A future mindset for design ethics

“Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.” – Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine

I consider myself a futurist. As an educator, I couldn’t help but become one when I began to understand the way that my work in the present shaped tomorrow as my students continued to change the world in big and small ways. Each small step–teaching someone to tie a knot, find the standard deviation of a set, or how to debug code, was an investment in our shared future. Knowledge I shared with a student might be practiced immediately, but it also built a foundation for a life of exploration, curiosity, kindness and confidence. Although I never taught a course called “How to Change the World,” I realized I was doing exactly that.

James, an outdoor education student who savored every opportunity to cook group meals with me over our tiny backpacking stoves, now owns a restaurant and butcher shop in Oklahoma City. Our course was his first chance to take care of other people by preparing delicious meals at the end of a long day. Alex, a software engineering student who struggled with concepts that her peers grasped easily, is now an engineer at Apple. I coached her extensively on cultivating a growth mindset and tackling impostor syndrome. Those tools must have been as important as her engineering skills when interviewing for her current role.

The futurist mindset that inspired my work as an educator has developed further as a design student. As I conceive of the work we are doing as students and imagine future design work creating the world that I want to live, I am both excited and a little afraid. Every single beautiful or awful aspect of our society that exists today is the byproduct of choices made by individuals. As such, I am mindful to wield my influence with not only a sense of responsibility, but also empathy and compassion.

While some of the biggest challenges of our time may seem beyond our ability to solve, I know that we are creating the future every minute. When developing an ethical framework to support my work as a designer, I wanted to balance a sense of caution with optimism. My framework is impact-oriented, but also acknowledges our inability to perfectly estimate the outcomes of our work. In building my framework I attempted to include aspects that acknowledge our place in history and the potential future impacts of our work. Ultimately, I decided that a futurist mindset was best addressed not by having specific elements of the framework speaking to timescale, but by embedding ethical review as a practice that needs to be repeated at intervals in order to combat the limits of our ability to see into the future.

I have tried out my framework at multiple inflection points of a single company. In the past 15 years they’ve been known by several names, Ploom, Pax or Juul, but the two founders have remained throughout. They were two product design students who met at the Stanford d.school, learning many of the same things that I am learning now. And all that thoughtful and empathetic design practice and prototyping led them to design a product that has reversed decades of trends in nicotine addiction amongst teenagers. I wanted to explore their story through an ethical framework to better understand how well-meaning, intelligent designers could end up creating such a destructive product.

My primary conclusion is that the two founders, James Monsees and Adam Bowen, were like the proverbial boiled frog who slowly perished as the water got warmer cooking him without ever realizing his peril. The product vision at the outset, a harm reduction product for current smokers was benign, but not riskless. What eventually resulted was a product optimized for addiction and unleashed with sexy marketing targeted at young people that was ultimately acquired by the largest tobacco company in the world. I imagine that at the outset, James and Adam would not have predicted this outcome. When I consider what went wrong, I can’t overlook the limits of the two founders to anticipate the outcome of their choices in 2005 when they were students starting this company as a student project.

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While our ability to anticipate outcomes declines as we peer further into the future, the consequences of our actions can grow ever greater.

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Does that mean that those destined to be good ancestors are people capable of great foresight? Or are they just lucky that their high-impact decisions ended up having positive outcomes?

Although both of those are possibilities, the way that we best position ourselves to be good ancestors is by course-correcting throughout our journeys, to stop, reflect, reevaluate and change course when needed. Our imperfect ability to see the future can be augmented by planning times of reflection into our project timelines and into our personal and professional lives.

How Leave No Trace ethics can make us better designers

The ethical framework I use most frequently is Leave No Trace. It is an impact-oriented set of rules to mitigate human impacts on nature when camping or exploring the outdoors.

The six principles are:
-Plan ahead and prepare
-Camp and Travel on durable surfaces
-Dispose of wastes properly
-Leave what you find
-Use fire responsibly
-Respect wildlife

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When I think about my natural orientation towards ethical questions, I can’t help but be influenced by my values and practices in relation to land use and sustainability, which is also largely impact-oriented.

A focus on impact is an ethical framework is in contrast to other lenses such as a focus on duty or virtue.

Duty: “It is my duty to not litter.”
Virtue: “It is morally wrong to take pine cones from the forest because they do not belong to me.”
Impact: “I must be careful to put out my campfire because a forest fire would be devastating to the plants and animals here.”

Impact seems like an important consideration in living an ethical life. A world of people all creating positive impacts feels like a world I want to live in, even more than a world of dutiful or virtuous people. However, impact is also the least ‘knowable’ aspect of an ethical decision. It is necessarily ‘post hoc.’ We won’t know how something is going to play out until it does.

How can we maximize positive impact given our naivete about the consequences of our actions?

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Control for bias
We are bad at estimating negative impacts, we have a bias towards assuming good outcomes because we know our good intentions. We tend to overestimate the likelihood and magnitude of positive outcomes and underestimate the likelihood and magnitude of negative outcomes.

As designers, we can recalibrate our risk tolerance and our bias by being aware of these tendencies and making and effort to add in the possibility of negative outcomes to our planning. We can also practice the precautionary principle, by assuming negative outcomes until we have evidence to the contrary.

Do your homework
To better estimate the possible impacts of our work we have to do our homework. Sometimes this is in the form of prototyping and testing iterations of our designs with populations before releasing them at scale.

Sometimes it means investing in educating yourself about the struggles of marginalized people, fragile environments, unequal systems, and vulnerable stakeholders so you can better estimate the consequences of your design choices. Impact-oriented designers create a space for people with outsider knowledge or positioning.

Find your center
When thinking about our impacts we can be more intentional if we are deliberate about who we are centering when we are evaluating impact. In LNT the wilderness ecosystem is at the center. When striving to make positive change it’s easy to say that we are ‘human-centered’ designers, but what does that really mean in practice? And what other interests are at risk of stealing our focus?

It’s not enough to just center the entirety of human experience. Being more precise about who our technology is for and how it will help them allows us to more accurately estimate impact. We can’t be all things to all people when trying to orient design work to impact.

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Through controlling for bias, doing our homework and finding a center we can apply lessons from decades of Leave No Trace ethics to design work.

Understanding blockchain starting at zeros and ones

WHY IS THIS A BLOG POST FOR MY ETHICS CLASS?
When I was at UCLA I took a GIS class taught by Tom Gillespie that changed my life. I actually took many classes that he taught (maybe four). The first convinced me to add Geography as a double major and the GIS class was my first time really understanding an important flaw with the things we are asked to do in school and left me with a mindset about how to do school and later how to do work that has stuck with me ever since.

In this class we were learning how to use arcGIS and publicly available data sets to solve problems. This quarter-long class culminated in a final project that was worth about 80% of our final grade. There were no smaller deliverables, no formal check-ins along the way, just one massive project. And there was very little guidance. A bare-bones project brief, no rubric, and whenever we asked him to clarify ‘Should it do this?’ ‘Should it be this?’ ‘Should it look like this?’ He would answer cheerfully in his booming voice, “Do Good Work!” 

He told us to rely on our inner north star to tell us if we were doing good work. Is it something you’d like to see in the world? Does it make the world a better place? Does it advance knowledge? Learning to listen to this voice would be more important than learning to conform to a list of requirements on a rubric. People who change the world in big or small ways are not using a rubric. At the end of that class, we all ended up having lots of good work to show off, after working through the anxiety provoked by such an ambiguous assignment. 

In the early weeks of the class we logged dozens of hours of the GIS lab trying to make something that would impress our professor, but by the final weeks of the class we were logging time there working on projects we were passionate about. So in the spirit on deviating from the rubric, and with Tom’s voice in my head, I’m departing from the assignment briefing  in an expression of my own ethics around ‘doing good work.’ 

This blog post somewhat touches on ethics, but primarily is an explainer about blockchain, the one that I wished I had stumbled upon when I didn’t know anything about how it all worked, because it felt like it could be an asset to the conversations we were having in class and I hope that anyone who reads it might feel like it’s good work.

 

STARTING AT THE BEGINNING
A lot of understanding blockchain rests on understanding the fact that all of this is built on good, old-fashioned math done with good, old-fashioned numbers. Between discussion of bits (data encoded in binary as 0’s or 1’s) and long strings of numbers and letters, it’s hard to visualize how there could be actual math involved. The mechanics of blockchain are happening with real numbers that can be added or multiplied just like the math that we did in school. 

Technical writing about blockchain will often drift back and forth between discussion of different types of numbers without being explicit about their relationships to each other.

Four ways of representing a number that come up a lot in blockchain talk:
Binary (zeroes and ones)
Regular numbers (all the numbers you learned in Kindergarten, 0-9)
Hexadecimal (numbers plus letters A, B, C, D, E and F)
Base58 (numbers, plus uppercase letter, plus lowercase letters, minus lookalikes)

BINARY
If I want to express a number in binary it takes a lot of digits because each digit can only express two options, zero or one. If I limit myself to three digits of binary I can only express 8 numbers. (This is 2x2x2 or 2^3, because for each digit there are only two possibilities.) For a number as big as 100 I need 7 digits. For a number as big as a million, I would need 20 binary digits. 

Regular Number Binary
0 0
1 1
2 10
3 11
4 100
5 101
6 110
7 111

 

If you hear someone talking about ‘bits,’ they are talking about binary numbers. Computers store data as 0’s and 1’s, which we all know (because we’ve seen “The Matrix”), but binary numbers are actually really hard for our human brains to understand. And they take up a lot of space when we are representing them visually, like on a screen. When we want to deal with computer numbers we can translate them to regular numbers to make them shorter or hexadecimal to make them even shorter. 

HEXADECIMAL AND REGULAR NUMBERS 
Each digit of a regular number can be one of ten different values (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) which means to express a number as big as 100 I need (wait for it…) 3 digits! There’s probably nothing about how regular numbers work that I could tell you that you don’t already know. With hexadecimal, each digit can be one of 16 different values, so I only need two digits to express a number as big as 100. It’s a marginal improvement. 
Base58 is a way to more substantially compress binary data into a shorter form. It takes all the lowercase letters (26) and add the upper case letters (+26) and adds the numbers (+10) and then subtracts 0 (zero), O (capital O), l (lowercase L) and I (uppercase I) to give you 58 characters to work with for each digit, making the compression much more effective. Base58 is a variation of an earlier version, Base64 which keeps all the letters and numbers and adds + and /. The reason for removing those was to make it easier for humans to unambiguously read and write these long strings of numbers. (Human-centered design in blockchain?)

Here’s my childhood phone number in binary, regular number, hexadecimal and Base58.

Binary Regular Hexadecimal Base58
100110000010101001000001111010011 5105812435 1305483d3 8nBd9t
33 digits 10 digits 9 digits 6 digits

So the answer to the question, “What does the blockchain ledger actually look like?” has three answers. One is that it is just a series of 0s and 1s, which is how your computer is storing them. But then often users are converting them into hex or Base58 and when people are displaying them online, writing them down or talking about those numbers. But at the heart of blockchain is a lot of math, all of which is done with good, old-fashioned regular numbers. And if people wanted to they could talk about it in regular numbers, but the convention is to use hexadecimal or Base58. And if people really wanted to they could do math in Base58, but that sounds terrible.

The files themselves then are long strings of numbers that encode information corresponding to transactions on the blockchain. When people look at them they can use a parser, which takes information from the chain and makes it more palatable to read or use. I really like this parser because it retains much of the original data, but parsers like this one that give the data more structure and formatting are much more commonplace.

 

THE MATH YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT, BUT PROBABLY DON’T NEED TO KNOW

THE PRIVATE KEY AND THE PUBLIC KEY 
To send and receive transactions with Bitcoin, you need a private key, a number that identifies you and that only you know. Unlike your credit card number or your driver’s license number, you get to choose it! It can be any number below 115792089237316195423570985008687907852837564279074904382605163141518161494337. That’s not even a joke. It corresponds to 256 bits. So it would be a binary number that was 256 digits long. Most people use some kind of random number generator to make theirs. Most people convert their private key to hex or Base58 for ease of writing/remembering.

Using math developed by cryptographers in the 1970s you can turn your private key into a public key. Any private key will only transform into one public key and the operation cannot be reversed. Most math operations that are familiar to us are reversible. I can divide 56 by 8 to get 7 and then I can multiply 7 by 8 to get 56. However, this math only goes one way. You cannot use the public key to derive the private key.

THE SIGNATURE
This one-way math appears again when creating a signature for a transaction in the ledger. You use your private key, a random number and the transaction data (your public key, the recipients public key, the transaction amount) to do math that results in a signature. When comparing this signature against your public key with more math, you can verify that the signature could only have been created by someone who knew the private key, however this math does not reveal the private key.

 

THE ACTUAL BLOCKCHAIN

WHAT IS A BLOCKCHAIN?
It is an ever-growing set of files that each record transactions or other data. Many people keep copies of the files and update them regularly. You can add to the blockchain, but for the most part, you cannot change or remove things in the past. Additions are made one block at a time. Currently, the most actively used and discussed blockchains are for cryptocurrencies. Cryptocurrencies are made-up currencies that aren’t associated with any government but can be traded by users of the currencies and even exchanged for government-backed currency. 

The blockchain stores the history of the transactions as a means of verifying that the transaction took place. The oldest and most-discussed cryptocurrency is Bitcoin, but there are tons of other cryptocurrencies and blockchains that are used for other purposes such as identity verification. For this article if I use an example of a blockchain it will be Bitcoin, however, those terms aren’t interchangeable. Bitcoin is built on a blockchain, but not all blockchains function just like Bitcoin. Understanding Bitcoin is a good place to start because it was the first widely-used blockchain and most newer blockchains function in almost the same way as Bitcoin.

WHERE IS A BLOCKCHAIN STORED?
Lots of places! Tens of thousands of people have a copy of the Bitcoin ledger on their computers. If you remember the days of Napster and Limewire, you are familiar with the idea of peer to peer sharing. Instead of having a file hosted on a single server, many people hold copies of it on their personal computers. This is one of the things that keeps it secure. Even if you change one copy of the ledger, the other ones have the original data, so other people know yours isn’t the true one.

Blockchain files are often a lot bigger than your Smashmouth All-Star mp3, so it’s a pretty big commitment to keep a copy of it and keep it updated as new additions to the ledger are being made all the time. The current size of the Bitcoin blockchain is about 160gb. Why do people want to do this? Hard to say. The excitement of being part of a movement? Civic responsibility? Keeping the blockchain files on your computer doesn’t involve any pay out.

BUILDING THE BLOCKCHAIN
Anyone who has a Bitcoin transaction to record adds that transaction to the ‘memory pool’ (a term I find disturbingly Orwelian). This is just a list of transactions that people want to have added to the blockchain. Each transaction identifies the giver, the recipient, and the amount. It is signed with a signature (which is just another number) through complicated math can be used to verify the authenticity of the person giving the money.

While storing the blockchain is unrewarded, building blocks is very lucrative. ‘Mining’ is the term used to describe the work done by computers mathematically vetting transactions in a queue waiting to be added to the blockchain. And it’s not just one miner working on one block, miners compete to add a block to the chain. For anyone single block there are thousands in competition to add the next block. 

Many of transactions in the memory pool promise a small percentage as a payout to the miner who does the work of bundling a bunch of transactions into a block. In addition, there is a reward to the successful miner which can be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars (depending on the price of Bitcoin). A pretty amazing reward for ten minutes of work, however, most of that huge award goes back into paying for the electricity that powers the process.

The math involved in vetting the transactions is highly energy intensive because it is so complex. Once the bundle has been vetted, there is one more step to getting is accepted as a block, which is a process that involves multiplying huge random numbers together to try to hit a target that was defined when Bitcoin was first built. It adapts to how many miners are competing to keep the rate of blocks being added to approximately one every 10 minutes. 

The high-intensity energy consumption is intentionally built into the system–a feature, not a bug–to slow down the process to give all the computers storing copies of the blockchain time to sync up before the next block is released. It is also a way to ensure that the blocks are accurate. If you put a ton of energy into adding a block, only to find out that it contains errors or inconsistencies you won’t receive the payout for the block. People are incentivized to add a ‘good’ block, not just any block.

AUDITING BLOCKS
Whose auditing these blocks? Other miners, who want that payout to go to them, rather than the person who added the latest block. At any given time there are a few different versions of the blockchain propagating through the network of people who have the blockchain stored on their computers. The most recent blocks are considered ‘candidate blocks’ and there might be a few different contenders for that same block in the chain. 

Miners choose which blocks to build their next block on top of based on which candidate they think is going to be the block that propagates to the majority of the block-keepers. If they chose wrong, their candidate block built on top of an unsuccessful candidate cannot be added to the blockchain. Miners will choose blocks that have been assembled by ‘trusted’ miners before building another block on top of theirs, or will check candidate blocks for errors.

While mining was once somewhat accessible to casual cryptocurrency enthusiasts, the arms race for more powerful machines to outcompete other miners has led to the community of miners becoming quite small and not really a community at all. At the outset Bitcoin ran on the enthusiasm of a fandom galvanized around the idea of fortifying currency against unstable and untrustworthy central banks. Today the Bitcoin machine is powered by financial interests, primarily in China who are motivated to develop the most efficient ways of extracting the value from mining.  

 

ETHICAL ISSUES 

SUSTAINABILITY 
Is blockchain technology really a sustainable strategy for commerce at a global scale? Bitcoin is still pretty fringe, and the energy involved in adding to it is astronomical. Could cryptocurrencies scale globally to replace government-backed currencies? Probably not. Blockchain in its current form is not really scalable, especially for one currency to take on a dominant role. One might argue that was always the point. Lots of blockchains are more resilient that one single blockchain. However, even an ecosystem of smaller blockchains would have problems related to the amount of work needed to be done per transaction. It’s hard to imagine even multiple cryptocurrencies having the capability to record as many transactions as credit card companies do every day.

Another big issue is the environmental sustainability of blockchain. As mentioned above, the energy consumption involved in Bitcoin is not negligible. Due to the complexities of the calculations that are performed in the growth and maintenance of the blockchain, a single bitcoin transaction can use as much energy as an entire household would in a month. Even as a technology that has not yet been widely adopted the carbon footprint of blockchain is devastatingly huge.

RECENTRALIZING POWER
The idea of using blockchain to decentralize economic power has unintentionally led to a concentration of power in an unexpected place: small, well-financed groups in a communist country who aren’t really accountable to anyone. Many people are ceasing to find that more reassuring that trusting central bankers who are at least somewhat democratically accountable in most countries.

Along with the energy costs of mining, this recentralizing of power is one of the biggest flaws in the way Bitcoin was designed to use blockchain technology for financial transactions. Other applications of blockchain technology have arisen that are attempting to build a better blockchain. In particular, the ways of verifying a block and rewarding that verification, called “proof of work,” has been reimagined to be less energy-intensive and less likely to result in centralizing the work to people who have the means to engage in it on a large scale. “Proof of stake” is one alternative that is being explored to address these issues.

THE END? 
Congrats to all who made it this far! If you are still looking for more info, check out these links below. And please let me know if you have any suggestions on how to make this blog post more accessible or clearer. I hope to be reworking it in the future!

Resources I used to write this post:

https://learnmeabitcoin.com/ – a great resource for going a little bit deeper into the technical aspects beyond the scope of the post.

https://medium.com/coinmonks/blockchain-public-private-key-cryptography-in-a-nutshell-b7776e475e7c – more about private keys, public keys and signatures

https://twitter.com/SatoshiDoodles – the best bitcoin themed doodles on Twitter

My interview with my friend Sunny (there is one swear word, so sorry) – https://drive.google.com/file/d/1JIv2F5wN4gXo3aHUPxjEMTKlC9XaJhkT/view?usp=sharing 

https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/ceremony – an excellent RadioLab podcast about people starting a new blockchain

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/22/the-prophets-of-cryptocurrency-survey-the-boom-and-bust – a great New Yorker article also available as audio that talks about the crypto landscape

https://www.wired.com/story/guide-blockchain/ – a quick explainer from Wired 

Ethical Dilemmas of a Hypothetical Healthcare startup

During our class on Ethics in Design, I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion on the ethics of privacy. We had all read a collection of articles on current issues in the privacy landscape relevant to designers, and using those as a jumping-off point I wanted to create a space for us to synthesize those ideas and continue to hone our individual points of view about the implications of privacy laws and industry practices. My goals were to create a space for people to process the readings and develop new ideas together. 

The Warm-Up

We started with a personal privacy inventory. I shared some brief scenarios of personal information sharing and asked people to reflect on how they felt about sharing this data and then summarize that feeling with a word or an emoji. Responses ranged from  ‾\_(ツ)_/‾  to “HELL NO!!” I wanted to start our conversation by placing ourselves in the context of a user who has their own opinions, boundaries, and concerns about how corporations, governments or strangers might interact with our personal data. We discussed the range of responses and considered common themes that emerged within and between participants. Do I consistently trust the government more with my data? Or do I trust corporations more? What about having my data publicly available? Remember phone books? Why did having your address and phone number available there feel less ‘creepy’ than having it public on your facebook page might feel?

The Main Event

Next, I wanted us to shift our mindset from being a user to functioning as a designer. Borrowing from the tradition of the ‘murder mystery dinner party,’ I created a scenario for us to consider synthesized from a couple of real-world examples of privacy dilemmas faced by companies that require access to personal data to provide their services or products. In particular, I was intrigued by uncovering that the HIPAA rules are only enforced on covered entities–namely, health care providers, insurers, and research institutions. This creates an interesting ethical ‘gray area’ in which policymakers have clearly established best practices for managing patient health information, but for the entities outside the narrow purview of the legislation, there is no enforcement. This loophole means that the many apps and third-party companies that have popped up in the healthcare space are not accountable to any rules about their handling of patient health information.

I imagined an app that attempts to reduce unnecessary costs borne by families who unintentionally sought health care at facilities that were not well-matched to their concern (i.e. visiting an emergency room rather than a primary care physician, or an out of network clinic rather than an in-network one). The app was serving as a link between people seeking health care, their insurer and providers while moving patient health information between all three stakeholders. I shared a hypothetical problem that this startup was facing in regards to how they were managing patient data that they were using to provide this service. This kicked off a guided a discussion that allowed us to grapple with the options available to our company and the implications of those choices. 

We asked and answered many questions. Do we have an ethical responsibility to comply with HIPAA even though we aren’t legally compelled to comply? Are our users operating with a false assumption about our compliance with HIPAA standards? Is there a risk of being”outed” as non-compliant? What might the consequence of that be? Are we exposing our partners (insurers and providers) to liability by not being fully compliant? Are there ways of mitigating the risks of associated with transferring this data between parties? What if there was a third-party company with an API that we could use to outsource some of that risk? Would it be ethical to transfer responsibility and accountability if it meant also ceding control? 

Taking it up a notch

Then recognizing that designers work at the intersection of many different stakeholders within their organizations, I challenged my classmates to shift their perspective from that of a designer to the perspective of another person within this hypothetical company. I gave each participant a card with a role printed on it (Investor, CEO, VP of Marketing, CTO, etc.) and some more information about considerations that were specific to each of those roles. We continued the discussion with this new framing and attempted to answer the question, “What should we do next?” This generated ideas not just about the ethics, but the concrete actions that we could take in support of those values within real-world constraints. 

I loved the way that people engaged with this premise. There were ways that people contributed that I had anticipated (such as proposing solutions that I had considered at the time I design the activity). But they were also taking the hypothetical far beyond what I had originally considered, raising questions about additional dimensions of the ethical dilemma and supporting their thinking with examples from the background readings. The conversation was lively and although I was facilitating the discussion, there was space for other people to express dissenting opinions or guide the group to explore aspects of the scenario beyond my prompts. Although we didn’t arrive at a specific decision that we should do this or that, there was some consensus that gently bending some of these rules was acceptable, especially given that it was in the interest of protecting consumers from unintentional overspending on health care. Our group felt more comfortable with not fully conforming to HIPAA if it was truly in service of the patient needs. We also discussed the ‘slippery slope’ of setting precedents, either internally or externally, about use of user data. Do we run the risk of establishing norms that give people permission to bend the rules in similar ways even if their product is not as altruistic as we belived our to be?  

Learning and Take-Aways

In presenting this to my group, I realized that there were nuances of the problem that I had not sufficiently articulated in the written briefing I created and had to supplement that with a further explanation of exactly how this use case was in conflict with existing HIPAA regulations. I also realized that aspects of how the US healthcare system functions were not common knowledge to everyone in the group. Given that just last week we had been talking about inclusion in design, I felt badly that I had been operating on an unfair assumption that the processes involved in using your health insurance, seeking care and medical billing would be familiar to everyone. A quick primer on those things would have made this discussion more inclusive. 

Finally, I designed my progression to start with a ‘warm-up’ meant to prime us to empathize with users, by putting the group in the mindset of a user, before asking them to take the perspective of a designer and then finally asking them to pivot to taking the perspective of another contributor within company. Making my intentions about each of those choices more clear or being more explicit about the connection between the first activity and the second one might have been useful to the participants.

Graphing Complexity and Autonomy with Service Slices

Part Three: Using Service Slices to understand Austin Parks Foundation users

This is Part Three in a Service Design Project for Austin Parks Foundation. For Part One: Stories from the Field, go here. For Part Two: Finding Themes, go here.

Since August, our team (Kyle, Michelle, Laura) has been working with Austin Parks Foundation to help them better understand the feelings of ownership over green spaces; specifically how those feelings of ownership can develop and drive behavior. 

WHERE WE ARE IN THE DESIGN PROCESS

Our earlier updates focused on telling the stories of people we observed through contextual inquiry and the sense-making process of theme-finding. Through these processes, we unpacked the experiences of visitors and stakeholders in Austin Parks. Storytelling led us to a heightened understanding of what was unique, evocative, and compelling about each person. 

Before moving on from those themes to insights and problem statements, we want to reexamine our data in a new way through visualizations. We call these constructions ‘Service Slices.’

IDSE101_service slices presntation graphic blog

WHAT ARE SERVICE SLICES?

Service slices are a tool for turning the invisible into a tangible artifact. While our research looked at 3 distinct behavior groups, we focused specifically on Park Adopters to create service slices. Park adopters are APF volunteers who take on leadership roles within their park.

Kyle and Laura constructing Service Slices
Kyle and Laura constructing Service Slices

We went back to our transcripts, line by line, and used them to create four service slices:

  1. Behavior and Information Exchange: To understand the actions and interactions of our participants, we diagramed their behaviors and the information they exchanged with others through the course of implementing improvements in their park.
  2. Power, Policy, Influence, and Emotion: We graphed the relationships of power and influence amongst the people, organizations, and policy players in each park adopter’s world. We also noted emotions that our park adopter expressed about aspects of their volunteer work. 
  3. Artifacts: We documented the physical tools and objects relevant to park adopters.
  4. Environment: Creating detailed diagrams of each of the adopted parks helped us understand any spatial dynamics at play.

The first two are invisible systems: workflows and power dynamics. We make these systems explicit and visual by building two distinct representations of these interactions. The second two are re-creations of physical systems: objects and the environment. While we have photos of their objects and environments, rebuilding these with special attention to how the participant relates to and functions within these systems allowed us to focus on the unique functions for this person, at this time, in this space.

Constructing one of Robert's Service Slices on the whiteboard
Constructing one of Robert’s Service Slices on the whiteboard
Developing Artifact and Environment Service Slices
Developing Artifact and Environment Service Slices

At each step, we noted opportunity areas that would be fruitful places to explore when considering design ideas. While we noted these opportunity areas, we will not start ideating design ideas until later stages.

WHY USE SERVICE SLICES?

Creating service slices allowed us to focus on specific dynamics that are elusive in a sea of transcripts. Questions start to emerge: How do they feel about this interaction? Are there larger policies guiding their actions? Are their behaviors different than their beliefs?

The process of making service slices was more valuable than the diagrams themselves. Being able to revisit this data through a new lens helped us further understand our participants, and patterns start to emerge that otherwise would have been difficult to distinguish. 

Service slices are incredibly complex in both content and visuals. Arriving at peak complexity and then simplifying these slices to make a functional artifact also helped us describe phenomena that developed. 

Below, we describe three park adopter’s experiences and opportunity areas that emerged while creating service slices. 

RICO’S SERVICE SLICE – SPINNING WHEELS

Rico
Touring a park with Rico

Rico adopted his park last year and enthusiastically embraces making positive changes despite not having a clear understanding of what pathways he should use to achieve results. He relies heavily on Austin Parks Foundation and 311 to get things done, but uses the organizations in ways that do not reliably further his goals. When trying to get dog waste stations installed at his park, he started to apply for grants–the process he thought was correct–only to be later told by “a park’s department manager” that the Watershed Department can actually provide them for free. He discovered that the City of Austin had a “warehouse full of them” and that the time he spent applying for the grant had been pointless (Line 142). 

Once he had requested the dog waste stations through the proper channels at the Austin Watershed Protection Department, he didn’t know how to follow up on the installation, so he fell back on contacting 311 repeatedly.  “I call 311 again if the report doesn’t go through to find out what happened. ‘Oh, well, this guy said that it’s been serviced,’ I’m like, ‘It can’t be serviced. We don’t even have the dog waste stations’” (Line 77). Despite the lack of information that 311 has about his problem, he reaches out to them because he doesn’t know who else to call.

He also believes that the incessant 311 calls will show PARD and APF that he is doing a good job. “[Calling 311] shows that you’re not gonna give up and quit. You’re steady. You gotta be consistent. And I think [PARD and APF] know that from the reports at 311” (Line 66). Absent evidence to support his theory of a direct line of communication between 311 and APF, Rico is optimistic that his efforts will be seen by someone and rewarded.

Once he knew that there was a warehouse full of dog waste stations, he began to wonder what else might be hiding away in warehouses. Maybe benches? “I’ll ask, ‘Can we get an extra bench? Did you see all the cleaning we did on the side?’ Maybe it’ll work. What do you think? Worth a shot, right?” (Line 140) His theory of how resources are allocated to parks is based on his efforts being seen by faceless bureaucrats who will reward him with what he needs to make improvements.

Rico spins his wheels constantly, unsure what is actually working. But, in only one year as a park adopter, he still has a fresh excitement about his duties as a park steward. He’s gotten lights and dog waste stations installed, cleaned up abandoned homeless encampments, mobilized neighbors to volunteer, solicited opinions and feedback, and is working on getting new benches and bike racks. He’s proud of what he has accomplished and not yet burnt out by the work that doesn’t yield results. “I’m learning as I go. And then I use all the resources” (Line 142).

ROBERT’S SERVICE SLICE – CONFUSED COMPLEXITY

Robert walks past an encampment in his park
Robert walks past an encampment in his park

Robert has been the steward of his park for several years — but was actually unclear if he was the official park adopter.  “I think someone, I think our neighborhood has adopted it, but I can’t be sure. Because there are a lot of programs… I think I’m supposed to be in charge of that. Is that with APF?” (Line 123)

Regardless of whether he was the official adopter, he functions as one organizing clean-ups of his park, coordinating with external groups to direct the development of the park on behalf of his neighbors. Priorities for him range from reducing the recurrence of overflowing trash piles by getting more trash cans to adding a walking path around the pond to make it more accessible and enjoyable.

Despite his inspiration to make big and small improvements in his park, Robert is easily annoyed by the many bureaucratic processes that have stymied his progress. He prefers to connect with people in person or by reaching out directly, and it a bit put off when the response he gets is, “Could you fill in the form, please?” He told us, “It seems like their connection with the public is quite automated, which keeps life simple, but it’s not a personal thing” (Line 119).

Over time Robert has become aware of the many city agencies and nonprofits that can facilitate projects in parks. He knows that Keep Austin Beautiful and Austin Parks Foundation both have tool libraries that he can borrow from for clean-ups (Line 47). He has coordinated with city employees at the Watershed Protection Department (Line 32), a city arborist (Line 72) and PARD maintenance workers (Line 113). He attends neighborhood association meetings (Line 30) and understands their role in advocating at the city level (Line 56). He communicates with the managers of an apartment complex (Line 92) and Public Storage franchise (Line 37) that are adjacent to the park. He leverages the police (Line 40) and EMS (Line 78) for support in addressing issues relating to people living in the park. He is aware of potential funding sources for park projects such as Texas Conservation Corps (Line 84) and Austin Parks Foundation (Line 48). 

Robert’s experience as a Park Adopter is one of ever-increasing complexity. As he becomes more savvy about navigating the appropriate channels for actions he wants to take, he discovers exponentially more avenues to pursue. Rather than being empowering, this broader perspective is overwhelming. He has been trying to build a trail around the pond at his park — and he knows that there are a lot of organizations he could partner with to make it a reality, but he hasn’t actually taken action to make it happen yet.

Right now even just getting a new trash can installed seems like too much effort. “Installing a new trash bin has to go through many bureaucracy layers…It’s very difficult. There’s litter everywhere and no bin.” Rather than deal with the various agencies that need to be involved to make the change, he’s willing to pay out of pocket and do the labor himself to install some cheap unofficial trash cans.  “I keep meaning to go to Lowes and just get two big plastic bins and chain them to a bench. I might do that tomorrow.” (Line 138) He hopes that the maintenance workers will service them like they do the officially sanctioned trash cans. 

The best strategy Robert has to exit this web of complexity is to rely on his mentor, Daniel. “It’s still quite difficult to navigate who to talk to. That’s the nature of dealing with large organizations, I suppose. If I hadn’t spoken to [my mentor, Daniel], I’d still be floundering because he is laser-guided.“ Robert’s serendipitous encounter with Daniel, and Daniel’s generosity with his mentorship are the pathway out of complexity that Robert needs. 

DANIEL’S SERVICE SLICE – SOPHISTICATED AND EFFECTIVE

The road that Daniel wants to have removed from his park
The road that Daniel wants to have removed from his park

Daniel has been a park adopter for over a decade and when he walks through his park it shows. During our visit to the park, he knew almost every person there — giving them updates about park improvements, asking them about their families, making polite conversation. It’s clear he’s become a staple in the community.

He’s been leading a renovation project for over 12 years and over time he’s developed sophisticated methods of getting things done. Unlike Rico, our younger park adopter, Daniel rarely mentioned receiving help from Austin Parks Foundation, Keep Austin Beautiful, or 311. Instead, he’s learned how to go above these groups to interface with decision-makers directly. 

Rather than just trying to get more lights, trash cans, or benches like Rico, Daniel and his neighborhood association were thinking big: they wanted to shut down an entire road and turn it into a walking trail. A huge ask for the city, they built a case that by removing the road, they’d be protecting the creek right next to it. Because of the road’s close proximity to the creek, it had also experienced a minor collapse which meant emergency vehicles like EMS could not use it. 

“And if the city can’t use the street, then we had a much better argument to say, the rest of us don’t need it. [. . .] The city kind of bought the argument. There’s less for them to maintain.” 

Not only has Daniel become sophisticated with making his arguments for park improvements, he knows where to focus his efforts. Unlike Rico or Richard who interface with a complicated web of 311, nonprofits, neighbors, and grant forms, Daniel leverages his neighborhood association to lobby his City Representatives to enact change. 

In one instance, his group convinced the city to add sidewalks to make his park ADA compliant–  a “$600-$700,000” project. Yet despite these investments, he still feels his park is not receiving their fair share as city funds flood to parks in Circle K, or other emerging neighborhoods on the edge of the city.

“There’s a measure of resentment towards people west and southwest . . . who have absorbed a lot of resources. . . .A lot of these existing infrastructures have been really neglected . . . and we put money into these in lieu of funds that are supposed to be used in this neighborhood, but then they’re kind of somehow siphoned out to sprawl.”

COMPLEXITY OF BEING A PARK ADOPTER

When we visualized all of the levers each adopter pulled to enact change, a strong pattern emerged: 

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Over time, park adopters develop more and more resources they can use. Rico, a young adopter, has relatively entry-level connections and relies on them exclusively to make changes. Robert, an intermediately experienced adopter, has developed even more connections– so many that he’s unclear of which program owns what. He’s at peak complexity. Then we have Daniel, an experienced adopter who fully understands the landscape and is targeted in where to apply his efforts — choosing to interface with only a couple groups to help make changes.

This pattern follows the simple model of a complexity curve. Over time, park adopters gather more and more information and resources, reaching peak complexity (Robert). Then they start to truly understand their role and the programs around them, being able to navigate a complex system through simple measures (Daniel). 

AUTONOMY AND GATEKEEPING

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With this increased understanding also comes more autonomy and potential for gatekeeping. As a novice adopter, Rico relied on his community and nonprofits for changes and asked for feedback constantly:

“You can see the progress in the rating. I get some people here to rate the park from one to ten. ‘How clean do you think it is?’ ‘Ten.’ ‘Ten.’ ‘Ten.’ So it’s a big improvement.” (Line 86)

Meanwhile, Daniel and his neighborhood association were so sophisticated in their efforts, they were able to limit “outsider” access to the park by removing a road and parking: “There’s some concern that when we close this road, that there’s not enough parking, and this will be sort of pulling up the ladder [. . .] that it will be less welcoming to people from the outside of this neighborhood.”

Despite this concern, they are moving forward with the road removal anyway, which Daniel justified by saying:  “I don’t want to be harsh about it, but you know, we pay our taxes. We choose to live here because of the parks. We should have some first dibs on what happens in those parks.” (Line 145)

As park adopters become more sophisticated and autonomous, there is clearly huge potential for gatekeeping public spaces.

NEXT STEPS

In the next few weeks, we will use our utterances, themes, and service slices to support the development of Insights and Problem Statements that will help us further define the problem space so we can start to create design ideas for APF.

Want a deeper look at our interview process and stories from the field? Check it out here

What’s Missing from Your Design Toolkit?

This last month we have been reading about problem solving, the work of designers and design processes. Although all still in the domain of theory, rather than practice, these authors are grappling with the question, “How do we do design?” Authors like Chris Pacione, Nigel Cross and Horst Rittel have defined the designer’s process in contrast with fields of mathematics, engineering, and economics, respectively. The designer’s toolkit is full of tools that enable us to leave behind the rules and traditions of scientific inquiry in exchange for a more humanized, multi-dimensional, and inclusive picture of the world. 

 

Pacione says today’s fundamental educational competencies are not reading, writing and arithmetic, but rather the fundamental skills of design, “creativity and innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration.” Cross highlights intuition as the key differentiator between the problem solving performed by engineers and the problem solving done by designers. He quotes an engineering designer saying, “I believe in intuition. I think that’s the difference between a designer and an engineer.” Cross defines the core competencies of design as “the abilities to: “resolve ill-defined problems, adopt solution-focusing strategies, employ abductive/productive/appositional thinking, use non-verbal, graphic/spatial modeling media.”

 

Rittel discusses the economists’ application of classical physics in the pursuit of efficiency and the elevation of efficiency to moralistic heights within industry and government. Yet, he finds these methods falling short when applied in the social sciences or in government or societal planning. “We shall suggest that the social professions were misled somewhere along the line into assuming they could be applied scientists–that they could solve problems in the way that scientists can solve their sorts of problems.” In many ways the tools of the designer are as much about what they are not, as what they are.

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Design has thus been defined in opposition to the empiricism of math and science. In advancing design as a superior method for solving societal problems, design theorists have rejected the tools of the engineer, the scientific method, statistical analysis, algorithms, and the like. The righteous justification for casting aside those problem solving tools that societies have found invaluable for centuries is in defining the types of problems these tools are well-suited to solve. Walter Reitman first categorized problems as ill-defined or well-defined in the 1960s as a means of understanding human cognition and problem solving. A well-defined problem is one with a single, definite solution state and a single, definite starting state, and a finite set of ‘legal moves’ and constraints.

 

Herbert Simon builds on the idea of separating problems into well-specified or ill-specified in the interest of articulating what types of problem solving are best suited to each. But rather than honoring the binary that Reitman constructed, Simon reimagines them in two critical ways. First, he discards the binary in favor of seeing ISPs and WSPs as a continuum. One problem might be more well-structured than another while neither being objectively well-structured. Second, he considers problem spaces that are fundamentally ill-structured, and yet composed of many sub-problems that are actually well-structured. 

 

The particular lens through which Simon is considering ISPs and WSPs is the implications for artificial intelligence to solve problems. He both limits the potential application of AI by positing that many problems commonly conceived as well-structured (such as a chess match) are actually ill-structured. Yet, problems commonly conceived as ill-structured, such as an architect designing a house, are largely composed of well-structured sub-problems. So although other theorists have built a wall between the design and scientific methodology or data, Simon’s construction of problems in which WSPs are embedded in ISPs call for problem solvers with both the empiricists’ and the designers’ toolkits. 

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Richard Buchanan echos this sentiment saying, “The significance of seeking a scientific basis for design does not lie in the likelihood of reducing design to one or another of the sciences-an extension of the neo-positivist project and still presented in these terms by some design theorists. Rather, it lies in a concern to connect and integrate useful knowledge from the arts and sciences alike, but in ways that are suited to the problems and purposes of the present.” Buchanan doesn’t want to turn design into a science, but he argues that we need to thoughtfully consider where science and design intersect. The rise of design hasn’t (and shouldn’t) mean the fall of science, but for these two ways of problem solving to exist perpetually in parallel rather than in conversation with each other is a major missed opportunity. Buchanan synthesizes the work of Simon with John Dewey’s call for “new disciplines of integrative thinking.” Design work that cannot integrate with the sciences is a poorer realization of design.

 

We haven’t done enough to integrate that which is valuable from the empiricist tradition in modern design methodology. Buchanan tell us that interactions between designers and the scientific community are problematic. “Instead of yielding productive integrations, the result is often confusion and a breakdown of communication, with a lack of intelligent practice to carry innovative ideas into objective, concrete embodiment.” This is unsurprising given that design has been a discipline that has historically defined itself as the antithesis of science. Not to mention the continued skepticism that science and industry have of design. 

Jocelyn Wyatt recognizes the reluctance of industry leaders to embrace design methodology, saying, “Nobody wants to run an organization on feeling, intuition, and inspiration.” Wyatt’s view is ultimately that design has already arrived at the perfect intersection of integrating the rational and analytical with the creative and intuitive. Yet, she acknowledges that more organizations are structured around “conventional problem solving practices.” She posits that this may be due to fear of experiencing failure inherent to prototyping and experimentation processes.

 

What if instead, the explanation was that designers are still leaving too much on the table? Focusing on the strength of their own process and failing to leverage to advantages of a more quantitative understanding of the problem space?  In reflecting on this idea my classmate, Lauren and I considered the heightened value that qualitative data we had gathered in contextual inquiry had when considered in the context of quantitative data that differed from or directly contradicted the perceptions of our participants.

 

The gaps between what our participants perceive and what we know to be true are reliably interesting to us. How did they develop this different view of reality or “alternative facts”? We may trust that our knowledge exceeds the knowledge of the person we are observing or the disparity between our beliefs and those of our participants may lead us to question our own perceptions. In a data-gathering phase of design research, how do you respond to misrepresentations of reality? Do you accept it as a pertinent and interesting distortion or does it prompt you to interrogate your own beliefs or understanding?

 

There are a few ways that we have seen the perception-reality divide manifest in design research. First, the observed hypocrisy. While doing research on user behavior in public parks a participant emphatically told us that off-leash dogs were not acceptable to him or his neighbors and that the neighborhood had a strong ethos of self-policing around this particular norm. Less than half an hour later, one of his neighbors walked by with two dogs, one of which was off-leash. The two had an amicable discussion that included observing how this elder dog was inoffensively violating the off-leash rules. The strong self-policing ethos described was entirely absent. These are common. The food service worker who mentions always washing his hands before starting work, and then doesn’t wash his hands. A preschooler who describes the universe of Dora the Explorer in detail after his mom has said that he doesn’t watch any television. This inconsistency illustrates the gap between who we are and the idealized version of ourselves.

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However, we aren’t always so lucky to always catch a person in these contradictions in a one- to two-hour contextual observation. How important is it to differentiate between the behavior “parents of preschoolers don’t allow screen time” and the belief “parents of preschoolers don’t think their children should be interacting with screens”? The primary resolution to this problem to to prioritize observing behavior, rather than eliciting opinions. We can ask questions about what we observe and given what we know about people’s tendency to present an idealized self, take with a grain of salt if the participant insists that we are observing something anomalous rather than routine. 

 

Yet, what about when the observed behavior isn’t rational for a given context? We’ll call this, the irrational behavior. This is the person who travels out of their way to visit a particular farmers’ market because they double SNAP (food stamp) benefits, when actually every farmer’s market in town offers the same deal. If we know the rules about SNAP and farmers’ markets we can identify this as an irrational behavior, and glean some interesting insights from this misconception. Otherwise, this behavior might pass as rational and we would miss the additional understanding the comes from identifying a gap between perception and reality. 

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As designers, we are seldom subject are experts in the fields we are designing for. There are ways that this is an asset, rather than a liability. Familiarity with the subject area means familiarity with a set of beliefs and judgments that may limit innovation and creativity. “This is how it’s always been done.” “This is the right way; this is the wrong way.” Additionally, it’s not realistic or an effective use of time to become a subject matter expert in each industry in which a designer works. Absent subject area expertise, how can designers increase their knowledge base to further develop their ability to spot pertinent and interesting gaps between perception and reality?

 

In the field of remote sensing and GIS, practitioners talk about “ground data.” When I did research using satellite imagery and GIS to identify areas of reforested and old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, I couldn’t just rely on the images, I needed ground data. Real-world points of reference where I knew that the areas that I was seeing in my satellite data were known to be either reforested or old-growth. Using these known areas as a baseline, I could analyze the properties of those areas of the imagery and use correlation to identify which other areas on the map likely shared a common history of being logged or pristine.

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How can designers employ ground data in their work? In the example of the farmers’ market, ground data might come in the form of existing knowledge, or from additional research. How can we cultivate data pertinent to our areas of research and integrate them into our qualitative research processes? I’m not suggesting that designers become statisticians or scientists, but advocating for the integrative approach advanced by Simon and Buchanan. If we understand the problems we are solving to be complex enough to contain both well-structured problems and ill-structured problems, then surely some of the data or tools of the sciences can advance our understanding of problems in meaningful and actionable ways, particularly the well-structured components of complex problems. 

 

My recent parks research provides a potential example of the intersection of design research and quantitative data. While talking to a participant who works in parks she emphatically described the ways that her organization seeks to approach their work with an equity mindset. She was thoughtfully aware of the history of racial inequality in Austin and the ways that had manifested in parks. Yet, this seemed like a possible example of an observed hypocrisy, as the methods that the organization employs to direct resources are subjective and thus may reflect misconceptions or blindspots despite the best of intentions. Further, the process seems highly vulnerable to “squeaky wheel” bias that might favor those with the means and agency to advocate for themselves.

 

As a design researcher I wanted ground data to validate or invalidate the claim that the organization was achieving the equity outcomes that are part of their mission. If their impact and their intentions were not aligned, this would be a fruitful problem space to explore, or it would not be a problem at all if the organization was effectively achieving their equity goals. I could ask more park users about their perceptions of equity (which I did). This gave me important and valid data about users’ perceptions of equity (they didn’t think funding was equitable). But I still wanted to know if we made a perception problem to solve or a systems problem to solve or both.

 

Serendipitously we ended up talking to another person who works in parks who had a shared passion for equity and concern about resource allocation in parks. She shared with us a tool that she uses to map potential investments in Austin parks. She told us, “It has all these different layers. You can turn on a master layer that puts together an aggregate layer of things like low income, low food access, high obesity, high chronic disease–all these like high need things–children under eighteen, low socioeconomic status, all of that coming together.” I could map the recent investments made by the organization using subjective methodology to allocate funding and see how those correlated with the empirically identified areas of high need in Austin. That would be great ground data to validate the organizations claims.

Where does this fit into my current framework for design research? The way our research process is organized looks like this:

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The first two (contextual research, themes) are focused on the processes of collecting and organizing perceptions. The latter two incorporate the designers intuition and knowledge to make meaning of the first two. I would argue the space between theming and insight formation is the place to apply quantitative data. Adding different types of data at this stage fortifies the designer to approach the formation of insights and design ideas from a stronger vantage point.

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The highly regarded philosopher of design and creativity, Edward de Bono, advocates literally putting on different hats when participating in creative work. A hat for criticism and skepticism, a hat for optimism and “blue sky” thinking, one for intuition and emotion, one for provocation and deviant thinking, and so on. Yet, none of the hats on his hat rack is a statistics, data and science hat. Perhaps because this lens is commonly seen as a creativity killer. 

 

People may believe quantitative data is reductive, dry, lacks personality or nuance. But when I hear those critiques, I think, ‘You’re just looking at the wrong data!” The right quantitative data for your problem will spark curiosity, will express nuance, will prompt expansive thinking. With practice interpreting or visualizing data, quantitative data can tell a lively and highly specific story, or at least point you in the direction of one. If my overlay of the high-need GIS data with the non-profit’s recent project sites shows neglected areas of high need, I can explore why. I can visit those parks and talk to neighbors their to get a fuller picture of what is happening across the city outside of my convenience sample.

 

First, to fully exploit the value of a data-informed design practice first thing we need to do as designers is to let go of the idea that design is defined in opposition to science. While it is true that design methodology is distinct from scientific methodology, positioning these two disciplines at odds unduly influences designers to abandon both the tools and the products of scientific inquiry. While your design toolkit is powerful without any scientific resources, it is only more powerful when you are able to thoughtfully incorporate scientifically derived data or methods.

 

Second, we need to examine the design tools and methodologies that we rely on and consider how, when and where we might integrate empirical data. A choice to incorporate it at the beginning of the process might limit building empathy and understanding the problem through your users eyes. At the end might be too late to make use of the data. Wyatt describes three phases of design, “inspiration, ideation, and implementation.” Within this model, the most effective place to employ empirical data is somewhere within the ideation phase. Critically examine your design research process and consider where quantitative data best fits.

 

Finally, just as Pacione makes a case for basic design literacy for everyone, designers need to embrace basic data literacy. A data-informed designer is knowledgeable about what types of quantitative data sources are publicly available and what types of quantitative data your clients likely have access to. She also has at least basic competency in techniques for quantitative data gathering and processing. Data literacy requires being able to interpret and visualize quantitative data sets and identify bad or unreliable data sources. With practice, thinking with your statistics, data and science hat will become second nature, and the results of your design research will be even more persuasive and powerful.

 

Meditations on Capitalism, Poverty and Global Markets

In the past few weeks of reading about the codification of social entrepreneurship as a practice, we’ve considered the benefits and challenges of structuring an organization in that way. And we’ve contrasted the social entrepreneur’s approach with other models, such as large NGOs, small non-profits, public-private partnerships or for-profit businesses that target people in poverty (or euphemistically, ‘the bottom of the pyramid’).

 

As anyone who has been in class with me the last few weeks knows, I form decisive opinions easily. And while these opinions are both heartfelt and subject to change from day to day, the speed at which we arrive at opinions has me questioning the value of these snap judgements.

 

It felt easy to criticize firms strategizing about ways to take one more dollar, taka or naira from the poorest people on Earth by selling them products of dubious value. It felt easy to reject the hubris of saviors from wealthy countries flooding into poorer communities with their fancy degrees, rich donors and profoundly unsophisticated understanding of the problems they were trying to solve. It felt easy to identify the short-comings of social business models that maintain the agency of the entrepreneur and disregard the agency of the marginalized people their companies are meant to benefit.

 

But are those productive outcomes?

 

There’s something satisfying about arriving at a judgment. This thing is right, that thing is wrong, case closed. Having an opinion usually feels pretty empowering. An opinion can’t really be wrong, and having one grants you entry into the discussion. But, what do we bypass when we leap to judgment rather than sit with the ideas for longer periods of time? 

 

These readings are meant to give us grounding and context for the design work we do. They aren’t defining a problem space and giving us marching orders for us to take our six weeks of design training and go solve global poverty and inequality. Solving these problems is definitely beyond the scope of our class. In fact, even formulating a definite answer about best practices or frameworks would be going too far given a fairly cursory literature review.

 

What exists between an answer and an opinion? It’s understanding. This week instead of creating an artifact that had definitive content, answers, recommendations and opinions, I wanted to create space for reflection that might lead to understanding. For existing in the liminal space of knowing that you don’t know. For giving up the unearned confidence that having an opinion bestows and instead hold on to not knowing, wondering, and pondering.

 

Opinions form quickly. 

 

Understanding takes time.

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Adventures in Sketching

When we first started sketching classes at ac4d I thought I would quickly feel successful at representing my ideas visually. I often think in visual metaphors rather than words. And I spent tons of time in elementary school, middle school and high school (and maybe even college) doodling all over every available scrap of paper. In college, I was conducting interviews for an on-campus job, and one of the people we hired, Mei, ended up becoming a good friend of mine. Years later she told me she’d never forget my intent notetaking during the interview and how nervous it made her. But as we were concluding the interview, I set my clipboard down on the desk revealing it was actually covered in drawings, not scathing critiques. 😳

Getting back into sketching I fell back onto some old habits of using stick figures and symbols. In the first week, I hated the stuff I made so much that I didn’t save any of it. (I now regret that.) But even my stick figures have been tuned up since starting this class. The stick figures below have little detailing that allows you to position their heads more intentionally, direct their gaze or change their body language. Adding circles for hands and feet makes them feel more finished. But in a semester-long sketching class, I knew we weren’t going to stop at rendering humans as stick figures.

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Our first figure drawing class had us drawing people breaking them down into heads, shoulders, hips, and feet connected by a centerline. A not so secret trick that felt like a revelation. With a few small shifts in the hips and shoulders, I could create different versions of people that conveyed body language differently. These are a few early attempts. Not quite nailing it yet.

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Next, we added fleshy body features and clothes. This next image is about halfway to a having real body.

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I loved the way that building the frame of the body first could free me up to sketch different body positions easily without as much guess and check work (drawing it a little wonky and then starting over from the beginning). These quick outlines are both very expressive on their own and an essential foundation for fleshing out a person more fully in a way that feels anatomically accurate.

In the images below you can see faint pencil marks from my first attempts. In the first of the sequence, my first lines put the head and torso more directly over the hips, but looking at my finished product, I realized that with the leg extended so far, the torso and head needed to be further away from the leg for a realistic balance. In the second drawing, the hands and foot were too close together, so I redrew them further apart. I also noticed that drawing the shoulders and arms in perspective was challenging. Which should appear closer? How to make them look the same size and length? How to draw the shoulders? I tried to find reference photos of yogis doing this pose, but most were just perfectly 90 degrees to the camera/illustrator. I wanted to be able to illustrate this on a different plane.

 

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I also found it interesting to try to illustrate bodies in ways that pushed the limits of the linear structure. I drew several figures in different versions of child’s pose. I was also experimenting with different ways of doing the mouth, eyes and nose. I used the linear framing for the first (bottom) and my later attempts were modifications of the first figure with less use of the body framing.

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After drawing these side angled and asymetrical figures, I returned to the straight on, symetrical forms and drew a few more people. Hands, wrists, ankles and feet are still areas I’d like to improve on, but I was pretty happy with how these turned out overall.

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I’m enjoying experimenting with different ways fo drawing hair, facial features, and altering proportions (bigger heads, wider set eyes, different musculature). I also am enjoying drawing figures with less clothing or no clothing, so I can focus on the bodies rather than how clothes drape on the body.

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As much as I enjoyed sketching forms and objects the last couple of weeks, drawing humans has been really fun. I love seeing a person come alive on the page with a personality and back story that I might not have imagined when I first put pen to paper.

The Evolving Role of Design Research

As we move forward from reading foundational theorists to more modern practitioners, we have seen designers grapple with competing incentives and motivations in their work as designers. One perspective to take in understanding some of these oppositional forces is thinking in terms of the locus of control within the designer’s work. Or in other words, as designers, are we “designing with” or “designing for”?

In many ways ‘designing for’ is a given. When I first studied cartography we learned that the difference between graphic design and art is that graphic design must have a purpose or goal. Because of this constraint, you can’t start making a map without first knowing who your users are and how they are going to use it. What language do they speak? Are they walking or driving? Do they know the area or are they first-time visitors? There is a goal to be achieved and that goal can be evaluated in clear terms. Did my map help you get to the Palacio de Bellas Artes? Then it worked. The art contained within the Palacio isn’t subject to the same type of scrutiny. Unlike design, art doesn’t have to solve a problem. It can provoke, soothe, delight, confuse. It is emotional, rather than functional.

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If design by definition is always “for” someone, how can we put it on a continuum contrasting it with something else? The two models I propose are the subject model of the user and the object model of the user. Is the user at a remove? Someone we view through a two-way mirror? Who can be observed, but cannot give input. This is the user as an object. In the act of scrutinizing them, we have objectified them. The locus of control is entirely with the designer. As my classmates and I discussed our experiences as logo designers or non-profit consultants, we realized that this framing was typically the default framing. We asked our clients (and by extension, our users) to step aside to let the professionals do their work. “After all, it’s what you hired me to do.”

A subject model recognizes the agency of the user. It finds ways to include them in the process or even provides opportunities for them to direct aspects of the process. Defining the user as a subject allows the designer to be in conversation with the people she is researching in a more profound way. Liz Sanders describes the utility of co-creation that involves the users and other stakeholders extensively in the design process. “Co-creation of this type involves the integration of experts and everyday people working closely together…with direct personal involvement.” She cites the capacity for all people to be creative and the ameliorative potential of including diverse voices in co-creation when the design team itself does not effectively represent the beneficiaries of their work. Sanders also recognizes the barriers to co-creation. “The shift for companies in seeing their objective change from designing for people to co-creation is profound. It takes many years for the mindset and practices of co-creation between companies and people to permeate and change an organization.”

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Extending this observation about the challenges inherent in adopting an approach that maintains the locus of control with the user, John Kolko discusses the evolution of the role of the designer in organizations that are attempting to adopt a more user-centric and pervasive approach to incorporating design research into strategic decisions. The designer needs to be engaged in thoughtful, two-way communication with the users so that she can thoroughly “understand the experiential, emotional, and personal aspects of culture.” And she also needs to be able to meaningfully convey that understanding to individuals throughout the organization. The designer becomes an advocate for the user and conduit for the insights gleaned from the research process. Her role is as a facilitator of the design process and an articulator of the outcomes.

Given the awareness that Kolko and Sanders have of the organizational ecosystems that designers exist in, the object model of design that keeps the participants at a distance might seem untenable. Yet, many counterexamples exist and even dominate the culture of design.

We read Bill Gaver’s description of his development of Cultural Probes for use in design research. One example Gaver describes is capturing 10-second audio snippets of dreams that participants recorded and then sent to him on a device that didn’t allow editing or erasing. For him, these weird, irrational windows into other people’s cognition are exactly what a designer needs to spur creativity. His unique methodology has been adopted by other researchers, but they are attempting to deploy Gaver’s whimsical methodology in more sober ways. He conveys his disappointment at seeing Cultural Probes being misappropriated by more pragmatic researchers. They “design theirs to ask specific questions and produce comprehensible results. They summarize the results, analyze them, even use them to produce requirements analyses.”

Gaver’s probes are completely one-sided; they intentionally do not allow for interaction or conversation between participants and designers. The artifacts do not allow for context or explanation. The locus of control is firmly with the designer. The work of the designer is to bring new creations into the world using these snippets as muses. Those who would try to standardize or rationalize the process are missing the point. He says, “Whereas most research techniques seek to minimize or disguise the subjectivity of this process through controlled procedures or the appearance of impersonality, the Probes purposely seek to embrace it.” Despite the squishiness of information he gleans from Cultural Probes, he trusts them to effectively guided his process, saying, “the Probe returns have allowed us to predict with confidence which system our volunteers might prefer, just as we might predict which item in a shop our friends might like.” Gaver wants to use his probes to intuit what gift to buy, rather than have his participants tell him what is on their wishlist.

As significant a departure as Gaver’s approach is to the Sanders/Kolko framing, the three have a commonality; all are hoping to create a design environment that can incubate innovation. The creation of new things that have never existed before. New companies, new products, new systems, new environments, new services. The idea that a designer’s work is to create new things is culturally prominent, however, creation is not always the intention of design research. Often designer’s talents are applied to iteration, optimization, and customization, rather than innovation. Donald Norman argues that design research is only effective as a means of iterating on existing objects. He feels that design research in the service of creating new breakthroughs is unrealistic. His argument lacks a body of evidence to support it and was fiercely opposed when it was published, yet one cannot deny that many if not most professional designers are engaging in work that improves existing ideas rather than creating fully new technology.

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An analogous framework for considering these two opposing views is the debate amongst evolutionary biologists of how to best model genetic change over time, gradualism or punctuated equilibrium. Gradualism suggests that species gradually evolve over time, while punctuated equilibrium suggests that species exist for long stretches of time with no genetic changes until a beneficial mutation or change in context confers an evolutionary advantage that spreads rapidly through the population. While gradualism was the mechanism that Charles Darwin advanced in the Origin of Species, the theory of punctuated equilibrium is meant to explain patterns observed by paleontologists in the fossil record.

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Those who advance an innovator’s view of design believe in a world where new breakthroughs can burst onto the scene and change the way we live. The gradualist view suggests that there really are no new ideas, just a vast ecosystem in which small optimizations can give a product or service enough of an advantage to outperform its competitors. Norman believes in a world in which both gradual change and radical breakthroughs exists, but that design research is only effective in advancing gradual change.

Although biologists have theories about what types of selection pressures and environments might favor incremental change or breakthroughs, Norman does not consider what conditions would be favorable to more dramatic breakthroughs. A place to look to answer that question would be Jodi Forlizzi’s description of a product ecosystem. She details the changes in HCI from considering a single user and a single interface to considering the entire ecosystem in which a product exists, an ecosystem that includes other users and other products.

An example of a product in my lifetime that felt like a breakthrough was the iPod. Carrying around your entire music library on a device the size of a deck of cards felt amazing after spending most of my adolescence lugging around easily damaged, over-priced CDs in bulky disc carriers so that I could play them on my battery-powered Discman that was prone to skipping and always needed new batteries. This product wasn’t produced in a vacuum. At the time the iPod was introduced I already had tons of music on my computer thanks to Napster and tons of burned copies of albums or mix CDs that my friends had shared with me thanks to the ubiquity of PCs with CD drives that could burn music onto discs incredibly cheaply. The iPod emerged into a product ecosystem of friends and strangers that were sharing huge quantities of music, with several other substitute technologies that were inferior in ease of use and quality.

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While Norman would argue that the iPod was a technological breakthrough of scientists working without input from design research. Forlizzi would suggest that comprehensive, incremental design research focused on understanding that product ecosystem was responsible for the success of products like the iPod. Similarly, Jane Fulton Suri advances a theory of design research and synthesis that can be applied to experience design, rather than product design, to drive incremental changes. Both rely on studying interactions with existing products and prototypes to create optimized versions of these existing products and services.

Taking this research from the incremental and designer-driven to the incremental and user-oriented is the work of Paul Dourish. He analyzes the complexity of context when we consider designing objects that have contextual awareness. Whether it’s a smart home that adjusts to your presence to turn on lights or a customer service bot that responds to open-ended inquiries, technology is increasingly being designed to leverage an understanding of the user’s context. When successful our products feel seamlessly integrated into our lives, however, Dourish details the ways in which a shallow understanding of subjective context or a misreading of objective context creates experiences that are frustrating and eye-roll inducing. It’s your HDR recording something you would never watch in a million years, or automated hand-dryer that refuses to see you. Dourish theorizes that a thorough understanding of context is essential for the current generation of designers.

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Understanding these various vantage points in terms of locus and control as well as purpose allows for reflection on the methodologies and focuses that one might choose when engaging in a new research project. Will I look to Gaver for whimsical methods that cherish the creativity and perspective of the designer? Or to Dourish for the possibilities afforded by an intricate understanding of context? Or will I attempt to find a middle ground? One researcher/practitioner that attempts to sample a little from each is Chris LeDantec. He shares stories from his research into developing technology for use by people experiencing homelessness and their caseworkers. His techniques borrow from Gaver’s cultural probes, but are also rooted in process intended to develop a deep understanding of the user’s context. He integrates aspects of Sanders-esque co-creation when he brings caseworkers into stages of the design process. His design is ultimately in the style of Forlizzi, an incremental application of existing technologies, optimized for a particular use case.

As I continue to have more experiences in choosing design research methods, I am curious to see how the different approaches yield different results. I am also curious how each of these might feel as a designer. Is it more rewarding to design in a collaborative way? Is to more palatable to design for incremental change? Or will I enjoy moments of being a mad scientist in the vein of Gaver?

Does design require an economic revolution?

As we consider the future of design and our role in it for the last two weeks, e have been reading several perspectives on the role of design in society. Although the perspectives of authors we have read have spanned beyond the field of design to include educational psychologists, propagandists, and media theorists, all have something to say about the transmission of culture and the responsibility that people have towards future generations. Whether products or services, technological or aesthetic, designers are creating the future through the things they design. The academic perspectives on this challenge range from the acutely naive to the obsessively fastidious, from myopic focus to universal theories. To varying degrees, each is concerned with the current trajectory of society, from Bernays’ opening rumination about the tendency of widely held opinions to be slow to change and reactionary to Postman’s near panic about the ravages of technology on modern life.

A brief overview of some of the theorists we have read:

Dewey (1938): Societal transmission of knowledge is achieved through the accumulation of experiences at the level of the individual. Experiences and their context are foundational to the development of humans. Through a thoughtful understanding of the component parts and mechanisms of experience, we can design more impactful ways of teaching.

Vitta (1984): Design tells us who we are, and as the communicative purpose of objects increases, the functional purpose of those objects declines. The things one creates are an expression of values, preferences, and identity. The things one consumes tell that person more about themselves and signal those attributes to others. This theory of design is in dialogue with a theory of the practice of design.

Papanek (1971): Design has the potential to change the world by solving meaningful problems, and designers have an ethical responsibility to design for the needs of people. Learned preferences and aversions limit designers’ scope of practice and ability to solve problems creatively. Irrational beliefs and values shape the preferences of consumers, manufacturers, and investors.

Bernays (1928): People with the means and inclination to influence the public can have an outsized role in determining the path society takes. Simple tactics can have an enormous effect on public opinion and behavior. People who chose to manipulate public sentiment are preventing people from being culturally stagnant and will usually not misuse their influence.

Postman (1990): We have become overconfident in the ability of technology to solve problems while underestimating its negative consequences. Solutions are more likely to come from other disciplines. The existential challenges of human experience are not meaningfully addressed by technological innovation.

While juxtaposing any article against any other leads to interesting insights, I am considering all five articles for what they tell us as a disparate but thematically connected body of work.

I first considered the scale at which each writer is operating. Dewey is concerned with the minutia. He develops a whole vocabulary to define the ways that the internal, external, past, present, positive, negative come together to create human experience and identity as the product of their interactions and their environment. Vitta is reflecting on people at the scale of their relationship to individual objects, and the qualities of that relationship. Like Dewey’s, his theory of the relationship between humans and designed objects is individualized. This perspective is foundational to understanding a societal perspective.

Papanek, Bernays, and Postman each move further away from an individualist perspective towards a societal one. While Papanek is concerned with the individual responsibility of designers to society, his focus is largely on the profession of design as a whole and the opportunities and missteps of designers collectively. Bernays’ focus is on large segments of a society that have opinions that can be shaped, cultivated or redirected. Postman’s view is the farthest removed of them all looking at the global effect of technology on humans.

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While this view may make for tidy categories and organize the information neatly, it didn’t help me find new insights about these writers. In particular, the cluster of Bernays, Papanek, and Postman on the right side seemed problematic. Could I picture a tidy discourse happening between the three given their coming framing of the relevance of design at a societal level? I could not. I pictured Papanek berating Bernays for promoting consumption for consumption’s sake as Postman chided him for his shortsightedness in not being able to see the negative possibilities of social manipulation. I could see Papanek and Postman getting along as they lamented the growing Pacific trash gyre and proliferation of redundant technical products in homes across the world while homelessness, hunger, and war went unaddressed. Could I find an organizational system that honors these similarities between Papanek and Postman and acknowledges the gap that existed between them and Bernays? As I went back to my notes and marginalia, I found a word that appeared often in my notes, but only once in the texts we were reading, “capitalism.”

Each of the five writers is writing from the perspective of someone living within a capitalistic economy and many indirectly address the interplay of market forces on design choices. While each author engages with the idea of capitalism to varying degrees, we can still consider how compatible their theories are with a capitalist system as opposed to a system that might incentivize work, production, and design differently.

Postman, the only one to directly speak about capitalism, mentions capitalism in a negative light in a harried parable about misuse of technology that blames the existence of capitalism on monks who invented clocks as a means of timekeeping (ignoring the fact that commerce, accounting, taxation, and labor markets all preceded the clock). The crux of Postman’s argument is that “the computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane. The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking. It cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most.” One imagines that one could substitute “money” for “computers” in this passage and still elicit Postman’s agreement. He calls out overpaid software engineers and imagines “what might be accomplished if this talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts, to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we could learn from such people – perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger.” While technology bears the blame in his critique the system of capitalism that rewards these technological pursuits cannot be considered compatible with his worldview.

While not directly engaging with the role of capitalism in influencing design, Papanek harshly criticizes advertisers for “persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care.” Papanek, also scolds designers for choosing the wrong problems to solve, for “sex[ing] up objects…making things more attractive to mythical consumers” (or a Vitta might say, increasing the “signification and communication value” of objects). Instead, Papanek wants designers to improve conditions for humanity and the environment. Yet, he stops short of implicating our economic system as a force that results in design work being allocated to solve aesthetic problems rather than making changes that would positively affect lives. He details the experience of trying to design a better toilet that would require less water as an environmental boon, but unquestioningly embeds this the observation that his innovation is going to allow a toilet manufacturer to make more money by selling toilets to people who don’t actually need to have their old toilet replaced (as the environmental effects can be replicated by putting a brick or two in the tank).

Vitta has a similarly complicated relationship with capitalism. He quotes Karl Marx, including the voice of capitalism’s ideological opposition in his writing, lamenting how “the character of commodities…takes on the phantasmagorical form of a relation between things is only the already determined social relations which exist between the same men.” Basically saying the reason a rich man’s Rolex is judged to be better than a poorer man’s Timex is because we already value the rich man for his ability to accumulate wealth, the watch just echoes that sentiment. The positionality was never about the objects, but about the men. He also says that we need a “different, more balanced relationship with things” and worries about the “knot of economic interest that closes around use objects.” However, he states, “It does not seem that attempts to escape the market’s logic…have been very useful.”

Postman, Papanek, and Vitta’s theories could fairly be characterized as capitalist critiques or varying degrees.

On the other hand, Bernays describes groups (hat sellers and margarine producers) that have a vested interest in transforming public opinion to the benefit of their own industries but conspicuously doesn’t address the financial incentives for these groups to advance a positive narrative about their products. In fact, he moralizes the changes in public opinion advanced by these groups saying “the women in this country [when changing their hat preferences and purchasing habits] quite rightly accepted the leadership of the fashion groups.” For Bernays, like many of his era, the successful capitalist was virtuous. His conviction that “the privilege of attempting to sway public opinion is…one of the manifestations of democracy.” Reminds me of the anti-democratic, capitalistic arguments at the heart of the Citizens United Supreme Court case: that money is speech, and that having monied interests influencing political discourse is an expression of democratic ideals. Bernays is no socialist.

Dewey was the most difficult to pin down. The connections between his philosophy and capitalism are in largely in the subtext. He does say about the social order: “Is it not the reason for our preference that we believe that mutual consultation and convictions reached through persuasion, make possible a better quality of experience than can otherwise be provided on any wide scale?” This quotation is in the context of providing our society’s general preference for democratic systems that are participatory and humane, over forceful and coercive ones as a justification for a progressive perspective on education. In the subtext, I came to the conclusion that Dewey’s theory of individualized education for the personal fulfillment of each child exists in contrast to the “traditional education” that he opposes. That system was designed largely for the benefit of providing the proletariat with an obedient workforce. I came to infer that although Dewey seemed to not oppose the democratic capitalism of his day, that he would not approve of the vast inequities of late-stage capitalism that deprives so many of a relevant education that empowers them to pursue their own interests personally and professionally.

This allowed me to create a new representation of these writers’ perspectives.

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As these theorists debate the role of design in society, I can’t help but feel a more self-aware acknowledgment of the debate actually being about the role of design in a capitalist society is important. As we move into an era of increasing inequality and consolidation of wealth and power into fewer hands, how can we update our ideas about design? Will voices like Bernays dominate–those who mistrust the populace to arrive at reasonable conclusions in a marketplace of ideas, but still somehow trusts the public to “learn to overthrow tyranny of every sort” as a result of being exposed to ever more sophisticated manipulations by people in power? Or will we answer a more progressive call like Papanek’s–to integrate “insights of the social sciences, biology, anthropology, politics, engineering, and technology, the behavioural sciences, and much else, [into] the design process…responsive to the true needs of men” that doesn’t “defile the earth”? Surely the latter will require a rethinking of the benefits and constraints of capitalism as we are currently practicing it.