For our second sprint in the CMU doctoral program, Dave Wolfenden guided us through a series of readings exploring questions of mental disposition towards design practice. At first blush this might seem like an esoteric topic—far removed from the practical concerns of digital design work—but then, much depends on what we mean by “practical.”

Contemporary UX rhetoric is awash in talk of Lean and Agile methods, heroic tales of teams “failing fast,” and Fast Company-style paeans to designers as disruptors of hidebound industries. It is, for the most part, a rhetoric of doing.

But what value might we find in not doing?

John Keats famously celebrated the virtues of “negative capability,” that elusive state of being “when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

An irritable reaching after fact and reason seems to have become a chief preoccupation of UX practice in recent years: the urge to produce results, demonstrate ROI, and ultimately justify the designer’s existence (and paycheck). This orientation towards measurable outcomes tends to beget a lot of short-term thinking, limiting the capacity of designers to factor in the social, cultural and environmental considerations that could broaden and deepen the impact of their work.

How then might a more open, reflective orientation—a shift in posture, so to speak—change the way we approach design practice?

Turning Inward

We began our exploration with Chia and Holt’s Strategy Without Design, a provocative argument for a new approach to strategic planning: one driven not by a desire for “spectacular strategic interventions,” as the authors put it, but rather one that evolves through a nuanced process of inner reflection.

Chia and Holt ground their argument in the Greek notion of metis, a state of mind that demands “alertness, sensitivity and a peculiar disposition.” Metis is the practice of observing, staying open, and seeking understanding rather than charging headlong into action.

This notion feels deeply relevant to the practice of UX research, relying as it does on direct observation as the basis of insight. That practice invariably takes place in the context of a specific business strategy that demands tangible results, however—and tends to create an impetus against deeper levels of inner reflection.

In Chia and Holt’s model, we see a clear distinction between the activity of producing near-term outcomes and the more demanding challenge of effecting meaningful, long-term transformation.

Transformation, they argue, happens only through a process of “tireless continuity and pervasiveness, and that is what makes it eventually effective. Transformation, because it is continuous and operates at a mundane everyday level, normally passes unnoticed. The skills and knowledge are absorbed unconsciously.”

But how might one actually effect a sustained, long-term process of systemic change? In Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, psychologist Paul Watzlawick and his co-authors posit an important distinction between first- and second- order change. First-order change is change within a system that itself remains unchanged—e.g., solving a particular “problem”; whereas second-order change refers to change of the system itself.

Watzlawick proposes four steps necessary to effect second-order change: 1) Challenge the problem itself; 2) Interfere with the “solution”; 3) Stop trying to solve the problem (since the termination of problem-solving is what solves the problem): 4) Reframing.

The paradox of second-order change is this: the solution itself is the problem. The problem is not defining a new or improved process. Rather, second-order change demands effecting a fundamental shift in one’s orientation towards the “problem.” In other words, second-order change demands reframing the old problem—and even transcending it.

In a similar vein, Kees Dorst’s landmark book Frame Innovation posits an approach to problem-solving rooted in what he calls “design abduction”—or approaching a problem without a particular process or method in mind. Dorst cautions against the fetishization of process, or a reliance on “fossilized frames” that tend to beget bureaucratic, institutionalized approaches to problem-solving.

For Dorst, reframing is the key to design thinking. “A problem can never be solved from the context in which it arose,” he argues. It is therefore the designer (or design researcher’s) job to question assumptions, explore new discourses and themes as a means to reframe problem spaces. He lays out a nine-step process for doing so, deeply rooted in qualitative research methods—like ethnographic fieldwork, secondary research, and trend analysis—to help designers shift their perspectives on a particular problem space to open up new lines of inquiry. The practice of direct observation and a posture of openness (or negative capability) form the backbone of this approach.

Looking, leaping

This notion of deep listening and reflection sounds intrinsically appealing, but the reality of UX practice inevitably involves working within time-bound constraints and expectations of useful outcomes. How, then, might designers usefully embrace a posture of negative capability without, frankly, putting themselves out of work?

Here the onus may fall to organizational leaders rather than individual practitioners. Robert French and Peter Simpson have explored the application of Keats’ notion of negative capability to the practice of business management, formulating a powerful critique of business leaders’ well-known tendency to charge into action.

“Negative Capability is the ability to resist dispersing into inappropriate knowing and action,” they write. Instead, they argue that business leaders should strive to cultivate a capacity for operating at the “edge between knowing and not knowing.”

“Organizational leaders,” they argue, “must be oriented towards the unknown creative insight of the moment and hence towards ‘the edges’ of their ignorance.” Which is of course much easier said than done, given the inexorable pressures on corporations to do things faster, better, and cheaper.

French and Simpson characterize this collective tendency as the “principle of performativity” — an orientation towards doing that “dominates our culture at all levels and ‘serves to subordinate knowledge and truth to the production of efficiency’ (Fournier and Grey, 2000: 17: Lyotard, 1984).”

In our increasingly mechanized world, “the active and the technical dominate over the passive and the humane.” And the pressures of “performativity” are wreaking widespread havoc on families, institutions, the environment, and other complex systems that we are barely beginning to understand. And the values of speed, efficiency and profit-making are no longer as self-evident as they might once have seemed.

“In such an environment,” French and Simpson wonder, “how is one to attribute value to low status aspects of behaviours such as waiting, patience, passivity, observing, illusion, imagination, detachment, disinterest, desire, trust, withdrawing, tempering, adapting, indifference, humility…?”

Ultimately, then, this is the task of design leadership: to realize “the appropriate combination of positive capabilities and Negative Capability.” Balancing those forces will enable “a transformation to occur from the unknown into the realm of the knowable.”

Method and Wisdom

The Mahayana Buddhist teachings celebrate the union of method and wisdom (often depicted as the Yab-Yum thangka design of two enlightened masculine and feminine beings, consorting). These teachings highlight the importance of action informed by a deep understanding of the laws of cause and effect. If these energies fall out of balance—if we rush into action without fully considering the effects, or conversely if we simply analyze a situation without ever taking action—negative outcomes may arise.

Yab-yum thangka, representing the union of method and wisdom

The path forward, then, is not to not act— for wisdom without method serves no purpose—but rather to assume a more balanced posture, from which we can observe and reflect on the role our work plays within a larger, interconnected system. And then (and only then), to act.


Head of UX at Google News; Doctoral student at CMU Design; formerly at Instagram, Etsy, and the NYTimes.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store