Engineering News

Design Must be Taken Seriously Because of its Consequences

Northwestern’s Center for Human-Computer Interaction + Design hosted a virtual roundtable on December 4

Over the last 10 months, the Beyond Computers and Cognition group has met weekly to discuss pluriversal design.

All actions have consequences, even unintended ones. That’s especially true for designers who create new computer technologies for the world to use. Their work – intentionally or not – could produce more harm than help.
 
Don Norman, professor emeritus of computer science at Northwestern Engineering and co-founder of the Segal Design Institute’s Master of Engineering Design Innovation program, sounded the warning during the December 4 virtual roundtable, “HCI + Design Thought Leaders Lecture: Pluriversal Design.” 

Don Norman

“If you think about the history of the world, we should be doing our designing because design is a field that changes things,” said Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things (Revised edition Basic Books, 2013) and founding and current director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego. “It changes behavior, it changes people, it changes society. Take it seriously.”
 
Hosted by Northwestern’s Center for Human-Computer Interaction + Design and moderated by Elizabeth Gerber, Northwestern associate professor of mechanical engineering, communication studies and (by courtesy) computer science, and a director of the HCI+D Center, the event drew 350 attendees and looked at the past, present, and future of design and what it means for our world. Norman and fellow panelists Arturo Escobar, Fernando Flores, B. Scot Rousse, and Terry Winograd are part of the Beyond Computers and Cognition group, which has met weekly during the last 10 months to discuss foundational issues pertaining to the interrelations of design, technology, and humanity.
 
The members of the group shared their similar and differing perspectives, and also issued a call to action for the design community to become attuned what its work does and how it can affect the planet. 
 
“The message is, don’t think of design purely in terms of the skill and the kinds of things you’re designing,” said Winograd, author and professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford University. “Take some time to think about, what is the background, what is the broader context that makes sense of what we’re doing, as opposed to the details of how we do it.” 

Elizabeth GerberComputers have evolved from a tangential part of our lives to a pervasive staple of society. The internet has followed the same trajectory, and that brought the rise of social media. Rousse, director of research at Pluralistic Networks and a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley, said technologically mediated communication has brought about a “corrosion” in civic life and an “erosion” in norms of truth and trust that have reverberated.
 
That isn’t the only change the modern age is facing, Rousse said. The world is bearing down on an ecological crisis. At the same time, traditional Western European dominance is waning, though remnants of colonialism and racism remain.
 
These circumstances bring a responsibility to design technologies that benefit everybody.
 
“Our age has to cultivate a pluralistic way of being, and a way that understands the radical interdependence and relationality of our relations to each other and to our ecological niche,” Rousse said.
 
Flores used his life as an example of how designers are thrown into navigating situations they neither choose nor fully understand. Trained as an engineer and appointed as a top cabinet official in the government of Salvador Allende in Chile, Flores spent three years as a political prisoner after Augusto Pinochet’s coup and was then exiled to the US with his family of six children.
 
He was invited to work as a researcher in computer science at Stanford University before attaining his PhD at Berkeley and becoming an entrepreneur and author. 
 
Flores, co-author with Winograd of Understanding Computers and Cognition (Addison-Wesley Professional, 1987) and founder of Pluralistic Networks, referred to such unpredictable, twisting paths of life as “the drift,” adding that “the drift is a fundamental notion of something without purpose that is going on.”
 
Escobar, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of Designs for the Pluriverse (Duke University Press, 2018), said society needs to define the central issues of our time and develop new ways of thinking about them.
 
“We’re aiming for a new foundation for something that we don’t know exactly what it is, how to be human in the contemporary period,” Escobar said. “It will involve design and education and ecological relations and different relations to the Earth.”