really happens between people in a meeting. I painstakingly described everything I saw and then took pictures and video of it to further deconstruct back in the User Understanding Lab.

What is now called the sensemaking part of the synthesis process John called “frameworks” or “reframing” – visible ways to look at a behavior in a new light and think about a solution in a fresh way. From our research, John encouraged us to focus on three opportunistic areas: personal and flexible tools, collaboration space, and easy access to a variety of resources. He did this by immersing us in the process, giving us permission to think through the work, and stimulating collaboration with him and each other to make things, even if they weren’t “right”. Much like John put our managers to work in his Chicago home to cook a meal for their staff, our design team was matched with the leading strategic product design firms to imagine the next century of computing experiences.  The effort produced a suite of integrated products under a umbrella brand called Livegear, and the products and form factors we designed directly influenced the smartphones, tablets, user interfaces, wireless hard drives, and cloud solutions that play such central roles in our lives today. 

The entirety of the program was manifest in an “Experience Lab” that occupied half a floor in a non-descript building near TI’s campus headquarters. Livegear’s story used about 5,000 square feet of space to weave a compelling narrative to existing and prospective partners about how a deep understanding of human behavior could inform a framework for change that touched advanced technologies, architectures, products, alliances, channels, and brands. In addition to its external success the Livegear Experience Lab influenced other business units at TI to adopt a more user-centered approach to thinking about their whole business and product offerings. Together with John, we had made research that, as former Xerox PARC Chief Scientist John Seeley Brown would say, “reinvents the corporation” [2] through new processes and demonstrations that held the potential to yield an infrastructure for a constantly innovating company.

Evaluation

In the User Experience Lab, TI's OEMs, partners, and other business units could see a process and a product: an empathic approach to understanding people instead of "markets" and a translation of human factors into tools that they could hold, work, and share. It provided the conditions and moments that John had felt were necessary to assess the relevance, impact, interest, usefulness, and to some degree the usability of our prototypes. Our work started conversations with companies in mobility, home entertainment, health care, education, and advertising. It concretized ideas that current or potential partners had kicked around, but not acted upon. And, it revealed what was lacking in our designs through the reactions and collaborations with the students, lawyers, physicians, and builders we studied when they visited our lab.

It was around this stage of the program that John and Shelley published the first copy of "interactions". I recall John bringing a stack of magazines to TI's offices to add to the library that he and others had been slowly developing during his tenure (thankfully, the magazine's current editor does the same for us at frog).  Its tone was fresh, elegant, and provocative. It directly contributed to our new human-centered narrative. And, it also helped to change the dialogue inside of our design offices and across some business units at TI from being mostly about technical things to considering the whole product ecosystem; from being laser-focused on form to tapping into user's emotions; and from being full of nouns to using thoughtful verbs.

Evolution

Fast forward 15 years. One of my first projects at frog included using and advancing a design language for an entire telecommunications product ecosystem. The design philosophy, form factors, common elements, modes of use, and visual experience were already defined at a general level and my task was to apply them to a new hardware and software product then develop specific best practices to enhance the master document. The fact that the foundational design brief was referred to as a “Design Language” was evidence that John’s theory had reach (in fact, the author of the document was not familiar with him or his work when she drafted it). Since then, I have come across numerous other examples of design languages developed for our clients’ product platforms that inform websites, applications, retail environments, wayfinding systems, medical devices, and even brand positioning strategies. 

But, what does it matter if the authors of these design languages don’t know their methodological origins? What is the importance of understanding the rich history of design languages and what does this knowledge give us as designers? First, it provides perspective on today’s issues. For example, contemporary touch interactions draw their principles from yesterday’s consumer and office products such as ATMs, personal computers, the mouse, and copiers, as well as more discrete and common features like handles, buttons, and levers. The operations of these hard products have provided a foundation for the softer interactions we find in the smartphones, tablets, and retail kiosks we use now. Second, a historical understanding of various design languages provides us with dependable models to apply to our work, they give us points of departure for new thinking, and offer a means to measure our progress. Finally, it gives us a sense of where our work lands along a timeline of design – after all, ours won’t be the last design language written.

Conclusion

The language I learned from John has provided me a lens through which I could take seriously the direct and indirect experiences that I routinely have and use them to design with. Whereas form was second nature to me as a young designer, now the intent, behaviors, beliefs, and desires of people motivate my design process. And, I’m not alone. The next generation of practitioner and product that John envisioned and began to shape fifteen years ago is now the status quo, a palpable realization of the essence of his theory which proposes that if design languages are done right they can assimilate into people’s routines and the broader culture of use:

Design Languages typically are most influential when they have become deeply embedded, when people can unconsciously assume they are valid and can continue to act through them rather than think about their appropriateness.
— John Rheinfrank

(1) Winograd, T., “Bringing Design to Software”, p63-85, New York, NY: ACM, 1996

(2) Brown, J. Seely, “Research That Reinvents The Corporation”, Harvard Business Review on Knowledge Management, p153-180. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1998

Christopher Alexander on Pattern Languages

What You Will Find On A Design Researcher’s Bookshelf