Rethink IxD

Philip van Allen
4 min readMay 9, 2016

It’s time to rethink Interaction Design.

In the massively augmented Internet of Things world, our current approaches to IxD, AI and Human Centered Design are too solutionistic and task oriented.

My collaborator Betti Marenko and I are proposing Animistic Design as an alternative. We believe that designers can use this new approach to shift focus and create systems that better support creativity, labor, learning, and collaboration.

Not Human Centered Design

This approach means that the human is no longer the center of design.

We envision collections of autonomous, unpredictable devices with distinct personalities and interests, interacting with people and each other. Together they form a creative context. What’s important are the in-between spaces where conversations and productive serendipity happen. Animistic design isn’t about the human or the object or the solution. It’s about designing vibrant, evolving ecologies that benefit people alongside the rest of the ecosystem. Nothing is at the center.

Multiple Perspectives, Shared Data

What you get depends on the personality of each device. And since you have a team of digital colleagues, you’ll get a range of material and perspectives to work with as part of the conversation.

In Animistic Design, your different devices may contribute provocative, helpful, off-topic or quirky content and commentary. You’ll give them access to the media, links and sensor data that you’d like to be a part of the conversation, and they’ll select from, remix, and extend it.

Your “team” creates ongoing conversations informed by your own curated content and enhanced with related external material. This is a critical difference from chat bots and other approaches.

Humble AI

Designing diverse ecologies allows designers to move away from providing single, correct answers. “Actually-smart” humans can work out which threads to follow, make new connections and provide feedback to the system so it further evolves.

Recognizing the affordances and limits of AI, animistic devices can be “dumb-smart,” producing interestingly biased or “not quite right” contributions. The ecology of these contributors thrives because of the diversity of multiple “humble AI” participants, each using different approaches.

Animistic Design provides a framework for designers to work with Artificial Intelligence, and encourages a healthy skepticism and deeper engagement with with AI as a design medium.

Distributed Cognition

People don’t only think inside their brain, but extend their thinking into the environment through the things they interact with.

By assembling an ecology of embodied animistic devices in a workspace, we allow people to leverage distributed cognition, where the mind arises from the interaction between people and their surroundings. One idea or bit of information is here “in” this physical object, and another idea is over there “in” that object.

Through this physical embodiment, people are able to manipulate ideas in a spatial way, working with the ambiguous and diverse character of complex problems instead of reducing it. Look at a typical design studio and you’ll see the walls covered with different materials that stimulate the creative process. What if those things could have a conversation with you?

Colleagues not Slaves

Working with animistic participants requires new social relationships.

Rather than commanding devices, we have a conversation. Instead of treating them as our slaves (with the bad habits that may create), we work with them as colleagues, friends, employees and even adversaries, getting what we need from whoever has a valuable contribution in that moment. Animistic systems can be non-linear, provocative, disruptive and foolish in addition to being on-point and helpful. Which is exactly what is needed for teams that generate new ideas, as Google has recently found.

One in a series of videos from the author’s speculative fiction called AniThings. More videos here.

Native Digital Animism

To be clear, we’re not advocating cute, superficially “alive” systems with faces and fur.

Instead, we believe that a new, native digital animism can be developed that does not rely on skeuomorphs or anthropomorphism. This neo-animism will leverage what computation can contribute, while subtlety cuing the human imagination to enliven these systems. We think it’s perfectly human to knowingly suspend disbelief and embrace an animistic, mythic view of computation (while taking a more rational perspective when that’s useful).

A percieved personality and corresponding behaviors can provide a narrative that helps us understand the intent and state of our complex digital devices as they go about their autonomous ways. Animism is also interesting because it can make us more conscious of suspending disbelief — we know it’s a fiction rather than thinking, falsely, that any computational system is “accurate,” “rational,” and “dispassionate”.

A New Approach to Interaction

If we are to move beyond automation that merely replaces human tasks, and instead build new ways to enhance human creativity, labor, learning, and collaboration, we have to design new interactions.

Conventional human centered design positions digital devices as slaves that do what the master wants. But as designers, we can restructure human-computer relations by seeing that creative work benefits from collaboration, autonomy, serendipity, diversity, risk-taking and imperfection, even for our digital partners. This is Animistic Design.

For more thoughts on Animistic Design, please see our academic article in the journal Digital Creativity, as well as an interview with Betti and myself about the topic, conducted by London based design studio 1984.

More images and videos are available on my site here and here.



Philip van Allen

Interaction Design Researcher, Consultant, Educator @ ArtCenter College of Design, Media Design Practices MFA - IoT, Interaction, AI.