One Concept per Second: Charles Eastman and the Beginning of Design Cognition

I recently (May 2021) gave a talk at a symposium celebrating the work of Charles Eastman, one of the pioneers of the field of design cognition, as well as a pioneer in the field of computer aided architectural design. Eastman’s early career is notable for the people he was taught by and worked with. He studied at UC Berkeley where he encountered two giants of the design methods movement: Horst Rittel and Christopher Alexander. He worked at Carnegie Mellon University alongside Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon and Alan Newell who shaped the modern field of cognitive psychology. Finally, he worked at UCLA alongside two well-known design and planning theorists George Stiny and Lionel March. With these influences he was able to establish a unique identity in design research, one with deep roots in science and design and a broad canopy in research and practice.


Figure 1. Charles Eastman (1940-2020), one of the founders of design cognition research (image credit: Georgia Tech)

Whilst doing my PhD in cognitive psychology in the early 1990’s, one of Eastman’s papers formed a touchstone for my own research. It is a study of designers using what was then a new research methodology called protocol analysis. For my symposium talk I wanted to return to that paper to consider again one of the foundations of a new discipline and assess its contemporary relevance. What follows is an edited text of my talk.

What is it that designers do when they solve seemingly ill-structured problems like design problems? More importantly how can we develop methodological, computational, and educational tools to support designers? Charles Eastman’s paper On the Analysis of Intuitive Design Processes [1], published in 1970 from research funded by DARPA [2], addressed the first question; arguably his subsequent career addressed the second. This talk discusses the foundational contribution of Eastman’s paper, looks at some of the problems he uncovered, and assesses the paper’s relevance for contemporary studies of design activity. 

One clear thing that designers do when faced with a problem brief is to embark on a process of understanding, piecing together the fragments of information they have or can discover and forming a way to overcome the original problem. This process involves focussed acts of cognition – perceiving, retrieving, and conceiving – supported by the generation of representational artefacts – “words, numbers, flow diagrams, plans, sections, and perspectives”[3]. The resultant activity transforms the initial problem state into a goal (solution) state. 

That was the theory in 1970 anyhow, when Charles Eastman published the first study of the design process to use protocol analysis as a research methodology. The new science of cognitive psychology, with Allen Newell and Herbert Simon at the helm, drew on a computational metaphor for the human mind. Information came in and transformed information flowed out.


Figure 2. The information processing analogy applied to the human mind. Information comes in to short-term memory as a stimulus (S), interacts with long-term memory, and produces an output action. Note: short-term memory is ‘chunked’ – according to George Miller [4] we can hold up to 7 +/- 2 chunks. (image reproduced from ‘On the Analysis of Intuitive Design Processes’ [1])

In the terms of this metaphor some aspects of cognition had begun to be understood quite well, the features of short-term memory for example [4], though much still remained a mystery. The metaphor just about held if you looked for rationality in the right places.

On the Analysis of Intuitive Design Processes analyses the 25-minute protocol of an industrial designer with seven years of professional experience. His task was to reconfigure a bathroom layout after negative comments of an existing layout by potential house purchasers.

Problem and solution

Figure 3. The design problem (left) and a possible solution (right). The problem was to reconfigure an existing bathroom layout that potential homebuyers didn’t like. The designers used sketching and other forms of representation to explore different alternatives. (images reproduced from ‘On the Analysis of Intuitive Design Processes’ [1])

Each minute of the protocol is itemised and codified in the paper’s appendix. Mostly the depiction of the activity is routine enough to be displayed in a ‘Problem-Behaviour Graph’ with constraints being identified, design elements manipulated, and a number of alternative proposals produced. 

Problem behaviour graph

Figure 4. Problem behaviour graph. The graph describes the problem solving activity of the designer which identifies design constraints (C), and manipulates (M) individual units of the design problem/solution (DU). Four alternative proposals are produced during the 25 minute design session. (image reproduced from ‘On the Analysis of Intuitive Design Processes‘ [1]) 

There are four key points where the attribution of activity is glossed as ‘an association with deep structure memory’. These are value-based decisions and what we might consider as the crux of intuitive decision making. But if this is where ‘intuition’ takes place, then the ‘intuitive’ of intuitive design might seem beyond the grasp of protocol analysis. In this sense On the Analysis of Intuitive Design Processes can be read as a paradox and a challenge to the metaphor of information processing applied to human behaviour and the method of protocol analysis that derives from it. One of the paper’s two stated findings is that drawing on past experience is a superior designing strategy than relying on external cues. But what is ‘past experience’ in this context?

Protocol analysis – the articulation of the contents of short-term memory as well as other processing information – had been successfully used on highly constrained problems, where the state of the problem is objective and finite and it is relatively clear where the focus of attention is. For problems where the constraints are much more loosely connected, subject to interpretation and sometimes even rejection, and where the thoughts of the designer relate to past experiences and feelings, short-term memory only provides part of the story. Eastman puts it down in numbers at the end of his paper: 

“currently the density of concept utilization which these studies represent is about one every twelve seconds. Protocol studies in other areas show that processing of familiar information may take place at a rate greater than one concept per second. Studies of design have a long way to go to fill in what’s happening in that eleven-seconds gap.” [5]

Has the eleven second gap been filled in the intervening years?

To some degree. The more naturalistic and social elements of designing have characterised the activity more effectively. Less a feat of mind and memory, more of a creative dialogue with others. Donald Schön in particular showed how past experience and intuition might be analysed [6], the Design Thinking Research Symposium (DTRS) series [7] has provided many insights into the nature of design thinking, and neuroimaging and machine learning are finally beginning to correlate brain activity with design activity [8]. 

To the present day, protocol analysis is still used as a key research methodology in many studies of design, though very few achieve the depth, cogency, elegance and insight of Eastman’s original study. The language of design cognition that Eastman proposed is still prevalent. The idea of an evolving ‘problem and solution space’, for example [9], or simply representing the links between information states in something like a problem-behaviour graph [10].

We might not have filled the 11 second gap, but we now have a rich technical language to describe design activity that can be traced all the way back to Eastman’s original research.



[1] Eastman, C.E. (1970) On the analysis of intuitive design processes, in G.T. Moore (ed.) Emerging Methods in Environmental Design and Planning, pp21-37.

[2] DARPA the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It is interesting, though obvious when considered, that defence would have an interest in cognitive psychology. Working out the capabilities and limits of human cognition has obvious relevance to theatres of war where both design and split-second decision-making are necessary. Two other well-known psychologists, Abel Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, were closely involved with the Israeli military both for research and in service. They drew on Herbert Simon’s theory of bounded rationality in building prospect theory, the foundation of behavioural economics and ‘nudging’. Their relationship is explored in Michael Lewis’ excellent book The Undoing Project.

[3] Eastman, C.E. (1970) op cit, p.21

[4] Miller, G. (1956) The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological review, 63(2), pp 81-97.

[5] Eastman, C.E. (1970) op cit, p.21

[6] Schön, D. (1988) Designing: Rules, types and worldsDesign Studies, 9, pp 181-190.

[7] Cross, N. (2018) A brief history of the Design Thinking Research Symposium seriesDesign Studies, 57, pp. 160-164.

[8] Goucher-Lambert, K., Moss, J., Cagan, J. (2019) A neuroimaging investigation of design ideation with and without inspirational stimuli—understanding the meaning of near and far stimuliDesign Studies, 60, pp 1-38. 

[9] Dorst, K., Cross, N. (2001) Creativity in the design process: co-evolution of problem–solutionDesign Studies, 22, pp 425-437. 

[10] Goldschmidt, G. (2014) Linkography: unfolding the design process. MIT Press.

The Modest Mr Kakehashi and the Defect Effect

You may not have heard of the Roland TR-808, but you will have heard it. The TR-808, 40 years old this month (August 2020), is a drum machine that has featured on many, many hit records from Kraftwerk to Marvin Gaye, from Phil Collins to Pharrell Williams to Britney Spears. Soul, Hip-Hop, Dance, Rock, Electronic. Almost every modern popular music genre has been affected by the robotic buzz of a TR-808.

The story of the TR-808 is nicely told in the 2015 documentary 808: The Heart of the Beat that Changed Music

Trailer for the Documentary 808: The Heart of the Beat that Changed Music [1]

Designed in Japan in 1980, the TR-808 was taken up by an emerging hip-hop scene in the US, an electronic music scene in the UK, and a dance scene in Europe. The documentary provides a full socio-cultural-technical account of the TR-808, showing how an obscure technical object, needing specialist knowledge to programme and operate (in effect an early computer) provided the foundation for radically different musical cultures to emerge.

Ikutaro Kakehashi (1930-2017) Inventor of the TR808 and Head of the Roland Corporation (image credit: The Roland Corporation)

The man behind the drum machine, and the Roland corporation, is Ikutaro Kakehashi, who describes himself in the documentary as a mechanical engineer with a side hobby in music and electronics, though he has an obvious talent for entrepreneurship and manufacturing [2]. He realised that it was only through using electronic technology that he could compete with the big manufacturers in the musical world such as Yamaha, Kawai, and Steinway. Initially he built a ‘rhythm section’ into home organs – the familiar bossa nova beat of the seventies. The Roland CompuRhythm CR78 soon followed which allowed users to directly programme the rhythm they wanted, rather than choose from a pre-defined selection. The next product evolution was the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, a microprocessor-controlled programmable drum machine.

The Roland TR808 Rhythm Composer: a commercial failure but a cultural success

The problem Kakehashi hit in designing his new drum machine was to try and reproduce the complex sounds of congas, tom-toms, and bass drums without using samples in memory, as the TR-808’s much more expensive rival, the Linn LM-1, did . Instead Kakehashi chose to generate the sounds directly, through analogue synthesis, by taking advantage of the noise characteristics of ‘defective’ solid-state transistors. At that time around 2-3% of manufactured transistors created a distinctive ’sizzling’ sound when amplified through circuitry. Though these transistors were disgarded as defective by the transistor manufacturers, including Toshiba and Panasonic, Kakehashi’s insight was to realise that he could use them as the sound source (the ‘noise generator’) for the various drum sounds of the TR-808 [3].

The particular defective but distinctive transistors used in the TR-808 had to be carefully selected and matched to ensure consistency across each TR-808 produced, but when solid-state transistor manufacturing quality improved, the number of defective transistors fell to almost zero. Without defective transistors the TR-808 couldn’t be made and in 1983 production ceased. In total only about 12,000 were produced and not all of them were sold. Commercially the TR-808 was not a success. It took some years for it to build the reputation and acclaim it now has.

The defective transistors used in the TR-808. The transistors were painted on top by Roland to indicate their unique performance characteristics. (Image credit:

An analogue drum machine represents an almost infinite range of drum sounds. Although the conga is labelled a conga its basic sound can be manipulated in many different ways and thus the creative possibilities of the TR-808 are almost endless. Stemming from the same noise source, however, they all had a distinctive underlying tone – the ‘sound’ of the TR-808. The TR-808 thus represents a set of creative possibilities, a space of sounds, from which to create music. Kakehashi had effectively produced a new musical instrument rather than a ‘machine’; a palette of sounds which could be appropriated into vastly different musical cultures. As with another Japanese invention – just-in-time manufacture [4] – the TR-808 could justifiably claim to be a machine that changed the world.

The story of the design of the TR-808 is multi-faceted and powerful. It is both a story of a creative and talented individual, purposefully building his expertise in electronics and overcoming many traumatic episodes. Both of Kakehashi’s parents died from tuberculosis, his home was destroyed in World War 2, and he himself contracted tuberculosis. In spite of this, his ambition was to make musical instruments accessible and usable to all. It is also a story of how to think laterally about things that others consider as waste – a reframing from transistors as circuit components to transistors as noise sources. And of course it is a story of a product finding its meaning not through the intentional work of the design process, but in the process of consumption and use.

The story of precisely how Kakehashi discovered, and made use of, the particular effect that the defective transistors exhibited is unknown. We can imagine how only a person steeped in experimenting with electronics could realise what was happening, and how only a person needing a particular analogue sound source would realise that this was exactly the thing he was looking for. Then there is the person who was able to design and manufacture the product, and the person who was able to sell it around the world. The fact that all these persons coexisted in one person shows the unique set of capabilities necessary for success. Though design is only one part of the story it shows how flexible and open-minded a good designer must be, and how valued an open, configurable product can become [5].

The only person missing, of course, is the person who realised how his design could change modern musical culture. Modesty is another part of the story. 

References and Notes

[1] The documentary, 808: The Heart of the Beat that Changed the World, is available on Amazon Prime in the UK (accessed: August 2020)

[4] See Kakehashi’s Wikipedia entry for further details about his extraordinary life.

[3] I am grateful for the article The mysterious heart of the Roland TR-808 drum machine for a detailed technical explanation of the transistors.

[4] Womack, J., Jones, D., Roos, D. (2007) The Machine That Changed the World: How Lean Production Revolutionised the Global Car Wars, Simon and Schuster.

[5] Kakehashi also played a major role in the development of the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digitial Interface) protocol, launched in 1983, which allowed different brands of electronic music equipment to communicate with each other. This was a major step forward for recording studios and performers and is a standard that survives today.

Unquestionable Stable States

The following post was written to mark International Women’s Day, 8th March 2020

Donald Schön is an important figure in the world of design theory. His best known book, The Reflective Practitioner, used architectural designing as a model for the performance of all other types of professional activity, as processes of experimentation and learning through framing problems and moving towards solutions [1].

I recently came across the full list of Schön’s publications [2] and was astonished how productive he was over the course of his life (1930-1997). Looking through the list there are publications I recognise – his first book The Displacement of Concepts, for example, about the nature of creativity, and four papers in the journal I edit, Design Studies [3]but what I hadn’t realised was how well-known he was before publishing The Reflective Practitioner.

Donald Schön

Figure 1: Donald Schön at the BBC in 1970 to give his Reith Lectures. (source: Getty Images)

This is no better illustrated than by the Reith lectures Schön gave in 1970 (Figure 1). The Reith lectures, inaugurated in 1948 and still given today, are the BBC’s annual ‘flagship lecture series’ that feature ’significant international thinkers’ giving six, half-hour lectures.

Just to give you an idea of the company Schön was keeping, the years previous to 1970 had featured Bertrand Russell (1948), Robert Oppenheimer (1953), Nikolaus Pevsner (1955), and JK Galbraith (1966). The full list and archives of transcripts and recordings is available on the BBC website [4] and well worth exploring.

So being invited to give the Reith lectures at age 40, the youngest man to have then given the lectures, would have been a very big deal indeed. The BBC had a monopoly on broadcasting in Britain and several million listeners would have heard Schön speak, not just in the UK, but through the renowned BBC World Service.

The theme of Schön’s lectures was Change and Industrial Society. In his first lecture [5] he outlines what he calls ’the loss of the stable state’. The meaning of ’state’ here is deliberately vague. Schön embraces the state of the individual as much as that of the organisation or even nation. This is a way of thinking that he would carry forward in his future work, identifying concepts that could be applied broadly across people, groups, organisations, and society. A good example of this is the idea of ‘learning’, the process through which, in Schön’s work, change happens [6].

The lecture is a fascinating and worthwhile listen. Dear reader, I implore you to listen now if you haven’t already, then you can properly judge what I go on to say below.


Schön’s delivery is effortless: debonair, lucid, fluent, and persuasive. He paints a picture of a technological world changing at an ever increasing rate and warns of our inability to cope with this change. The change is so rapid, he argues, that the very idea of stability is illusory. We’d better get used to it, he suggests, and find some ways of coping.

The vision of this opening lecture is bold and provocative though you can imagine the live British audience looking sceptically at the upstart American, peddling transatlantic homilies.

Finishing his lecture after 25 minutes, it is then the turn of the audience to ask questions.

‘Are you telling us that the US is more advanced than Britain?’, the first bumbling questioner asks (I’m paraphrasing, of course). ’Not at all’, Schön retorts, without missing a beat.

On to the next question: ‘Is the American computer industry deeply conservative while claiming to be innovative?’ Schön agrees, his work with IBM being a case in point.

‘Is the changing concept of stability itself a cause of instability?’ the third questioner asks. ‘very interesting’, Schön answers, ‘but no’.

‘Maybe the interaction between different technologies increases the rate of change at an even greater speed?’ the fourth questioner asks, ‘if so, how will we cope?’. ‘We need to learn new things’ Schön replies, ‘particularly learning how to adapt’.

The fifth questioner asks the first hostile question: ‘aren’t you just being hysterical?’ he asks, ‘things aren’t changing much in the UK, and anyway we’re coping fine’. ‘Mark my words’ Schön responds, in his only faltering reply, ‘if America is changing, then Europe will need to change in response’. He adds rhetorically, and a little patronisingly, ‘perhaps this is a “round the corner” issue for you?’

Questioner 6 asks: ‘Is there a distinction between persons and organisations in respect to change’. ‘What do you think a social system is?’ Schön smoothly replies, though concedes that ‘to some extent stable institutions are necessary to maintain a sense of the self.’

The final questioner, somewhat sceptically and citing the military as an example, asks: ‘isn’t this just a conservative view that preserves stability without questioning the aims of that stability?’ Schön is taken aback. ’I’m not capable of such malign intent!’ he declares, ‘but stable organisations can exist in unstable contexts, though progressively less suited to those contexts’.

The lecture comes to an end with a round of applause.

To summarise, a man gives a lecture about the rapid pace of change to what sounds like a male audience, and is asked seven questions by seven men.

Where are the women in all this?

Listening to an historical lecture on change, and especially the clipped British male accents in the questions that follow, is a window into a certain kind of stability in the 1970s. If you throw in the internet, the ideas in Schön’s lecture could easily apply today, but the framing of the speakers and audience has changed considerably.

Looking at the entire list of Reith lecturers, the first woman to give the lectures was Margery Perham in 1961, who talked about colonialism [7]. The second woman was Marina Warner, a whopping 33 years later in 1994, who talked about Myths [8]. That’s two women in 46 years!

Margery Perham

Margery Perham (second right), the first woman to give the Reith Lectures in 1961. There wouldn’t be another woman for 33 years. (Source: BBC)

This particular stability, of men doing intellectual and technological stuff and women doing, well, the womanly stuff – often mythologised and reinforced by the technologies that Schön talks about – has taken a long, long time to change. The increasing speed of technological change doesn’t seem to have increased the speed of social change if, indeed, change has happened at all [9].

It was ironic, even in 1970, that the BBC, a bastion of stability, would present a lecture series on change but nearly 50 years later – the length of time Schön mentions it took the automobile to diffuse into the marketplace – in 2017, the top 12 best-paid television presenters for the BBC were all male [12]. Until then an unquestionable stable state that hitherto women had only been vaguely aware of.

The BBC represents stability to the British people, but in 2020 that stability is beginning to erode fast. The values of independence and considered development that stability brings doesn’t fit with the current Boris Johnson-led UK government. The BBC is under question not just in terms of equality, but also now in terms of technology. New models of streaming that organisations like Netflix have made profitable are challenging more conventional broadcasting models and forcing change. The BBC heard it from Donald Schön first.

Technological change happens fast but social change happens slow; in the light of history the two processes perform an uneasy dance. When we look at the mother of all change – climate change – perhaps we need to learn how to tango fast.


Notes and References

[1] Full disclosure: The Reflective Practitioner is one of my go-to books for thinking about design processes. It forms a large part of my teaching and its central themes of learning and inquiry through ‘design’ – in the form of constructed possibilities – continue to be relevant today. Schön is one of the few people who have put a compelling argument for designing as a fundamental form of acting in the world; something not particular to designers. Designing as changing existing states into preferred states, in his contemporary Herbert Simon’s terms.

[2] A comprehensive list of all Schön’s publications is available here:

[3] Schön published four papers and an editorial in Design Studies, one of which ‘Designing: Rules, Types, and Worlds’ earned the 1988 best paper award.

[4] A full list of the BBC Reith Lectures (1948-2019) is available at:

[5] An audio recording of Schön’s first introductory lecture is available here, the other lectures are available as transcripts that went on to become a book: Beyond the Stable State.

[6] Schön’s ouvre is defined by two central questions I think. First, where do our ideas come from? Second, how do we change?

[7] Two of Margery Perham’s lectures on colonialism are available to listen to at:

[8] Marina Warner’s lectures on Modern Myths are available to listen to at:

[11] One of my first blog posts was on the representation of women in architecture and also involved the BBC:

[12] BBC Pay: Men still dominate star salaries list:

Colourless Green Ideas

How does a text work? As someone whose research involves the analysis of talk in designing I’ve been less interested in the outputs of the design process (other than as an interested, and sometimes obsessive, consumer [1]) and more interested in how to get there. A short article in the London Review Books [2] made me think a little deeper about the relationship between the two however. The article reflects on the work of textile designer Anni Albers, recently on show at London’s Tate Modern (11th October 2018 to 27th January) [3].


Figure 1. Anni Albers working at her weaving loom. The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists rights society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

‘Work’ is a deceptively simple word, however, and the article reveals the complex relationships between the practical, theoretical, and metaphorical aspects of Albers’ work.

The key relationship is obvious once it is pointed out. Text and textile. Text from the Latin textus, or ‘woven’ reveals layers above and structures beneath. When one thinks about the production of textile and the production of text (in the form of talk) one can begin to discern the relationship: patterns built up from the repetition and arrangement of core elements, and those patterns becoming elements in other types of patterns.

Figure 2 shows a typical example of Albers’ weaving and the more one looks, the more one sees different structures and elements – the vertical stripes of the threads that form the initial tension (the warp); the horizontal elements that float above the vertical in bands, focussing the viewer on the central blue band; the threaded and interconnecting trails that run up (or down) and across in the foremost plane.

Figure 2. An example of Anni Albers work.

Figure 2. Intersecting (1962) An example of Anni Albers’ intricate work.

Where does the design of Figure 2 come from?

Chadwick writes:

“The discipline of the weaver’s grid imposes itself not as a cage or limitation, but provides a structure for experiment. For Albers, creativity began with a set of rules. ‘Great freedom can be a hindrance because of the bewildering choices it leaves to us,’ she wrote in On Weaving, ‘while limitations, when approached open-mindedly, can spur the imagination to make the most use of them and possibly even to overcome them.’ Albers experimented avidly with virtuosic and hybrid combinations of weaving, knotting, twisting and braiding. But she insisted that ‘intricacy and complexity are not, to my mind, high developments. Simplicity, rather, which is condensation, is the aim and the goal for which we should be heading.’ This idea of simplified form recurs again and again throughout her writings and her work. ‘Simplicity is not simpleness but clarified vision – the reverse of the popular estimate.’”

The apparent complexity of Figure 2, then, arises out of a simplicity of vision.

The reference in the above quote to: ‘creativity beginning with a set of rules’ made me think of how designers employ language in the design process. Noam Chomsky argues, in his theory of transformational grammar, that the syntactical structures of language are invariant across peoples [4]. That every language is based on a set of underlying rules (in the case of English, verb phrases and noun phrases) that provide the structure to carry meaning. But meaning, of course, is never straightforward. Chomsky used the sentence: ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ to show that sentences could be grammatical without being meaningful (though the sentence has now gained meaning in a different way, through its repetition). And often, as in the case of designing, the purpose of talk is to ‘work out’ meaning as it relates to the materials and objects of a design process. How does this relate to that? What do we call this? The rules of language provide the limitations that allow creative play.

Metaphors are close to the heart of that creative play and designers often talk metaphorically, as if one thing is another thing. A building might be bird or a boat; a kettle might be a pebble or a person. One idea displaces another by association and meaning accumulates and congeals [5]. Listening in, the talk of a design process often sounds meaningless, but it is talk-in-the-making, conversational threads and propositions layering on previous conversational threads to produce emergent and often unexpected meaning.

That makes the weaving of Anni Albers recursively meaningful. The repetitive practice of thread on thread, using the tension of the loom to construct an emergent design, is itself a metaphor for the conversational process that produces it; the process of design. How does this relate to that? What do we call this?

In the designed outcome itself, metaphors of process can be discerned. Turn figure 2 ninety degrees clockwise and what do you see? Perhaps the shape of multiple digital audio tracks of recorded talk; multiple voices in a collaborative design process [6].

Figure 3. Turn Figure 2 ninety degrees clockwise and what do you see?

Figure 3. Turn Figure 2 ninety degrees clockwise and what do you see?

References and Notes

[1] For 10 years I kept a list of everything I bought and this blog post is an analysis and reflection of all those things.

[2] Chadwick, E. (2018) At Tate Modern, London Review of Books, Vol 40, Number 23, 6th December, pp40-41.

[3] Anni Albers Retrospective (2017-18) Exhibition of work at Tate Modern, London.

[4] Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures, Mouton.

[5] Donald Schon develops a theory of how ideas originate in his book Displacement of Concepts, Routledge.

[6] An excellent recent research article uses a ‘weaving’ frame to analyse a software design process: Jornet, A., Roth, W-M (2018) Imagining design: Transitive and intransitive dimensions, Design Studies, 56, pp 28-53,

The Design Problems of Brexit

The UK Government paper titled: The future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, otherwise known as ‘The Chequers agreement’, after the Buckinghamshire country manor house where the agreement was first made, is as much a work of design as of policy.

The UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, delivers a speech on Brexit to the EU. Photo credit: Associated Press

The UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, delivers a speech on Brexit to the EU. Photograph: Associated Press

The foreword is by the UK Prime Minister, Teresa May, who begins:

“In the referendum on 23 June 2016 – the largest ever democratic exercise in the United Kingdom – the British people voted to leave the European Union.” [1]

She goes on resolutely:

“And that is what we will do – leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, ending free movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in this country, leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, and ending the days of sending vast sums of money to the EU every year. We will take back control of our money, laws, and borders. And…”

And after ripping it all up:

“… begin a new exciting chapter in our nation’s history.”

Who is the author of that chapter?

Teresa goes on:

“It now falls to us all to write that chapter.”

Ah! This must be a huge exercise in democratic and participative design, where we can all pitch in our ideas and a solution seamlessly emerges, as if shaped by an invisible hand.

Well, not quite. The ‘us’, of course, is really ‘not us’. The authors of the chapter will be the lawmakers: politicians and others who will codify our future. The ‘us’ may get to say yes or no, but this isn’t an exercise in participative design.

The front page of the UK HM Government's Brexit Proposal

The front page of the UK HM Government’s Brexit Proposal.

The Chequers agreement is a 98 page document, presented in 4 chapters, laying out (in order) the economics, security, cooperation, and institutions of Brexit. The document mentions the word design (or its variants) thirteen times, but they are significant mentions about significant things.

Designing, in Brexit terms, means designing new relationships and partnerships, new proposals, new arrangements, new institutional arrangements, new rules, new policies and policy tools, new systems, and new committees.

That is an awful lot of ‘new’, and an awful lot of designing. What kind of designing is it exactly though? and who will do it? Or more pertinently, does the ‘not us’ have the necessary experience to come up with good designs? (And how will we know they are good designs?)

Taking out each mention of design in the Chequers agreement, and turning it around, makes Brexit read like the curriculum for a new kind of design school [2]:

Design an institutional framework that facilitates dialogue [i]
Design a new trading relationship that ensures frictionless access to each other’s goods [ii]
Design a proposal based on principles of reciprocal commitments [iii]
Design a facilitated customs arrangement [iv]
Design a common rulebook [v]
Design an agricultural policy that delivers market relevant outcomes [vi]
Design a migration system that works for all parts of the UK [vii]
Design a system to promote domestic production and preserve cultural identity [viii]
Design ‘horizontal’ rules that ensure open and fair markets [ix]
Design a global rule for new and disruptive technologies [x]
Design a partnership that makes tracking crime across borders efficient and reliable [xi]
Design an effective sanction [xii]
Design a Joint Committee to prevent disputes arising [xiii]

Or perhaps this a very old kind of design school, because agriculture, trade, and disruptive technologies have been around for at least 5000 years.

The problems above are reducible to designing two other kinds of thing that are mentioned in the Chequers agreement: systems (62 mentions), and rules (110 mentions).

But perhaps most of all Brexit will be about designing systems of rules.

The design of these rule-based systems will take imagination, to think out the particularities and the consequences that might develop. So does the ‘not us’ include people with this kind of imagination? People that can exercise a sophisticated design intelligence in meeting practical, political, ethical, and aesthetic [3] constraints?

I’m not sure that the UK has these kinds of people, or at least doesn’t provide systematic (that word again) ways of training and educating them. We are good at producing political analysts, policy advisors, economists, journalists and philosophers. And they are all good at talking a good game.

But changing the rules of the game requires systematic imagination and creative integrity that should be open to question. It shouldn’t be ‘ta da – here’s a solution’, it should be ‘here is the design process we went through to arrive at this proposal’. The people are not trained in how to make design decisions and consider the possible consequences of those decisions (though they may consider consequences from previous decisions of others). Rather than learning from failure during their education, they learn by very real failure in practice [4].

Perhaps the design of Brexit needs first to include the design of curriculum that can deliver this kind of knowledge and develop the missing designers of today. Game Design 101 might not be a bad place to start.



[1] To be precise 17.4 million people voted to leave, out of an estimated population of 65.6 million (and a population of those eligible to vote of 46.5 million – 19.1 million people being under the voting age of 18).

[2] Actually not unlike the one proposed by Charles and Ray Eames’ India Report that I described in a previous post looking at design education.

[3] The word ‘frictionless’ (11 mentions in the Chequers agreement), for example, suggests something aesthetic. What do you think of when you think of something frictionless? I think of air hockey. It also suggests that clever interaction and service design will be necessary.

[4] Indeed Article 50 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, consisting of five paragraphs, and formulated to allow any member state to withdraw from the EU, could well be an example of this failure. In this case the rule designer was John Kerr, a Scottish Member of the UK Parliament.


Design references to the UK Government’s document on Brexit

[i] “The institutional framework should prevent disputes arising but in the unlikely event that they did, it should be designed in a way that facilitates dialogue.” (page 92)

[ii] “In designing the new trading relationship, the UK and the EU should therefore focus on ensuring continued frictionless access at the border to each other’s markets for goods.” (page 7)

[iii] “These principles, together with strong reciprocal commitments on open and fair trade, and propositions for a new institutional framework, inform the design of the UK’s proposal.” (page13)

[iv] “The Facilitated Customs Arrangement is designed to ensure that the repayment mechanism is only needed in a limited proportion of UK trade, and to make it as simple as possible to use for those who need to use it.” (page 18)

[v] “The UK would also seek participation – as an active participant, albeit without voting rights – in EU technical committees that have a role in designing and implementing rules that form part of the common rulebook.” (page 20)

[vi] “The UK will be free to design agricultural support policies that deliver the outcomes most relevant to its market, within the confines of WTO rules.” (page 24)

[vii] “The UK will design a system that works for all parts of the UK. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report, due in September 2018, will provide important evidence on patterns of EU migration and the role of migration in the wider economy to inform this.” (page 32)

[viii] “European Works is a system designed to promote domestic European production and preserve cultural identity.” (page 37)

[ix] “Some horizontal rules are not primarily designed to ensure open and fair markets. Nonetheless, it is usual to include commitments on these areas in Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).” (page 37)

[x] “The UK will be agile enough to provide thought leadership on the shape and design of new global rules for new and disruptive technologies.” (page 50)

[xi] “As the UK and the EU design a new partnership, maintaining efficient and reliable operational capabilities will be vital, including but not limited to:

  • a. the efficient extradition of criminals and wanted individuals between Member States and the UK;
  • b. cooperation of judicial, police and customs authorities in different states; and
  • c. delivering cross-border criminal investigations and prosecutions.”

(page 59)

[xii] “Sanctions are a key foreign policy tool and are most effective when designed and applied alongside international partners.” (page 65)

[xiii] “Through regular and structured dialogue, the Joint Committee would be designed to prevent disputes from arising, whether related to implementation, enforcement or compliance.” (page 88)

How Can a Designer do Nothing?

Sometimes things might be better off as they are, but how do we know? Two recent podcasts describe examples of where a more minimal approach to design might have resulted in better quality of life and indeed, lives being saved.

The first example comes from the outstanding 99% Invisible podcast [1].

Responding thoughtfully to the recent Californian wildfires, Episode 317 Built to Burn, considers what causes wildfires to spread and how best to stop them destroying property.  It turns out that it is the embers of a wildfire – not the wall of flames – that generally sets property alight. They do this by accumulating in the crevices of wooden structures that exist around many houses – in shingle roofs, for example.


A firefighter battles the Butte wildfire near San Andreas, California. The swiftly spreading flames have destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of residents to flee. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

With a few simple interventions around ‘the home ignition’ zone, the episode concludes that homes can easily withstand fire, even in areas that are prone to wildfires.

So why spend hundreds of millions funding infrastructure – planes, helicopters, equipment, not to mention the firefighters themselves – to fight fires when you can just let them burn and instead concentrate on a few simple measures to build and retrofit houses to withstand fire?

The second example comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History [2], which focuses on issues from the past that have been ‘overlooked or misunderstood’. I like this podcast because it often reveals structural injustices through examining particular cases.

Episode 5 from Series 3 General Chapman’s Last Stand is a case in point. The episode looks at the history of two neighbours – Mexico and the US – and particularly the migration of people across the border.

From effectively no border at all in the early seventies – free movement of people – the border between the two countries has become less and less porous. Checkpoints, surveillance, fences, and latterly, walls, have slowly made the ease and cost of migration prohibitive.

Mexico Border.jpg

A family stands next to the border wall between Mexico and the United States, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on 23 May 2017. Photograph: Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images

But this has also changed the nature of migration from a circular migration – where workers would cross the border when seasonal work was available and return back over the border to their home and family in Mexico when it wasn’t – to a permanent migration – where workers were ‘locked in’ to the US so also brought their families with them and in effect relocated.

With an open border, migration is dynamic and impermanent. Crucially, net migration stays low. Closing and policing the borders paradoxically raises net migration because it is too hazardous for workers to return home and then attempt to cross to the US again at a later date. So hundreds of millions is spent on keeping people out, when nothing at all achieved approximately the same result!

The two examples follow a similar pattern. First, they are both based on insightful research being carried out, with solid data, revealing an alternative understanding of the problem. Second, that understanding of the problem implies a simpler solution than current practice. And third, the State is invested in maintaining that current practice.

Logically, to achieve better results (on the measures that the current practices themselves use to measure their effectiveness) designers doing nothing, or close to nothing, would result in better solutions. But how can a designer do next to nothing?

The key point above is that the State is invested in maintaining a current practice. In the case of fire, to actively confront the wall of flames. In the case of migration, to directly prevent certain people from entering the country. The State is invested in these practices because of the way it believes people think about these issues (as bad things) and fears the political consequences of not intervening.

The interventions, of course, are designed interventions. A hi-tech wall, an infrared detection drone, a device to drop large amounts of water, a system to dynamically map the spread of fire. These interventions feed the narrative and human drama of both stories: the brave and heroic firefighter, the devastated couple who have lost everything, the family caught trying to cross the border. There is politics, but there is also 24-hour news and expectation.

We have come to believe that fire and economic migrants are bad things, things that will threaten our property and the goods we enjoy. We have also come to believe that they are problems that need be solved in particular ways – through fighting and containment – so the designed interventions are aligned with these ways of framing the problem, and designers will respond to the briefs that fit these problem frames [3].

The problem for a designer wanting to do next to nothing, then, is more than showing that we already have (cost) effective ways to achieve the defined goals. The problem is to create a frame that convinces people and politicians that less interventionist solutions can sometimes be better.

In other words, a designer wanting to do nothing has a lot of work on their hands.



[1] The 99% Invisible podcast celebrates the unnoticed designed world around us: Episode 317 looks at how solutions to fighting wildfires might be simpler:

[2] Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent Revisionist History podcast is available at:  Episode 5, Series 3 considers how overly efficient bureaucracy has led to the current US-Mexico border arrangements:’s-last-stand

[3] See for example, ‘US-Mexico border wall tender calls for 30-foot-tall concrete barriers’ at

Beyond Human Sense: The Design in Nature

Though it has become commonplace and a cliché of an example, the design of the iPhone still amazes me since I bought my first 3GS in 2010. I wrote a couple of blog posts a while back [1,2] exploring the creative possibilities of using the iPhone camera with a macro lens, and for a while I’ve been interested in the slow-motion video capabilities which can reveal imperceptible and at times beautiful features of behaviour and motion.

This kind of technology would have cost thousands just a few years back, but is now in half the world’s pocket. I used it to shoot some footage of bees harvesting nectar from foxgloves and the film below is the edited result.

To paraphrase the philosopher David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion [3] what the film shows is that the relationship between the bee and the foxglove is so precise that it gives you the feeling that it must have been somehow designed. This so-called ‘argument from design’ for the existence of God is one that is, even now, used regularly though Hume, with characteristic subtlety, successfully undermines it.

Humes’s dialogue features three characters: Cleanthes, Demea, and Philo. Each character takes a different role as they discuss first, the existence of God and second, the nature of God. Demea is ‘rigid, inflexible and orthodox’ in considering religion to be so important that it should only be taught after mastering the sciences, Philo displays ‘careless scepticism’ in describing the world as so full of contradictions that it can hardly be understood at all, so it is Cleanthes, with an ‘accurate philosophical turn’, who lays out his reasoning about the nature of God-as-the-designer-of-the-universe:

“Look around the world”, he says, “contemplate the whole and every part of it: you will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain”

The world is so ordered, he maintains, so machine-like, that it must have come from an intelligence like our own:

“The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence.”

By analogy, Cleanthes maintains, the mind of God must be something like the mind of a human designer and, he reasons, may be subject to the same frailties. The designer might not be a single designer at all, but a team of designers, and the designer might have long since passed away, no longer omniscient or omnipotent – the fact that a design continues to exist, doesn’t mean the designer does.

The bees might not know how they are adapting means to ends but they look fantastic in slow motion going about their mysterious process in a world ‘beyond what human senses and faculties can trace’, where even the foxgloves look like they have a purpose.




[1] Unreal Realism: The Stories in Postcards

[2] Unreal Realism #2: More Stories from Postcards (and some from Google Street View too)

[3] Hume, David (1779) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Penguin Books

The Design University and the Current Order of Things

Tim Blackman, the Vice Chancellor of Middlesex University in the UK, has written a well-argued paper on how Universities could be much less selective in the students they take. The paper begins:

“Most secondary schools in the UK do not select their pupils on the basis of prior academic achievement. They are deliberately comprehensive, with this principle based on a positive education argument that it is best to educate young people of different abilities together. Almost all universities are based on the opposite principle: academic selection and stratification by ability into different types of institution. This contrast attracts little public or political debate.” (p.11)

The title of the paper is The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection [1] and it convincingly uses statistics and scholarship to make the case that a greater diversity of student talent at the beginning of a degree course would make for better outcomes at the end. Those outcomes are not only for individuals but benefit society more generally through growth, innovation and (though it sounds a bit cheesy) better understanding of other people.

Whereas highly selective UK universities such as Oxford and Cambridge essentially recruit students who are very similar in class and achievement, the key idea in Blackman’s report is diversity. This is the diversity that occurs through opening up Universities to a greater range of abilities.

At present Universities operate as end-points, finishing schools for already able students. They could be starting points: an opportunity to level out the playing field by teaching differently.

Teaching differently involves taking advantage of diversity, and especially the understanding that occurs when different perspectives and experiences are used in learning [2]. This type of learning depends on a shift from a ‘cognitive’ approach – where knowledge and reason are prioritized in teaching and assessment, to a practice or ‘competence’ approach – where opportunities are created for students to develop and reflect on a range of skills and abilities [3].

Where diversity works best is when groups collaborate in constructing and defining problems, questioning the current order of things, exploring scenarios, and imagining solutions and consequences. All things that designers do well [4].

It is the environment of research intensive universities that reinforce the broken cognitive approach [5], Blackman suggests, when the type of environment that is needed is one that (to quote Blackman):

“encourages ‘design thinking’: practical, creative problem solving that explores alternative solutions for better future designs, whether products, services, policies or artworks. This iterative, experimental and user-led approach is behind much industrial and professional innovation and although it draws on academic research – which is still very important – it is in many respects a different practice and is embedded in practice contexts.” (p.56)

Perhaps Blackman is thinking along the lines of how Arizona State University have used Design Thinking approaches to redesign their educational programmes and indeed the operation of the University [6]. Perhaps, after a few false dawns, the time for design to play a greater role in higher education has come? Blackman’s paper is certainly a compelling read in this respect though the true difficulty for design remains in upsetting the design of the current order of things.


[1] Blackman, T. (2017) The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection, Higher Education Policy Institute Occasional Paper 17, [accessed 16th November 2017]

[2] As the originator and chair of the online Open University course Design Thinking: Creativity for the 21st Century the idea of diversity is central to its operation and success. For further details about the ideas behind the course see: Lloyd, P. (2013) Embedded Creativity: Teaching Design Thinking via Distance Learning, International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 23, pp 749-765.

[3] This is not a new suggestion of course. Donald Schön in Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987) makes similar arguments. It is also an approach that has been embraced (at the moment, and ironically, in theory) in the strategy of ‘Practical Wisdom’ at the University of Brighton, where I work:

[4] See previous my previous blog post: Stop talking, start thinking: The architecture of reasonable doubt

[5] Previous blog posts have been about how Universities are teaching outdated theory and knowledge in a world that is changing rapidly:
What’s Real in the Real World? Or The Economics of Intangibility
Design Education in the Wired Weird World

[6] Arizona State University’s transformation and growth through using design methods is described in Crow, M. and Debars, W (2015) Designing the New American University, Johns Hopkins University Press.


Stop talking, start thinking: The architecture of reasonable doubt

The classic 1957 film 12 Angry Men is a story about twelve jurors discussing what to most of them is a straightforward first degree murder case. A teenage Hispanic boy, living in a slum, is accused of stabbing his abusive father. To eleven of the twelve jurors he is clearly guilty. On a sweltering Manhattan afternoon, only juror #8 has a question in his mind about the boy’s guilt, dispassionately saying to the others after an initial vote:

“it’s not easy to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first”

Surely he means thinking about it first?

Twelve Angry Men

Figure 1. Juror #8, played by Henry Fonda (right), calmly lays out his doubt to another juror.

Juror #8, played by Henry Fonda (figure 1), and whose name is revealed as Davis at the end of the film, is an architect. As the action of the film develops, he shows how he thinks differently from the others, questioning what they take to be true, and introducing a doubt that he slowly convinces them is reasonable.

Each juror in turn raises objections to juror #8’s wavering. Juror #3, pointing to the uniqueness of the murder weapon says:

“Take a look at this knife, it’s a very unusual knife. I’ve never seen one like it, neither had the storekeeper who sold it to the boy. Aren’t you asking us to accept a pretty incredible coincidence?”

“I’m just saying a coincidence is possible”, juror #8 replies, before taking a very similar ‘unique’ weapon from his pocket and sticking it into the table, to the others’ astonishment. During the trial he’d been to the neighbourhood where the murder had happened and managed easily to buy the knife.

The practical way in which juror #8 deconstructs the others’ arguments reveals a person who is able to imagine and interrogate alternative scenarios to fit the facts. This is a kind of creative reasoning that is called abduction, a design reasoning skill vital to the design process, and a way of thinking that an architect would be trained in [1].

Another example of design thinking occurs later in the film, when juror number #8, questions whether a key witness to the murder – an old man lying in bed in the flat below – would be able to get to his front door to identify the boy in under 15 seconds. Juror #8 calls for the plan of the flat used in court (figure 2) and is able to translate the dimensions of the bedroom and corridor into a rough prototype in the jury room (figure 3).

Twelve Angry Men

Figure 2. Juror #8 explains to the other jurors why he thinks a key witness couldn’t have got from his bed to his front door in 15 seconds.

Twelve Angry Men

Figure 3. Juror #8 arranges the room to simulate the layout of the old man’s flat.

“Those two chairs are the old man’s bed”, juror #8 tells the others, “I just paced off twelve feet across the room, this would be his bedroom door”

As he models and performs what the old man would have gone through, juror #8 asks another juror to time him.

Twelve Angry Men

Juror #8 asks another juror to time him while he simulates getting from the bed to the front door.

It takes 41 seconds.

Taking the action away from the ‘theoretical’ discussion at the table – a move from ‘talking about it’ to ‘thinking about it’ – allows juror #8 to produce a prototype, physically testing his conjecture that the old man couldn’t have got from his bed to his front door in 15 seconds. This test of practical thinking wins over another couple of sceptical jurors.

Davis displays design thinking in a legal context, overturning an eleven-to-one minority into a twelve-to-zero majority. As an architect, he is used to mapping the words that he hears to the spaces around him and it is the exploration of spatial, artefactual, and environmental possibility in the crime that reasons the other jurors into doubt. It is the kind of thinking – we could also call it a kind of moral imagination – that saves the boy’s life.

In the film Davis is one out of twelve (white, male) individuals but currently in the UK architects make up only one out of every 2000 people [2]. Perhaps we could do with a few more for our collective moral imagination, especially in the legal profession, in these uncertain, divided times.

[1] ‘Abduction’ is a type of reasoning identified by the pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce, who contrasted it with deduction and induction, as a way of reaching a conclusion from premises. He used it to try and show a logic to the process of creative discovery and creative explanation.

[2] Architects Council of Europe (2015) The Architectural Profession in Europe 2014 (pdf), p.10.

A Dialogue with the Future: Design Thinking and the 21st Century Imagination

I gave my inaugural lecture at Brighton University in December 2015. It draws on a few of the blog posts I’ve written in this blog* and sums up my current thinking about the idea of  Design.

Here is the blurb:

Design, the ‘D’ in TED*, has well and truly broken out of the Design School. In fact it made its escape some decades ago but still retains its potential to develop our collective imagination and enrich inter-disciplinary dialogue.

In this lecture Professor Lloyd will draw on over 20 years of research and teaching to trace a journey from the cognitive activity of the brain to the architecture and politics of democracy, and from Bitcoin to football to education. The linking thread is design thinking and he will argue that understanding design as a process of dialogue is not only fundamental to an ethical engagement with the world, but vital to securing an equitable future for all.

*Technology Entertainment Design: Ideas Worth Spreading When one considers the sheer range of talks that fit under these three words, you realise how important the idea of design has become.

Here is the Video (42 minutes):

Here is the Transcript (opens in a new window):

A Dialogue with the Future: Design Thinking and the 21st Century Imagination (pdf)

*And here are some references:

1. The story of Aaron Swartz is a compelling one. You can see the documentary about his life here: How to Kill a Designer

2. The mystery surrounding the inventer/designer of Bitcoin has been going for some years. I talk about it in Nakamoto’s Last Theorem. However, in the past six months the story has developed considerably. The Australian computer scientist and cryptographer Craig Wright has claimed convincingly to be the originator of Bitcoin and his ‘coming out’ tale is excellently told in an extended piece in the London Review of Books by Andrew O’Hagen.

3. I talk about how Design relates to football here: Dolphin or Shark? Designing the Beautiful Game

4. Design Education in the Wired Weird World starts with architectural education but moves on to talk about the possibilities of Design Education more generally, it also discusses The India Report by Charles and Ray Eames which I touch on briefly in the lecture.