Conversations with the past: hermeneutics for designers

This is the write-up of my talk at UXBrighton 2014 on hermeneutics for designers and a set of additional resources that I found useful whilst writing my talk.

When we think about our work as designers, we imagine ourselves with our head in the future, surrounded by latest ideas of how things will be: the natural user interface, the internet of things, self-driving cars, ubiquitous computing. Within this world it’s easy to forget that the future is just a thin sliver on top of an enormous past. All that we think, all we know, everything we can imagine, comes from this past, and has been shaped by thousands of years of human history. We sometimes like to imagine that the future comes to us as a simple continuation of our past activities, but quietly we all know that it’s more complicated. The past is full of unfinished projects, disappeared companies, dusty books and long forgotten heroines. Deep in our past there are thousands of visions of different worlds and different lives. There are the great works of philosophers, painters, sculptors and designers no longer known and no longer understood, waiting to be rediscovered.

When Jony Ive was on stage to talk about the Apple Watch he said something interesting. He didn’t mention how hyped up he was about the tiny touch screen, the battery life or the new interface. No he spoke about history.

Even though Apple Watch does so many things, there are cultural, historical implications and expectations. That’s why it’s been such a difficult and humbling program.
— Jony Ive

When we look back it’s easy to see the past as a collection of outdated technologies and failed business models, to quietly reminisce on how far we’ve come. This however only works if we look at the past through the limited frame of technological and economical progress. If we expand our vision, follow Ive and add history and culture to our framing we can see the past as a rich landscape of ideas, artefacts and people all telling us something about what it means to be human. For us this means that we have to find out about the designers, writers, typographers, toolmakers and architects that came before us and wonder how we can re-interpret their work and make it relevant for yet another generation.

How might we expand our vision and learn from the past? I will discuss the answer to this question in three parts. First, I’ll look at a philosophical framework called hermeneutics –the theory of understanding– with a special focus on the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Second, to understand how this framework is applicable to design I’ll examine a building by Louis Kahn –one of last century’s great American architects. And finally I’ll offer some starting points for your own hermeneutical explorations.


Hermeneutics is a framework that you can use to think and talk about understanding. It comes from the ancient Greek word for interpretation and as a framework its roots go back to the early days of Western philosophy. In the middle ages it was expanded by Bible scholars who sought to interpret ancient texts for the world they lived in, and in the 18th century the framework was further build upon and moved beyond the theory of text interpretation to deal with the question of how communication is possible at all. [1]

Hermeneutics can be described by a simple example of reading a book. “to understand the whole of a book it is necessary to grasp its individual words and sentences, but those words and sentences only have meaning within the larger context of the book, hence interpretation must be a matter of constant revision: revising one’s sense of the whole as one grasps the individual parts, and revising one’s sense of the parts as the meaning of the whole emerges. [2]

The hermeneutic cirle

We look at a part and try to understand what it means for the whole, and in a circular movement we look at the whole and try to understand how the part fits in. In design we are constantly hermeneutical. We think about what we want to achieve, we try things and we adjust our understanding based on how well our ideas do in practice. This newly gained understanding then can be used to decided what we should do next.

Hans-Georg Gadamer

Hans-Georg Gadamer was the philosopher who contributed most to contemporary hermeneutics. Born in Germany in 1900 he lived a life spanning the whole 20th century and died in 2002. Gadamer started out as a student of Heidegger in the 1920s but came to his own fame in 1960 (when he was 60 years old) when his book Truth and Method was published. Gadamer’s hermeneutics combines three interrelated concepts: horizon of understanding, prejudices and conversation as a model for understanding. [3]


Your horizon of understanding

When you try to understand something new, the first thing you have to realise is that you don’t approach the new from some neutral vantage point, but from within your own understanding of the world. Gadamer calls this personal understanding: your horizon of understanding. Your horizon is filled with the knowledge you’ve gained from your history, from the culture you’ve grown up in and more specifically it contains ‘all your feelings, sensibilities, habits and associations.’ [2] In short, everything you use to understand the world around you.


Your horizon contains all your prejudices

Gadamer calls all this knowledge that makes up your horizon your prejudices. He doesn’t see prejudices as something necessarily negative, more like something inescapable. Most of the time your prejudices remain hidden to you. However, you can see your prejudices revealed when you’re in a situation that clearly doesn’t align with your expectations. For example, the first time you visit London and stand on the left side of the escalator, you’ll soon be engaged in a short conversation that forces you to overcome your prejudices and expand your horizon by accepting a new prejudices that left is walking, right is standing.

There is no understanding without prejudices, and the idea that you should free yourself from them is a ‘superficial demand.’ All thinking is determined by its horizon, its context.
Paul Kidder

No matter how much you’d like to start a new project or approach a new person from a blank slate, Gadamer states that this is impossible. Your past experiences will always frame how you approach the world. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to be stuck in the past. Your job is to approach the world knowing that you are prejudiced and continuously work towards overcoming those prejudices.

Conversation as a model of understanding

A conversation as a model for understanding

How can you overcome your prejudices and expand your horizon? For Gadamer the best way to do this is through a conversation. Think of a successful conversation you had lately, a moment you felt you really understood something new. What did you do? You listened, you thought, you reflected, you asked more questions, you came up with new examples and summarised what you’ve just heard. Gadamer suggests that this doesn’t only apply when you are face to face with someone but also works a model for thinking and talking about understand anything, from an ancient text to a newspaper column.

Gadamer’s description of the hermeneutic circle assumes that every act of understanding requires projection — making assumptions about the meaning of what is said and then, by means of the hermeneutic circle, revising these assumptions.
Paul Kidder

For most of us conversation comes naturally and we pay little attention to what happens when we speak to another person. However, you can learn more about understanding by analysing the characteristics of a good conversation.

To start, a conversation will only work if both parties start with the expectation that the other has something true and valuable to say. Second, a conversation cannot be controlled by either party, but instead will be determined by the topic at hand. When you start you do not know from within which horizon your partner approached the topic, and they in their turn do not know yet how you see things. Both parties therefore need to develop, question, phrase and rephrase the language of conversation during the conversation. Finally, a conversation that goes well doesn’t simply move truths from one person to another, it expands both parties horizons by preserving the insights contained in either [1].

If one remains open, then new experiences, new discoveries, new moments of understanding will gradually replace the assumptions with which one began.
Hans-Georg Gadamer


To summarise, when you’re confronted with a new horizon you face a set of prejudices, some similar to yours: you might speak the same language, live within the same culture, yet others unknown and possibly different. To understand the other horizon better, you have to put your prejudices at stake and seek new understanding. You do this by engaging in a conversation, when it goes well you start to understand new things. Some of your prejudices turn out to align with what you thought before and you feel strengthened in their use, others are challenged and turn out to be in need of revision. With new ideas gained you can say that you’ve expanded your horizon.

Louis Kahn

To give you an idea of how hermeneutics can be applied to design, I’ll discuss a building by the American architect Louis Kahn. As one of America’s foremost 20th century architects he is seen as a bridge figure between classical antiquity and modernism. Born in Estonia in 1901, he emigrated to Philadelphia when he was 5 years old. Although his parents were very poor, his remarkable talent for drawing gained him the scholarships to make it to university. At the university’s architecture department he was trained as a Beaux Arts architect –a movement that sought to combine the harmonies of classical architecture with the ideas of the Enlightenment.

Palais Garnier in Beaux Arts style and Villa Savoye in modernist style (via Wikipedia)

Yet, just when he was ready to enter the labour market Le Corbusier revealed his modernist Villa Savoye to the world and all that Kahn had learned seemed worthless. A bit like when you come out of university being the best skeuomorphic designer the world has seen and boom, flat design comes in. Kahn adapted and worked on several modernist projects, but hadn’t it been for a change late in his career, we would have never heard of him.

At the age of 50 Kahn got lucky. He won a fellowship to the American Academy in Rome, which meant that for 3 months he became the architect in residence.

Louis Kahn’s drawings from Egypt and Italy from 1951

It was in those months of living and working among the ancient ruins of the city and the trips to the nearby sites of Egypt and Greece that he was able to see the past anew. When he returned and students asked him what he had done, he stated that he ‘simply observed the light.’ [4] Yet it was more than light that Kahn observed. ‘The buildings Kahn started to design after his return from Rome were no longer light and airy, no longer made out of glass and steel. They were solid, heavy shapes composed out brick, marble and concrete, full of simple geometric shapes, not unlike the monumental ruins he had observed in Rome.’ [5]

He came to understand a different way to apply his Beaux Arts knowledge to architecture. In contrast to the modernists preachings, Kahn felt that architecture was more than solving problems using the latest technology, it needed to be a humanistic and poetic endeavour too.

[Kahn rediscovered] what was most central to architectural interpretation in the age of Vitruvius: a humanistic and poetic significance — with roots deep in traditions of myth and cultural narrative — that guides the design process and suits the building to its purpose and place
Alberto Pérez-Gómez

What Kahn went looking for in the past were the forms and ideas that Roman architects used to give shape to such abstract ideas as society, education and well-being. How was it possible that their buildings two millennia after construction still displayed an air of dignity, a sense of monumentality?

The Baths of Caracalla in better days

When Kahn returned from visiting the Baths of Caracalla in Rome –now just a ruin, but in Roman times swelling high above the visitors– he wrote:

If you look at the Baths of Caracalla — the ceiling swells a hundred fifty feet high. It was a marvelous realization on the part of the Romans to build such a space. It goes beyond function…we know that we can bathe just as well under an eight-foot ceiling as we can under a hundred-fifty foot ceiling, but I believe there’s something about a hundred-fifty foot ceiling that makes a man a different kind of man.
Louis Kahn

Phillips Exeter Library

Let’s examine the Phillips Exeter Library a building he designed in 1965. The building is part of a boarding school in the north east of the United States, it has a square floor plan of 33 meters wide and is 24 meters high containing 9 floors. The building is nearly identical on all four sides, with the exception of the side that contains the entrance which is given away by 4 slightly larger windows.

The Phillips Exeter Library via

To find the doors to enter, however, you still need to go underneath the arches that surround the building, where you’ll discover a small door which provides the main way in. Once you’re inside, you’re not done yet, you must go up the stairs to the first floor where you finally arrive at the centre of the the library.

The central atrium of the building via

It’s only here when you suddenly realise why the building is considered one of Kahn’s masterpieces. You are in the middle of a square hall 10 meters wide and 16 meters high –forming a perfect golden ratio, a much loved feature of Beaux Arts architects– with a massive circle on each side that reveal several floors of books behind it. And at 16 meters high there is a large concrete cross reflecting the daylight indirectly over the hall and book shelves. When you look at this cross you can see how it all comes together in a bi-symmetrical construction formed out of enormous but simple shapes.

The reading spaces at the outer side of the building via:

The reading spaces on the outer ring of the the library are in stark contrast. Not only is the size different, but also the brutal shapes of concrete are replaced by subtle hand-made wooden chairs and desks. In a cloister-like arrangement they circle each floor on every side. The tables are attached to the outer wall one side and all have their own window, so students can read in daylight for as long as possible.

How could Kahn design like this?

Kahn’s ideas do not come from nowhere, they build on a rich legacy of works that came before him.

Boullee’s design on the left, Kahn’s Building on the right

One example is Etienne Louis Boullee design for the national library of France from 1785. Like Boullee’s building Kahn’s circular cut outs allows the hall to become a cathedral of books, overwhelming any visitor entering.

Monks studying in day light in the Sain Maria della Pace cloister

Another idea came from the Saint Maria della Pace cloister in Rome — built in 1500 — where monks read books by daylight in a corridor surrounding a courtyard. Kahn flipped this around and placed the corridors on the outside of the building, creating spaces for quiet reading and contemplation.

Piranesi’s ruins on the left

After he saw the ruins of ancient Rome, and especially the Romantic drawings of Piranesi, Kahn started to take a lot of inspiration from them, the walls on the outside of the library already look like they’ve been the leftovers of a much older building. And finally Kahn also continues his own exploration of monumental circles, light and darkness, such as his earlier work for the Indian Institute of Management.

Kahn’s work displays a deep and ongoing conversation with history

So we can see how Kahn’s influences form a complex web of accidental discoveries and deliberate study. The library is inspired by his drawings of ancient Rome, those drawings were both influenced by his visit to these ruins and by Piranesi drawings. Furthermore Kahn, managed to shape these influences in this particular way because he saw the world from a horizon shaped by Beaux Arts. Beaux Arts, however, could only come into existence because it could reinterpret the work of Vitruvius, a Roman architect and writer who lived in the first century BC. The work of Vitruvius didn’t come unfiltered to Kahn or Beaux Arts: their vision was already influenced by earlier conversations that had lead to the French library design and the Italian monastery. Furthermore, Kahn could only apply this knowledge smoothly because he had already been experimenting for 15 years with this language. And finally, Kahn’s building would have been very different if his horizon hadn’t been drastically reshaped by a world where Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and modernism existed. So Kahn’s conversation with all these horizons form the horizon from within which he works. This allowed him to go further than architects in the centuries before him. He didn’t just try to copy the world of antiquity; his buildings aren’t nostalgic retro versions, or post-modern remixes. He engages in a critical conversation. Based on his vision he took some arguments onboard, and left others in the past.

The goal of Gadamer’s hermeneutics, then, is not to return to the original world of the text nor to the mindset of its author, […]. It is, in the first place, to learn how to let the text speak again — not within its own horizon, but in communion with the horizon of we who are living and are attempting to make sense of it.
Paul Kidder

This fits in well with the Gadamer’s ideas on how we should interpret old texts. If we use Gadamer’s hermeneutical framework to describe Kahn’s work, we can say that he started out seeing the world from within a Beaux Arts horizon, then when modernism arrived he was forced to update some of his prejudices and expand his horizon to take onboard Le Corbusier’s ideas. Then when he encountered the horizon from within which the ancient world was build, he was able to start a new conversation — not directly with the makers, but through ancient texts, historians and archaeologists that accompanied him on his journeys. This encounter did not only expand his horizon, it also allowed him to gain a new and deeper understanding of the Beaux Arts teachings of his student days. It was from within this new, uniquely personal horizon that he saw the world and could design a library that was modern and classic at the same time.

Apple Watch

Let’s return to the Apple Watch and wonder how can hermeneutics help poor Jony? We can see that he and his team already did quite a good job in establishing historical connections. The watch brings back the Milanese loop, it comes with spinning planets, a physical knob to turn and a Dieter Rams inspired watch face. Something that gained little historical attention was the new interface design. An interface that might be more hermeneutical than you think.

See the interface from 1:12

In was in 1994 that Jef Raskin — known from starting the Apple Macintosh project in the 1970s — wrote a paper about the Zoomable Interface, a paper that later made its way into his legendary book The Humane Interface. On page 152 we can find an interesting two paragraphs

[When speaking about the 1990’s interfaces, we can see that] many complaints about present systems are complaints about trying to navigate. Partial solutions such as favorite[s] in browsers have been created. But what we are truly better at is remembering landmarks and positional cues, traits that evolutions has bred into us and traits we can take advantage of in interface design.
[If the 1990’s interfaces look like a maze than] the antithesis of a maze is a situation in which you can see your goal and the path to get there, one that preserves your sense of location while under way, making it equally easy to get back. An elegant solutions is the zooming interface paradigm, which in many situations solves the navigation problem and also provides a way around the problem of the limited screen real estate. Image how readily mazes could be solved if only you could fly above them, see their layout and go directly to your destination. A zoomable interface paradigm offers that kind of fluidity and facility for many tasks you perform with computers.
Jef Raskin , The Human Interface, page 152

Here you can see the power of a hermeneutical conversation at work. It takes remarkably little effort to, as Paul Kidder, stated ‘learn how to let the text speak again in communion with the horizon of we who are living and are attempting to make sense of it.’ Most likely some Apple designers remembered the paragraph and instead of dismissing it as irrelevant ramblings from a bygone area they managed to let it speak again in a world where smart watches with high resolution screens are the new norm.

Forwards into the past

If Louis Kahn’s engagement with classic architecture allowed him to create works that have a sense of timeless monumentality, and Apple finds their solution to a tricky interface problem in a text of decades ago, than what might we achieve if we started digging deeper in our past? A great place to start is the the IxD Library, a website that lists influential books and papers all the way back to Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay ‘As we may think’. Furthermore, you’ve probably heard of the old American trio Raskin, Cooper and Norman, but do you know the Swiss/German trio Müller-Brockmann, Ruder and Hofmann? Europeans who defined design and typography in the 1960s and whose concepts are going through a revival at the moment with Apple, Google and Microsoft all returning to the roots of 1960s design. Reading any of it will enable you to start an hermeneutical investigation into your own past and allow you to go behind the scenes of your own prejudices. It may shine light on prejudices you hold so close that they’ve become invisible. Uncovering them will allow you to better understand the ideas and assumptions that form our modern design practise and reopen ways that history closed.

These books are just a few nodes in a grand network of ideas and interpretations. Even from within our own horizon of interaction design we can see the shapes of mountains just beyond our horizon, mountains of book making, animation, film, photography, psychology and philosophy, all with their own peculiar achievements, heroines, and forgotten masterpieces. All willing to share their secrets with an observant explorer.

Hermeneutics in the end is not just a framework or an approach but an awareness and willingness to participate in an ever moving ‘dialogue that is an on-going re-articulation of the dynamically historical nature of all human thought.’ [1]

On Hermeneutics:
Philosophy for Architects by Branko Mitrovi
Gadamer for Architects by Paul Kidder
Hermeneutics — Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
Hans Georg Gadamer— Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

Further reading on design and hermeneutics:
Towards a Hermeneutic Perspective on Design Practice (pdf) by Marcus Jahnke
Models, Metaphors and the Hermeneutics of Design (annoying website) by Adrian Snodgrass and Richard Coyne
Is Designing Hermeneutical by Adrian Snodgrass and Richard Coyne

On Louis Kahn:
Louis Kahn and the ruins of Rome (pdf) by Vincent Scully
Louis I. Kahn (for the caste study of Exeter Library) by Robert McCarter Many mansions by Paul Goldberger

Apple Watch:
The Humane Interface by Jef Raskin

Sjors Timmer is a freelance interaction designer. You should follow him on Twitter.