In his paper ‘Designing as Reflective Conversation with the Materials of a Design Situation’  Donald A. Schon describes the process of design as a “reflective conversation” with a material design situation. He uses examples from architecture, where designers actively shape a “design world” by exploring and experimenting with given design inputs. Schon states that the activity of designing is based on the designers ability to make judgments, to identify problems and opportunities by actively seeing and interacting with the material. By describing specific examples from architecture, he elaborates that problems and questions are not always fully known as an input to the design process but that the designer has to explore, test and change them by actively interacting with the design material. The author tries to answer the question, how technology and artificial intelligence can be used to design. The conclusion is, that the human perception and the ability to recognise patterns, flaws and meaning is key for creating a successful design and can not simply be copied by technology . Focusing on examples from architecture allows to mainly look at the usage of physical design material. When looking at the process of design, it becomes visible that the physical material is in some way ‘talking’ with the designer while he/she explores and evaluates new ideas.
The following text focuses on the question how this understanding of ‘talking materials’ can be transferred to the design process for visual interactions and interfaces. Based on examples it elaborates, how material can talk to the designer when the material itself and the product are digital software. In order to answer the given question, this paper will focus on several examples from my work as a technical product manager for a digital software product. The text will highlight the development of the product management team’s way of working and how the topic of materials that ‘talk back’ to us as designers had a great influence on this development. First, a short overview of the tasks and the design process as it was implemented at the beginning is given. The next part of the text highlights, how the qualities and processed mentioned in  influenced the work and finally, how the process and the way of working had changed. Furthermore, it evaluates how only small changes in the process of design can have results on how designers see and understand problems, ideas, tasks and solutions.
When material is not ‘talking’ to the designers
At the company that I was working for, the product management department is responsible for monitoring, improving and updating the existing software. Tasks include the evaluation and re-design of existing features. Projects are given to a group of several product managers with different backgrounds in business, development, usability and design. In order to get more user focused results, a user centred design process is applied in the projects. After exploring and understanding the domain the team starts with the creation of requirements. This is followed by a design phase.
When I started working in the team, the design was developed mainly by the use of paper on flip-charts and digital tools as power point, photoshop and balsamiq. The result was, that the digital design often only was created by one person after discussing and talking about it in the project team in front of a flip-chart. Based on the given tools, making instant changes and exploring ideas was only possible in a discussion and in complicated and slow ways – either by having several papers and switching them on the flip chart or by having one person explaining the design made with a digital tool after adapting changes.
The problems which the teams often faced are also described by Schön, when he explores how difficult communication between designers about intention and meaning of a specific design can be [01, page 143]. Another problem was, that the sketches often remained on the flip chart in the meeting rooms. Transferring conclusions from a meeting into a digital solution was done by one designer. This often resulted in the situation that the understanding of that person did not match the other designers intention. The same applied for the development of interaction. This process resulted in several problems regarding communication and the intention for a specific design. Furthermore it limited the way of exploring and actively seeing different ideas. Conclusions often were made just by discussing them what often resulted in bigger following questions when starting to sketch this decision.
Improvements and what changed
After experiencing these problems in several projects, the design process was changed step by step. In order to have a better and more interactive way of working and elaborating sketches, whiteboards where put up at several walls in the product management team area. Even though this seems to be a simple and very slight change, it is a good example of how important it is to have a material that can better ‘talk’ to the designer – also with digital products. Ideas and concepts could be sketched and changed more quickly. This increased the active realisation of ideas instead of only having them in the head or in words. Furthermore, the whiteboards not only allowed a better collaboration but also a faster ideation and creation of ideas. Another positive aspect was that designs turned into a more present and visible part of the working day. This allowed to see problems and ideas even when not actually working on it but just by walking past the whiteboards.
A second improvement, that shows how important it is to actively see and explore designs, are changes in the development of interactions. Especially for bigger projects with several pages, steps and scenarios, it was not feasible for the designer to just work with digital tools or one big paper when creating the connections and when designing the user experience. Switching between screens or papers was not efficient in communicating all necessary connections. The biggest improvement in this scenario was the method of printing out all pages, stages and touch points and adding them to the wall. This created the situation of having the “design world” clearly visible in front, allowing walk throughs, note taking and drawing physically connections. It allowed the designer to get a better understanding and more holistic overview and helped to better see impacts of changes and existing problems.
Conclusion – Properties of ‘talking material’
In the given example of my personal work, I experienced how important it is to use a material that not only enables a good communication between team members but that also ‘talks’ back to the designer. One of the disadvantages of flip-chart papers was, that the options for exploration and expression of ideas are limited due to the size of the paper and the quality of the pens (everything that had been added once can not simply be removed). Especially when working in teams in front of this paper, it limited the amount of space and freedom to try things out. The situation was build with focus on discussion instead of actual doing and sketching. Another disadvantage of flip-charts was, that they were placed in meeting rooms and abandoned when the meeting was finished. As soon a material is out of sight it can no longer ‘talk’ to the designer and also gets out of the mind easily. I personally experienced that seeing something in a design does not always happen instantly, but that sometimes distance is needed before focusing on a design again.
Finally, the whiteboards helped to provide a tool that allows a simpler seeing-doing-seeing interaction with the material and therefore encourages a more ‘fluent conversation’ between the designer and the material. Instead of always breaking the ‘communication flow’ by turning pages, the whiteboards allowed a direct and fast interaction when exploring different ideas.
Based on the given examples, a (physical or digital) design tool should allow the designer to explore different kind of ideas, to make errors and to correct them, to change and to adapt, to discuss and to share. It needs to be visible for the designer from different view points and distances and needs to provide a good overview in order to see connections and to build interactions.
To sum it up, even so the ‘talking material’ might not be as visible and physical in digital design as it is in fields as architecture, it still becomes obvious how important the “seeing-moving-seeing”  action is, in order to better understand and explore design options and qualities. Term such as “Design World”, “knowing-in-action”, design input and output  also play a major role when defining and evaluating the design process for digital products. Properties of design materials and tools play a major role in a designer’s work – and even small changes can create a better and more creative environment.
 Schön, D. A. (1992). Designing as reflective conversation with the materials of a design situation. Knowledge-Based Systems, 5, 3-14.
 Wikipedia, Flip Chart, last visited 20.04.2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flip_chart