Design for Dasein is the missing manual for designers to understand phenomenology—and why it matters to them

Vicky Teinaki
Jan 21, 2015 · 5 min read

Phenomenology, like its more literary friend semiotics, is one of those things that is generally known of than known about. Heck, even spelling it is hard. (My trick: ‘no men’ make phe-no-men-ology.)

In fact, two well known 90s films use it as a shorthand for the impenetreble intelligensia. In You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hank’s editor girlfriend mentions how Meg Ryan’s boyfriend (an original hipster, he was well ahead of the game in proclaiming the virtues of the typewriter) is the type of person who

“…you think he’s going to be so obscure and abstruse. He’s always talking about Heidegger and Foucault. And I have no idea what it’s about, really.”

And Ethan Hawke’s character in Reality Bites is reading Heidegger’s Being and Time. Go figure.

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I actually own this exact edition of Being and Time. Which is incredibly weird. Does that make me cosmicly connected to Ethan Hawke?

The initial impenetrability of phenomenology is a concern, as its key concepts are of utmost important to today’s iDevice designers. As technology moves away from the screen and towards the body, we’re having to understand what it means to have a body to interact with it. While psychologists have been testing this from a cognitive perspective, philosophers have been thinking about this from the perspective of how we make sense of this lived-world for almost a century. (And said philosophers would probably recoil at the concept of “natural user interfaces” which became concernedly popular in the last few years.)

Up until recently, designers had a hard task ahead of them if they wanted to investigate Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and beyond. My struggle through Being and Time and Being and Nothingness back in 2008 was made considerably easier (if still time-consuming, and likely to risk bias from only one interpretation) thanks to finding the audio recordings of Stanford professor Hubert Dreyfus online. (Sadly the Merleau-Ponty ones have disappeared). Paul Dourish’s Where the Action Is is a useful but dense review of embodied interaction and its relationship to phenomenology. There is also well received 2010 film on phenemonology made by former Dreyfus student Tao Rouspoli—though it is hard to get hold of so I haven’t as of yet seen it. The hunger for easy to understand information for designers about phenomenology means that I was surprised to find that a brief article I wrote on the topic for Johnny Holland (and in hindsight has some rather clunky grammar amongst other things) was referenced in two research textbooks!

So, I was ecstatic that there was a talk at the Interaction14 conference on phenomenology for designers. And even more impressed (if a little put out after my own struggles with the key texts) that the presentation on the topic was not only relatively easy to understand and relevant from a designer’s perspective, but also included discussions right up to current understandings of the field.

The latter point is something that as a design researcher I’m often concerned about. Design is generally very good at lifting concepts from other disciplines (Picasso and Jobs would be proud), but without an awareness of what discussion has happened later, we can be missing important developments. It would be like stealing tips from Mad Men without realising that advertising now often uses far more collaborative messages these days.

As it turned out, Thomas Wendt has expanded on this topic into his newly released book Design for Dasein.

The book tackles a number of angles of phenomenology and design, including the expected introduction to phenomenology and its relationship to design, but also how design thinking can be reframed using phenomenology, embodied interaction, designing and problem framing, and post-phenomenology and object studies.

The different chapters will appeal to different audiences: as a design researcher I found the chapters on post-phenomenology the most exciting as it tied together theories from people I hadn’t heard of or had but didn’t entirely have a grip on the theories yet.

I was personally really happy to learn about how modern technology is something that according to Don Ihde we “act with” and read into (such as a thermometer), something that can’t be derived from the work of the pre-digital original phenomenologists. A lot of researchers’ ears will probably pick up at the post-phenomenology concept of “multistability”:

“Multistability accounts for the difference between what designers want to occur and what actually occurs… [is because] technology takes shape not according to what it is but rather what it can do… [including] possibilities that were not yet considered”.

I suspect for the newcomer this chapter could be a bit overwhelming and need to be read lightly, or at least without worrying too much over the names.

The chapters more relating to phenomenology will be invaluable for those wanting a primer on the topics as they serve as a ‘greatest hits’ of key theorists (including those I’ve mentioned above) and an easy read and reminder for those that are more familiar with the topics.

Similarly, the design sections are often territory that design school grads should know about, though there are also some nice inclusions such the lesser-known-than-he-should-be Klaus Krippendorf (who I was excited to see talk at the same conference as Wendt yet was surprised that few in the audience had heard of).

While the book does require some attention to read—particularly for those not familiar with a lot of the names mentioned—it is to date the clearest and most widereaching account of philosophy in a way that can seem relevant to designers (even if that last point may vary from chapter to chapter depending on the person). For those that want to think about technology and designing in a meaningful way, this is a must own and potentially a jumping off point for further reading into all aspects of design and research.

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