The Glossary of Human Computer Interaction

27. Tradition and transcendence


In the HCI or interaction design community the expression "the dialectics between tradition and transcendence" is often used. The phrase was coined by Pelle Ehn in his PhD thesis (1988), and captures the idea that the tension between tradition and transcendence is fundamental to design. The tension is to be understood in terms of the designer's role being somewhere in the space between extending and improving the present design context (to root the design in the present tradition) and exploring, and eventually reifying ("thingifying"), possible future worlds by transcending, going beyond, or breaking the boundaries of the existing tradition, ideas, and conceptions of the design context. In an interview in Rogers et al. (2002), Terry Winograd explains:

"[...] people work and live in certain ways already, and they understand how to adapt that within a small range, but they don't have an understanding or a feel for what it would mean to make a radical change, for example, to change their way of doing business on the Internet before it was around, or to change their way of writing from pen and paper when word processors weren't around. I think what the designer is trying to do is to envision things for users that the users can't yet envision. The hard part is not fixing little problems, but designing things that are both innovative and that work." (Rogers et al. 2002: p. 71, as cited by Jonas Löwgren on

Thus, to design is among other things to envision and reify possible futures, where the users as well as the technology are different from today. Not necessarily a mere augmentation of the present state of affairs.