Plato, the first User-Centred Design Theorist

Last week I was an external opponent for the PhD thesis defence of Sigrun Lurås at Oslo’s increasingly impressive School of Architecture and Design. Sigrun’s thesis was part of the Ulstein Bridge Vision, Ulstein being one of the more innovative ship makers and based in Norway, the Bridge being that bit of the ship where the captain and others guide operations, and the Vision being a rethinking of the way that the interior and interactions of the bridge take place. The project, now finished, has proved a great success for Ulstein in a conservative industry, triggering a new organizational ‘design-driven approach’ to ship design.

Have a look and see for yourself what a 21st Century Ship’s Bridge looks like – more the celestial ocean around Alpha Centuri than the North Sea off the coast of Norway:

Sigrun’s research consisted of days of fieldwork spent on board offshore vessels documenting the behavior on the bridge and studying the ‘users’ of the ship’s bridge. The knowledge gleaned there formed the basis for the new design of the ship’s bridge and as an Opponent in the PhD exam, I was interested in exploring how ‘what is’ – the existing practices on board the old ship’s bridge – turned into ‘what is to come’ – the future design of the ship’s bridge.

It’s not a new question, of course. As designers have increasingly turned to the methods of ethnography to elicit the needs of users, the question of just how that translation is made has become more pressing. Is the new design about supporting the practices of existing users or getting rid of existing users and practices? Is it about saving or selling?

While ethnographers might reveal the subtle use and structures of artefacts, communication, ritual, and power – leaving the reader to work out their own meanings – the design researcher looks for those things that might form the meaningful basis of a new solution – observations as the seeds of future form. One might argue that this is method maligned; theory bent out of shape in order to neaten and change. The context for a pretext to impose a political sub-text. The designers, with the financial muscle, have the upper hand; the knowledge that wins. The users are the losers. The beast that is a design ethnographer, some might say, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It was not always this way.

In 360BC – 2376 years ago – Plato was writing the dialogues that would form The Republic [1], a book featuring Socrates and a cast of other characters, to discuss the ideal state. The Republic covers education, justice, the position of women, philosophy, the immortality of the soul, and… art.

Plato, in the voice of Socrates, was suspicious of artists (and we might include the modern day designer as a kind of artist in the Platonic sense). He thought they were people that could represent the truth without knowing the truth, and that made them dangerous.

He also wrote about the design of vehicle guidance systems and just who one should turn to to know what the suitable form and function should be. In the following excerpt Socrates discusses with Glaucon the bridle and bit of a horse’s harness. Think of the painter in the discussion that follows as a designer.

Socrates: The painter may paint a picture of bridle and bit
Glaucon: Yes
Socrates: But aren’t they made by the harness-maker and smith?
Glaucon: Yes
Socrates: Then does the painter know what the bridle and bit ought to be like? Isn’t this something that even the makers – the harness-maker and the smith – don’t know, but only the horseman who knows how to use them?
Glaucon: True.
Socrates: Isn’t the same thing always true?
Glaucon: Your meaning?
Socrates: You always have the three techniques – use, manufacture, and representation.
Glaucon: Yes.
Socrates: And isn’t the quality, beauty and fitness of any implement or creature or action judged by reference to the use for which man or nature produced it?
Glaucon: Yes.
Socrates: It must follow, then, that the user of a thing has the widest experience of it and must tell the maker how well it has performed its function in the use to which he puts it.

It is use that determines quality, beauty, and fitness for purpose, and only users are properly positioned to judge and communicate those things, Socrates argues.

If Plato were to watch the film of the Ulstein Bridge Vision, as well as other design visualisations I have written about previously [2], he would be sceptical. The high production values, filmic details, and the surging music are all techniques the artist uses to represent, manipulate, and persuade, but not to really know. That knowledge is left out at sea on all the existing Ship’s bridges.

Plato’s account of user-centred design suggests creativity in a tight coupling of maker and user – the maker proposing, the user assessing. Innovation happens organically, incrementally, as a tree slowly bows in a constant wind or a cliff is shaped by an angry sea; as a careful dialogue between what is and what might be. But what if we consider designers as users too? What is it that designers use?

Designers use tools and methods of course, and computers and cardboard, pens and PVA; prototypes, negotiotypes, and just plain old type as they steer the process of design from idea to thing. They know what designing is, so it is the design methodologist that becomes the villain of this piece; the person who represents but doesn’t know. The person that takes something like the slow digestive process of ethnography and packages it up like fast food.

Perhaps in this context it is the designers who are the real losers though, the real pretext for a political or organisational sub-text. Plato mistrusted the artists because he knew that they could foment opinion and upset the balance his ideal State. The aim of design, he might have said, is always political, whether designers know it or not. As Plato’s philosopher successor Aristotle aphoristically puts it: “man is, by nature, a political animal” [3].

References

[1] Plato, The Republic, Penguin Classics (1987)

[2] HS2 and the Dutch Golden Age

[3] Aristotle, The Politics, Penguin Classics (1981)

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