Review: The Reflective Practitioner (Part IV)

This is the final part of my review of Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practioner. See parts I, II, and III for the earlier sections.

What does it mean to be a reflective practitioner? Schön says

[E]ach individual develops his own way of framing his role. Whether he chooses his role frame from the profession’s repertoire, or fashions it for himself, his professional knowledge takes on the characteristics of a system. The problem he sets, the strategies he employs, the facts he treats as relevant, and his interpersonal theories of action are bound up with his way of framing his role.

This is why, I think, we see so many clashes on the various design mailing lists about what to call ourselves, what our roles should be, and where the boundaries are for disciplines like experience design and interaction design. It is different frames colliding. One practitioner thinks interaction design is interface design, another thinks interface design is a subset of interaction design, and on and on. Schön suggests that rather than fight about which of these frames is the correct one, we simply practice “frame analysis.”

When a practitioner becomes aware of his frames, he also becomes aware of the possibility for alternate ways of framing the reality of his practice. He takes note of the values and norms to which he has given priority, and those he has given less importance, or left out of the frame altogether…Frame analysis may help practitioners to become aware of their tacit frames and thereby lead them to experience the dilemmas inherent in professional pluralism. Once practitioners notice they actively construct the reality of their practice and become aware of the variety of frames available to them, they begin to see the need to reflect-in-action on their previous tacit frames.

Schön is basically saying, Put down your arms. In all professional practices, there are different schools of thought which often result in very different personal frames for practice. If we instead look at them as frames, we can consider and even move between them as necessary. For some projects, it may make sense to step outside of the frame of “interaction designer” and instead take on the frame of “interface designer” and visa versa.

Some other tidbits from the book I found fascinating:

Experienced practitioners, Schön claims, because of their mastery of the “media” surrounding their practice, “cannot convey the art of his practice to a novice merely by describing his procedures, rules, and theories, nor can he enable a novice to think like a seasoned practitioner merely by describing or even demonstrating his ways of thinking.” He goes on to say, “People who do things well often give what appear to be good descriptions of their procedures which others cannot follow.” Heh. The implications for the conference circuit here is enormous. But I have found this is very true. It is very hard to convey the nuance of design and designing and being a designer in a presentation.

Schön also notes the importance of clients in the life of a practitioner. Practitioners agree to use their “special powers” for the good of the client, and clients in turn “agree to show deference to the professional.” Without this social contract, the role of practitioner breaks down. But the practitioner has to deliver on this promise as well, of course. This is especially true with reflective practitioners because their methods and techniques change in response to the situation and through conversations with the client.

Although the reflective practitioner should be credentialled and technically competent, his claim to authority is substantially based on his ability to manifest his special knowledge in his interactions with clients. He does not ask the client to have blind faith in a “black box,” but to remain open to the practitioner’s competence as it emerges…the client does not agree to accept the practitioner’s authority but to suspend disbelief in it. He agrees to join the practitioner in inquiring into the situation for which the client seeks help; to try to understand what he is experiencing and make that understanding accessible to the practitioner; to confront the practitioner when he does not understand or agree; to test the practitioner’s competence by observing his effectiveness and to make public his questions over what should be counted as effectiveness; to pay for services rendered and to appreciate competence demonstrated.

If it’s not clear from this lengthy review, I highly recommend this book. Although it was written 25 years ago, its relevance for professional practice, and especially the design practice, is still high. Framing problems and our personal frames around professional practice is a great way to think about how to approach projects and our work lives. May we all be reflective practitioners.

One thought on “Review: The Reflective Practitioner (Part IV)

  1. An insightful multipart essay, Dan, and timely. Also, one apparently too challenging and/or time-consuming for our colleagues to reflect and comment on designers’ identity. You gave us a lot to think about and revealed your own positions. Thanks.

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