UX Lx 2013: A Means to An End

UX Lx 2013: A Means to An End

In the first talk of UX Lx 2013, Jon Kolko tackled the issue of subject matter in design. He started by breaking down how design works and then explained how you can gain control over what you’re working on.

He emphasized the impact and responsibility of the choices that we make, our selection of subject matter. In the end, he offered some advice on how to control our subject matter, and one that all designers can start doing today is to speak “business”. Know the words, understand the concepts, and be ready to discuss ROI, burn, market share, go-to-market strategy, etc. In the same way that we must comprehend the medium that we design for, we can (and should) invest more time in grasping the essentials of business. Run the show, have a presence in the boardroom!

You can follow my notes alongside the slides from his talk, available here.


How design works

  • Design is made up of four elements: craft, material, process and voice.
  • Craft: when most people think of craft, they think of a cobbler in his workshop, someone who has refined something over a large number of years. It’s about time as much as it is about detail, which leads to engagement. As Malcolm McCullough wrote in Abstracting Craft: “One better articulation of well-understood affordances dominates craft, and that is workmanship. Clearly this is a reflection of engagement: it is the quality with which a design vision takes form in a specific medium.” Craft is quality and engagement.
  • Material: as with clay, each material has a tendency to flow in a certain way. “As I grew older, I realized that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.” by Albrecht Durer. Let the material be what it wants it to be. Material is appropriateness and tendency.
  • Process: “Art resides in the quality of doing; process is not magic” by Charles Eames. It’s hard work and rigor. Process about execution and being methodical.
  • Voice: is the message, the statement. Example: Antony Gormley’s project Field, which consists of 200,000 clay figures (125 tons) that completely occupy the space they are exhibited in: “I’ve used all the resources of mass production to undermine the central ethos of mass production […]”.
  • The way you choose to position these four elements amplifies your message.


What do you work on?

  • “Design problems are ‘indeterminate’ and ‘wicked’ because design has no special subject matter of its own apart from what a designer conceives it to be... in the process of application, the designer must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances.” by Richard Buchanan.
  • Subject matter is placement and frame.
  • Placement can be: symbolic and visual communication; material objects; activities and organized services; complex systems or environments.
  • Frame is the way you: recognize (construct a perspective); elaborate (infer or discard); question (judge); reframe (compare and change).
  • Your selection of subject matter is always a complex political decision, with consequences.
    • Should I make things?
    • What things should I make?
    • For whom should I make these things?
  • Example: McDonald’s website is an example of good design, but then again, over the last 30 years, McDonald’s share price has risen at the same pace as the percentage of diagnosed diabetes in the US. Causation, or correlation?
  • You worked hard to gain control over craft, material, process and voice. How can you gain control over subject matter?
    • Theory of Change: Alex Pappas and Ruby Ku, two of Kolko’s students, have built Theory of Change, a model used to understand how short-term actions lead to long-term impacts. Inputs lead to outputs, which influence short, mid and long term outcomes.
    • Social entrepreneurship: start a socially responsible company. An Entrepreneur identifies market opportunities, takes on risk, and reaps the reward — the bottom line: profit. A Social Entrepreneur identifies humanitarian opportunities, takes on risk, and reaps the reward. The double bottom line: profit and impact. Examples: Toms Shoes, Aravind Eye Care.
    • Strategic role for design: for design to achieve a strategic role in a corporation, designers need to speak confidently about the fundamentals of the business (ROI, burn, market share, go-to-market strategy, etc.). The boardroom is a place where you can also control the subject matter of design. “Look at our board meetings. We separated the business discussion from the product discussion, and we did product first. Think about that. That’s how powerful design and product has become. UI and UX is not a service bureau to the company. It’s a strategic component to the leadership team.”, Michael Crosno, myEdu CEO.


Putting it all together

  • Build a theory of change
  • Become a social entrepreneur
  • Run the show
  • Design is always an extraordinarily powerful force for social change.
  • What problem will you choose to work on?


If you’re interested in this topic, you can follow Jon Kolko on Twitter and download his free ebook Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving.

Please share your thoughts about this talk on the comments section below, thanks!