Category Archives: Richard

A sort of philosophy

A year ago Richard Harper asked me to put together a short document on how I thought we should approach our work in the Socio-Digital Systems, from a design point of view. Recently, a colleague who was visiting us in Cambridge at the time asked me to post the document somewhere public because he’d mentioned it a couple of times to others, and he wanted to be able to cite it more specifically. So here it is.

In some ways it’s more about what I DON’T believe about the design process as much as it is about what I DO believe. It’s a draft still, and something I’d like to keep on working on in one of those spare moments that we so rarely get at the lab.


I’ve been asked to write a little on the potential processes and methods of design that might be brought to bear on the research themes that we are thinking about at the moment, such as Domesticity 2.0 and Propinquity.

To be honest, I’m not one to write about what I do as a designer. I tend to draw things more then write. And I don’t believe strongly in methods in any defined sense. But, maybe outlining some things that I DO believe about the design process would be useful. Here they are:

  • I believe that the design process is unique and adaptable to any given situation. Part of the designer’s job is to be open to that adaptability.
  • I believe that the design process is rarely formed of discrete phases, but overlaps and loops back on itself in unpredictable ways. Part of the designer’s job is to embrace and even encourage that unpredictability.
  • I believe that the design process relies partially on certainties but primarily on intuitive steps into the unknown. Part of the designer’s job is to hone and gradually learn to trust their intuition and instincts.
  • I believe that the design process is about making abstract concepts real. It’s never too early to do this, although how real or unreal you make things can radically change the conversation. Part of the designer’s job is to learn, develop or even invent new ways to create the appropriate level of reality.

For me, design is primarily about understanding a context; seeking inspirations from which many ideas can spring as solutions to that context; visualizing and testing those ideas in both informal and formal ways; making choices for which ideas to prune; and then repeating this process until the last idea is standing. The last idea isn’t necessarily the best idea. I’m not sure I believe in best ideas.

So in the context of this document the questions I’d ask in developing a design approach to our themes are:

  • What do we know, and how do we better understand any of the contexts for the themes that are described?
  • What sources can we use as an inspirational springboard for the development of many ideas for the themes?
  • How best should we represent those ideas?
  • How should we test and then select from those ideas?
  • Then how shall we go about iterating on those ideas that we’ve selected in order to build one or two examples?


Fig 1. The Inspiration process
Above is a simplistic visual of the way in which I think of the design process. Many sources of inspiration, whether technological, cultural or even political, lead to a multitude of ideas, which, through iteration and pruning lead to artifacts which help with testing and selection.


Taking the topic of Values of Space and Place from the Domesticity 2.0 theme as an example, a rough outline of a design process might include:

1. Context: Understanding what we mean by values in the home, and looking for situations in which we might develop ideas that add value to these spaces, by revisiting research work that we’ve done to date, as well as instigating a new round of field research. Once we have an understanding of what we do or don’t know about what we’re interested in we can set up a new set of field research, perhaps even revisiting previous subjects, with a new set of questions in mind.

2. Inspirations: I’m a strong believer that inspiration comes from many sources, any of which can lead to strong ideas. My goal here would be the generation and recording of MANY ideas, though. We have a tendency to sit around as a team and chat until ideas emerge, and we often have strong pre-conceived notions of what ideas we are already fans of. I’d like to see us make a more concerted effort at pushing ourselves, in a more typical brainstorming fashion, to go for a breadth of new ideas, rather than fixating on the details of one or two existing ones.

We should see ideas as a resource, as a sign of the creative output of our team. Instead, we tend to let go of our ideas and lose them once they are no longer of interest in our current work. Instead, I imagine making a concerted effort to record our ideas so that even if they don’t work out and apply for our current theme they provide some fodder for future inspiration. Ideas are an investment for our team.

It’s likely that any review of prior work described in the previous section on context will already throw up inspiration for a set of ideas for design work. Some other sources of inspiration might include juxtaposing our theme with unrelated work. We might, for example, review content from the Trends website looking for technologies and their social uses whose compliment or contrast with our theme provide some interesting new ideas. We might also look for inspiration in purely visually-stimulating content. One way of doing this might be to search a stock photo website looking for images associated with particular concepts and keywords.

3. Visualizing I’d like to see us go through a slightly more participatory process for visualizing our ideas earlier on. We have a tendency to talk about ideas in the abstract, and often the process of visualizing them helps bring clarity for everyone. We can do this by having me sketch during reviews of our ideas, but ideally there’s no reason that the team as a whole doesn’t draw what they mean as they say it. As we develop our ideas, we may chose to visualize them in different ways – as abstract 3D models made from found items, as simple thumbnail sketches, or as highly rendered items.

4. Testing and choosing: At this point “testing” really means discussing the pros and cons of different ideas in order to prune. Depending on how our ideas have developed, and what we may be more or less excited about, we may chose for this choice-making part of the process to include family members. Again, we’re not particularly rigorous about this part of the process. I’d like to see us go through a more structured, choice-making exercise, in the style of a design crit, at different points in the project.

drawings by steven holl at MoMA new york

Shannon and I are big Steven Holl fans. At least, we love St. Ignatius Chapel in Seattle. We wanted to get married there originally, but we were neither Catholic nor students of Seattle University, where the building is located, so that was that.

MOMA in New York are planning to exhibit some of Holl’s sketches from February next year. He does these beautiful little images in watercolour, focusing a lot on shape and light. Their essence really comes across in the final product.

“‘pré’ gives a fascinating insight into the central element of holl’s design process: drawing. over the
past 30 years holl has juxtaposed form, color, shape, thought, space, and building in small sketchpads.
from little details to abstract studies his collection of drawings cover his thought processes in their entirety.”

drawings by steven holl at MoMA new york

New Sketches

Nothing beats using the internet for motivation. I was recently asked if someone could use one of my sketch portraits for a flyer for the band Below Jupiter. it’s a very flattering thing to have happen, and a total motivation to get back into a habit that has lapsed in the last year. So I’m trying to pick it up again. Just five minutes before bedtime.

I like the abstract effect I get from trying to avoid lifting the pen. It’s the closest thing I have to a style that I’m developing of my own. Then I enjoy scanning this stuff onto my laptop and colorizing it in different ways. Makes it a little more distinct.

elderly man

2 men

This portrait of Shigeru Miyamoto is a little older. Done in watercolors, and obviously I did lift the pen for this one.


Honoring or "pimping" the Billy Bookshelf

I think I bought my first Billy bookcase from Ikea when I was at Brunel University, which would make it about 1990. It wasn’t until I joined Microsoft in ’95 that I really filled my apartment with them. Then I read Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs that same year. It’s a fictional account of the lives of some Microsoft employees that eerily mirrored some of the experience I was having at my new job. The mention of the Billy bookcase as a prime component of these character’s lives was the part that really freaked me out. I’ve tried to avoid them since.

Here’s a cool set of projects that in some way honor them as the Model T of the bookcase world. I particularly like the idea of tilting a bookcase to avoid the need for book ends.


Cool Hunting: Ding 3000: Pimp my Billy
“Billy Wilder takes the form of green branch growing across the Billy Bookshelf. Billy Heidenreich is a shelf with a lectern attached for displaying your most beautiful photography books, while the Stütze functions as an extra leg to tilt the bookcase at an angle so there’s no need for book ends. All the designs are beautifully made and will probably last longer than your Ikea shelving unit.”

London Bikeathon 2007

As Shannon mentioned, we did the 26 mile London Bikeathon at the weekend. I went a bit stupid with mapping our route. Not sure that it tells you much because the outbound and return routes overlap so closely, but the ride is a really great way of seeing the city, particularly on a Sunday morning when the traffic is a little more relaxed. You follow the Thames, basically, across the middle of London, from Chelsea, to the West, through the City, around the Docklands development at Canary Warf, past some great views of the Dome and ending at a cool little park by the Thames Barrier. Then back again.


It took us four hours at a reasonable pace. It’s a family ride, so there’s no pressure, although guys in yellow jerseys do shoot past regularly, doing the more high-pressured route that combined out loop with one that headed further west to Richmond.

Four hours for an 18 month old to sit patiently. It’s quite a while. Maddie likes cycling, though, and was no problem at all, even nodding off for a while with her pink-helmeted head bobbing around in the seat behind me.

Anyway, it’s a well organized, unusual way to see London. The route’s recommended, even if you don’t manage to make the actual event next year.



Rotring 600

I’ve finally got the new, extra-fine nib for my old-style Rotring 600 fountain pen. Seems to be flowing well, although changing nibs was a tough operation and required a bit of experiment. It wasn’t flowing properly at first and I found I had to push it in an extra milimetre to get it going consistently. Now it writes first time. Which of course it is supposed to.

Now I just have to get used to how thin the line it creates is compared to the medium point Parker pen I was using.

In case you need fountain pen advice, here’s plenty.