Review: The Reflective Practitioner (Part I)

I’ve been circling around Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action for years now and finally got around to reading it. As it turns out, I should have read it a long time ago, since it has so much to say (indirectly) about design and what it means to be a designer today, especially designers in the experience design realm. As it turns out, there is a reason for the fact we’re constantly fighting about things like role/discipline boundaries and titles. The book also offers and analyzes a way of working that is very very much how I work and, I suspect, how many people in my field do as well.

The Reflective Practitioner was written in the early 1980s and took as its premise that the world of work was changing rapidly, that there was a group of people (Richard Florida’s Creative Class mostly) who, unlike doctors, engineers, and scientists, didn’t rely on technical knowledge for their expertise. Schön calls these people “practitioners” and their ranks include everything from social workers to city planners to architects and designers. People who, in the words of Charles Reich, “can be counted on to do their job, but not necessarily to define it.”

Practitioners, Schön says, have “an awareness of complexity that resists the skills and techniques of traditional expertise” and are “frequently embroiled in conflicts of values, goals, purposes, and interests.” (Much like ever project I’ve ever worked on!) Being a practitioner means that the traditional methods and techniques of analytical thinking and scientific process simply don’t work. Problems in the messy world of practitioners “are interconnected, environments are turbulent, and the future is indeterminate.” What is called for under these conditions, Schön argues, are professionals who can, as Russell Ackoff says, “design a desirable future and invent ways of bringing it about.”

All isn’t roses for practitioners, however. We’re struggling against 400 years of Technical Rationality, which is “problem-solving made rigorous by the application of scientific theory and technique.” Technical Rationality is ingrained in our workplaces and in our universities, and the professions that practice it (doctors, lawyers, engineers) are emphasized and revered over those that don’t. Professions that practice Technical Rationality apply general principles (medicine, law, physics) to specific problems to achieve unambiguous results (health, justice, bridges, etc.).

However, Schön points out, “Increasingly we have become aware of the importance to professional practice of phenomena–complexity, uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflict–which do not fit the model of Technical Rationality.” Instead of simply problem solving, practitioners instead need to problem set. That is, “to determine the decision to be made, the ends to be achieved, the means which may be chosen.”

Schön says,

In real-world practice, problems do not present themselves to practitioners as givens. They must be constructed from the materials of problematic situations that are puzzling, troubling, and uncertain. In order to convert a problematic situation to a problem, a practitioner must do a certain kind of work. He must make sense of an uncertain situation that initially makes no sense.

Problem setting is where we “name the things to which we will attend and frame the context to which we will attend to them.” This cannot be achieved by Technical Rationality, because Technical Rationality depends on understanding what the end is. Only through naming and framing, which do not depend on applying general scientific principles, can these complex problems eventually be solved.

This, however, doesn’t stop practitioners from looking for tried-and-true methods and techniques that will solve all their problems in a neat way. You see this all the time with designers at conferences and on mailing lists, searching for the next great method. Schön says that for practitioners, replying on methods and techniques will leave them solving problems of relatively little importance, for both clients and society at large. It is only by “descending into the swamp” where the practitioners must forsake technical rigor that the really important and challenging problems will be found.

How practitioners should do this is in Part II of this review.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Reflective Practitioner (Part I)

  1. In the first PhD course I took (Drexel iSchool), one of the books we read was “Educating the Reflective Practitioner,” the sequel to the book you’re discussing. This book, along with Herbert Simon, Christopher Alexander, Fred Brooks, Ed Tenner, and about five others in a ten week course really set me on the right path. Four years later, that was still the best class I’ve ever taken. Here’s a snippet from a workshop paper I wrote for the Designing Interactive Systems conference last year…it has one of my favorite quotes from Schon:
    Evaluation as Design
    “…she takes Northover’s comments as a criticism of her drawing, yet it is clear that she sees drawing not as thought-experimenting but as a way of presenting ideas. Northover seems to be saying ‘You are not really designing at all. You are simply having ‘ideas’ and putting them down on paper. The moves you make have consequences that are testable, but you must draw to scale and in section in order to test them. The whole process of designing is lost to you because you will not do these things.’ ” from Donald Schon’s ‘Educating the Reflective Practitioner’
    Christopher Alexander argues that it is easier to recognize misfit between a designed artifact and its context of use than it is to recognize fit (Alexander, 1979). Henry Petroski (Petroski, 1992) shares this same view when he proposes that irritation, not necessity is the mother of invention. The above quote from Donald Schon (Schon, 1990) may make interaction designers jealous of architects; imagine if all you had to do to get an estimate of the usability of a set of alternative designs was to “draw to scale and in section to test them” a priori. Donald Schon’s concept of reflection-in-action places emphasis on the opportunity for designers to see the consequence of each design move. Relating Schon and Alexander, reflection-in-action can be fostered by providing designers with pseudo-immediate feedback regarding the consequence (misfit) of their design assumptions on the context of use. As the time between design move selection and feedback increases,the opportunity for reflection-in-action fades away towards reflection-on-action, and it’s a slippery slope beyond this towards our current state of waiting weeks, months (or forever) to get results of usability testing in order to understand the consequence of design choices.

  2. Hi Dan
    I am so pleased to see that you have found Donald Schon and his insightful writings. I have worked with his ideas since the early 80s and still find it one of the best sources for anyone reflecting on design and practice. He is of course a core figure in the design theory course I am teaching.

  3. It is a great book isn’t it. I read it last year in Dicks class on design methods. I think it should definitely be part of any design curriculum.
    There are many oldies but goodies out there – especially when you begin to look at the indirect application of leanings from architecture. Some of my lesser known favorites are:
    Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space [this is just a great read – but the chapter on Celebration Town is particularly important when thinking about use/needs/desires]
    Architecture, Power, and National Identity [learning from the construction of Brasilia]
    The Arcades Project [what can i say i am a big fan of Walter Benjamin]

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