Designing with Unpredictability

Designing with Unpredictability

The language of interactive design is still in its infancy and frequently draws parallels from its more established counterparts in architecture and the Fine Arts. These creative disciplines do share many similarities and often warrant a dialogue that isn’t mutually exclusive. However as design becomes more ubiquitous in every aspect of our lives, and informs decisions in boardrooms around the world, it’s worth reconsidering how we talk about it. One approach is by embracing simplicity and harnessing the virtues of unpredictability.

The question is no longer “how to make design relevant?”, but rather how to craft a deeper understanding of what designers do on a broader scale — how do they interpret and deliver the wealth of content we habitually consume every day? What other behavioral models can we use to describe the inherently subjective creative process as it applies to a shifting interactive landscape?

Borrowing from Benjamin

Talk of process isn’t new, especially with regard to the often antagonistic relationship between art and design. Yet addressing process helps provide a conceptual framework and define the constraints designers work within. Walter Benjamin’s archetypal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a great starting point. Despite focusing primarily on the art world, this seminal piece of Marxist thinking presents a universal sentiment that is highly relevant to issues facing the contemporary design industry.

Designing with Unpredictability

Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The context interactive designers work within is rapidly changing, and they have to create work that can intuitively adapt to change. Benjamin argues that contemporary art (or in this case interactive design) must be understood in the time it was created. In his dialectical argument, Benjamin assumes the means of technical production determines the nature of cultural production. Yet how work is produced (technology) moves faster than cultural conventions (how work is traditionally received). 

As our digital environment evolves, accompanying critique must develop in concert. Methodology from the past is no longer as relevant when confronted with work conceived in a modern context. Although the technology Benjamin references is dated, his interpretation of ‘reproduction’ is especially relevant to today’s interactive designer. Authors are increasingly becoming readers, and readers becoming authors. There is no singular time and place of creation, rather work is continually edited and re-distributed. Benjamin discusses how the act of reproduction removes qualities of the original by changing context. The information we digest today is agile and similarly ‘reproduced’ across multiple platforms — shared through the filter of social commentary, re-composed and disseminated across multiple narrative threads. This poses the question of authenticity. Who really owns the work and its once pivotal aura of originality? Do people really care?

The notion of authenticity does’t exist without threatening originality. If the death of aura is the loss of a single authority within the work, then it doesn’t matter with dynamic digital content. The void left by the absence of aura is filled by broader consumption — opening up work to more opinions and intervening with alternate points of view. If the difference is similar to losing the presence of the actor when transitioning from stage to screen, then the resulting film offers more possibilities than the stage alone.

The design process can borrow from this notion of liberating work from traditional rituals and means of production. Rather than an original work absorbing the audience, design can enable the audience to absorb the work. The following are two models to consider when discussing the relationship between design and dynamic content. These referential systems introduce a couple of ways this new vernacular can continue to take shape by using unpredictability as an advantage. They are variations on a similar theme — using design to craft complex experiences through simple means.


Our lives are a series of patterns and relationships with time, space, surface, and other living beings. There is a rhythm to the world we inhabit. Even in silence there is a cadence to our physical behavior, and that behavior is governed by very simple rules and directions. Every time we drive a car, we are consumed by pulsing lights, turns, and stops. The accumulation of those basic principles results in the emergence of diverse traffic patterns. This is an example of an emergent property, where complex environmental behaviors are formed by the collective interaction between smaller, simple entities — that don’t individually exhibit similar properties.

Designing with Unpredictability

Emergent flight formation of large birds

Emergence is an integral aspect of our natural world, which is a well-traversed source of creative inspiration. Instances of birds flocking are dictated by only three basic rules (separation, alignment, and cohesion). The flock then collectively exhibits an extremely complex motion and interaction that would be challenging, if not impossible, to reproduce by any other means. Designers can be inspired by similar thinking, less is more as it relates to interactive design. Using limitation as an advantage, information can be situated around a few simple user-centered rules, that when acted upon will sculpt a compelling emergent system. The challenge lies in how loosely content associations should be curated. What details are explicitly presented for users to draw their own conclusions and narrative arcs — as Scott McCloud illustrates in his poignant Understanding Comics.

Designing with Unpredictability

From Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics

Productive Play 

As interactive designers look to be less reactive and tool-driven — to explore rather than replicate — they must iterate and experiment. There are fewer better models for discovery than free play. However distilling an interaction down to its purest, simplest form is increasingly challenging and opens itself up to very pointed critique, as each decision falls under intense scrutiny. Conversely with very elaborate systems, flaws and inconsistencies can easily be overlooked.

With that in mind, when proposing systems of durable engagement there is a charm and sensibility to early childhood toys and learning tools. Forms that can be held, constructed, and re-arranged — aesthetics and logic that laid the foundation for Friedrich Froebel’s pioneering Kindergarten model — beautifully illustrated in Inventing Kindergarten.

Designing with Unpredictability

An example educational toy known as Froebel Gabes (Gifts)

Froebel embraced materiality as a visualization tool, where an accessible language of geometric form can cultivate children’s innate ability to observe, reason, express, and create. Digital information can be similarly translated into a simple, symbolic system to enhance meaning. The flow of information is malleable and its path can also be an organic, open-ended process. One that captures the imagination by promoting chance encounters with self-directed play.

Play invites reciprocal participation with back and fourth tension. There is also a similar duality to design — thinking through creation and responding to observation. Early Kindergarten tools were seeds of Modernist thought and fostered a relationship between meaning and materiality. Interactive products should consider what their equivalent material affordances can be.

Interactive design is as much about emotion and empathy as it is about emerging technology. The most successful products are ultimately defined by the people who use them.