Design in groups—and all that jazz


Tone Bratteteig

University of Oslo, Dept of Informatics

PO Box 1080 Blindern, N-0316 Oslo, Norway

Tel: +47 22 85 24 27 / Fax: +47 22 85 24 01



Erik Stolterman

University of Umeå, Dept of Informatics

S-901 87 Umeå, Sweden

Tel: +46 90 16 55 31 / Fax: +46 90 16 61 26





in Kyng & Mathiassen (eds) (1997): Computersand Design in Context, MIT Press, pp. 289-316


The purpose of the article is to use knowledge about system design practice as a basis for discussing principles for system design management and implementation. The jazz group is used as a metaphor to illustrate the desired qualities of group design processes: creating visions and new ideas, formulating specifications on the basis of a range of competence, and mutual learning and understanding. Rationalistic and control-oriented design approaches may hamper innovative group design. The orchestration of a design group needs to support the imaginative thinking, the handling and synthesising competence, and the well-being of the group as well as giving overall managerial support that also addresses the production aspects of the design process.


KEYWORDS: vision-oriented design, creativity, group design, orchestrating group design



Design of information systems is a social process aimed at creating a conscious organisational change, by means of a computer-based system. Information system design also includes evaluating and selecting functions and qualities, potentials and limits of a future computer system. The production aspects of system design indicate a need for careful management and planning. The creative and social sides of system design suggest that parts of the process cannot be predicted and prescribed—an open attitude towards the situated nature of design is needed (cf, [Nussbaum, 90; Suchman, 87]). The purpose of the article is to use knowledge about system design practice as a basis for discussing principles for system design management and implementation.

We see system design as an instance of design in general. In this article we focus on the artistic and creative aspects of design:

"design [is]:

• an artistic and creative process;

• an information and decision-making process;

• one of many societal planning processes;

• one of many socially determined labor processes." [Ehn, 89: 160]

We therefore emphasise the initial phases of design even if this is just a part of the system development process: the initial design sets the limits for much of the design which takes place during later phases of the system development process, eg, programming.

The artistic and creative aspects of design are often presented as mystic and unpredictable, associated with the lonely genius system developer. Artistry is, however, present in all design to a varying degree. We argue that creativity grows when the design is carried out by a group. Our object of study is a group of individuals during a design process. Many aspects of social life can disturb the smooth running of a design process. Real life group design is made difficult by, eg, power struggles, differing interests between groups and individuals, contractors' requirements of the group, personal conflicts within the group—and between group members and non-members. Group design needs methods and management that fit with the characteristics of a creative social process as well as with controlled production processes.

The reason for our concern with group design is twofold. One reason is found in the so-called "participatory design" approaches, advocating cooperation between users and developers in system design (cf, eg, [Aarhus, 85; Bjerknes et al, 87; Schuler & Namioka, 93; CACM, 93a]). Much of the research within these approaches has been concentrated on developing techniques that enable groups of users and system developers to cooperate on system design, emphasising aspects of design other than the creative ones [Bjerknes & Bratteteig, 95]. The second reason is our criticism of system development models and methods that are based on a "technical rationality" [Schön, 87]. In general, system development methods are based on the view that the way the development process is carried out influences the quality of the resulting computer-based system. Methods that are based on technical rationality tend to be restriction-oriented: they focus on control of costs, time, and people in the development process, and they emphasise documentation of the process. We argue that heavy control of system designers contradicts expectations that they will create something novel. Studies and theories of design practice show that design involves a variety of "rationalities" and skills, and that the design will benefit from having all these active during the design process.

The jazz group can illustrate a creative process in a group—even if the purpose of design is a product, an artefact, rather than an ephemeral musical experience. In a jazz group, different instruments with different tonal characteristics together form a totality unattainable with only one kind of instrument. The diversity, the clashes between the sounds, the emergent sounds, all form the totality which we experience as music. The differences are preserved and utilised by the members of the group in order to create music. The creativity of the jazz group is based on the competence of the various players, on their ability and possibility to move within the given structures, but also their ability to improvise by transcending given or traditional structures. They may come up with something neither the audience nor the (other) group members expected.

"The jazz player, actively forging continuity, must choose in full awareness of and responsibility to the historical traditions of the form, and actively honor at every moment her commitments to her fellow musicians, whom she had better know as well as possible as unique individuals. She will be more responsible than the score-reader, not less, to the unfolding continuities and structures of the work." [Nussbaum, 90: 94].

The jazz group is an example of a highly collaborative group where the freedom of the individual player is high, and where the result is the achievement of the group. But even a jazz group needs to be orchestrated. Orchestration does not mean the rigorous leadership by an almighty conductor, but rather a dialogue between the conductor, responsible for the overall sound of the music, and the musicians, who have the skills and responsibility for their particular contribution to the overall sound. Previous discussions on orchestration with respect to system development (eg. [CACM, 93b]) focus on the conductor—we focus on the dialogue.

The "overall sound" of the design group is what we as designers try to achieve, and this dictates the choice of a particular (set of) methods. Ways to reach this overall sound are many and diverse, some emphasise the individual expert, others focus on highly pre-defined arrangements. Models and methods for orchestration of group design are based on different basic conceptions of the nature of design and of groups. We suggest that orchestrating group design should be analogous to arranging a jazz improvisation. In order to set the stage, a group of "players" is invited to elaborate on a "theme", based on a first proposal for an "arrangement" of the theme. The necessary resources, time, space, and people must be available in order to set the stage for the design process—in real life design projects this is not always the case.

The outline of the article is as follows: the first section discusses design as an individual process. In the next section we argue that the design process benefits from being carried out in a group. We talk about creativity as a social phenomenon, and go on to discuss how group members share ideas and knowledge. The subsequent sections describe some of the consequences of our view of group design: that designers need to take risks, and that they need to forget. On this basis, we discuss principles for achieving a creative, social, and productive group design process, ie, one where design is orchestrated.



Design of information systems is similar to many other design areas, as the purpose of the design is not just the designed artefact itself, but changes in the range of possibilities for action in the social organisation which will use the artefact [Ehn, 89; Stolterman, 91]. The purpose of system design is to formulate a vision of these changes, and to describe the vision in a concrete and precise manner: the result of a design process is a set of specifications of computer systems and work processes [Andersen et al, 90]. System design is carried out through activities such as brainstorming, formulating an offer, describing system functions, architecture, modules, and work processes.

The process of creating a novel computer system by the development team is, however, normally described by a set of rational procedures and predefined work steps. Most system development methods see design as an activity aimed at solving a set of problems, departing from problems in the current situation. A detailed analysis of the present situation is conceived as the key to solving the problem(s). It is also believed that detailed and careful analysis can be prescribed and controlled in a methodological way. As a consequence, control and restrictions on the design process are seen as a means of achieving a good result. The common perception of this rationalistic process is based on the idea of "science of measurement", heavily criticised by Nussbaum [1990]. Nussbaum advocates a view on rationality where imagination and emotion are vital concerns, and where rationality is related to the Greek concept of phronesis instead of techné [Nussbaum, 90].

Rationalistic design methods aim at minimising the risks of design through mechanisms for dividing, coordinating, and controlling labour. The risk of making mistakes makes it necessary to document the design process, so that parts of it can be re-done. A focus on process documentation, documenting design decisions and rationale is encouraged.

Rationalistic approaches are based on the assumption that design practice will, if left alone, be carried out in an irrational way, and must thus be guided and steered. The irrational and irresponsible designer is a myth—but so is the perfectly rational one! Research on design practice indicates that design is a rational undertaking but that a variety of rationalities are involved [Buchanan, 92; Peng, 94]. The system development method used should support the creative and social aspects of group design as well as the production aspects.

We see design as a process of invention in which creating visions is more essential than repair of current malfunctions [Schön, 87; Ferguson, 93; Gasparski, 87]. We do appreciate the fact that design often starts with a wish to improve a problematic situation, but innovative and novel design also requires a switch of thought away from the practicalities and trivialities of day-to-day problems. The result of the design process depends on the designers' ability to visualise possible future situations, transcending the limits of the present situation. Solving existing problems thus becomes too limited a frame for understanding design.

Design can be understood as a process that includes activities concerned with three levels of abstraction. At the most abstract level we find a vision, at a more concrete level an operative image, and at the most concrete level we find the design specification [Stolterman, 91]. Ferguson [1993] uses the concepts: vision, sketch, and drawing in a similar way. All three levels—vision, operative image, and design specification—are present during the whole design process, to a varying degree. The creation of visions, operative images, and specifications intermingle, and the three levels inform and delimit each other.


A vision of the final design

The vision is a "distant" visual or conceptual idea of a possible design. A study of design practice among 20 designers [Stolterman, 91] indicates that a vision often originates early in a system design project, eg, at the first meeting between the designers and the management or users—at least when the designers are experienced. One of the designers stated that the vision

"appears very early, maybe too early: before you start thinking about any analysis you find yourself thinking about the final solution" [Stolterman, 91: 137 (our translation)].

The first vision can be a crude idea of a structure, a particular functionality, or a certain choice of technology. It is not possible to specify the vision clearly: a vision can contain contradictions and logical impossibilities, or be very imprecise. The vision may be based on an idea of a particular technical feature, a certain functional or aesthetic liking. Or it could even consist only of the idea of a "mood", in the way Picasso describes his intentions when painting the "Guernica" [Arnheim, 62]: the mood is more important as a guideline than the actual incident.

The vision is the "mind’s eye" of the designer [Ferguson, 93], a result of the knowledge and experience of the designer [Harman, 84]. A vision cannot be found as a result of an analysis of the present situation: a vision-oriented design perspective emphasises design as a problem-setting rather than problem-solving activity [Schön, 87; Lanzara, 83]. In every design situation someone defines what is to be regarded as a problem: just as the solutions are invented, so are the problems.

The design process is a process of "naming and framing" [Schön, 87]. The vision is normally referred to as something that "guides" the designer. The vision is therefore also a way for a designer to restrict the range of possibilities in the design process, a means to handle and navigate through the enormous amount of information and possibilities normally present in a design situation. An experienced designer uses the vision as a heuristic tool in the choice of what and how to think about the present situation [Stolterman, 91; Ferguson, 93]. The vision

"provides the tension between what is and what should be and, aroused by this tension, the energy necessary for the effort of thinking; it also provides the direction in which the restructuring presses forward" [Arnheim, 62: 8].

In artistic design, like painting and authoring, the artist often voluntarily conforms to a given form, structure, or style to reduce the space of possible actions. Moreover, most artists and designers interact with clients or sponsors to make a living, thus forms and structures may be imposed on them by others. In system design the "artist" is part of a collective sharing and challenging of each other's conceptions of structures and actions—a process demanding a lot of energy and work. Design is not only a matter of inspiration and creation of visions, it is also a matter of hard collaborative and communicative work.


An operative image for realising the design

The operative image is the first attempt to make a design proposition external, ie, manifested outside a person's imagination. Since it is possible to describe and communicate about the operative image [Troussier, 87] it is subject to refinements, restructuring, redefinition and to actual manipulation as an object. The operative image is heavily influenced by the vision—and vice versa. As soon as the operative image becomes more fixed and stable it may change gradually into a first attempt at a final design specification [Stolterman, 91].

"The operative image plays a crucial role in situations where no single group member has the necessary skills nor possesses enough information to understand and handle all aspects of the work process. In these situations the operative image enables the work group to discuss and interpret a problematic situation in a meaningful way and to plan an adequate reaction. This is why any member of the group usually can explain the situation and point out what, if anything, has gone wrong." [Bansler & Havn, 91: 149-150]

During the process of group design the group develops a collective image of the final design, which gives the individual group members a basis for interacting and collaborating on the design. The operative image serves as a means to concretise the common goal and task of the group, even if individual members may interpret and account for the image in different ways, based on their particular knowledge and skills. The collective operative image is a result of a negotiation in the group based on one or more individual operative images.


A design specification for producing the design

The design specification is the result of the design process. A detailed specification of the future system is the basis for the construction process which follows, and which may in turn change or modify the specification. The design specification describes structure, function, and form of a computer-based system, including specifications of the functionality and appearance of the system as well as plans for its implementation in the use context. The design specification has to include everything needed for successful construction and implementation.

Under the construction of Guernica, Picasso imposed a painstaking methodological rigour upon himself, producing a large number of sketches and drawings for each small section of the proposed finished work—an iterative process involving the operative image and the vision Picasso had of his painting, resulting in a set of specifications for producing the painting. This process refined the images Picasso was to finally use, and taught him on the job how to build these images. The final construction was probably reasonably straightforward after this labour-intensive and skill-acquiring phase.

We see the design process as a continuous dynamic interplay between three equally important levels of abstraction—the vision, the operative image and the design specification. The vision depends on the imagination and skills of the designers—it may be personal and explicable only through metaphors. In a design group the operative image is a result of a conversation between several designers, a conceptual formation process aiming at creating an object that can be dealt with from a number of perspectives and in a variety of ways, ie, a boundary object (cf. [Star, 89]). The design is a result of a process of mutual explanation and understanding transcending and preserving the individual's competence: the designers do not have to view either the vision or the operative image in exactly the same way. The specification thus is a translation of the operative image to a language in which the material conditions for the design are expressed. The description will enact as a prescription for constructing and realising the design.


Examples of vision-oriented design

We have included two examples to illustrate how individuals and groups may practise vision-oriented design. The first example tells about how Grace Murray Hopper developed the A-0 compiler in the early 50's. In her own words:

"because UNIVAC I only had 1000 words of storage ... there wasn't room enough to keep a whole lot of junk in there while I was doing the compiling process.

I promptly ran up against the problem that in some cases, after making a test, I would jump back in the program for something I had previously processed and at other times I would jump forward in the program to a section of the program which had not been written and I did not know where it was. In other words, there were two types of jumps to be coped with: one which went back in the program; the other went forward in the program. Therefore, as the program was put together, a record was kept of where each subroutine was: they were numbered; the operations were numbered. And if I wanted to jump back to Operation 10, I could look at the record and find which line Operation 10 was at. But if I was at Operation 17, and I wanted to jump to Operation 28, I didn't yet know where it was.

And here comes in the curious fact that sometimes something totally extraneous to what you are doing will lead you to an answer. It so happened that when I was an undergraduate at college I played basketball under the old women's rules which divided the court into two halves, and there were six on a team; we had both a center and a side center, and I was the side center. Under the rules, you could dribble only once and you couldn't take a step while you had the ball in your hands. Therefore if you got the ball and you wanted to get down there under the basket, you used what we called a "forward pass." You looked for a member of your team, threw the ball over, ran like the dickens up ahead, and she threw the ball back to you. So it seemed to me that this was an appropriate way of solving the problem I was facing of the forward jumps! I tucked a little section down at the end of the memory which I called the "neutral corner." At the time I wanted to jump forward from the routine I was working on, I jumped to a spot in "neutral corner." I then set up a flag for Operation 28 which said, "I've got a message for you." This meant that each routine, as I processed it, had to look and see if it had a flag; if it did, it put a second jump from the neutral corner to the beginning of the routine, and it was possible to make a single-pass compiler and the concept did come from playing basketball!" [Hopper, 81: 11]

The quote illustrates that the vision of "go to" was not a result of a careful analysis of an existing situation, even if problems in the current situation triggered the design process. The designer's ability to combine and transform experiences and knowledge from one area into another did not only help her with creating a vision, but also gave some clues as to what could be the first attempts to form an operative image of a future design.

Our second example is a group designing a computer-based system: the Work Sheet System, built as a part of the Florence project [Bjerknes & Bratteteig, 87a; 87b; 88]. The system was a result of a group design process, a cooperation between computer scientists from the University of Oslo and nurses from a Cardiology ward in a Regional Hospital outside Oslo. The purpose of the system was to support the nurses' "overview": nurses are responsible for keeping an overview of patients, doctors, equipment, beds, medicines, medical journals, lab tests, and their job is to coordinate all these elements so that the individual patient and the "collection of" patients in the ward get the best possible care. An overview is needed for the nurses to do nursing and for them to coordinate the routines and activities in the ward. The Work Sheet System supported such an overview by a very simple geographically-based interface [Bjerknes & Bratteteig, 87a; 88].

Overview was thus the vision on which the Work Sheet System was based—understood differently by nurses and computer scientists. To the nurses overview expressed the basic responsibility in their work, and the purpose of the shift-based report meetings. To the computer scientists the notion of overview was abstract, made concrete by referring to a common information base for distributing information to all nurses in a more efficient way than before. The interpretations of the operative image differed accordingly, based on a physical, paper-based map of the ward. The nurses visualised the map as a better structured way of organising the information they needed during their work: the existing information tools were hand-written notes and lists. A paper copy of the map would still preserve the flexibility of the paper, enabling the nurses to carry it around, make notes on it (ie, keep a personal overview of their work). The computer scientists imagined an object-oriented way of structuring and presenting data, using the map of the ward as a model for screen and report lay out, making patient information easy to update by, eg, moving "bed" objects around or moving "patients" in or out of the "beds". The design specification was a sketch of the map made by the nurses during a Florence project meeting [Bjerknes & Bratteteig, 87a]. The implementation phase included the artistry of making a line-oriented terminal and application generator behave like a graphical object-oriented screen.

The vision for the Work Sheet System was found in the present situation, but not by analysing the present work tools: the system replaced a number of small, informal note scraps and lists. The design process made explicit the essence of the nurses' work—which acted as the guiding principle for the design. The image of the map was used as a way of concretising how the vision could be realised in a computer system. The operative image emerged through a process in which the visions of the individual members had the opportunity to develop. The freedom to choose structure for both process and product was a resource to the group design process. The map was a commonly shared image through which the nurses and computer scientists could meet and cooperate. The operative image and the rough design specification made communication about the future system possible.

In a jazz group the members all carry their own vision of the music they want to create. All the visions will influence how the group moves in the situation—within but also across the structures and pre-conditions decided in advance. The ability of a capable jazz group is to listen to the various "voices" reflecting the different members' visions while playing, and allow these voices to change their understanding of the music they are creating, as they are creating it. The jazz group shares an image which makes communication possible, but there are always personal interpretations of the image, turning and twisting the music into new and unexpected directions.



We want the design group to perform as a jazz group during a planned improvisation: we need to understand how visions and operative images come into existence. This section argues that a group can create visions and images that cannot be created by any single member of the group.

According to Buchanan [1992: 12] an important design skill is the ability to systematically shift one's "placement". A placement is a perspective or conceptual position from which a designer analyses the future design. A placement is characterised by the way it focuses on the design, and Buchanan discusses four such placements, focusing on: signs, things, actions, or systems. In general, the placement influences the way the designer "names and frames" the future design and what kind of vision that emerges from the designer's encounter with it.

Every designer is trained within a tradition dominated by particular perspectives or placements. The designer needs to be able to position and reposition her/himself within several placements. Lists like the four placements of Buchanan may support designers in systematically doing so. The conceptual repositioning will decide what is conceived as problems, issues, and solutions, and change the possibilities to discover and create new designs. Design visions emerge through shifts of placement rather than through analyses of particular aspects of the present situation [Buchanan, 92].

An easy way to increase the number of placements present in the design process is to include people with different knowledge and experiences—an argument for including a number of different professionals—users and designers—in the design group. In a study of design projects, Peng [1994] found that heterogeneity among the participants was important to the result. A design process benefits from having a repertoire of placements that makes possible a variety of interpretations and perspectives on the future computer system and its use context. Harman [1984] claims that if more and different elements are brought into the creative process, the process becomes more creative. There is, however, a limit to how many placements can be handled by a group. Creativity involves selection and composition and an overflow of placements may result in reduced openness and a more strict selection.

Peng [1994] emphasises that design involves creating a common understanding of a vision, and articulating this vision into a commonly agreed operative image. Collaborative design is the articulation of shared images. The shared image is not something easy to agree upon [Peng, 94]. Peng describes the process as a "blending of competencies". Shared images are created through individual group members who contribute to the articulation on the basis of their experience and competence.

"Through group discussion, the participants in the design process can build a shared understanding of user-sensitive issues and can develop a common vision of how to meet requirements for ease of learning, ease of use, and user satisfaction." [Karat & Bennet, 91: 269]

A shared understanding is created through the process of formulating one's own ideas and trying to understand the ideas of others. It is important that all participants try to see the world as if they were one of the other participants, trying to grasp the essence or important aspects of the other perspectives. The point is not to learn a new profession, rather to recognise the basic values that other professionals have. By this, the value basis for evaluating an idea or a product grows to include aspects from all perspectives and professions involved. A shared understanding may be based on different interpretations of the same (boundary) object.

In a group engaged in vision-oriented design, mutual learning and "blending of competencies" is essential. The discussions in the group should lead to new or changed perspectives on the design and its interpretations for all members in the group—and thus for the group as a whole. The design proposal: the operative image, should be understandable and explicable for all members, since their knowledge is part of the basis of the proposal, and since their priorities have been part of the design process.

"Every group has its own history: past experience accumulates in such a way as to develop a common understanding of the work process. The formation and maintenance of the operative image may be described as a kind of apprenticeship: the vision of the group tends to be imposed on the individual, but at the same time the collective knowledge is the product of an exchange of individual experiences." [Bansler & Havn, 91: 149]

Bowers & Pycock [1994] are able to show that a particular system design is constructed through conversations between system developers and users, both trying to communicate and make explicit their views and understanding of the other. The concrete system requirements cannot be read from the transcripts, but it is fairly easy to follow the development of a mutually shared vision of the design—not necessarily explained the same way by all participants.

"we suggest that requirements are produced as requirements in and through interaction. It is social interaction which confers existence of them. .. we have tried to make a start on unpacking just how this takes place in its details." [Bowers & Pycock, 94: 303 (original emphasis)]

During the Florence project all participants got a better understanding of what makes a nurse a nurse and what system development is all about [Bjerknes & Bratteteig, 87a]. The mutual understanding was accompanied by a growing respect and trust in each other as professionals. This in turn made the computer scientists take the risk of sharing the responsibility for the design with the nurses, ie, allowing them to be real co-designers [Bjerknes & Bratteteig, 88]. The design of the Work Sheet System was based on a deep understanding of nurses' work, provided by the nurses themselves, and recognised by the computer scientists.

An emphasis on a variety of placements, perspectives, and disciplines suggests seeing design as an inter-disciplinary effort. The basic idea in interdisciplinarity is that the group is more than the sum of its parts, and that the group activities may lead to new and emergent qualities.

We have argued that there are theoretical arguments for bringing in a variety of competence and perspectives into a design group. The arguments offer new strength to participatory approaches to system development. As system design involves organisational changes, the people affected by the changes should have the opportunity to have a say in the design process. All changes may challenge current power structures, thus a fair representation of users and management seems reasonable to encourage a democratic change process. The situated nature of group design will be heavily influenced by the designers themselves: by their visions, knowledge, and creativity. Users introduce placements representing perspectives and knowledge from the application area into the design group. Hence, system design can also benefit from including of a range of other kinds of competence in the design process, eg, graphical designers, dramatic advisers, poets.



Vision-oriented design emphasises creativity: visions are inventions [Stolterman, 91; Ferguson, 93]. We will argue that creative design always implies taking risks and that the risk cannot be reduced in any simple fashion. To be innovative, design must leave room for redefinitions of a given problem so that new and unexpected "solutions" can be suggested—it is necessary both to transcend and to preserve traditional structures.

Creativity implies novelty and innovation [Harman, 84], creativity is the production of novel and useful ideas by individuals or small groups [Couger, 94]. In system development, creativity definitions are related to innovations, human capacities, or product value [Couger et al, 93; Rhodes, 87]. The innovation-oriented definition focuses on the product and the production process, the human capacities on the creative person, and the value-oriented definition discusses how to achieve a creative environment.

A creative environment includes freedom and autonomy of work, challenging tasks, and adequate resources, and a creative management, culture, and work group. Obstacles to creativity are found in conservative, conflicting, or authoritarian environments that may include detailed control of work, restricted personal limits, routine tasks, and time pressure. Too much time pressure is reported to result in loss of creativity [McGrath, 90].

Literature on creativity mainly discusses the individual, the creative personality—we think that the categories also can be used to characterise creative processes. The notions of creativity level and the creative style are used to characterise the creator [Nagasundaram & Bostrom, 94]. A creative style is the approach to formulate and solve problems. Kirton [1989] identifies two different creative styles: adaptation and innovation. The adaptive style emphasises the generation of ideas and products that preserve the prevailing paradigms, while the innovative style focuses on generating ideas that break or modify them. A similar distinction is made by Fischer et al. [1994], referring to incremental or discontinuous innovations.

The innovative process, the paradigm-modifying process in particular, includes taking risks. Not taking any risks implies defining the problem and its solutions in advance: safety is concerned with staying well within the limits of what is seen as possible or wanted—and what is predictable. A design project that cannot take risks will not easily result in novel or surprising ideas.

From a management perspective, design always implies risks [Boehm, 88]. Minimising risk is often done by increasing the control of the process as much as possible by dividing the design process into small steps or phases with well-defined, prescribed goals and functions, or by restricting the possible actions of the designer by imposing particular techniques or methods. This kind of risk management is similar to techniques for avoiding conflicts, through "filtering" the process through restrictions on the resources, the personnel, or the possible solutions, or by controlling the agenda [Borum & Enderud, 81].

A heavily controlled process will encourage the designers to suggest adaptive designs and act in accordance with a paradigm-preserving style. This minimises the risk since the designer's space of possible actions is reduced and with it the space of possible visions and operative images. The control can be so all-including that the process becomes too controlled and risk-free to allow for innovation. Stolterman [1991]'s study of system designers reports that the designers often felt their creativity was hampered by the design methods they where expected to use. They described their experience as a contradiction: they were expected to follow a prescribed method and still come up with a creative design. They felt trapped because the methods did not acknowledge the need for innovative and paradigm-modifying work.

In the jazz group, the members need to be both innovators and paradigm-modifiers—within the jazz paradigm. A jazz audience expects the group to create music that changes their prevalent preconceptions and the understanding of the music—still giving them the good, old songs. This is similar to what is expected from design groups. A vision-oriented perspective on group design implies that the group is orchestrated in ways that encourage designers to be innovators and paradigm-modifiers, within the limits set by time and resources—in real life, design that requires unlimited resources and time is never interesting. A capable design group is able to combine the needs for innovative design with the demands of efficiency.



Different perspectives are important for the dynamics of the creative process. However, the shared image grows out of the participants moderating the superiority of their own perspective—forgetting the individual for the benefit of the group. The group cannot function if it has to maintain a large amount of individual preconceptions and personal experiences. The design group must—as a whole—have the ability and opportunity to leave things behind, ie, to forget and select what to remember.

If designers are to come up with novel ideas, they may have to forget what was "named and framed" as a problem or a solution earlier in the process. A group of designers needs to work their way through ideas, visions, and operative images without being held up by heavy demands for documentation of the process. In a creative design process one thing leads to another, analogies and metaphors influence the design thinking in new ways, a certain chaos is present.

The situational and contextual nature of the process of creating a shared vision is supported by the oral nature of group design. Most of our social life is lived within a communicative culture based on oral traditions. An oral culture is characterised by being additive and redundant rather than analytical and hierarchical, empathetic and situated rather than abstract and objective. Many of these characteristics are related to human memory capacity: as the oral culture cannot rely on external aides for helping memory, the language itself has to be made up of forms that make it easier to remember. The difference between oral and literal cultural traditions can explain some of the differences between group design and the work of the individual designer [Ong, 82].

The characteristics of oral cultures can be applied to group design. The design group communicates in spoken language, even though a lot of design methods emphasise procedures for producing written documentation of what is communicated. The oral culture may be severely disturbed by these procedures. Procedures aiming at regulating and transforming an oral communication to externalised forms may intervene with the "natural" flow "built into" the oral language of the group [Ong, 82]. In an oral culture it is important to be situated and homeostatic, ie, to be allowed to forget and put aside "memories not longer relevant" [Ong, 82]. Language gets its meaning from the context, and the context of the design group is the process of mutual exchange and creation of shared visions and images. The group members need to repeat themselves, to be redundant and non-linear in their argumentation, to forget, to make references and analogies in a situated and intuitive way. This is not to say that writing does not open up for imagination and learning—on the contrary: activities like writing and drawing may be essential to formulate ideas and may in fact be an important part of a group design process. Our argument is rather that an oral culture emphasises the transitoriness of ideas during communication and learning, and encourages shifts of perspective and focus as the process evolves. To enforce the design group to behave according to a literal culture would emphasise other qualities such as precision, completeness, pedagogy, context independence.

A view of design emphasising the oral nature of the group design work contradicts what is proposed in a number of current design methods, in particular those focused on quality assurance and design rationale. Quality assurance methods are based on the view that a quality process leads to a quality product, thus they emphasise process documentation. A well documented process makes it possible to step back in the design process and re-do one or several previous steps when encountering problems or errors. Documenting the design rationale is aimed at preserving the good ideas and explaining the design to non-designers. We have several objections to these approaches and their use of written communication in an oral process. During a creative process, only entries giving meaning to the participants are noted. Descriptions used as means of communication are not normally comprehensible to people who did not participate in the description process [Bjerknes & Bratteteig, 87c]. Documentation of the design process thus requires extra work in order for it to be meaningful to other people—even the necessary documentation of the system—the design specification—does require extra work. The readers of documents describing a design process are not the designers: they are managers, maintainers, users etc. These people need documentation, but not the kind that describe the design process! Parnas and Clements [1986] argue that a rational documentation process is impossible to achieve—even if they claim that one should fake the process for the benefit of maintenance and management. We share their concern for product documentation—but we cannot help seeing the current emphasis on process documentation as an attempt to control the design process. Control-oriented approaches can contradict the well-functioning oral communication environment needed in creative and vision-oriented design activities.



Group design is a partly unpredictable dynamic social process. Every group design process is unique and needs to be handled as such. In collaborative design processes it is impossible to predefine scheduling schemes for how the participating design disciplines should coordinate their actions during the collaborative processes [Peng, 94]. Instead, the art of orchestrating group design is the art of balancing and managing a variety of concerns in a way appropriate to the situational conditions—several "voices" need to be taken care of and different melodies need to be coordinated in order to create "the music". Drawing on the jazz group metaphor we emphasise three such voices of design: imaginative thinking, ability to handle and synthesise a range of competence, and the capability of encouraging a feeling of well-being within a group—in addition to giving overall managerial support. Each of these voices contributes to the music in different ways, at a tempo adjusted to the respective challenges.


Imaginative thinking

Vision-oriented design departs from a problematic situation, an ill-structured problem area, and is oriented towards creating a future rather than solving present problems. Methods for vision-oriented design emphasise creativity, and support the participation of all group members in the design process: in creating visions, operative images, and design specifications. And such methods exist: Scandinavian research on user participation in system development has come up with several contributions. The methods we are thinking of include techniques that support oral discussions, non-formal description activities, and prototype presentations—visions and operative images are emphasised more than system specifications (cf, eg, the collection of techniques in [Greenbaum & Kyng, 91]). Some techniques involve the participants in discussions about present problems as a basis for arriving at alternative futures (eg, Future Workshops [Kensing, 87; Ehn, 89; Kensing & Madsen, 91], Search Conferences [Gustavsen, 92; Pålshaugen, 86], Priority workshop [Braa, 95]). Other techniques are oriented towards the future product, involving future users, their knowledge and work context in the actual design (eg, Cooperative prototyping [Grønbæk, 91], Metaphorical Design [Madsen, 94], Scenario-based Design [Carrol, 94]). Both descriptions and presentations of possible computer systems may be used to enhance the communication and imaginative thinking in the design group—and to delimit the creativity (cf, eg, [Bjerknes & Bratteteig, 87c]).


Handling and synthesising competence

The variety of competence and skills in the design group is one of the major features—and challenges—of design in groups. The "collision" between different backgrounds creates a space of modelling possibilities, which is strongly situational. As the modelling space is created in the collaboration, it cannot be determined in advance. In order to take advantage of the emergent properties appearing in group design, a process of "blending competencies" must be created [Walz et al, 93]. Methods and techniques that aim to identify and describe different perspectives can help to include a variety of views and competence in the discussion (eg, Soft Systems Methodology [Checkland & Scholes, 90]; Soft Dialectics [Bratteteig & Øgrim, 94]). The objective is to create a dialogue between world views. The result of the process is to be found in increased individual knowledge and a deeper understanding of other positions—a common knowledge base in the group. Every member's knowledge is an equally important part of the common basis [Gustavsen, 92; Emery, 93] and the area of discussion must include the range of individual competence [Bråten, 73]. This in turn creates a basis for innovative design.


The well-being of the group

At the group level, the shaping of a society takes place, a society made for carrying out the design process. The social and individual dimensions of the group are just as important for the success of the group as the design task they are set up to carry out. The division of work and distribution of responsibilities between the group members affects both the task, and the individuals and their relations, eg, status, power, payoff.

Studies of decision making in groups conclude that consolidated groups take more risks than individuals [Baron, 86]. The novelty of the design depends on the mutual trust and confidence within the group as the individual knowledge bases have to be "given up" in order to create a group basis. The group basis should be derived from negotiation between all the individual bases, so that it can be explained and accounted for by all group members. As with jazz groups, one of the most important tasks in the orchestration is to enhance the possibility of the design group consolidating itself. All members must be confident in the overall idea of the group and in the way the group is supposed to work. In order to support the well-being of the group, techniques from psychology and group therapy may be helpful.

Group development processes take a lot of time, especially when it comes to learning and creating a mutual understanding. Orchestrating such a group process thus means arranging for particular changes—with respect to both individuals and the group—that will influence and be part of the production process. Task-oriented groups (like most system design groups would be) normally develop through a series of stages [McGrath, 90]. These stages depend on and influence the development of the individual, the group, and the production aspect of the group process. However, the development paths of these three aspects can be very different, and the time dimension influences the possibilities and problems of the group.


Overall managerial support

Group design processes require some overall managerial support. The mere existence of different disciplines and perspectives increases the possibilities for conflicts. Real cooperation balances harmony and conflict—handling conflicts is essential to group design. The conflict-handling capacities in a group depend on how the individuals comply with, and take into consideration, the interests of other group members (their cooperation willingness) and how important their own position seems to be (self-asserting or -sacrificing) [Grindsted & Olsen, 94]. Conflicts between the production and the group aspects of the process, and between the individual and group levels, may be reflected in interpersonal conflicts and differences. Orchestrating such processes may involve a range of work styles, from therapy and teaching to control-oriented management styles—lack of adequate structures can create interpersonal conflicts [Bion, 61; Emery, 93]. The democracy presupposed in an interdisciplinary design group requires managerial support. In addition, different management strategies may be needed in different design situations, as the conditions for the design process vary, eg, group size, organisational level, location of the design in the overall development process.

The orchestration of group design in accordance with this view of design presupposes a strong belief in the abilities of the group, and in the group process, as there will be no substantial documentation if the group breaks down. The overall management of the group needs, however, to balance this view with the other aspects of system design mentioned in the introduction.



Groups are unpredictable, risky, and seemingly irrational—but this is precisely why design projects are carried out by groups! System design practice has proved to be a good basis for discussing important aspects of management of system design in groups. If innovative design is to be expected then rationalistic methods have to be supplemented with methods, techniques, and managerial support that activate and balance a range of rationalities in the design process—and we have referred to a number of such methods. We have criticised design management approaches that emphasise control and minimising risks, and demand documentation. Vision-oriented design emphasises the creation of new ideas by ways of mutual learning and risk taking, and group design is a process of generating visions from a diversity of knowledge and skills. The creative and social sides of system design indicate that the design process cannot be fully predicted and prescribed, even if the production aspects of the process need careful management and plans. Group design is a planned and situated process.

The quality of a group design process is a result of the group dynamics, but it is not possible to force quality to emerge in a group by controlling and restricting the group dynamics—just as it is not possible to fully pre-define what and how a jazz group should play to produce good jazz music. The jazz group creates music by being a community of individual voices, playing a variety of melodies with a diversity of sounds: together they create music. Both jazz groups and design groups depend on every member to do their part—not more, and not less.

A well-functioning jazz group seems like a harmonious undertaking. But the harmony may only concern the common goal to create good music. A jazz group includes conflicts, differences in style, in techniques, in ideas concerning the best ways of realising the musical ideas expressed in the theme or in the musical basis. In all kinds of artistic design there are strong individuals, with strong individual visions and ideals. The individuals may compete, and different members will experience different demands and relations to the group. A well-functioning jazz group is a group consisting of very individualistic members with different skills and ideals, who work within given structures and limitations: there is an audience, there may be an employer, the members are not equally skilled, the group has to deal with a given theme, instruments, localities, acoustics … and the capable jazz group is able to create a new musical experience in this situation. The system design group faces a similar but more serious challenge as the result of their efforts is a complex organisational change involving other people—not a pleasant ephemeral musical experience.



Thanks to Frieder Nake, Leigh Star, and Joan Greenbaum for thorough comments on earlier versions of the paper. We would also like to thank Finn Kensing, the three anonymous CIC'95 reviewers, and the book reviewers Torbjörn Näslund and Tom McMaster for helping us make our argument more clear. Helen Mørken helped us improve the language.



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