Is Clarity the Path to Enlightenment?

While revisiting the notes I jotted down when I read Buxton‘s Sketching User Experiences I stumbled across this line of text:

Clarity is Not Always the Path to Enlightenment

It’s the chapter heading for a few pages that describe the necessarily ambiguous nature of sketching as it pertains to design. I especially love one of the chapter’s key ideas: ambiguity is evocative. (Buxton 115)

I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the first readings we did my HCI theory class. An Yvonne Rogers reading. The one in which she expressed concern at HCI’s growing too big too fast. An adolescent growing up. Searching for identity. Grasping in all different directions for meaning. Directionless and, as such, confused and at risk of spiraling into greater confusion and dissonance.

“Do we try to stem the tide and impose some order,” Rogers asks, “or let the field continue to expand in an unruly fashion?” (Rogers 2)

Does there need to be a consensus of purpose? Does there need to be a uniform set of criteria by which we can assess HCI’s contribution(s) and value to knowledge and practice? (Rogers 1)

I think about these questions often. But I think about them relative to the cohort as a group of designers within the field and about myself as a designer within the cohort within the field. And I’ve come up with (not surprisingly) no conclusions. Only observations and more questions.

Think about the field as a design. What is our experience of it? Our interaction with it?

HCI is an incredibly complex thing and its identity is necessarily ambiguous; like a sketch. It enables those who work “within it” to design. Imposing order — pinning down “an” identity — works only insofar as it allows for evocation and mystery.

Buxton, quoting Gaver, Beaver, and Benford, writes of ambiguity in design:

their use of ambiguity makes them evocative rather than didactic and mysterious rather than obvious. (Buxton 115)

When I think of our field, I think of it as a place to explore. To play. To discover. To create!

Can such a place exist with clear structure, purpose, and direction? Of course! Sketches have structure, purpose, and direction. But they are still ambiguous.

If you want to get the most out of a sketch, you need to leave big enough holes. (Buxton 115)

Perhaps HCI’s metamorphosis from a “confined problem space with a clear focus that adopted a small set of methods to tackle it … into a more diffuse space with a less clear purpose,” (Rogers 1) is — in part — the field’s response to sketching. The field is made up of designers and designers are in conversation with their sketches. Does that mean that the field itself is in conversation with sketches, too?

The more I sketch, the more I come to understand my own complexity as a designer. The more I grow to embrace that complexity. The more I want to explore. To play. To create…



Buxton, B. (2007). Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design. San Francisco: Elsevier.

Rogers, Y. (2012). Hci theory: Classical, modern, and contemporary. San Francisco: Morgan & Claypool Publishers.

Growth as a Designer

**reblog…I wrote this entry as part of a reflective journal in my first-semester graduate interaction design class at Indiana University‘s SOIC**

Bill Moggridge’s book Designing Interactions was waiting on my desk when I got home tonight.

After taking care of a few lingering project 4 tasks from the day — and after eating a late dinner — I tore open the plastic and ran my fingers over the cover, the spine, and the pages (while closed).

Running my fingers along the closed pages stirred memories of sitting in classrooms from middle school to high school during the first week of school on the day textbooks were passed out. Reminded me of being in used bookstores browsing the shelves. Reminded me of being in the Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park, staring back at the densely packed shelves of theory and criticism. Unique experiences, each.

There’s a certain smoothness to the surface formed when hundreds and hundreds of pages are pressed firmly together. There’s nothing quite like it, actually. You feel a surface and yet you’re keenly aware of each page. Beautiful, really. It’s reminiscent of a wood floor. Perhaps a sign of the pages’ forebears.

It’s interesting to think about what a book might look like if it didn’t look like a book. Ebooks look like books. Why? Does a book mean two covers and pages between? Would you read a book if it didn’t have those features (physical or digital)? Would you call a thing without those features a book? If so, why? If not, why not? How does a book feel? How does it sound?

Why am I asking all these questions about books? I’ll explain…

Another habit of mine is flipping through books before reading them…looking for pictures, judging chapter length, gauging vocabulary, sensing tone, and looking for quotes.

Near the very end of Designing Interactions on page 733, I zeroed in on a passage where Moggridge explains the brainstorming process at IDEO:

Brainstorming can give a fast start to ideation and is often the most useful early on, as the constraints are being shaken out. A typical brainstorm at IDEO has eight to ten participants, with one or two experienced recorders, dubbed, scribes, who record the ideas as they flow from the group. Each session lasts about an hour and 50 to 100 ideas are recorded…Ideas can come at any time, often from unexpected directions.

50 to 100 ideas! In about an hour! Fifty. to. One hundred. Ideas! Unbelievable! And wonderful.

So then why all the questions about books? Because I feel like I should be asking those questions about everything — and today it happened to be a book — in order to grow as a designer.

If as an interaction designer I’m going to shape others’ lives with interactive artifacts,  then shouldn’t I be constantly/consciously evaluating and re-evaluating my own interactions and how they shape my life? So that when I’m on a team, I can contribute my share of the 50-100 ideas generated during that first brainstorming session?