A little more than a year ago, I sat down with Mitch Kapor to talk about the legacy of his Software Design Manifesto. The conversation was part of some research I was doing on a larger topic, one which I don’t think I’ll have time to return to now that I’ve left Adaptive Path. Before my first day at Plinky, I wanted to clear the decks, and get the transcript of the conversation out into the world.
As always, Mitch has plenty of wonderful things to say. There’s a significant history lesson, some pointers on entrepreneurialism, and some very frank perspectives on the principles of design. I’ve edited it a bit for focus (mostly mine, I’m a conversational interviewer, and tend to let topics wander) and broken it out over a couple posts, which I’ll publish in the next few days. I hope you find what Mitch has got to say as valuable as I do.
Interview with Mitch Kapor (part 1)
Mitch Kapor: By way of context, you know, there’s an upcoming conference or workshop being convened by Terry Winograd and people from d.school on sort of software design – they’re calling it technology design now – 15 years later. Do you know about this?
Ryan Freitas: I know that it’s happening. I don’t know all the details about it.
MK: It’s happening in I think the first weekend in June, bringing together many of the people who were there at the original conference. My sort of manifesto was one of the drivers for that conference.
RF: Esther Dyson’s – was it PC forum or –
MK: Well that’s why I gave the talk about the paper. Terry had independently been working on an approach to design that is shared a lot in its perspective and had some differences, but he was writing things, also. He organized this conference with NSF money. He was on his own track. That track became the d.school eventually –
MK: – but my manifesto was an important stimulus. So I’ve been thinking some about this whole subject in preparation for this conference, and then I gave a talk just a week and a half ago for – what the hell were the name of those people – DSR, Design Science Research, which is another thing coming out of academia with some NSF funding for the Science of Design, that has some similarities and some profound differences, the main one being my approach in the manifesto – and since then – has been to look at things from a practitioner’s perspective. They’re looking at things from an academic perspective.
So… I’ve been thinking about these things. The timing of this interview is good because until I started thinking about things, I would have even less to say than what I have now. So I re-read the manifesto in preparation for all this, and I was struck by several things. The first is it really is of the form of a manifesto and a call to arms, and it’s intentionally provocative in that kind of way. If I were writing something today, I might not write it that way. That came out of my personality and my situation in the world and my history, and sort of my personal narrative as it came out of the situation itself. So that manifesto-ness of it – you could say, “Well was it necessary to write a manifesto?” No. There was a situation, and then there was my response to the situation.
The manifesto came out of a chemical reaction between the two. But in re-reading it, I think the situation that I was describing, the problem, is still very, very much present, which is that software is too hard to use. That is a symptom of a deep problem that has to do with the marginalization of design, then and now.
RF: So you think that trend persists?
MK: Yes. I think there’s been some interesting change and interesting progress, but in the main I don’t see a fundamental change.