Useful Dialectics, Part Two – Design vs. Tradition

“The opposite of design is tradition.”

– Johanna Koljonen

Jean Le Tavernier, "Portrait of Jean Miélot." Public domain image from Wikimedia user Leinad-Z~commonswiki

Doing it the old fashioned way.

In the last post, I talked about the distinction between change and transformation, and how the former feels more finite and time-bound while the latter is bigger in scope and more ongoing. In this post, I want to explore and refine the dialectical relationship between design and tradition. What I mean by that is that design and tradition can be seen as the distinctions between reflective and non-reflective practice, as Donald Schön and his ilk would say.


I would argue that one of the greatest challenges of working in an institution of any longevity is the burden of tradition, the things we do because “That’s how we do things here.” These usually unspoken ways of doing work get transmitted via a kind of social osmosis, and often at an an almost unconscious level. If you’ve ever started a job, you know what I’m talking about; those things you “just kinda pick up” as you go about learning the job. They make implementing real transformation a daunting task. The unwritten and the informal are hard to overcome precisely because of their lack of specificity and mutability.

Tradition is not exclusively the realm of the informal. Plenty of processes and workflows outlive the situations they were designed for. And even moreso than the informal, these can become pernicious because they have the weight of the institution explicitly behind them. “Our process was developed over a long period of time and has been used here for ____ years.” “We’ve used this process to develop big projects.” The difference between reflective and non-reflective practice, I think, is that the burden of designing your processes should be a never-ending one. Just because somebody else designed a process once, that doesn’t make it right for the current situation. If the only tools in the box are hammers, even though they might be high-quality, expensive ones, the temptation will be to treat every challenge like a nail.


I took the quote at the top from a talk be the experience designer Johanna Koljonen. It was only one of many truth bombs she dropped that day, and in this context (reflective vs non-reflective practice) it really gets right to the heart of so much that is frustrating and broken about museum work processes. They often don’t respond to the current players and challenge. They were a response to a previous challenge that has been passed on and replicated. Obviously, not every process can be redesigned every time, but the amount of tradition we tolerate is impressive. Resisting this tendency motivates a slew of methodologies that aim to help us work smarter. That is the whole motivation behind Lean approaches; looking for places in processes where there are inefficiencies and removing or reworking them. It’s really a very formalized way of trying to encourage reflective practice.

For Johanna, challenging elements of traditions to solve a problem is a crucial part of thinking like an experience designer, which was an identity I never assumed until then. Innovation happens through making active choices, from looking at a situation and asking “What are the designable surfaces here?” and recognizing that answer is EVERYTHING. For me, this resonates strongly with Schön’s idea of reflection as knowing-in-action. 

The Magic Circle

The other part of her presentation that made a strong impact on me was her assertion that “the magic circle” idea that I previously thought of as something exclusive to game design, was in fact a broadly applicable tool to think about any kind of experience design.

magic circle

The magic circle of experience design. Do your meetings look like this?

For the deep divers, the term “magic circle” first appears in Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture”. It’s current vogue though, is due to Katie Salen’s and Eric Zimmerman’s influential 2003 book “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals”. For them “the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.”

The idea of the magic circle is straightforward enough. When people enter into a game, they take on a distinct role, different from their default identity; they become players. And while they are playing, they accept new rules and way of interacting with the other players and the game. In good games, that’s where the fun happens; the learning and mastery of rules, the meaningful wearing of the persona of “player”, and maybe even winning. That’s what happens inside the “magic circle” of a game. Once the game is over, the players cease being players and resume their old roles and life goes on.

Project teams and meetings can be magic circles, if you approach them as opportunities to design. Everyone comes to the table with all their expectations in tow. In the team, or meeting, they take on a role (like “You’re here because of your expertise in x, y, or z.”) and can (and should) be empowered to temporarily try on new roles and reflect in action.

“The opposite of design is tradition.” I think there’s great truth in that. For our needs, though, I’d turn it around and say, “The opposite of tradition is design” because design is the tool that is going to allow us to replace traditions with processes that serve the needs of the time.

Next up: Network vs. Hierarchy


One response to “Useful Dialectics, Part Two – Design vs. Tradition

  1. Pingback: Useful Dialectics, Part Three – Hierarchy vs. Network | Thinking about museums

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