Transition Design as Postindustrial Interaction Design?

The School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University has started talking about ‘Transition Design.’ This is an aspirational term for a new kind of design practice. This is why the term primarily names an area of focus for our Doctoral Programs; it is something that we are researching and developing.

Transition refers to phased change – not revolution or sudden shifts, but a sustained process of multi-faceted transformation. To transition means not only having a sense of what you want to transition toward, but also what you are transitioning away from. It means having a capacity to function in current systems in ways that also begin to transform them. And it means being situationally aware of the changes as they take place, modifying means and ends in the light of what you learn as you proceed.

Transition Design signals an ambition for design to play a role in larger scale social change. Faculty at the School of Design have started to speak about Transition Design in terms of the imperatives for change: the need to develop societies that resource themselves in more sustainable and equitable ways. We are developing an argument about why and how design plays a crucial role in the systems-level changes needed to develop more sustainable ways of living and working.

The School of Design at CMU plays a leading role in furnishing the world with highly skilled Interaction Designers. This is why, for us, Transition Design represents not only a commitment to a values-based approach to design education and practice, but also a way of advancing the practice of Interaction Design. Transition Design represents of a new kind of designing more appropriate to the new contexts our graduates are working within.

How we used to be able to design:
Serial Monogamy

Designers make new things.

go make that one

Designers used to make the plans other people followed to actually make something – the blueprints for construction. In such cases, design was primarily the skill of innovating useful things. Designers had to consider how things were going to get made – design for manufacturability – but their primary task was to conceive and develop products that would enhance everyday life – to make it more efficient and enjoyable.

The classic design education – the Bauhaus Foundation Year for example – began with creative investigations of materials. But the intention was to broaden a designer’s sense of possible material interfaces, rather than to ensure that designers were skilled craftspeople who could actually make the stuff they were designing. The exercises were artistic not about engineering.

More important than knowing about manufacturing was knowing something about the people the designers were designing for. The designer’s task was to mediate between the new technologies that were being developed and the lifestyles into which those new technologies might be inserted. The interfaces the designer created helped domesticate new technologies by establishing new habits of interaction.

According to this fable, technological breakthroughs were less frequent in those days, so designers had time to do some creative and/or empirical research into appropriate interfaces between people and their new devices and environments. The roll-out of new products was an expensive exercise however, so there was pressure on designers to get things right. But then again, society was presumably less complex, or at least, it was acceptable to negotiate society in terms of large homogenous market segments.

The result was what could be called the serial monogamy version of design. Designers would focus on one a single project for a period of time. Their workdays involved focusing on one particular problem for a while and then handing over to the production process an innovative new product, or at least, the next model in that product series. This periodic design process began with automobiles, was replicated by white goods and appliance designers and then progressed at a much faster rate in fashion design with its seasonal and then half-seasonal releases.

Evidence of this serial monogamy over the last half-decade is the vast proliferation of discretely designed products that fill the ever-expanding houses of the global consumer class. Late capitalist societies experienced a Golden Era of regularly repeated one-at-a-time product design ‘solutioning’, and as a result, are littered with a vast quantities of unsustainable ‘things’.

the material consequences of serial monogamy design — from Peter Menzel’s Material World

How we have to design today: Postindustrial Mess

The situation today is a bit different, though clearly many industries are trying to persist with the periodic release model.

At a macro level, resource constraints loom that limit the ability of designers to respond to each new problem or opportunity with a wholly new product (though the hype around wearables would make you think otherwise).

At the meso level, two trends are converging. On the one hand, households and workplaces in developed economies are saturated in most product categories. For nearly all of the everyday activities associated with modern life (that have remained fairly unchanged for the last 50 years – eating, cleaning, sleeping, entertaining, commuting, office working, etc) products exist and are owned and being used. True product innovations in these domains remain marginal – molecular cooking and Solyent, home laundering steam cycles, flat screens, hybrid cars, hot desking, etc. Fortunately, most manufacturers have been able to turn to developing economy nations to sustain sales. However – and this is the second trend – those markets, despite the forces of globalization, have cultural specificities that make globally mass produced design propositions complicated.

At the micro level, things have shifted radically as a result of digitalization. At this end of Moore’s Law, the need for devices with increased capacity slows. Innovation takes place at the upgradeable level of the platform and its cloud-based apps.

This changes the conditions for designing radically. It increases the variables that need to be considered – because interactions are liberated from physical constraints, and new interactions are more learnable because of the situated analytics of the systems. And, digitalization simultaneously removes the innovation-to-market rhythms that were structuring the process of design – digital designs can be released in Minimal Viable Product for subsequent tweaks or pivots according to whatever maniacal Scrum sprint timeframe management imposes.

Serial monogamy is no longer an option for Interaction Designers. They must try to make sense of fragmenting / merging / morphing target user groups within the context of continually developing technologies and obsessively monitored value propositions.

Interaction design now happens in conditions of constant transition.

The one thing designers have going for them in this new world is that there is less distance between their attempts to find valuable interactions and the building of those propositions. There still tends to be a division of labor between designers and coders for instance, but it is a perforated wall with increasing crossover; designers no longer produce blueprints, but make the (digital) designs themselves.


However, the result of this conflation of design and construct, especially in an accelerated Agile culture, can be a kind of anti-design. Rather than design-as-forethought about what would be best to build, designers are increasingly finding themselves conducting blindly-evolutionary field-trials: build-and-see, fail-fast, iterate, iterate, iterate. Design as deliberative decision-making is being replaced by almost-randomized A-B testing; data makes Theory redundant and Design Studies is just ‘nonsense.’

We are starting to see the problem with this speedy non-designing. It is leading to some spectacular missteps followed by the now-regular ‘We are sorry, We were wrong’ reinstatements of previous versions. While the ‘designers’ are scrabbling to issue updates, the original design-led value proposition falls into the hands of investors; interesting forms of social value are then wound back to business-as-usual – commodified volume-advertising or transaction-skimming.

Designing in Transition

Transition Design is an idea that attempts to respond to this situation and its discontents. Transition Design begins with the acknowledgement that:

1) Design happens less and less in safe zones – what used to be called ‘studios’ – out of the flow markets, live users, investors, stakeholders, future generations, etc. Or, to put it another way, designers can no longer presume these protected places for considered design work exist; part of your job as a designers is to fight for them, to win the space and time for more careful designing. Being an Interaction Designer requires you to be skilled at arguing, in terms of return-on-investment and risk management, for the opportunity to do some proper designing.

2) Designs can no longer be developed as discrete propositions.

Interaction design takes place on thoroughly interconnected platforms. Every design move impacts a myriad of other designed applications, devices, infrastructure connection points, etc. For an interaction design to be successful, it must not only work for a user on a device, but also not lead to adverse consequences for everything else a user and the device is already doing that has nothing to do with the interaction. An extreme example is that any texting-based mobile app or device must anticipate being used by people driving heavy objects at lethal speeds. Such a scenario is no longer just a distant ‘social impact’ that designers hopefully have the luxury to take into consideration; it is now an unavoidable aspect of the interdependent ecosystem in which designing happens – just as (much less dangerously) any background-operating app is competing for battery and bandwidth with foregrounded apps.

3) Designers are more likely to be impacted by their designs. In the Golden Era of Design, designers were mostly designing products for people not like them – for example, industrial designing males designed appliances that would only be used by domestically enslaved women. In these situations, it is necessary to force social research into the design process so that designers can familiarize themselves with these ‘others’ that they are designing for. After product saturation and digitalization, and in a world with more fluid cultures, it is increasingly likely that the designer is designing something that he or she will use. More significantly, even if not a direct user, the networked platforms on which designers are operating means that the design of something over there will impact the use of things over here, where the designer is. Being in the system that you are impacting with your designs is a very different kind of designing. The common analogy is like redesigning a vehicle while it is moving down a highway.

4) The focus of designing is more directly people themselves. When a designer designs some thing, they are designing what people do but through the mediation of the physical product. A product’s affordances influence people, making certain activities more or less likely. Post-industrial design tends to make the ‘designing of people’ more direct, such as occurs in Service Design. Perhaps more important is the vaguely unanticipated way in which communication and information technologies really took off early this century as modes of sociality — rather than just workflow control. Digital economies thrive on people designing their own identities through online interactions – by which I mean, designing how they present themselves online, but also how they use computational systems to change their physical lives, buying certain (recommended) goods, monitoring their behaviors, learning new skills, etc. This means that even when interaction designers are designing for digital platforms – as distinct from when they are explicitly doing service designing for example – they are nevertheless (more directly than most product designers) designing systems through which people are self-altering, or transitioning. This then leads to all sorts of ethico-political dilemmas: the most obvious are privacy vs being-in-public, and nudging vs customization.

interaction design in unprotected spaces of complex self-transitioning

Transition-based Interaction Designing

Conditions for Interaction Design now, and increasingly in the near future, are quite different from the modernist serial monogamy designing of products, communications and environments. Transition Design is what we are calling what Interaction Designers need to know to work in these contexts. Just to sketch out some of the fields of knowledge that we are trying to invoke with the term Transition, reconsider those 4 points about Postindustrial designing:

1) Design happens less and less in safe zones.
Transition Management is an offshoot of Innovation Studies that examine how structural shifts in sociotechnical systems take place. This means looking at processes like digital TV rollout or the adoption of range-limited electric vehicles or the re-emergence of local farm sourced food. One of the key findings of this kind of Transition Management research is the importance of ‘Niche Experimentation.’ Technologies incubate in smaller communities of users, refining their designs for maximum adaptability, before finding a way to spread. These are more than prototype trials. They are live product developments with lead users over significant amounts of time. This is how Interaction Design must begin to work given the constant flux of technical and social systems. Interaction Designers, informed by ideas of Transition, design not only this or that thing or system, but also the conditions in which it can be initially released, and the ways of monitoring its development in those early release contexts.

strategic niche mangement transition theory — without design

2) Designs can no longer be developed as discrete propositions. If you want to understand complex relationality, in which multiple things are interdependently connected, you are talking about Ecosystems. Transition Design draws heavily on ideas of resilience and transition in ecosystems research. Resilience is the capacity of a design to respond to environmental changes, even to suffer damage but then self-repair and/or transform. Resilience comes from deliberate interconnectedness, redundancy, modularity and transparency. Transition is when interconnectedness causes a few smaller changes to cascade throughout a whole system and transform how it functions. Interaction Designers have to be systems thinkers, identifying leverage points of intervention, and then seeing their own designs as complex ecosystems that respond to changing conditions and have the capacity to recover from damage.

3) The designer is more likely to be impacted by their design. The term Transition refers to sequenced change. It is gradualist not sudden, though it does acknowledge the possibilities of comparatively rapid, cascading change. What is fundamentally different to serial designing is that Transition Design begins with the recognition that each move is only that – a move, one that will need to be followed by another move, and then another. Prior modes of designing recognized that the solution a project ended with, while not a perfect one, was valuable enough for a whole machine to be put in place to materialize it and sell it. The designer could hand over the blueprints, get the check and move onto something else. The Transition-based Interaction Designer must ‘stay with’ any released product, monitoring its use and making subsequent modifications. Transition Designers can do all this because they operate in the same system as the design, if not using the design. This is not just rapid beta mode implementation. By contrast, the Transition Designer has a vision for a large structural change. What is important in the process is in fact not the product, but the consequences that use of the product is enabling. New habits and expectations will surround the product that the designer can use to imagine a next intervention, pushing those sociocultural changes further. Along the way, the vision itself will be modified – there is not a constant objective here; it is a much more situated form of navigation.

Allan Chochinov: Transition-base Interaction Design = “The Consequence Business”

4) The focus of designing is more directly people themselves. Interaction Design used to be ‘user-centered.’ The user was a uniform functional entity that you could pinpoint through user testing. Then there was the recognition that the subject of Interaction Design should be thought of more as a persona seeking experiences. But as the name indicates, ‘human-centered design’ still has a relatively stable lowest common denominator as its focus. The situation now is one in which those humans are not just culturally varied, but are themselves undergoing change; and moreover, those changes are the purpose of the Interaction Design. This demands that designers know a lot more about humans, their psychologies and sociologies, their material cultures and immaterial values. To navigate all this not only requires a lot more social research by designers, but also a different way of approaching people. A Transition Designer recognizes not only that their work touches on ethics and politics, but that there is no avoiding having a position on values and beliefs as a designer. To be able to understand different kinds of people in processes of change demands that you be very aware of your own worldviews and perspectives. Design Thinking glibly calls this empathy, as if it is easy to understand authentically the people you are designing with. A Transition Designer knows that they will be changed by the people their designs service.

Transitioning Business

We use the term Transition Design to deliberately draw attention to its newness. Transition Design aims to transition designing to practices that are more appropriate to the changing postindustrial contexts we find ourselves in.

But there are obviously many discourses and practices in and around design that touch on all these points: scenario-based design and design futures in relation to 1) and 3); Agile and Lean in relation to 1) and 3); systems and complexity thinking in relation to 2); design ethnography and co-design in relation to 4); and so on.

Lean Theory for
Designing in Transition

The difference, we feel, is that these are all tools and methods that are only being added to an otherwise unchanged version of serial monogamy designing. Transition Design names a kind of designing that actively seeks to move us out of business-as-usual. It seeks new business models no longer based on the serial production of more discrete things.

This does not mean that Transition Design is anti-business. Transition Designers must be of value as interaction designers to existing businesses if they are going to be able to effect transitions. But their real objective is to materialize new kinds of values into new kinds of systems that better help people transition toward preferred futures. They use Interaction Design to afford transition, and they use Transition to afford Interaction Design.

The Material Craft of Transition Designing

Perhaps to interaction designers this all this sounds like too much abstract ‘theory.’

On the one hand, it is. We are looking for tools and approaches to import into new kinds of designing that better respond to current conditions. Existing design techniques do not seem adequate, so we are applying other forms of thinking from outside of design to new ways of designing.

On the other hand, Transition Design aims to become a rich craft. What starts as applied theory must become the skillful practice of experts. Let me finish by suggesting what the material practice aspects of Transition-based Interaction Designing might feel like, using the same 4 conditions of Postindustrial Design:

1) Design happens less and less in safe zones
via Detailing

What takes place in sites of Niche Experiment is detailing, of front-ends and back-ends, to better fit the conditions in which the trialing is taking place. These are the regular material craft skills that Bauhaus designers are expert at. The difference is that their application is occurring in the field in a more symbiotic relation with the people who are using those designs. As a result, the materials must have a plasticity, or the components a modularity, to better allow adaptation; or, of course, it is the materiality of information within more or less fixed screen-based systems. By contrast, what solidifies in a Niche Experiment is a social practice, a set of interaction habits that become a convention. Rather than Interaction Designing being the cognitive science of what functionally works, Transition-based Interaction Designing is a form of social learning, in which rituals are evolved and then extended and migrated.

2) Designs can no longer be developed as discrete propositions
via Patterns

Ecosystems are complex, but their functionality lies in rhythms of loose coupling. In design, these are called patterns. Ordinarily, these refer only to patterns of use in limited contexts. But in postindustrial designing there are patterns of interaction not only between users and their devices, but also between users and infrastructures (e.g., ‘cloud’), and also between devices themselves. A Transition Designer is an adept reader of these complex networks. They will develop a craftsperson’s sense for where resistances and flows lie. This expert skill of attunement to contexts will take time and practice, and apprenticing with masters, to learn.

3) The designer is more likely to be impacted by their design
via Indicators

As Roger Martin (The Design of Business), Bent Flyvbjerg (Making Social Science Matter) and others have identified, there is a skill in being able to make moves based on reliable indicators without having to need fully validated evidence. As Transition Designers ‘stay with’ their released products, they will need to be able to make rapid sense of changes that are occurring, evaluating whether to amplify or dampen them. You cannot use static metrics for this kind of work because what you are interested in will change with each phase of the transition, that is the point. This goes not only for the designer of the system, but also for anyone using the system. Being able to give people a clear sense of where they are, of where they were before and in which direction they are heading, is no longer just the concern of information architecture microinteractions or screen transition animations – it is the wayfinding essential to multi-level multi-phase structural change.

4) The focus of designing is more directly people themselves
via Leading
The best designers are always also changemakers. Not dictators, but charismatic figures who can convince colleagues and suppliers and financers and then a range of consumers to take up something new. This is the same art that is demanded of Transition Designers, people committed to enhancing the quality of life for all stakeholders, present and future. Transition Designers can navigate social complexity, aware that humans are structured by values that always exceed economic cost-benefit analyses. At CMU, we teach Transition Design through Design for Social Innovation not only because we want students to have experiences doing Design for Good and Design for the Other 90%, etc, but because Design for Social Innovation provides direct experience of social complexity and values outside of mainstream business-for-profit. This is where Transition Designers hone their skills for noticing opportunities for Shared Value.

Sketching, Researching, Practising

We at CMU School of Design are finding the convergence between Interaction Design and the wider ambitions of Transition very promising, for both Postindustrial Interaction Design and the Project of Transition. What I have written about here is only a sketch, an outline of the bodies of knowledge we are rehearsing in a wide range of design contexts, from community-based work through corporation-sponsored studios to dedicated PhDs. We welcome critique, participation, appropriation and extension.

thanks to Terry Irwin for comments and edits