NOTE: This post is a brief summary of a larger paper in the works…
In an attempt to establish a personal, reflective, and examined intellectual position in relation to design as a professional process of inquiry, thought, and action, I’ve been writing on Heidegger and Schön in design discourse. The position taken here is derived from personal involvement in the areas of human-computer interaction (HCI) and design, field experience as a web professional, and close reflection on discourse from multiple disciplines. Specifically, I have tried to compare and contrast Donald Schön‘s ideas of reflective practice with Martin Heidegger’s concept of circumspection. I am taking an intellectual position toward the practical use of both concepts in future design discourse.
Design discourse has moved from viewing the world as a perfect rationality, to viewing the world as a bounded rationality, to most recently viewing the world as an expandable rationality (Hatchel, 2001). What this means for design theory is a shift in focus from clear, definable problems to more real-world, contextually vague problems. This shift has brought about a new understanding of design by introducing more risk and unpredictability to design understanding. This is in direct contrast to the field of science where the reduction of risk and vagueness is sought. This risk and unpredictability has led those in the field of design to think more about their relationship with the situation, the client, the design of the particular, and how one learns to design. For Donald Schön (1987), relationships like these led to a search for how individuals actually learn and tackle problems they are faced with in context.
Donald Schön (1987), in his examination of learning, introduced the concept of reflective practice. Reflective practice introduces the concepts of reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. In the field of design, reflection-in-action is based on the idea that a designer should reflect upon each action while engaged in design activity. This leads to an internal dialogue in which the designer constantly investigates why actions were made by separating out objects for investigation, while trying to remain within the overall scope of the design situation. Reflection-on-action, as the name implies, indicates that the designer should think about the design process after the fact. These two aspects of reflective practice focus on expectations and previous knowledge brought to the process by the designer. This practice requires the designer to take objects out of situation in order to compare expectations brought to the process with actual results. Smith noted that reflection-in-action “is sometimes described as ‘thinking on our feet’. It involves looking to our experiences, connecting with our feelings, and attending to our theories in use” (Smith, 2001). The important point of Schön’s reflective practice model I would like to focus on is the idea that in order to reflect on an object, knowledge must be present beforehand in order to facilitate the contemplation required to reflect. As noted by Nielsen (2007), this idea of reflection-in-action is similar to Heidegger’s concept of investigating a tool in the ‘ready-to-hand’ position. When an object, or equipment, is used it tends to fade from conscious thought. However when there is a breakdown or expectations are not met, the equipment becomes our focus of thought. Nielsen argues that Schön’s reflective practice model focuses specifically on this occurrence. Before this can occur, Heidegger (1962) argues that one must allow the equipment to be in relation to the world in order to truly grasp the object as it is. To learn about the object, Heidegger argues that one must first look around (circumspection) and take in the world where the equipment presides before learning can occur.
In Being and Time and The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger (1962, 1977) asks us to reassess the Western philosophical ideal that a person understands the world through methods of science (Dreyfus, 1991). Heidegger wants us to recognize this fault and shift our focus to a person’s actual activities within the world (being-in the world). Winograd & Flores (1987) were among the first to call on the phenomenology of Heidegger within the field of HCI. They focused on Heidegger’s view of language and thought in its relation to technology. They hoped to utilize Heideggerian philosophy to improve upon our understanding of interpretation in the contexts of making the implicit become explicit, attacking breakdowns from a practical perspective instead of a theoretical perspective, and stressing that meaning is a social derivation. Since Winograd & Flores, other researchers in both HCI and design have used Heideggarian concepts to explain the phenomenon of interaction through the examination of context (Chalmers, 2004), familiarity (Van de Walle, et.al., 2003), interactive art (Coffin, 2008), artificial intelligence (Agre, 1997), tangible computing (Dourish, 2001), situated action (Suchman, 2007), transparency (Janlert & Stolterman, 1997), and philosophy of technology (Verbeek, 2005), to name just a few. The primary focus for HCI and design researchers has been on the Heideggerian ideas of equipment that moves between the scenarios of presenting as ready-to-hand and present-to-hand.
While these ideas are sometimes very helpful and allow for discussion of interaction and design in new ways, Heidegger’s concept of circumspection is of particular interest in the context of this paper. According to Heidegger (1962), as we move through world scenarios the equipment we encounter and the actions they perform present themselves to us at “varying degrees of explicitness and with a varying circumspective penetration” (ibid, p. 71). We are constantly performing a dance with equipment and actions phasing between the states of ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. Heidegger noted that through circumspection, one first sees the relationships between equipment before one can see the equipment as things as themselves. By allowing the equipment of interest to be in relation to the situation, only then can people orient themselves to the objects. This process of orienting to an object is practical in nature, not theoretical. Through circumspection we allow the fundamental nature of the object to reveal itself in context, which can include the revealing of rules, purpose, and inspiration that add meaning to the object. In designerly terms, when presented with a design situation the designer must bring together dissimilar equipment in a specific context to allow the individual objects to reveal themselves as intelligible objects that can be understood. It is important to note that through this uncovering of equipment’s being, Heidegger believed there is also a covering; meaning that through uncovering of rules, purpose, and inspiration there is also a covering of rules, purpose, and inspiration that don’t reveal themselves in context. This covering occurs by the very nature of uncovering; for as one assigns ideas and language to an object in order to think about it in a particular situation, one inevitably pushes characteristics of the object away that aren’t relevant to the situation and therefore covers those aspects. Heidegger argued, therefore, that although circumspection is an important component of allowing equipment to be, one can never truly know equipment.
If Schön’s reflective practice model primarily focuses on learning when an object is ready-to-hand, then we must also consider the use of Heidegger’s circumspection for learning as it focuses on learning when an object or equipment is present-to-hand. While much of Heideggerian philosophy is difficult to comprehend and many of the terms used are specifically German, Heidegger’s notion of circumspection should be considered when discussing the process of learning. This is particularly true when discussing learning in designerly ways.
In design terms Schön wants the designer to reflect-in-action and reflect-on-action. To do so, the designer is required to understand the context and possess an ability to consciously remove a process, thing, or idea that typically didn’t meet some expectation from a situation and understand what variables led to the particular result. This requires the designer to bring an understanding of the situation, process, or thing to bear on the reflective practice. This understanding is built on inquiry and language, both of which are influenced by prior knowledge. In Schön’s notion of learning, a designer must bring with him or her previous knowledge and the capacity to reflect on a thing as it is happening in context to better understand the thing itself. This prior knowledge will influence the designer’s reflection and thereby influence the situation as a whole.
Heidegger believed that through the uncovering of things, there was also a covering. This is meant to say that by defining and identifying a thing, process, or situation, one also thereby hides aspects of the thing, process, or situation that are not considered as part of the learned definition. Therefore, it would be misleading for a designer to merely reflect on design because the reflection is based on knowledge that has led to the covering of the thing, process, or situation. Another way to view the problem is through Heidegger’s idea of circumspection. As noted earlier, circumspection is the process of looking around, absorbing the situation, and allowing the thing or process to be in relationship to other things or processes in situ. By simply looking around, the designer can understand the object, process, or situation as they present themselves as things that are useful for something. This idea points to the process of learning as that which is revealed to us through use. In Heidegger’s idea of learning, what a designer knows is related to what the designer does and the context in which he or she does it; this knowledge stems not from theories or definitions, but from the way the designer interacts with the world. Heidegger stresses that to know, one must let equipment be in relation to the context where one encounters the equipment. Knowing is embedded in the use of the equipment and can be discovered by observing relationships, context, and social practice. Schön stresses to know, one must reflect and learn by pulling objects out of context in order to understand why they may or may not have met expectations. These ideas could be construed as two sides of the same coin; Heidegger’s circumspection and Schön’s reflective practice both address opportunities to learn about equipment in context.
The position taken here is derived from HCI and design literature and field experience as a professional designer. This argument has highlighted some key aspects of Donald Schön’s reflective practice and Martin Heidegger’s circumspection and compared and contrasted both concepts to present an argument for both to be considered in future design inquiry. As design has evolved, numerous theories have been borrowed from other fields in order to help those studying design and those practicing design establish a dialog that can help shed light on ideas and frameworks used to describe the design process.
By focusing on Schön’s idea of reflective practice and Heidegger’s description of circumspection, I hope to continue this dialog between practice and learning by introducing concepts from education and philosophy which can contribute to the designerly way of thinking. Although much has been written on Schön’s reflective practice, Heidegger’s notion of circumspection has largely been ignored. Heidegger has been used in HCI quite often to discuss present-at-hand and ready-to-hand objects in terms of interaction, but his concept of ‘looking around’ to learn has been largely ignored. While Nielsen (2007) has called for similar attention to Heidegger’s concept of circumspection in the field of learning, design has yet to follow suit. By using both concepts to examine design situations, design academicians and design practitioners can lean on similar vocabulary to create a dialog between discourse and practice that can further design understanding.
References Used in the Larger Paper
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