Category Archives: Research

A Dictionary of Received Ideas

Her colleagues often repeated that ‘there is no perfect solution to a design problem‘. Rebecca was pretty sure she had read it somewhere within the context of computer science or learning technology but after looking all over, she still had not found a solid source for the idea. After posting her question to the mailinglist, Luke e-mailed almost instantaneously:

It sounds like you are looking for Rittel and Webber’s third of ten characteristics of wicked problems:
Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad1

The ‘third characteristic’ Luke was referring to, came from a book on the theory of planning:

For wicked planning problems, there are no true or false answers. Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness.

Jude thought that it was something Herbert Simon might have said:

Evidently, organisms adapt well enough to ‘satisfice’; they do not, in general, ‘optimize’.
A ‘satisficing’ path, a path that will permit satisfaction at some specified level of all its needs.2

In her e-mail Jude explained what she thought Simon meant by that:

What is good enough is certainly better than what is not good enough.


The bar for what satisfices can be raised over time, this achieving the even better, but not necessary the best.

Neil agreed with Jude and added a reference to Henry Petroski’s Small Things Considered where the same concept of ‘satisficing’ accounts for the role of decision making in design. Rebecca was not sure which of these two quotes would be more useful for her research.

Design must always conform to constraint, must always require choice, and thus must always involve compromise.

or rather:

We live in a world of imperfect things, just as we do in a world of imperfect fellow human beings.3

Prue suggested the gnomic but brilliant remark made by Ray or Charles Eames:

The best you can do between now and Tuesday is a kind of best you can do.4

Terence was not being very helpful. He felt she might first need to ask herself what it meant for something to be a ‘perfect’ design solution.

Derek suggested that all of this was spinning around good oldfashioned pragmatism. Therefore the relevant source would not be a designer, but psychologist and philosopher William James:

We say this theory solves it on the whole more satisfactorily than that theory; but that means more satisfactorily to ourselves, and individuals will emphasize their points of satisfaction differently. To a certain degree, therefore, everything here is plastic.5

Ranolph liked to apply Samuel Beckett’s famous quote from Worstward Ho as a definition of design:

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.6

and pointed her to the reworked Rittel and Webber statement by Jeff Conklin:

Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.7

She closed her laptop, smiled to herself and thought:

Perfect is the enemy of good.8

  1. Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.
  2. Simon, H. A. (1956). “Rational choice and the structure of the environment”. Psychological Review, Vol. 63 No. 2, 129-138.
  3. Small things considered: Why there is no perfect design. New York: Vintage Books, 2004
  4. Quoted in Eames Demetrios, 2001, An Eames Primer, New York Universe Publishing p 173. Prue Bramwell-Davis.
  5. Pragmatism, A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. William James, 1907
  6. Samuel Becket: Worstward Ho, 1983
  7. Conklin, Jeff; “Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems,” Wiley; 1st edition, 18 November 2005
  8. Voltaire in La Bégueule, Contes, 1772

Co-position from scratch

Mark Twains’ design for the title page and dedication of The Surviving Innocent (or: Following the Equator). Image: All rights reserved, The Shapell Foundation

On 5 October the Co-position team will travel from Amsterdam, Brussels and Porto to meet in Eindhoven (NL) at Baltan Laboratories. Co-position is the title of the thread at the Libre Graphics Research Unit focusing on digital tools for lay-out. This particular compartment of the (Libre) graphics toolbox is very much defined through historical practices of printing and heavy with the terminology of movable type. On the one hand tied to the needs of the publishing industry and on the other to pre-press requirements, it is a type of software that is also production driven and oriented on conventional workflows. What if it would be inspired by altogether different practices?

When the Co-position team bravely took up the challenge to rethink lay-out tools from scratch, they realised that they needed to reinvent its vocabulary first. This is what they will make a start with in Eindhoven.

Below is the workshop description so far; more details about how to participate etc. will be published on the website of Baltan Laboratories soon.

Collective co-positioning (a toolbased workshop)

Digital lay-outing tools are path dependent in their way of mimicking the past processes of 600 years of moveable type (and maybe even beyond). Often practice proceeds without extensive critical reflection by practitioners themselves. Practice is spoken of in a ‘living language’ that addresses day to day actions and gestures. To re-dream lay-out practice from scratch, we start with developing a vocabulary of lay-out in order to better understand relations between workflow, material, and medium.

For this workshop we ask participants to bring “spatial arrangement of texts and other graphical elements” they have made or would have liked to have made. These posters, lay-outs, designs can be completely various, trivial, unfinished or imaginary. We’ll work together to analyse these arrangements, their spatial relationships very precisely and find the more broad criteria as possible to describe them. This operation will be the start of a methodology of classification and create the missing vocabulary needed to build the first phase of the Co-position project.

In the evening, we’ll present Co-position in the larger context of the Libre Graphics Research Unit, a collaboration between Medialab Prado (ES), WORM (NL), Piksel (NO), Constant (BE) and others. The Unit is a two year project bringing artists, designers and Free, Libre and Open Source Software developers around the same table to exchange ideas and share experiences about digital tools and future artistic practice.


John Haltiwanger works in programming languages, new media theory, and typographic design software, John strives for a balance between the practical, the aesthetic, and the boundary-breaking.

Pierre Huyghebaert explores several practices around graphic design, he currently drives the studio Speculoos. Pierre is interested in using free sofware to re-learn to work in other ways and collaboratively on cartography, type design, web interface, schematic illustration, book design and teaching these practices. Along participating in OSP, he articulate residential spaces and narratives through the artists temporary alliance Potential Estate and develop collaborative and subjective mapping with Towards and others Brussels urban projects.

Ana Carvalho and Ricardo Lafuente run a libre graphics & design research studio based in Porto, actively engaged with design, typography, independent publishing and software culture. Developing innovative design software such as Shoebot and Batch Commander, and co-edit Libre Graphics Magazine. Involved in building up and maintaining Hacklaviva, a hackerspace in the center of Porto. Manufactura Independente brings their expertise in publishing with F/LOSS, generative design plus the development of typographic systems to LGRU. They will host a research meeting in Porto (PT), and participate in research meetings and the Future Tools conference.

and FS :-)