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].


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

[2] HS2 and the Dutch Golden Age

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

Dolphin or Shark? Designing the Beautiful Game

Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Football Club, thinks one of his star signings of 2013, Mesut Özil, is now ready to perform at the highest level. Here’s what a recent article said of him:

“Wenger thinks the player he bought for a club record £42.5m from Real Madrid two summers ago is readier than he has ever been to excel, to design the game, consistently and decisively.” [1]

It is time for Mesut Ozil to 'design the game' according to his Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger.

It is time for Mesut Özil to ‘design the game’ according to his Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger.

That’s a funny phrase there, right at the end: ‘to design the game’. I’ve come across players as ‘architects’ of a football match, or ‘play makers’, but not heard of a footballer described as a designer before.

It sort of makes sense. Football has long been a source of good metaphors about the process of design – there is teamwork, strategy, star individuals, a manager with a plan, and people that perform to that plan, as the game is crafted and made. Below is a 1975 photo of my colleague and design methods guru Nigel Cross, explaining the design process with football props for an early Open University television programme.


Nigel Cross illustrates concepts of design using a football model for a 1975 Open University programme.

Ozil might be a designer in the classic sense – an individual, intuitively shaping the form of something; someone exploring, trying things out and, in being consistent and decisive, retaining (more-or-less) overall control.

That might be where Wenger is wrong, though, because nowadays there are other candidates for the designer of a game of football; indeed many other types of sporting contest too.

The way that performance data can now be captured and used in real-time is changing the nature of sport into a battle of data acquisition and interpretation. The team car following Chris Frome up L’Alpe Duez in the Tour de France is doing more than just waiting for him to puncture. It is acting as his brain, processing his ‘numbers’ on a laptop. Data about his heart rate, effort, and power tell the team just how much energy he has left to give, which means they can communicate to him exactly what he has the capacity to do. They can tell him to raise the pace because his numbers are looking good, they can tell him to slow down because he’s touching the red zone; they can tell him he needs some food, or something to drink. He is, in effect, their machine. They know what his body can do in extremis better than he does.

Knowing your numbers is not just something for elite sportspeople.  The proliferation of the smartphone and associated devices has heralded what philosopher Julian Baggini has termed ‘the quantified self’.  The Apple iWatch, with it’s ability to constantly monitor our physiological makeup has the potential to change how we understand what our lives are about:

“The Apple Watch will make mainstream the hitherto minority obsession with the “quantified self”. This is an approach to living which encourages the relentless gathering of data about everything related to our wellbeing, from health and fitness indicators like heart rate and cholesterol levels, to time spent on social media or learning new skills. All this data is supposedly used to make us leaner, fitter, happier, more efficient.” [2]

To design our lives, in other words. Anyone that has ever used Sleepcycle (see pic below), which monitors sleeping patterns and wakes us when we are ready to be awoken, will understand this design intervention in our lives. The ‘quantified self’ means that we become the agents of a faraway designer, not the designers of our own lives, free to learn from our mistakes (freewill notwithstanding).


Three nights of sleep monitoring by the Sleepcycle iPhone App.

That makes the freedom that Arsene Wenger implies that Mesut Özil has, in designing the game, sound both attractive and old fashioned; like a craftsman from a bygone era.

Football has, for quite a while, collected increasingly more detailed information on what happens during a game. It started, like baseball before it, by counting tackles made, passes completed, distance run, etc. but that was only ever half the story:

“Until recently, it was very much about collecting data on what had happened, without looking at why it had happened,” says Paul Power, a data scientist at Prozone. Power cites the great Italian defender Paolo Maldini as an example of a player who might be marked down by a system that values tackling and intercepting; because his positional play was so good he had less need to do these things.” [3]

As sensors and electronics have shrunk, and with physiological and other data being added to the data mix, the analysis of data has got more sophisticated and can now be used during a game. That means the game can be designed from the touchline using a dashboard of indicators and drawing in theories about complexity to model emergent forms of play and plan how interventions might work:

“Power used a video clip of a shoal of sardines reacting to the presence of sharks to illustrate the more sophisticated approach rapidly gaining ground in football. ‘We’re reconceptualising football as a complex dynamic system’ [he says]”. [3]

The implication is that our plans and intuition aren’t working, or aren’t working well enough. That’s not to say, though, that we won’t at some point be able to monitor cognition and thought process, and by implication look at the quality of design thinking that someone like Özil is demonstrating. The intelligence that someone like Paolo Maldini uses, to do more with less, could then be factored into dynamic performance data.

Until that day Wenger’s touchline impotence means he has to rely on someone on the pitch to design the game on his behalf, someone with intelligence and vision and swiftness of thought and foot. Someone like Mesut Özil, in fact. But Mesut is an unpredictable and sometimes fragile soul. So on his off days, Wenger might do well to swap his dolphin for a shark.


[1] Amy Lawrence (2nd August, 2015) Mesut Özil becomes central to Arsène Wenger’s way of thinking at Arsenal, The Observer

[2] Julian Baggini (11th March, 2015) Apple Watch: Are you feeling the terror? The Guardian

[3] Nic Fleming (2nd August, 2015) How science is fine-tuning our elite footballers, The Observer