Erik Stolterman

The esteemed theorist explains: How does design philosophy work?

Erik Stolterman

Erik Stolterman is Professor of Informatics at Indiana University Bloomington, as well as a professor at the Institute of Design at Umeå University, Sweden, where he originates.

A prolific scholar of design theory and philosophy, he has co-authored 5 books and more than 150 academic publications with a focus on the design of digital and interactive systems.

His work has been immensely useful to mine. In his writings, I find the words I need to articulate my ideas. He writes, among other things, on the relationships between people and products, on the value and ideals of various design research approaches, and on the synergy of design research and design practice. I spoke with him about the basics: How does he know what he knows? And what can designers learn from philosophy?

Our previous conversations – with Carl-Johan Lindqvist and Håkan Lidbo – were accompanied by highlights. For this episode, we'll experiment with providing a lightly edited transcript.

Prof. Stolterman and I both love books. If you'd like to acquire any of the books that relate to our conversation, and support Design Disciplin at the same time, you'll find affiliate links below. At no extra cost to you, we earn a small commission if you purchase after clicking them. For more of my favorites and guests' recommendations, you are welcome at our Bookstore.


If someone asks me: "Who is Erik Stolterman?" I would say that Erik Stolterman is perhaps the foremost philosopher of design today, particularly in interaction design. Would you agree with that as a label for your work? And who else would you consider to be your peers and pioneers in the particular kind of design research you do?

Thank you very much for the those very nice words. First of all, I wouldn't say I'm the premier design philosopher. I do consider myself to be doing design philosophy, or philosophy about design to be more precise, but I'm not the only one. There are a whole bunch of people out there that I admire, and have had huge impact on me and my thinking.

First of all, my colleague Harold Nelson, of course. I've been doing a lot of work with him over the years. And then, people like Donald Schön, Nigel Cross, Krippendorff... There are a whole number of people that in the last 30–40 years have really been able to approach design not just from a very practical level, but also as a broader tradition of human activity; you can say, theorizing, or philosophizing around that. And I usually see myself as one in that group.

This kind of career choice – being a theorist or a philosopher – is not very obvious. I'm curious, partly because I like working on philosophical subjects myself, but also because it's just a very rare thing to do. How did you get here? What were some stepping stones in your career? What has been your relationship to design practice – have you worked as a designer?

I've always been interested in theory and philosophy, since I was young. That was always part of me. I was always fascinated by the deeper or more hidden aspects of the world and how to understand it. So that's maybe a personality thing.

Then, why I started to actually study design – and especially to study design practice in a more theoretical or philosophical way – was when I was a young PhD student, teaching some courses. They were called systems design, or something like that. We were using some textbooks on how to do systems design. And my students always complained: it was okay, everything worked fine with the assignments, but the problem was to make it look like they actually used the methods in the book.

To me that was very strange. I mean, these books were supposed to be helpful. They were supposed to guide you through the design process. And for the students they seemed to be in the way.

Since then, my approach, my research, and thinking has always been to try to understand: What is it that designers actually do? How do designers actually think? Not trying to come up with a solution on how you should do it – not "here is the prescription." I've much more been just curious and interested in how they actually do it.

When you take that approach, you almost inevitably end up in a philosophical approach; because you have to understand a broader picture, and understand why people do things in certain ways. That's my take on the research, and that's still what I do.

I'm not trained as a designer more than I was trained as a systems designer, so maybe not in the classical tradition of design. But at the same time, of course, I always design things. I've designed books, I've designed courses, I've designed programs, I've designed workshops... I design things all the time. So in a sense, that type of design.

What I have always argued, when people ask me if I'm a designer... I say: "No I'm not. I am someone who studies design." And that's not the same thing. To study design doesn't necessarily mean that you are yourself an excellent practitioner in that field. In the same way, if you're an excellent practitioner, it doesn't necessarily mean that you can actually say something interesting about your practice. I think any field needs both – excellent practitioners who know what they're doing, and also people who study what they do, trying to formulate that in a way that can make sense to people.

I have probably worked with designers in hundreds or maybe even a thousand different companies. You get a different perspective when you see the breadth across a field like that, because I don't just work with designers in a particular field. I have worked with designers that span everything from architecture, landscape design, organizational design, healthcare design, interaction design... And I look at the whole thing as the the field of design. Most practitioners, they focus on one of those, and maybe just a part of one of those. So the benefit from studying a field like this is that you get a different perspective than people who are professionals.

It also means that you have to be extremely respectful to every practitioner in the field. They are doing things because they have to be done in a certain way in their field. And that's when you start to get a deeper understanding of design, when you look at it in that way.

Is there a research method that you particularly enjoy or believe in?

I really like doing interview studies. That is probably my favorite thing. And it usually has to be combined with other things, because people are very good at answering questions in the way they believe I want to hear. Everybody wants to sound rational and knowledgeable when you ask them about their professional practice. They want to sound like they know what they're doing. So you cannot rely on interviews. But interviews, if you are careful and doing it well, combined with observations and other forms of investigative methods, becomes a strong approach.

But you can't rely on one thing. It doesn't matter what method or tool or approach you use to study practice. If you just use one, you will get a very strange view of that practice. You have to combine it with different perspectives.

If you take someone like, maybe the most famous design thinker, Donald Schön, and you look at his his research, what he did... His research was not really what people today would call research – and this is only still just 20–30 years ago. What he did was... He used to sit next to designers. So he was watching them when they were doing whatever they were doing. At the same time he was asking them questions about what they did: "Why do you do that? And how? Why didn't you do this?" And that's basically the only research he did. And he was able, based on those very short meetings – very few, actually, it was very few he did during his life – still get a very deep understanding of what people do, who are involved in design activities.

So sometimes it's not the choice of method or tool or technique, it's also how you actually do it. If you can do it well, you know what you're doing, and know what you're looking for, and know how to think about it, and how to ask questions that reveal things... That is in itself a practice that needs to be trained and reflected upon, and done over and over. It takes years to be good at it. It's not necessarily the case that you can find a good book, and then you do it, and now you are successful... It's not really like that.

Every medical professional – doctors and nurses and technicians – has common knowledge in medicine: basic anatomy and first aid, maybe some chemistry... Every engineer is taught calculus and statistics, and other mathematical modeling tools. In your opinion, what would be the basic knowledge every design-related professional must have?

That's a good question. I've gotten this question before. A lot of people are struggling with this question; because, as you know, there are a lot of design educations around the world.

When we talk about design today, it's very difficult to to say. What are the fundamental skills and knowledge that you need to be a practicing designer? There are some, and I would say, in our book The Design Way we do go through some of those. So, to some extent, I would say, the chapters in that book...

For instance, we have a chapter called "service" – being in service. As a designer you need to understand that you are working on behalf of someone. Someone is your client, and someone is paying you, and you're working for them. And you're designing something that someone else probably is going to use. So you have users. You have other groups of people that will be affected by your design. To understand how that works, what your role is in that situation – that is very similar across all design fields.

Another thing that is also nowadays getting more and more relevant is that, as a designer, you need to be able to think in systems. You need to be able to understand systems, because every design today is part of some kind of very complex reality. So some kind of systemic thinking is part of being a designer.

Then you have all the traditional things. You have to have a mind that can imagine things that don't exist. That is also across the board. Designers design things that don't exist. Otherwise, if you design something that already exists, people will not even see it as design – it's a copy of something out there. So the power of imagination is part of being a designer, and that is across the board.

So there are some things that you can think about. Not necessarily things that you have, let's say, a course on. It's more like themes that go across... My colleague and friend Harold Nelson has developed some of these models that lay out, what are the core themes in design education...

But you have to be very careful when you talk about these things. Because it's so easy to get focused here, based on your own experience and your own understanding of the field. And there are so many aspects of different design areas that are unique. So you also have to be very generous and open to the idea that maybe it's not always the case. You need to understand what it means to be in service, but maybe there are designers who don't necessarily do that, or work in those kind of environments...

This is what my students always think is funny. Whenever they ask me: "What is the right way of doing something?" I always say: "It depends." Because in design, it depends... What are the core themes or core aspects in a design education? My answer would at the end be, well, it depends. It depends on, who are you? Who are you going to be educating? Why? Where is it? For what purpose? It's a design like every other design. Every design is an ultimate particular, and it's a unique thing, and it hasn't existed before, and it has to be created.

I discovered this when led a second life as a musician: You need the theoretical knowledge, to read and write music, the chord symbols, the harmony; if you're going to play with other people. Going in a room with other people, to communicate fast about how the song is going to go, you need to use that language of the names of the notes, the harmonic structures, the chords...

This is where I find a lot of value in your work. When we write papers and funding proposals, we use your writings as foundational references to explain concepts. When we use the language that you and others have established in these writings – since there's a reference where they can go to understand what these words mean in a more expansive fashion – it becomes easy to communicate with reviewers and readers. We receive the funding or get published, because we explain things in a language that is expected and understood. So the usefulness of theory is obvious to me in this particular way.

When I speak to a lot of practicing designers who work on products or brand identity, I notice that most of them are entirely unaware of this world of academic scholarship, these discussions that you and I are part of. And yet they seem to be doing just fine. In fact, some of them are doing better than fine, producing amazing creative work with commercial success.

What is the value proposition from the theory and philosophy we produce, for professionals who practice design work? I know you teach a course on this, but I'd like to hear: what is your elevator pitch for design professionals?

I make a distinction between what I do, which I call philosophy of design or theory of design, and someone's design philosophy.

These practitioners that you talk about, who are successful without really knowing academic work... I always argue, strongly, that they have a very elaborate and well-developed design philosophy; a personal design philosophy that they have developed over the years. And they have developed it based on their practice. So they have been able to find the valuable principles and fundamental ideas that they have, to base their practice on, to be successful. And it's usually because they are reflective practitioners, in the sense of Donald Schön – so they continuously improve their own design philosophy.

My experience as a design researcher is that when I meet these people, there is never any problem talking about this. It's easy for me to understand what they are talking about. If I can talk about ideas from academia or theory in a way that makes sense to them, they have no problem understanding. Usually there is a huge overlap between those. However, there are many practitioners who don't necessarily do this, who do not become successful. And some of the reasons for that is because they do not really take this on as a project. They do not develop their personal design philosophy. So they just jump from place to place, and do whatever they are told. And it doesn't lead to this broader and deeper understanding of their own profession.

If you go to successful and famous designers, if you ask them about these things... "What does design mean to you? What are your design principles?" They will talk forever. And I've done this many times, so I know this is true. Because they have a whole world of theory and philosophy in their head about their own practice.

What academic design research can do, as a value proposition to practitioners, then becomes a question of who they are. To these successful designers who have a well-developed design philosophy, the value proposition is not very strong. It's not that if you read our work, if you understand design theory, you will become a better designer – no, that's probably not the case. You may want to do it because it might be fun and interesting to you. So it might be stimulating. But that's basically it. However, if you go to young, inexperienced designers, or designers who have not really been able to develop their own thinking; then ideas from academic design research or design philosophy can really help them – if it is presented in in the right way. It should not be presented as anything close to prescriptive theories – "here is what you should do" or "here is how you should think." It should only be provided to them as: "here are some opportunities to see, other ways of understanding the world, other ways of thinking about design." And those ideas, maybe, can help you develop your own thinking.

This is exactly how I teach my course on design theory. I even tell the students: "Does it help you to think about your own design thinking, about your own design philosophy? Can it help you to develop your personal design philosophy?" If it can, great. If it doesn't, move on to the next thing.

You touched on a topic I think about a lot: the transmission of ideas from academia to their intended audiences. In this case, younger designers – whom we can't expect to read academic books and papers. Other than university courses, where is this kind of transmission happening? Where can a young designer go to nourish their thinking from these ideas?

Almost every city has a club or an organization where these people meet. They come from all kinds of different companies and organizations. They meet maybe once a month. They have invited speakers, or they have internal workshops. They share information, they share knowledge, they discuss. This has been developed as a way of constantly improving yourself. You have to be part of these things. You have to go to these professional conferences – not academic conferences, but professional conferences. You have to discuss. You have to be part of what's going on right now. So, to be on the forefront of what's going on, and learning from other people... Being curious, curious, curious about new technology, curious about new ideas, curious what your colleagues are doing in other companies... That's what pushes this forward. That's what helps people – much more than reading academic papers.

But there is a long-term change that goes on. People usually think, okay, since practitioners don't read academic papers, academic research doesn't mean anything. And that is completely wrong too. Because academic research builds on existing practice. So it studies existing practice, and the forefront of the practice; takes it back, uses that in the education of the next generation of designers. The next generation come out in the real world, and now they have these new ideas, new knowledge, and they start to change practice. If we didn't have academic research that really pushed... let's say one thing: user-centered design. If academia did not pick up early and start to educate new designers on that way of thinking, it would probably have never happened. But that's also what changed the practice in industry, because they came out, they have all these new ideas on how to do things... And it's completely changed the field.

It's interesting you brought up systems earlier: I wanted to talk to you about the academic eco-system. I expect that a good proportion of the audience for this episode will be academics. So I'd like to move from the practice of design to the practice of design scholarship.

You're a high-ranking professor; I imagine you contribute to hiring decisions. When you're evaluating candidates for this kind of career track – PhD students or junior faculty – are there any qualities that impress you? How does one stand out? Conversely: are there skills that candidates overlook, at the cost of opportunities?

In almost every research field, people who are younger often focus on doing things in the right way. So they want to do research in the right way, they want to do it as the method says, they want to write papers that look like every other paper, because they want to be sure that they can do it, which is fine. And you have to do that. But I think, what is overlooked is what I would almost call courage. And with courage I mean the courage to actually be led by your own curiosity and your own ideas, and to take that on as something that is worth exploring. That is what I lack probably the most.

Often I meet people who are extremely good, in a kind of a student way, "good." I mean, they can do a lot of things, and they do things right, and everything is in the right place, and you know... But it's not interesting. When I read something that is interesting and surprising, I care less about how polished it is. I care less about, did they follow the methods correctly... I care less about the details. Because here is something really interesting going on.

There is only one topic that you can be successful with, and that is the topic that excites you. When I talk to students – maybe they are supposed to pick their final project, or something for a program – and they don't really know, and they are coming up with all kinds of ideas, and I say, yeah, doesn't sound like you're so interested in this... "Well I don't know..." So then I always try to say: "So what are you interested in? Are you into sports or music? Or what is it that you do?" And then they usually light up. "Yeah, well, I'm into music" or "I'm into gardening" or "I'm into whatever..." And then I say, there you go. That's the energy. There you have the energy. Now whatever your ideas were, can you connect those to your energy? So why not do something around gardening? You had some ideas about whatever solution – can you tie that into gardening? Can you come up with something? And then they say: "That sounds strange, no one is doing that..." There you go. Good for you. That's why you should do it.

The thing is, the students who get to that level are trained to not do that. They are trained to solve problems that someone else gives them. They are trained to search for the correct solution. That's how the whole school system is. They are not trained to think the other way, which is to draw from themselves. If you go to maybe art schools, art education, it's much more of that. It's all about that. It's maybe too much of that – then it becomes just about you and yourself, and who cares about the rest of the world... As a designer you have to find the middle ground here. You have to find that internal energy that is you, and then you have to be able to connect that with your client and your users, and you have to work in service of them to see what you can do with all that. You bring it together.

Your most recent book, together with Lars-Erik Janlert, was Things That Keep Us Busy: The Elements of Interaction... I have The Design Way, which you wrote with Harold Nelson – this opened my eyes to many ways of talking about concepts in design. You also have Thoughtful Interaction Design, with Jonas Löwgren.  I'm imagining you read a lot of books. Other than the books you've written, what books do you find yourself recommending often to people around you?

That's a good question. I actually have a small part of my bookshelf here, where I have my favorite books that I go back to. They're not necessarily design books. They are a mixed bag of things. Some are more in philosophy, some are a little bit different...

But what my way of reading is... I don't read a lot. I look at a lot. I look at a lot of books. And I think it's important to distinguish between different ways of reading. There is one way of reading that you do as a researcher, just because you need to know. So you just need to know, what is this about... And then if you put 20 minutes into a book, you're fine. You know what they're trying to say. You know what the main idea is. You know, kind of, the arguments, and you will remember it; so if you get into that kind of area later, you can reference it or go back. But then, you now, you find a book that really catches your interest... And then you should read it carefully. And to read it carefully means you read it, you make notes in it, you underline, you read it again a year later, you read it again three years later... Because, what happens when you do that: now you're internalizing these ideas. And they, on a very deep level, start to change the way you think about things; and you start to apply that thinking. You start to apply those theories. You believe it's your own thinking. It's not this idea from this guy, here's the reference... You can write about it, you can talk about it, as if it's your ideas. And that's where you want to go. You want to have certain types of sources that, on a deep level, influence your thinking, and help your thinking, and push you to be a better thinker. That's what it's all about.

That takes a little bit of work. That means you can't do it with every book or every paper, only a few. In my younger years maybe I had one of those per year. Now I have maybe one of those per 10 years. It's not more than that. So that's why... I have those books that I know how, on some kind of fundamental level, have changed the way I think about things. And I always go back to them. They're kind of my friends, you know.

What are some of those books?

I don't have so many of them here, I have them at work... This is a few of them, just to give you a sense of what it is...

So this is a book from when I was almost a student. It's called The Idea of History, by the philosopher Collingwood. Wonderful.

This book is something I've come back to now and then actually. It's by the American philosopher Robert Nozick: The Examined Life.

This is C. West Churchman, who is my big guru when it comes to systems thinking: The Systems Approach. This is from when I was a PhD student.

Here is a book from a guy who is in education, philosophy of education: Back to the Rough Ground. This is just a wonderful book. If you have a little bit of philosophical interest, and in design, this is all about design.

This is a wonderful book from David Pye, it's also an old book: The Nature and Aesthetics of Design. He was a furniture designer in England.

So that's just an example. And these books, I go back to all the time. So it doesn't matter what I write about, as long as it's about design, I will go back and I use... Most of their ideas, though, I internalized – so when I say it's my idea, it probably comes from one of these books.

There is a lot of good ideas and good advice in what you teach. What is some bad advice you hear in your profession?

The idea of design thinking... Design thinking is fine, but the idea that you can learn design thinking in an afternoon, or by taking a workshop, or maybe one online course, and now you're a designer... That's so far from reality.

Unfortunately it's very common nowadays, because design is so popular: there are so many people who believe design is an approach that is useful – which it is. So they are right in that sense. And they feel they miss it. And now they're looking for, "how can I get that myself?" Or, "how can we change people in our company?" And it doesn't work like that. You don't become a designer in a day or in one course. It's like any profession. To be a designer is a highly disciplined way of working. It doesn't look disciplined if you look at it compared to what an engineer thinks is a disciplined way of working, or what an accountant thinks is a disciplined way of working... But design is a highly disciplined way of working, and it takes years to understand it, and to learn, what are those principles, and how do you apply them, until you have an ability to make judgments; so you can apply those principles in a particular design situation.

So that is something I see as a big problem today, that a lot of people are talking about it as, "OK, here, come take this course, use our tool, and now you're a designer." That is maybe the biggest problem i see today.

The other problem is maybe more in design schools. In traditional design schools I still see a problem with being traditionally skills-oriented and not enough thinking -oriented. With design educations in non-traditional settings, I think you have almost the opposite problem: a lot of people think you can teach design by reading about it, but not doing it enough.

The balance between thinking and doing in design was a topic we covered in in a previous episode – it was interesting to hear Prof. Stolterman corroborate my position.

What are some ideas or directions that you're excited about right now? What is next for Erik Stolterman?

I don't think there is a new next. I think it's a continuation... I'm still very curious about and still investigating the things I started to investigate when I was a young researcher. It's not resolved. It will never be. It will never end, it just keeps going.

Especially books... 10 years is nothing if you work on a book. Unless it's a textbook, I mean for teaching or something like that, then fine. I've done a couple of those, and that is a different type of writing. Then you can strategize and plan it and divide it up. But if you want to write more idea books, well, then it takes time.

I spoke to the owner of a design studio recently, who was saying how time is important, for all kinds of creative work – not just writing, but for graphic design, or music... There are workings in the brain that operate in the long run. There are ideas and results that you just cannot achieve, even if you put in the exact same amount of hours... If you do it without any discontinuation, you will not get those results. Some background thinking needs to happen.

I'm curious about your life outside of work. If you look back at your schedule in the past year or so; other than your work, what was the second thing that you spent most of your time on?

Outside work, I'm a very practical person. I spend a lot of time on my house. I like building, I like renovation. I like working in the yard. I like things like that, all kinds of hands-on, very practical things. That's probably what I do outside work. I don't really use my brain for anything. I want to do things with my hands.

That's fascinating to me. I grew up in Istanbul, a big city – not a lot of yards, not a lot of space for handwork and sawdust. I've always wanted to have that in my life. Now I live in Sweden. I see many people working with wood and building things in their houses... Is that a habit that you carried over from Sweden?

I think so. And from my family, it's part of the tradition. They were farmers. So I have my workshop out here in the backyard, and I'm happy to do all kinds of hands-on work.



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