Why Integral Design is Important

Before I get back to the questions I posed in my last entry, I’d like to tell you a little about why I think building a framework for Integral Design is important.

Recently I’ve been reading the writing of a theorist named Ken Wilber. Ken has developed a really nice framework for examining the ways in which we can approach a given practice, such as medicine or design[1]. Ken’s framework urges us to think explicitly about a given problem or idea from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints.

Wilber says that the best approach to carrying out a practice is to consider it through the lens of each of the four quadrants of his framework. By practicing design in a way that integrates considerations from all four quadrants, we’ll end up with a more holistic, or integral, way of doing design.[2]

So, if Wilber is right, then by adopting a more integral approach to design, our solutions will, in turn, be more holistic. He also contends that by using an integral approach, it’s more likely that our designs will be successful. This seems reasonable, since the more factors we consider regarding a design problem, the more likely it is that our solutions will be successful.

Sounds like a laudable goal, yes? Wasn’t this what we wanted to do with experience design before terms like “user experience” were co-opted by organizations that were focused more on PR campaigns than on delivering holistically designed solutions to peoples’ problems?

I think most of us can agree that a more integral approach to design would be a good thing – especially if we can realize a way to actually put it into practice.

Ever since I first became interested in design and began practicing user-centered design, I’ve wondered what was next. How do we improve the practice of design beyond the user-centered methods we use now?

The idea of considering the behaviors, motivations, and contexts of people during the design process is one idea that’s gaining more traction lately. This is important work as we begin to build a framework for Integral Design, but simply adding those concerns on top of the concerns of user-centered design will only cover two of Wilber’s four quadrants.

User-centered design, which I believe is fundamentally concerned with tasks, states and goals, seems to map to the upper-left quadrant of Wilber’s model. This quadrant is focused on the interior of the individual or, to put it another way, the subjective mind.

Design (we don’t have a name for it yet) that focuses more deeply on behaviors, motivations, and contexts seems to map quite nicely to the lower-left quadrant of Wilber’s model. This quadrant is focused on the interior of the collective or, to put it another way, it’s focused on intersubjective culture.

For now, we’re still a long way from being able to practice Integral Design, but I think building a framework and describing it is an important first step towards getting there.

I want my designs to help create a future that’s more sustainable, more caring and even more deeply-ethical. For now, Integral Design is the best way I can think of to get there.

[1] In his writing, Wilber describes many uses for the model, though he never directly discusses design. I’m just using design as an example of a practice that could be approached in an integral way.
[2] I’ll do a proper introduction of Wilber’s framework in a future entry, but in the meantime, you may want to take a look at the AQAL entry on Wikipedia. You could also Google it yourself, but I should warn you that the top Google result only covers Wilber up to 2001. I believe Wilber’s framework has been refined quite a bit since then.

Brian Knutson

I also saw Brian Knutson speak at Stanford recently.

Brian is interested in the neural basis of emotion and runs the Symbiotic Project on Affective Neuroscience. (Psychologists use the word “affect” to describe mood states and personality traits characterized both by high arousal and either positive or negative valence.)

Brian is also interested in the convergence of disciplines brought about by his research. I’m going to see if I can speak with him about design.

John Gabrieli

Last week, I attended a talk by John Gabrieli at Stanford’s Symbolic Systems Forum.

John is the director of the Gabrieli Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. He discussed some of his work using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to study the regulation of thoughts, emotions and memories in the human brain.

Cool stuff. Obviously though, emotion and memory are related to human experience, but I’m not yet sure how they fit together with experience and design.