Bram Pitoyo, Portland Creative/Tech Event Review

Bill Buxton on Design Thinking, Action and Ecosystem: An Event Review

Bill Buxton on “Design Thinking: Action and Ecosystem”

When: June 11, 2008, 7:00 – 9:00 pm

Where: World Trade Center Auditorium

What It’s About: How to optimize your physical and cultural ecosystems to optimize and maximize the uses of your specific design skills and practice.


The Design Eco-System, by Bill Buxton

We’re surrounded with technologies. However, there are several issues with these ecosystems:

  • One where we undertake design (agency, studio, shop.)
  • One where we live and interact with technology.

There’s an area called Design Thinking that’s a very hot topic today. The challenge, though, is not simply figuring out how designer’s think, but also what they know. What is the knowledge that lies behind the thinking?

I literally bought every book in the bibliography of my book.

The reality is really painful:

When people thinks about ‘thinking,’ there’s a thought that thinking only goes in the head. And the whole theory about design thinking is based on this premise. But what I know from cognitive science is that thinking doesn’t only happen in the head, but also in the ecosystem surrounding the head.

Edwin Hitchins wrote in his book that, tools, maps, organizational structure of the ship (crew, equipment, etc.) and a whole host of other factors that’s beside the ship’s steering wheel, all plays a part in shaping its navigational system. Discount these factors, and the navigational system falters.

In the same sense, the tools, objects and notations that surrounds a knowledge (be they physical, conceptual or notational), are all inseparable ecosystems that surrounds a knowledge system.

In the same sense, design must continually consider and take its ecosystem into account, or be doomed to failure.

For us in the design industry: if we’re good at whatever we do, it takes a full-time job to get it. You pay the price to get where you are, not just in money, but in time, relationship, family, etc.

Today, everybody thinks and say they’re designer. Designer makes stuff, right? Wrong. Just as we’re not lawyers because we know a little bit of law, and we’re not doctors because we know a little bit about our body, we’re not designers just because we know a little bit about color, typography, layout, etc.

Well, there is a huge gap hidden behind the facade of people who are great at doing a specific thing. This gap is the idea that people who are good at what they do don’t have to sacrifice anything to get where they are. Believe it or not, even we as designers still get this idea when we think of other people.

In other words, it’s not in the result, but in the process that goes to get to the result.

That’s why I’m interested in investigating processes and thoughts that we can teach, learn and reproduce. I’m interested in one hit wonders. It’s the repeat offenders that I care about.

But first, why do we bother engaging in this conversation?

  • We are collectively failing miserably.
  • The issue at stake is getting more and more serious.

Somehow, we have to change everything at systemic level, or otherwise, we’re just going to get worse and worse.

The reason I got concerned about this is the revolution of ubiquitous computing. Today, microchip is embedded in everything we use. Again, the more they’re there, the worse we’re going to get.

Why? When technology started off, it serves to solve a technological problem. Somewhere along the lines, however, it became mainstream. For example: the architecture of a Von Neumann engine are essentially unchanged from way back when it was the size of a refrigerator. Yes, it got smaller, faster, cheaper. But the structure doesn’t change.

But the things that changed are these:

  • Who uses them?
  • And how they use them?

What happens is:

  1. These technologies affected our lives.
  2. Our lives are changed.
  3. But the technology itself remains the same
  4. This screws up our lives.

For example:
Imagine an office without any organization tool. Now introduce a paperclip in that office. You will change its culture.

In the same sense, everytime we put out a technology and place it on a society, we also change it. We are, inadvertently, redesigning the culture.

Now we have to take responsibility for those things.

So, somebody in the company decides to make this widget, design it, then sell it. This widget changes society. But where’s the thought behind it? Where’s the ‘design’?

Even when design is present in a product lifecycle, it’s not integrated closely.

Let’s clear things up a bit. Planning is not the same as design. Planning is not design in the same sense that conceptual art isn’t blueprint.

Yet my experience says that most people confuse the first sketch with the blueprint that’s made to construction.

OMA – Seattle Public Library

  • Call for proposals for architectural submission: November 1998
  • Awarded to winner: May 1999
  • Construction: March 2002
  • Building opens: July 2004

A scale model of the building [picture shown on slide] was built on Dec 1999. It shows up way before the construction.

But here’s the kicker. Interestingly enough, the design of that building still went on when it was constructed. But isn’t the design supposed to be “done” when construction starts? No. The primary, “high order bits” of the design may be set beforehand. But as the building shapes and takes form, you can see opportunity that you can add at a lower design level. Even when the building opens, you can still make refinements. This is why you always have leave to leave things open at a lower design level, and continually fill them out as the construction goes on.

There’s an interesting thing about ratio here [the timeline shows that the design phase went on for a longer period of time than the actual construction]: Design usually represents 17% of the total cost (25% if you’re Frank Gehry.) But they actually hire an architect to make the specification, which will inform the brief, which will inform the designer. But it doesn’t stop there, because a construction project doesn’t just involve architects and interior designer. Everyone from structural engineer, finance, and all other disciplines are interwoven, and must be present at every phase of the project in order for it to succeed.

You see, there’s an incredible amount of work going here.

Architecture mirrors software and hardware development in that, in a sense, they have the same level of complexity and same level of relationship between disciplines that work with each other. In software development, for instance, your software architect is also your structural engineer.

You must know:

  • What makes you distinct.
    Let’s all admit that, as a community, we are pathetic at articulating what we do! But if designers don’t know what’s important to them, who will?
  • Your value lies in your distinctiveness.
    The last person I would hire to work with me is another copy of me. Why? Because if I’m good at what I do, I must be bad at what I don’t do, so I need someone to cover my ass—so to speak.
    Designer takes warning: In the technology sector, a designer who assimilate into the workplace and try to be more and more like an engineer give up their distinctiveness. It’s like selling yourself short. Never lose what makes you unique in the first place.

The most cliched example about design and business in the last 5 years is Apple. But I’m going to tell you 3 things that you haven’t heard in any article about Apple’s design success:

  1. Jonathan Ive, as we all know, designed iMac, iPod and iPhone. But did you know that Jonathan joined Apple at 1993, when share prices were still way up there, and Steve wasn’t there?
  2. Did you know that In the first 24 hours (!) of returning to Apple, Steve brought a principal analyst in, who told him two words: Industrial Design?
  3. Did you know that virtually all of the designers who did the product designs for iPod and iMac worked for Apple before Steve came back?

There’s a gap here. If the same talents worked at Apple before Steve came back, why didn’t they came out with iPod in 1995? The design team already knew what they do, but nothing was changed in the mid ’90s.

Why? It turned out that they don’t have a Chief Innovation/Design Officer. Who takes care of design? No one.

Today, the success of iPod is such that if you had the silhouette of Bill Gates recognizably holding an Xbox 360 in that orange background [iPod print ad shown on screen] I would bet you that the ad would sell iPods! Other companies tried to copy their ads. Apple loved it.

Who made the iPods successful? Obviously, not only the design team or the iTunes developer, but also the guys at legal, who made record companies sell songs for 99¢ at an online environment that nobody at that time understood!

The point is, I don’t care who you are as a designer/engineer/financial guy/lawyer. You could all be the best in the world, but if you’re not playing from the same songbook, you’re toast.

By the way, while you congratulate Steve and Jonathan, may I recommend looking at the sales of the G4 cube? It’s a genius product. No fan, no noise, belongs in the MoMA, etc. But it sales faltered. Ditto with the iMac’s “hockey puck” mouse.

My point is this: if Steve and Jonathan had not failed and failed regularly in the past, they would not have succeeded in building the one killer product. Nothing ever comes for free. You have to learn from your mistakes.

People at IDEO have figured something out. If you’re a designer, in order for your design to matter:

  • You need to be high profile.
  • You need to build a company that hire and has T-shaped person as staff (Note: this concept is similar to what I wrote about Mashups and Alchemists.)

[Picture of a slick-looking gallery shot of Trek bicycles]
Trek doesn’t sell bicycles.

[Picture of someone riding Trek while crossing knee-length water]
Trek sells the ability to scare yourself shitless.

Trek buyers may give their money for a bike. But, really, they pay for the experience they will get by using the bike.

The lesson is this: you design experience, not product. So start realizing that things we design isn’t material, but experience. Yes, it will be a physical manifestation of something, but to the user, that “something” will always be a mean to an end. The physical product is what you give your money for. The experience is what you buy.

This principle changes the way we approach design.

[Picture of an HTC Dash phone]
In a traditional design mindset, you are asked to:

  • Draw this phone.
  • Draw my phone’s interface.

Easy enough.

But in this new principle, you are asked to draw the experience of using this phone.

I don’t know anyone who can design anything without some sort of a drawing or sketching involved. So if you agree with the premise that I elaborated above: that design should be generating experience, not product—there must also be a sketching for experience.

For example:
In the mid to late 90’s, Palm kicked Microsoft Pocket PC’s butt and got the market monopoly, while at exactly the same time Microsoft lost got a lawsuit about monopoly (how ironic is that?)

Jeff Hawkins designed Palm, and he was able to get funding. If you recall, the Newton was getting savaged in the press around that time. Ditto with Mimeo, Eo, Go, Pen for Windows, Dolphin, and the PDA that Sony had. There were millions of pen-based devised.

Yet Palm was the only one who nailed it. How did Jeff do it?

He didn’t start with the user interface, or materials—or even drawings.

Instead, he got a piece of wood, cut it to fit into a man’s pocket, then went about his everyday business for 2 weeks, where he would walk to meeting and pull out a pen and this wooden pad, then started taking notes.

Everyone thought that he was a lunatic. But what he was really doing was going into the wild and asking himself, “How would it feel to have everything on my pocket, that’s always on, that I can take meeting notes on? Will it feel stupid or not?”

That’s experience sketching.

In this respect, other’s companies’ failures aren’t really failures. They’re expensive education that somebody else paid for, that you should learn from.

Design, by my definition, is choice.
There are two places where you can exercise your creativity in a design process under this definition.

  1. How do you get a set of different option from which to choose from? If you work with me, you do not come to an ideation meeting with less than 5 equally viable solutions to the problem. Come with 5 that you don’t know all the answer to, so you can ask questions and explore possibilities. Each of those solutions must be meaningfully distinct, and you have to be able to articulate why they’re meaningfully distinct. If you do your job correctly, you’re going to end up with another 5 equally viable solutions.
  2. Determine a criteria that will throw all of your solutions out out, so you’re forced to think outside your 5 options.

Enumeration/Elaboration → Reduction/Selection.
Design is the most negative job in the world. Hardly anything you come up with will manifest into product. Only one out of a million concept, in the end, will come up. You start with a lot of things, you finish with one.

But how do you optimize this process? You combine two methods of ideation:

  1. Refining. Let’s imagine that going from first idea to final product is like walking through a road that converges on the horizon. Now, imagine that designing is like walking through this path, in a circular/zig-zag manner, but in increasingly smaller circles.
  2. Exploring. Imagine a tree, where many tree branches grow and stem out of the bigger branch. To achieve growth, you need both branching and pruning.

Either method is sufficient. Both is essential to the process.

Since sketching is an activity that’s central to both methods, we’re going to discuss that.

[Picture of the Taccola’s Notebook from 16th century]

In my research, the first time in history that sketching was used as a mean of thinking was present in Taccola’s Notebook [in the page shown on screen, he elaborated on different ways to construct a catapult.] Prior to the Renaissance, sketching was essential, but only as a way to remember, catalogue, or draw from memory, but it wasn’t a tool for ideation.

The anatomy of sketching
So what makes a sketch a sketch? I went to look to traditional sketching as practiced by architects and industrial designers. From those, a pattern emerged. I then analyze these at a meta level:

  • Quick, timely, inexpensive and disposable. A sketch has to look like it’s done in an instant and leaves room for the imagination. Instead of doing one beautifully, do a dozen.
    When I teach, I will even take marks off for good sketching works. You have to. A sketch has to look like you didn’t invest any time in it because you’re so full of idea.
    The idea is that, the more you sketch, the more the brilliant ones will show up among the crappy ones.
  • Plentiful.
  • Clear vocabulary. You know a sketch when you see one, because it’s characterized by things like lines that extend through endpoints, etc.
  • Resolution-dependent. A sketch should have no higher resolution than one that is required to communicate the intended purpose or concept. It shouldn’t contain more detail than it needs to.
    I’ll say it again: the resolution of the rendering should not suggest a degree of refinement of the concept that exceeds its actual state.
  • Suggest and explore, rather than confirm. If you want to get the most out of a sketch, you need to leave big enough holes for the imagination to fit in. Leave some room.
  • Ambiguous. A sketch should contain notions of loosenes and openness.

I should also note that there is no such thing as ‘low-fidelity’ or ‘high-fidelity’ renderings. There’s only the right or wrong rendering fidelity that’s appropriate for the price, phase of the project and client.

So what is the right representation model and material to use? That highly depends on the project; but your team must be fluent in many ways of representing, so that you can choose the most effective and appropriate one. You may prefer sketching to sculpting a model, and that’s okay, but your design team must have someone who is fluent in every visual representation method.

During the ideation phase, ideas are dime a dozen. The style of management should reflect this. So, at first, you have an “easy in, easy out” type of situation, and later, you have less options and ways out.

A way to think of a sketch versus a prototype is to think of them as occupying different sides of a smooth continuum, rather than as activities that are exclusive to each other.











How many of you:

  • Had your high school yearbook said “most likely to be the best artist in the class”?
    [few people raised their hands]
  • In a class of 30 people, how many of you did not know where you stood between “sucking at drawing” and “good at drawing”?
    [a lot of people raised their hands]

My question is: how did you know?

You knew because everytime you draw something, you are reminded of how good or bad you were by other people. “Mine looks like chicken scratch,” for example. Other people don’t just look at it. They comment and compared it against other drawings.

Our relationship with our sketches is the same thing. A sketch should not be something that we only look at. It should be a catalyst for conversation. A two way street. A sketch has to speak back to you.

One more thing: you have to put your sketch in a sociopolitical context. Until you can do that, it’s just “a big, crappy, red, really expensive painting that my mom has, but nobody else in the world can understand the significance of.”

Let’s imagine you sketching in your studio. Then this person who dresses swanky comes in, and they shred it. “The marketing people don’t understand me. Only other designers can,” you said.

Well, then why they hell did you give them the sketches, knowing that they can’t read it? Never show a sketch unless the person can read it. If they can’t read, it’s your job to teach them to read.

Remember: there is just as much variation in our ability to read a sketch as it is about our ability to draw it.

If the person with 10 year of experience can get way more from seeing the same sketch that a design student sees, that means that reading sketches can be learned and perfected with experience.

[Editor’s note: the notion of reading a sketch is a concept that I find very intriguing, and not many people have delved into.]

Designers are collectors or crap. Crap that they might use and pin in the wall for a moodboard or inspiration. Crap that you can pick up anywhere. Well, all these craps are “Awareness Servers.” If you have a shop, you better have this in your wall, or you’re dead. These “Servers” can serve the agency as:

  • Persistent communal displays (that anyone can add.)
  • Shared reference points (so anyone can say “this product will have a button that look that the one laptop we have in the Crap Piles” and everyone else will get it.
  • Conversation Provocateur. Collect things that references to something that will generate question and illustrate.

For example: I have a picture of a guy who speaks in public with a pajama [Editor’s note: it’s a very long story; one that provides context to the quote, but that I also failed to note in full.]

This picture spurs conversation over and over again, and clients would ask “What is that guy doing in an inappropriate dress code?” Then I can say “Well, if I dress differently at home and work, why does my technology remain the same in both places? If I take the technology that I use at work back home, it would be the equivalent of dressing in a full-on suit when you go to bed, no?”

So why do I go to Pixar and see these moodboards and “Awareness Servers” everywhere, but go to an agency or marketing department, and only see their client portfolio?

Mark My Words: Annotation is important to ideation.
An agency or shop should encourage non-destructive commentary and idea exploration. This is why you have to have tissue paper besides your table, so when your friend presents a mockup, and you suddenly have sparks of idea (“what if we put this element right here?”), you can contribute and add to it.

This concept of annotation should apply to any materials: 3D, film, 2D, anything. You have to be able to comment and explore things non-destructively. Pixar even go as far to invest their money in building all these internal tools that can mark up and criticize animation like crazy without destroying it. That’s why their stuff looks so good.

But you know what’s sad? Most shops don’t have those tools, and their work isn’t even as complicated as an animation feature film.

The Critique:

  • It’s about the work, not the person. If we’re friend, and I don’t critique you even though your work sucks, I disrespect you, because I wasn’t being honest, and therefore allow you to get ripped by client, or people outside of the safe agency/design environment.
  • Importance of multiples. Never present one solution.

I think that the practice of critique at least as important as sketching.

But I couldn’t find a single book that talks about critique anymore. Why is this? Well, I also couldn’t find a single book that said “Designers need to breathe oxygen to stay alive.” That’s why nobody talks about Critique anymore. It’s so important, critical, and fundamental to the process of design, that we often forget it.

If you are a designer, and you can’t articulate everything about critique, then before you go and complain to anybody about why design is not taken seriously in your environment, you should help everyone understand cross-disciplinary critiques, and you will change your environment’s culture.

“It takes almost as much creativity to understand a good idea as to have it in the first place.”
– Alan Kay

This quote pisses me off, because he hadn’t told me this 23 years before he said it.
Not understanding this quote was the biggest mistake I have made in my career as a design director. I can write good article. That’s not enough. I should be able to get enough ideas 20% the of the time, and spend rest of the time cultivating creativity across all discipline inside the company, so that they can internalize this quote and I can get ideas anywhere.

If you get this right, the product will take care of itself.


  • Every concept from traditional design still applies to this new paradigm of Designing for Experiences. The tools may change. The behavior doesn’t.
  • What changes: the representation. The new thinking requires:
    • New tools
    • New practices, and
    • New teaching
  • Creativity: use it or lose it. Generate. Generate. Generate. Eventually a great concept will stick. Just keep adding. Never stop. That is the most important message.

Final thing
What we need to do is this: redesign the culture of organization and doing it effectively.

Things like drinking and driving and picking up after you smoke are really design exercises, because the originator of those concepts know how to engineer the change in society by “pushing the right button.” Kind of like Designing for Experience, isn’t it?

I will close with this: somebody once asked my professor friend, “what single characteristics is common across all of your best students?”

This was his answer:

“They all have the ability to deal with models at the conceptual/meta level, yet at the same time deal with materials. They sew, make pots, play with LEGO, etc. While they work at a high levels, they were equally as conversant with the pragmatic tools and never lost that touch.”


Translation: The same principles that guide Designing for Experiences apply to everything from software development, architecture to marketing.

Interestingness: ☝ ☝ ☝ ☝ ☝
Translation: Design Thinking was flat-out the best talk I’ve had all year, and one that made me regret not knowing and hanging out with more Information Architects and User Experience Researcher/Designer in the past. Immediately after arriving at the venue, I got a vibe that connoted hard work, brilliant thinking and high intensity. It’s almost as if these people simultaneously put three times as much thought not only into what they do at work, but also what they talk about at social events.

What I Learned From The Event In Six Words:
I’ll tell you after I reread.


4 thoughts on “Bill Buxton on Design Thinking, Action and Ecosystem: An Event Review

  1. Glad you enjoyed the notes! The notions that Bill presented was fresh, and adopting it could change the way we creative professionals work everyday.

    See you around!

  2. Wow!
    How do you do that? I can’t believe the level of detail that you captured, not to mention the degree to which you captured the essence of my intent. Thanks. I think that I owe your a beer or three on my next visit for the extraordinary effort! 🙂

  3. Bill,

    I simply typed very furiously 😉 Glad the note could capture your intent! Your talk aligned with what I already believe and introduced several compelling concepts (ie. designing for experience.)

    I’d love to attend and learn from more talks like this. Thanks again!

Comments are closed.