How designers change their surroundings

For this position diagram, I focused on the following three articles:

Edward de Bono. “Serious Creativity.” Journal for Quality and Participation Sept. 1995: 12-18. Print.

Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe. “Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking.” Organization Science July/August 2005: 409-421.

Donald A Schön. “Problems, frames and perspectives on designing.” Design Studies July 1984: 132-136.

Through the lens of these three articles, I laid out a diagram of the process of designers changing their surroundings. The color overlays indicate important junctures in this process. Each is explained/laid out in quotes below the accompanying detail images of the diagram.

The full project with details and quotes is hosted on my website, a preview is below:


And here’s one detail image as a teaser just because it’s my favorite part of the diagram:

Each moment you are happy is a gift to the world

There is a lot of suffering in human society, and plenty of well-intentioned efforts to alleviate that suffering. But sometimes, a key component goes missing from the problem-solving efforts-  personal well-being and grounded happiness. Social workers are familiar with this concept in the form of “self-care for the caregiver.” Social workers work to maintain their own self-care to ensure they are stable reference points for the often unstable clients they are helping. Like a gravitational field, social workers provide a reference point of stability that guides often wide-orbiting clients back in to a more balanced center.

In a similar way, all of the great social or spiritual leaders (e.g. the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa), radiate or radiated a calming and clear presence allowing those around them to feel that everything would be alright, even if it wasn’t at that moment, it would be someday. That calming presence allowed people to face extraordinarily difficult circumstances that otherwise would have stopped them. It gave them the encouragement to keep moving forward, keep trusting their intuition, and keep working past the fear and challenges into better possibilities. This is basic empowerment, but it’s worth reiterating. Without it, the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the Indian Independence Movement, and countless others, would have stalled in discouragement, unrest and in-fighting.

It’s that supportive, “you’re going to be fine,” way of being with others, that many people tackling “wicked problems” forget to employ as the very foundational way in which they approach the world.  As leaders, when we radiate happiness and calm, we allow those around us to face their problems with a dose of that same attitude and then achieve greater success.

Since, ultimately, large-scale social problems are simply the mass collections of individual human challenges, problems can be addressed by shifting the mindsets of individuals into further empowerment. For example, environmental destruction can be seen as individuals’ inability to conceptualize environmental change and alter behavior accordingly, disease epidemics can be seen as many human bodies individually needing greater care, poverty can be seen as many individuals unable to free themselves from institutional power dynamics, and so on.  It is the pieces, happy or unhappy, empowered or victimized, that make the whole. So as designers approaching social change, it is us up to us to generate happiness as a means to allow others the encouragement to face their challenges and keep moving forward, knowing it will get better over time.

You can feel it in your own life- at times of overwhelm or unrest, taking action is more challenging. At times of joy and calm, taking action is satisfying and easy. The more we can surround individual humans, who are part of these wicked problems, with an atmosphere of appreciation, collaboration, and playfulness, the more we are able to find the threads of yarn within us, and within them, that ultimately unravel these dense, challenging problems.

So that’s my goal for the coming weeks- infuse all that I do, and all that I give, with joy. Realize that happiness, especially in abundance, is an improving force on the world. And each moment we are happy is a gift to the rest of the world. Here’s to being kind to each other as we do this work, and to helping as many individual others as possible (who in aggregate form these wicked problems), to achieve that state as well- in whatever forms they prefer.


Genevieve Bell and my dad would be friends…

In our Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship course with Chris Risdon, we read several batches of readings around technology and human experience. Inspired by Jessica Hagy’s ThisIsIndexed, I made several diagrams referencing our Theory readings. Here’s my favorite, an homage to my dad and Genevieve Bell:

Venn Diagrams based on Marsden

I thought about Marsden’s article “People are People, but Technology is not Technology” and applied it to my team’s research into aging in place and elders and technology. Here is my distillation:

Working Towards a 'Transparent-Box' of Aging

This blog post explores a few topics:

  1. My AC4D group’s design research into aging populations and computing technology
  2. “Old People Everywhere”
  3. Family’s ability to teach seniors technology
  4. Black-box aging

My AC4D research group is studying aging populations, technology and “Aging in Place.” All four of us are in our late 20s or early 30s and have Baby Boomer parents and grandparents in the Greatest Generation (born before 1944). Right now we’re completing design research with people from the Greatest Generation who use technology and we’re also researching with those who surround this population- their Baby Boomer children or grandchildren, and people in the rest of the ecosystem around aging (pharmacists, social directors at senior independent living complexes, etc.) who can give us more of a sense of the needs of aging populations.

Throughout this research I’ve been mulling over a section in A Pattern Language called “Old People Everywhere” that is aligned with the “Aging in Place” our group has been studying. This stood out to me most:

The fact is that contemporary society shunts away old people; and the more shunted away they are, the deeper the rift between old and young.

…The segregation of the old causes the same rift inside each individual life: as old people pass into old age communities their ties with their own past become unacknowledged, lost, and therefore broken. Their youth is no longer alive in their old age- the two become dissociated; their lives are cut in two.

It goes without saying that this cleaving away of one’s youth when one moves into a nursing home or retirement village makes one “older.” This is part of the argument for “Aging in Place”- when in your own home, surrounded by your life and identity, one is able to stay younger because of those ties to the past.


Family Makes the Black-Box Transparent

We’re noticing in our research that often it’s the Baby Boomers and grandchildren of “Greatests” who usually give them tech devices (iPhones and iPads mostly) and personally show them how to use the devices. So far, usually this is driven by a desire to stay in better touch with the grandparent. Most often it is the grandchildren teaching the grandparent how to use the computing device and getting called for help/advice when something isn’t working.

The grandchildren effectively act as the agent that turns the black-box design of tech devices into transparent-box design that the grandparent can use. All the talk about intuitive to use tech products amounts to nothing when there isn’t a kind and trusted younger family member there to show the grandparent how to use the device. The grandchildren are cracking open the black-box and showing the grandparents the inner workings, teaching them this new language of use.

These grandchildren, mostly millennials, have taught themselves how to use technology through intuitively playing with it; their mental models allow for it to all make sense. Often this is not the case for their grandparents and parents, and instead they rely on these younger generations to walk them through. (A system designed to support this tech-teaching relationship between grandchild and grandparent would be of great use. Additionally, a system designed to encourage and support a teaching relationship for the grandparent to teach their mental model to the grandchild would broaden the horizons and creative thinking abilities of the grandchildren).


Black-Box Aging

Aging in nursing homes versus aging in place, as integrated members in one’s community, is black-box aging. Our contemporary society has increasingly done this- with specially developed retirement communities, nursing homes, assisted living facilities.  When elders are shunted away from the rest of society, hidden from view and secluded in homogenous nursing homes or retirement communities, (or even just isolated in their own homes and less mobile), their wisdom and the role-modelling they provide is partitioned off. The respect for elders in those who are young, is unable to develop. This has the effect of a whole society that doesn’t respect elderly people and society/cities as a whole that don’t adapt to suit the needs of aging people.

Through our research and ultimately through the services/systems we design, our group aims to change this.

Position Diagram No. 4 – The difficulties of solving complex problems

In the past two weeks at the Austin Center for Design, we’ve been exploring the difficulties designers face when attempting to solve complex problems. My position on this topic is expressed below in a triptych of diagrams. They refer to the following readings: “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman; “The Structure of Ill-Structured Problems” by Herbert A. Simon; “The Shape of Problems” by Philip N. Johnson-Laird; and “Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy” by Chris Pacione. If you’re unfamiliar with these readings, they’re hosted on the Austin Center for Design’s curriculum page here.







If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend diving in to these readings.

Position Diagram No. 3 – Ubiquitous Technology

This week, for Jon Kolko’s class, our position diagrams addressed the outcome of ubiquitous technology in the developing world. The catch was that many of us had distinct aesthetic restrictions (mine included the use of only Helvetica, 9 pt), and we weren’t allowed to speak to explain our diagrams as we presented them.

The constraints by and large produced very interesting work. For my typically colorful visual-voice, the restraints were at first difficult to enjoy abiding by, but in the end provided a clarifying platform upon which to express my viewpoint. Future iterations may use a font slightly more emotive than our old friend Helvetica, but here’s the final product!


Learning about Urban Agriculture

My group in Lauren Serota’s “Interaction Design Research and Synthesis” course is studying urban agriculture education in Austin. We’re interested in the challenges, wins, barriers and victories of teaching urban agriculture in the Austin community. Specifically, we are focused on the experience of a person teaching urban agriculture and, through design thinking, we aim to generate potential aids/solutions to the barriers and challenges they face. (Yes, we are presuming that urban gardening is a positive contribution to Austin and we’d like to assist its growth).

To learn about this firsthand, we contacted several urban agriculture teachers in Austin. The teachers we found run the gamut from permaculture to urban community gardens to teachers who train other teachers to educate Austinites on how to grow their own organic food. What we discovered was the sheer number of amazing programs that currently exist in this field. We also learned about the challenges of reaching and teaching to diverse age groups, people from varying economic, racial or cultural backgrounds, and ensuring that Austinites attending these classes/trainings feel educated enough, and empowered enough, to put their new knowledge into action creating their own garden.

We used a design research method called “Participatory Design” in which participants, in this case, urban agriculture educators, give the design researchers insight in their individual experience doing their work, sharing what challenges there are, what barriers exist to their desired outcomes and what exactly those desired outcomes are. This method was appropriate to our focus because we want to really learn about the unique experience of these professionals. Participatory Design allows us to do that and even allow them to generate their vision of the ideal experience doing their work. The final segment of a participatory design process is the participant’s chance to creatively lay out their ideal vision of what it would be like to, in this case, teach urban agriculture to the community. They use words and pictures to creatively layout a representation of what their ideal experience would be like and what it wouldn’t be like. In doing so, they are able to really show and teach us what an ideal experience of doing that would be. Then as designers, we’re able to look at that, compile it with the experiences of other people working in that field, and look for possible “innovation spaces.” What that really boils down to is the participant sharing their unique experience with designers and designers then being able to bring their experiences and awareness to the equation to potentially come up with new design work based on the insights. It’s really quite a cool process. We found that the ideal experience teaching urban agriculture had a lot of surprising elements to it, things we never could have guessed at or gleaned from traditional research methods.

Essentially, the process allowed us to collaborate with a participant and give them the space to think creatively about their own field, with no limitations on what was possible. Very cool!

Since we are students just learning these methods, there are plenty of kinks to work out- for example, recording the sessions with a camera that picks up better sound (!), or looking for more patterns and themes as the process goes along and reflecting those back to the participant for their feedback potentially generating even more complex and/or specific insights during the process.  But we’re learning- and the best any of us can do is to keep fine-tuning our methods as we notice what facilitation methods or participants best suit this unique research process. Here’s to inspiration arriving in many forms!