Here we are at our last theory presentation and an opportune moment to reflect back on the past 7 weeks. In theory class, we began with readings on Ethics & Responsibility, continued on to The Role of Research, Design & Poverty, and finished on Design Thinking. Reading Design Theory is intended to not just inform us as designers, but help us to determine who we are as designers. In my Statement of Purpose when applying to AC4D, I spoke of why design was important to me by discussing design as it showed up throughout my life outside of traditional design roles. One enjoyable aspect of Theory class has been putting concepts and language around those experiences.

For our final presentation, we are presenting on how designers think. We were encouraged to approach something we would like to improve and for me that is storytelling and, not just processing and synthesizing our readings, but how that applies to me as a designer.

namibia table sunrise

Throughout this section of readings, I have been thinking back to a moment when I broadened my sense of design. The setting for the conversation was quite dramatic; sunrise atop a mountain in the Namibian desert. I was working as a Safari Guide at time and on this specific day I was off duty as a guide and tasked with setting up a surprise breakfast for a group of guests. While overlooking the otherworldly landscape along the Kunene River into Angola, I made what started as small talk with a guest who informed me he was a designer. Prior to this I had studied fashion design and construction, worked for an interior design firm, and read glossy design magazines with people sharply dressed, often in black. I was taken aback because nothing about this guest indicated to me he was what I identified as a designer. He explained to me that he had worked for Apple many moons ago and was part of the design team for one of their early model computers. In his description of the work he told me that the 12 designers signatures were etched into the mold for the hardware just as an artist signed their painting. I have never found literature to support his story, but for me the idea of a signature on a piece of hardware INSIDE of a computer broadened my definition of the art of design. As our conversation continued it turned into a discussion of technology in the world today and, as I would describe now, the wicked problems that have resulted. Elements of the conversation included the renaissance and the enlightenment and a future where qualitative human thought is of the greatest value. Wyatt’s article was poignant as she discussed the transition from design based on aesthetics to design providing solutions to complex problems, and human experience at a local level to identify user needs and perspectives.

Artboard 1

The period of industrialization marked an increase in technology that moved us away from being an agrarian society and gave birth to social problems, which Horst Rittel termed “Wicked Problems.” A frustrated urban planner, Rittel defines the nature of problems and identifies quantitative solutions cannot resolve social problems because each problem leads to a new problem. Another one of our authors, Herb Simon, defines well structured problems solvable by artificial intelligence and brute force and Ill-structured problems which require qualitative information. Ill structured problems are unpredictable and therefore the best approach to a solution is to MAKE something. He introduces problem solving as an iterative cycle that evolves forward based off of the external environment and long term memory. Nigel Cross discusses making things and the role of abductive reasoning, and the need for designers to intentionally inform their intuition.


Just as industrialization changed society through technology producing more efficiently than humans, computers are able to outperform humans in deductive reasoning. Chris Paccione argues for the need for universal design skills as a human literacy to be taught in school by following the societal benefits of the spread of math literacy that resulted not from Fibonacci making math accessible to people through his teaching methods. There will always be space for design as a specialized profession because we live in a world of wicked problems. Buchanan explores design as a discipline at a micro level where there can be cross contamination between design arenas of signs, things, actions, and thoughts. He proposes that instead of organizing around outputs, we organize around process.

Artboard 2

DeBono explores the creative process by pairing it with the constructs of humor to describe lateral thinking, the process of jumping from a rational line of thought to an unexpected parallel line of thinking. One of the ways he proposes transitioning between lines is through provacation; he describes a project with cigarettes and opening the dictionary, and randomly selecting the word stoplight. While this seemed absurd to me it reminded me of the statement of purpose I mentioned earlier, design is ubiquitous and interconnected because it is purposeful.

Artboard 3

In the context of this story, it was ironic that we were in a desert occupied by one of the last nomadic tribes in the world, the Himba. During a week off work I headed to Windhoek, and escorted a local Himba working in the lodge to ‘the big city’ for a dental appointment. To me this was a moment of two worlds colliding because I had assumed the tribe to live in a bubble and not be going to town for dentistry but instead applying a solution passed through generations. The two worlds collided when Ben and I drank beer in a cafe and he asked me to make a facebook account for him, which first involved setting up an email account, and then lots of explanation about why and eventually discussion about our digital identities of today’s information age. And thus a nomadic Himba was now part of the digital era where computers have the answers to all our questions… just not the answers to the true problems. I’ve always wondered about Ben’s facebook journey and its purposes: What value did facebook provide him? Did he find ‘friends’? What sort of advertising targeted him?!

My thoughts have changed and instead of thinking of technology as the driver of good or bad change I am thinking about design as the driver of positive change… Hobbe’s water wheels, Yunus’ social businesses, Pilloton’s call for immersion to address the real problems.

When writing a blog post about theory class at the beginning of the term I referenced what level of physical torture I would be willing to endure to not have to do the theory readings. I am happy to report that I now look forward to our readings; I liken it to how the first month or two back at the gym is miserable but as you build up those muscles again the tables turn and it can feel miserable when you DON’T get to the gym. What are we going to do without Tuesdays and Thursdays with Scott next term?! As Scott’s first set of students, I consider us fortunate that we had intellectual discussions brought to life with his amazing sense of humor and had the benefit of learning from somebody that had been in our shoes as an AC4D student not too many years ago. Thanks for an awesome term, Scott!