Because we have these ways of seeing

Our most recent section of Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entreprenuership focused on what limits what we can imagine. One can start with the question, “Is imagination boundless?” That’s a romantic thought, but if we consider things that are routinely labeled “unfathomable,” we ca start to see the boundaries of the human mind.

Take Glen Berger’s “three incontrovertible facts” from his forward to his play Underneath the Lintel:

“1) The universe contains well over 500,000,000,000 galaxies, with each galaxy containing over 1,000,000,000,000 stars, of which, our vast, blazing and life-bestowing sun…is one. 2) The Earth is 4,600,000,000 years old, in which time, from the Pre-Cambrian Era to the Present—a dizzying, terrifying number of inhabitants—amoebas and trilobites, dust mites and Neanderthals—have all struggled to live from one hour to the next. (Indeed, more living creatures are in my stomach (and yours) at this moment than the total number of human beings that have ever existed.) 3) I will die. I will be dead in sixty years, though it’s entirely conceivable that I’ll be dead before the week is out.”

The three incontrovertible facts Berger lays out here are unfathomable  to me. 1,000,000,000,000 stars – I cannot hold the concept of that many stars in my head, much less imagine them all at once. As much as I have seen and contemplated death, I honestly cannot imagine what the moment of expiration will be like, or what it’s like after. Berger’s facts help me put a few initial boundaries on my understanding of the limits of my own imagination.

A saying I heard once in high school that I firmly believe and which may or may not have been inspired by John Berger's Book "Ways of Seeing"
A saying I heard once in high school that I firmly believe and which may or may not have been inspired by John Berger’s Book “Ways of Seeing”


Role of Imagination in Design

In design thinking, the designer must rely on her own understanding of the world and of her research in order to frame a problem and come up with a solution. 

Design is premised on our ability to think creatively in the face of constraints and imagine the way things could be. Our imagination, then, is a fundamental and critical part of design – so understanding it’s boundaries should be of primary concern to us.

The readings in this past section have highlighted several was in which our imagination can be limited, which have a deeper implication for how we should approach design. 

I believe that the human imagination is limited the three primary factors of knowledge, biology (the physical structures and chemical processes of our mind and senses), and context.

Three Limits to the Human Imagination
The Limits to the Human Imagination


Knowledge: What we know – who we are

The first limitation of imagination is what we know. We are each just one person, and the things we know about the world are circumscribed by our education, our personal beliefs and our emotions. 

Byron Good references how doctors in training are drilled with “facts” about the physical aspects of people that they may cease to holistically include their social-emotional aspects.

“I would occasionally be walking along a street and find myself attending to anatomical features of persons I passed, rather than perceiving them as persons with social characteristics…” Byron Good

Designers are not usually experts in the domain for which they are designing. How much a designer knows about a particular problem area and what she believes about it will influence the solutions she creates. A lack of knowledge or understanding can lead to the implementation of ineffective, tone-deaf or harmful ideas. If a designer is an expert, it is also possible to have an “expert blind spot” due to being too close to a problem. 

Biology: How we think  – education, language, perception and prediction

The physical structures and chemical processes of our mind and bodies affect how we think and what influences us. Language, Cognitive tendencies, and cultural norms all influence how we view the world. “Reframing” is a device of language that creates new context by revising a narrative.

Context: What already exists –

Context involved power dynamics, current environment, and is interpreted to create “meaning.”

“Radical innovation comes from changes in either technology or meaning.” – Norman and Verganti


Context affects how we interpret a situation and can even affect what we know to be "fact"
Context affects how we interpret a situation and can even affect what we know to be “fact”

What does this mean for how we should approach design? 

Acknowledge our own limitations, use methods of overcoming our imaginative barriers, never assume we know the whole story, include others in our acts of creation to fill in gaps of understanding (participatory design), or perhaps even acknowledge that you are not the best person to work on a particular problem space. 

Limits to what we can imagine also affects what we design and how users will be affected. Design should foster empathy and understanding between users, such as doctors and patients, in a way that breaks down prejudices. I am hesitant to use the word “unbiased” because I do not think that human beings are capable of a purely “objective” point of view. We are creatures of subjective and limited perspective. We cannot hold every fact in our heads at once, if one can even argue that we can discover every “fact.”

I agree with Norman and Verganti that radical innovation comes with changes in meaning. I studied the History fo Ideas because I believe that. A good example of this is Dubberly, et al’s piece on reframing health to Embrace Design of Our Own Well-being. 

The authors describe a framing shift from people in the role of patients being told what to do to their own health advocates and managers. This re-framing has new language that shifts work and responsibility to the individual and creates a new societal-level meaning for health care. It’s largely the care of one’s self. While this in no way “solves” healthcare, it does bring a focus back to each individual’s well-being over all time, rather than just the minutes spent with a doctor or nurse. 

The thing that has largely sparked this movement is one of the biggest limiters of imagination not yet discussed: Money. Insurers would have to pay out much less if their customers were more healthy. And a modern understanding of physical and mental health is premised on day-to-day self-care. 

Money also limits what we can imagine
Money also limits what we can imagine



The ultimate and pervasive limiter of almost all initiatives and a big driver of what we will be allowed to create in and formal capacity. Clients and businesses will have their own needs and requirements. We need to keep in mind that these constraints will almost always be the heaviest ones. 

Where I want to design

I’ve been keen on designing in the realm of immigration for years. It’s why I came to AC4D. The image below is a map I drew in a journal three years ago as I planned my career.

The career map I drew in a journal in 2015
The career map I drew in a journal in 2015

The readings on power and this recent section on the limits to imagination have made me question that goal. Should I if I am not an immigrant? Who can I bring on board? What will my institutional constraints be? Will I be able to design for those with less power, or will I be required to design things to entrench power imbalances? In that environment, what will be the boundaries of my imagination?

This is a deep question to be considered before I take on any job or project, and throughout.


Reading List

How Medicine Constructs Its Objects / Tenacious Assumptions in Western Medicine
Byron Good / Deborah Gordon

Free Ideas from a Human-Centered Designer for Hospitals that Want To Be (or Make it Seem Like They Are) Patient-Centric
April Starr

Reframing Health to Embrace Design of Our Own Well-Being
Hugh Dubberly, Rajiv Mehta, Shelley Evenson, Paul Pangaro

Metaphors Can Change Our Opinions in Ways We Don’t Even Realize
Steve Rathje

Making by Making Strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies
Genevieve Bell, Mark Blythe, Phoebe Sengers

People are people, but technology is not technology
Gary Marsden, Andrew Maunder, Munier Parker

Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research vs. Technology and Meaning Change
Don Norman, Roberto Verganti

The Dilemma of Empathy in Design
Richard Anderson

Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education
David Dunne, Roger Martin

Design Fiction
Bruce Sterling

Why Futurism Has a Cultural Blindspot
Tom Vanderbilt

The Law of Accelerating Returns
Ray Kurzweil

Why Nothing Works Anymore
Ian Bogost

You Are Already Living Inside a Computer
Ian Bogost