New Language, New Design

May 23, 2018, 5:06 PM

It is an under-appreciated fact of the human condition that our thinking is constrained by our existing language. First of all, our routines and instincts guide us to use familiar concepts like "the design phase" or "project goals". Second, even if we are able to break our routines and reflect on the limits of our language, we will essentially have to invent new language to think in ways that our current way of talking doesn't allow.


In 2017, Gilbert Cockton, professor of Design Theory at Northumbria University published a paper titled "New Process, New Vocabulary: Axiofact = A_tefact + Memoranda" to do exactly that: create a new vocabulary that allows us to talk about Interaction Design without the baggage of expectations that have nothing to do with how people actually design.



Cockton criticises the way most people see design as a linear processes with homogenous work stages, such as understanding phase, concepting phase, implementation phase. Cockton calls these Rational Idealized Linear Engineering Design (RILED) models. Essentially, Cockton argues that we have become trapped by the "ready-made design" of RILED that promises certainty, absolutes and uniformity. He contrasts this with "design-in-the-making", the way actual human beings create things.


An example of RILED thinking criticised by Cockton: Design Thinking process by Interaction Design Foundation

At Nitor, we are very conscious of the downsides of waterfall projects where phase-gates between research, design and implementation stop teams from learning as they develop a service. However, Cockton puts the same blame also on more enlightened user-centered design processes that imply that certain stages of design have to begin and end before others begin. Even worse, these processes constrain design into a series of steps for creating an optimal solution for an initial problem, leaving few opportunities to expand beyond the initial problem statement. Even if we build iterations and non-linear movement between the phases into our models we still talk about design as sequences and phases: we are, in Cockton's terms, held hostage by our “RILED language”.


To move beyond the dominant way of talking about design in terms of linear processes constrained by an initial problem or brief, Cockton draws from the field of “Creative Design” to argue that user-centered design outcomes arise from choices in four design arenas:

  • Beneficiaries: Understand and specify the context of use
  • Purposes: Specify the user requirements (ends)
  • Artefacts: Produce design solutions (means) to meet user requirements
  • Evaluations: Evaluate the designs against the requirements (p.752)

However, these design arenas should not be thought of as a sequence of phases like in traditional UCD processes but as separate spaces of work which can lead to each other and take place in parallel. For example, creating artefacts may change our understanding of the beneficiaries or the purpose. The outputs of design should be able to generate insight and outcomes larger than any initial design brief of design challenge.


In practice, design work flows from one design arena into another by integrating work across arenas either sequentially or concurrently. Sequential integration takes place when moving form one design arena to another, such as making adjustments to evaluation criteria based on improved understanding of the purpose. Concurrent integration means working on multiple design arenas and simultaneously integrating the results using resources such as personas, scenarios and use cases. Integration requires effort and is always dependent on the expertise of the designers themselves: "integration can be concurrent or sequential, but it is never automatic” (p.755).


Not satisfied with just breaking the linearity and centeredness of RILED processes, Cockton also proposes a set of new words for talking about what is worked on in design.

  1. Instead of beneficiaries who benefit from our work, we should be talking about the design arena of anyficiaries: all the people we affect either positively, negatively or neutrally. This switch in perspective enables is to look at our work not just in terms of people we have set out to help, but also the impact our work has on the world. (p.752)
  2. The goal of design is to produce an artefact: the final released product, service or other object. Work in the other design arenas is valuable only inasmuch as it helps improve the final artefact. Cockton's concept for these other spaces is memoranda, latin for "things to be borne in mind". The purpose of memoranda is to be integrated into other design arenas and ultimately help create the final artefact. (p.752-753)
  3. The artefact is the final result of design, but on the way to the artefact we also create a series of pre-final versions that are not the final artefact. These versions are antefacts which are created and developed until the final artefact is ready. To address the design arena in which antefacts are worked on until the final artefact is reached, Cockton proposes the term a_tefact (pronounced ahtefact). (p.753)
  4. For Cockton, design means working in multiple design arenas and integrating their memoranda to make sure that the a_tefact delivers value. The result is an axiofact, value that has been made through convincing connections with apt memoranda. From this final piece comes the subtitle of Cockton's paper: Axiofact = A_tefact + Memoranda. (p.755-756)


The end result of Cockton's paper is an "un-RILED post-centric design process" that is balanced, integrated and generous, i.e. BIG design (p.756). In BIG design, work consists of episodes where work takes place in multiple design arenas with memoranda and a_tefacts being developed and integrated both sequentially and concurrently. An episode might be a project or some other stretch of time that makes sense locally and individual episodes may focus more on some design areas, but they are not phases in which work only concerns some aspect of design.


The advantage of Cockton's BIG design, as presented in the paper, is that it helps us talk about the richness of design work while simultaneously providing us with a clearer set of words to describe what we are trying to achieve at any given project. The downside of letting go of our existing RILED models is that BIG design doesn't tell us how to do design: since there are no steps or process to follow, there is no set fo instructions we can follow.

However, there are a few good lessons in the BIG acronym that we can strive for: maintain a good balance between design arenas, put effort into integrating memoranda to create valuable a_tefacts, and embrace generative design that is able to go beyond any single problem statement or design brief. We see potential in this new way of thinking.


The language we use matters. In the coming months we will continue to explore how this new language describes the way we design digital services in Nitor teams, and how to extend this way of thinking from just design into end-to-end delivery of digital services. We hope you'll join us for the ride.

Finally, we would like to thank you to Panu Korhonen from Nordkapp for opening the conversation on Cockton's research. We look forward to an exciting conversation!



Otso Hannula is Nitor's resident Service Designer, researcher and a Lean-Agile coach. Otso is interested in digital services, co-design, and Lean UX, and he is currently finishing his dissertation on using design games in service design at Aalto University. Any time he can steal from design and research, Otso spends playing all kinds of games from PC and mobile to board games and larp.

The animated illustrations of this article were created by Tommi Koirikivi, Senior Designer at Nitor.

Cover photo by: Marcus dePaula on Unsplash