Personal reflection: Tarot as a sensemaking tool


During a class discussion of reading by design researcher Nigel Cross, our instructor Scott encouraged us to consider an important foundational question.

What does it mean to build methodology around my core design tenets?

It’s something I realize I’ve been doing, presentation by presentation, through the course of IDSE102.

The rigor of AC4D asks of us to be constantly presenting, to make a visual medium to show our work. For me personally, one part of the challenge of delivering so many presentations—and my presence here at AC4D at all—is believing that I deserve to be here. That I am smart enough, equipped, and capable of facing these challenges.

To that end, Nigel provides a definition of designers that has been one of the most validating things I’ve read for my career, and for my personal identity.

To summarize the major aspects of what designers do. Designers: 

  • Produce novel, unexpected solutions
  • Tolerate uncertainty, working with incomplete information
  • Apply imagination and constructive forethought to practical problems
  • Use drawing and other modeling media as means of problem solving.

I’m letting this serve as a foundation as I leap into what may be considered a novel, unexpected approach to our problem-solving process.

Using tarot as a tool for design thinking

But before I jump in, I should quickly establish what kind of problems we might use this method for. As defined by Jon Kolko, “A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: 

  • incomplete or contradictory knowledge,
  • the number of people and opinions involved, 
  • the large economic burden, and 
  • the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.”

His summary is based on the theory work of Horst Rittel. In Rittel’s work on the subject, he investigates whether social sciences are equipped to take on wicked problems. In approaching them, they often rely on outdated, positivist-based frameworks (see Dourish) that have an inherent limited scope of the problem space (see Simon). What might a different way of approaching these problems look like?

Enter designers: ready to confront wicked problems, literally embracing the wild unknown. Armed with sketchbooks, laptops, theories, and ample Post-Its, we instead rely on creativity, subjectivity, and intuition to make sense of the wild. 

But where to begin in the sensemaking? 

For me, I start with people. I believe serving people is what the design industry and practice is meant for. I’m interested in seeing what practices already work for people, and looking at other fields for frameworks (see Buchanan) that can inform my approach. In some ways I like to consider myself an idea detective, scoping out unsuspecting places or devices for clues in how to best problem-solve. 

So where does tarot come in? For those unfamiliar, here’s a quick definition from Brigit Esselmont, author of Everyday Tarot and founder of Biddy Tarot.

The Tarot is a deck of 78 cards, each with its own imagery, symbolism and story. The 22 Major Arcana cards represent life’s karmic and spiritual lessons, and the 56 Minor Arcana cards reflect the trials and tribulations that we experience on a daily basis.

As Esselmont goes on in her description, consulting tarot “is like holding up a mirror to yourself so that you can access your subconscious mind.”

I believe it’s with this notion in mind that designers have begun to embrace tarot as a reflection and sensemaking tool. Design researchers and strategists have created their own card decks inspired by tarot to envision future user journeys, predict the impact of tech innovations, and help spark conversations to solve workplace problems.

I rely on tarot because it asks the inquirer to consider possibilities you may not otherwise have considered at all. The best personal readings I’ve done for friends prompted a strong sense of what I like to call “vulnerable self-inquiry.” 

What this means in practice for the future of my design trajectory, I do not yet have a specific answer. But I know that whatever I do, my practice will be grounded in this fundamental notion.

Still not keen on or convinced of the tarot approach? No worries. This form of using tarot is essentially one of virtually any methods you could choose. And ultimately, any method you choose is arbitrary. (See DeBono’s colored hats or random word association methods.) What matters most is you have a starting place to frame ideas, with which to springboard.

(I would also say self-awareness of personal bias going into the ideation process, or for when a certain tool is no longer helpful, is also crucial. But those are essays/presentations for another time.)

Even if tarot or any other idea generation prompts you use don’t work for you, I say don’t give up the practice. In my mind, the way we go about life itself is all a matter of design, and embracing / facilitating experimentation is at the heart of it.

Failure is an opportunity for growth. Fail fast, envision success, and keep pushing forward.

How to Help People: A story in pictures


Click here to see the presentation. Below is a description per slide.

  1. Vickie is a designer. She works in the big city at an agency called Second Domain. (Margolin)
  2. She’s a good designer, but she’s unsatisfied with her work. She doesn’t get interesting projects at her company. Her most exciting work has been for toilet paper and nasal decongestant packaging.
  3. Vickie is tired of being a pixel pusher. She’s familiar with design thinking and wants to make a difference in her work.
  4. The thing is, she can’t get a job doing design thinking work. But she is very smart and enterprising, and gets an idea.
  5. Vickie is from a small town, and her family has been asking her for a while to move closer to home. She thinks moving back will be a good opportunity to volunteer and try out design thinking with her community.
  6. She knows being present is the only way to make a true difference. (Pilloton)
  7. She moves home and gets involved with a local charity that gives food and clothes to the poor. She has a bunch of ideas about how to improve their service from learning about other development projects.
  8. But she discovers that ideas are not one-size-fits-all. (Hobbes)
  9. She realizes she needs to give them the power to choose. (Prahalad)
  10. Vickie adjusts her approach, and they happily ease into co-design.
  11. A year later, Vickie and the charity are progressing. She’s learned a lot, but she wants to move back to the city soon.
  12. She believes she could train her colleague Lomelda to take on her work. 
  13. Lomelda is from a poor background and has a troubled past. (Spears) Others think Lomelda isn’t a natural leader, (Martin & Osberg) but Vickie disagrees. She sees promise in her abilities.
  14. She trains Lomelda and gets her resources to be a design leader. Lomelda does great.
  15. Vickie moves back to the city, happy that she’s helped other people help themselves. (Yunus)

Designing With/For Whom?

The industry and practice of design is in a compelling state of flux. In recent decades more designers have requested and earned a “seat at the table” of executives and strategic decision-makers of a company. This has caused a paradigm shift in the role and function of designers. 

The professional world is still catching up to this shift — as well are designers themselves. The evolution from being a skilled technical worker to a true player in the business is a professional leap in itself, but especially considering the process in which designers traditionally created. The industry standard had long been “designing for” a client, i.e. without their input in the process (or very minimal, often superficial input). Only more recently with the use of ethnographic research methods in design, along with the advent of design thinking have we shifted to the notion of “designing with” a client, i.e. soliciting their input and collaboration in the creation and iteration process, and beyond.

I was attracted to the design field because of this shift. 

I had long been interested in design as a trade — branding, product packaging, typography, and compelling copy have been captivating to me since I was young. But at the same time, I’ve always been interested in the bigger picture beyond these design deliverables. What use is sexy razor packaging if it makes more waste in landfills? What does a typeface do to battle social inequity? 

For a few years I was geared towards cause-based design via nonprofits, but ultimately I found these dissatisfying as well. On the whole, I found that many nonprofits either lacked the resources, strategy, or gumption to truly move the needle. 

Stumbling upon design thinking has been the best marriage of my interests: creativity with true problem-solving, geared towards positive social impact. 

But my time with nonprofits, as well as doing international development work in Peace Corps, taught me some surprising lessons about the business of “helping people.” I learned there’s a wide variety of approaches and motivations in this work. And not all of them provide mutual benefits to the parties involved.

This unit’s readings demonstrated to me the same is true of design. As posed by IDEO Chief Creative Officer Jane Fulton Suri:

“How can we ensure that [corporate ethnography] also provides meaningful benefits for the people who are observed, the people with whom businesses interact? We would like to believe that, going forward, the power of corporate ethnography—its biggest impact—will be to uncover opportunities that mutually benefit all of the people who participate in the economic and social network. Ultimately the businesses that may sustain innovation long term will be the ones that are able and willing to more fully align their success with the needs, desires, and success of their customers and of the other players in their business ecology.”

My aspiration in my design work is to galvanize all people as participant designers, and ensure their mutual benefit in the process as much as possible. 

As such, the following authors provide various stances by which to investigate this dynamic of designing with versus designing for, as well as the relative benefit to those within a business ecology.


As this argument is primarily inspired by Fulton Suri, we’ll start with her works. Both of her readings build on phenomenological and participatory models discussed by Dourish and Sanders respectively. But in exploring possibilities for the future of corporate ethnography, she pushes the envelope by asking design research practitioners to widen and diversity their own frames. 

This expanded view asks them to involve participants, researchers from other industries, and client companies in the synthesis and ideation process. With the latter, that even means challenging the client to re-examine their own lenses and biases when looking at findings. The mutual benefit comes from this expanded collaboration and buy-in from multiple parties. 

Next up is Sanders. In “Co-creation in Design and its Values” she echoes Fulton Suri’s case, advocating for more co-creation and co-design in our business and nonprofit efforts to benefit all involved: ”Co-creation puts tools for communication and creativity in the hands of the people who will benefit directly from the results.” 

In the introduction Sanders quotes “The Cluetrain Manifesto:” “We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings—and our reach exceeds our grasp. Deal with it.” The subtext of her argument is a general call to action towards the continued democratization of creative positive forces — a nice wink to / acknowledgement of the philosophy of John Dewey.

She provides a table in the reading that outlines where co-creation tends to happen for companies driven by monetary, use/experience, or greater societal benefit. She acknowledges it could take years for a profit-driven company to shift to true co-creation. 

LeDantec’s “Designs on Dignity” proves to be an informative thought exercise to better understand the lived experience of those experiencing homelessness. His more solution-driven study, “Tales of Two Publics,” is even more useful, implementing empowering language to frame this population (referring to them as a “public” versus merely “the homeless”). His methodology in ethnography and prototyping is equally empowering: soliciting input from this public, as well as the public of social service workers that support them. 

Unfortunately, the end result seems a bit muddied. It’s not clear how much the final deliverable—a digital messaging system and live message board display in the shelter—actually serves the homeless public. In fact, LeDantec acknowledges in the conclusion the airing out of their personal issues and requests on a display for all to see benefits them less than it does the service workers. Whether this tempered solution had to do with the many involved stakeholders to satisfy, is up to interpretation.

Last in this quadrant is Kolko. This section, “Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation” makes a compelling case for designers as strategists and consultants at higher levels of company decision-making. For him, the “magic” of innovative design is in the synthesis process—but only if companies (and the market as a whole) buy into the process and results. 

If successful, this human-centered approach could have promising implications for other beneficiaries within the business ecology. But this reading does not explicitly address extending that reach beyond the research phase.

I’ll now work my way down the right half quadrants. Donald Norman presents a compelling provocation in “Technology First, Needs Last,” starting with his first line: “Design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories, but essentially useless when it comes to breakthroughs.” 

His general idea is that the most successful inventions ultimately created user need—not the other way around, as design research might have us think. Indeed, many inventions throughout history were successful without the intervention of design research. They were driven by sheer curiosity, audacity, or simply just because they could due to emerging advances in technology. 

This thinking is probably the farthest away from human-centered design you could get—definitely designing for, not with. But it doesn’t mean the end result doesn’t ultimately benefit many more people than were initially involved in the process.

Jumping down to Dourish, I placed him in a neutral zone between benefit scopes because his exploration of context is ultimately more conceptual than anything else. His notion of taking close consideration of user context is a highly important one, and is certainly foundational to the work of all the authors in the top left quadrant, particularly Fulton Suri. 

But my gut feeling is this: even a company conducting design research with acutely close consideration of context will not necessarily extend that thoughtfulness beyond the scope of research. True participatory design or co-creation is still a logistial leap for many companies.

Our second-to-last author (and my personal favorite) is Gaver. Informed by Dadaism, his technique of using cultural probes—or as I like to think of them, subconscious probes—incorporate play in the process as a deliberate attempt to shed any assumed sense of objectivity in design research. As he clarifies for confused practitioners, “the probes embody an approach to design that recognizes and embraces the notion that knowledge has limits.” 

In essence, the use of this method provides provocative prompts to probe for deep user context and insights—so deep, Gaver admits, the findings are nearly uninterpretable. I cannot overstate how much I genuinely appreciate Gaver’s curiosity in the raw human condition, and his unconventional approach in data-seeking. Unfortunately, I fail to see how any findings with cultural probes could be actionable, nor how one could draw any conclusions in synthesis that aren’t heavily favored towards the designer’s personal perspective and ultimate benefit.

Finally, we conclude with Forlizzi. I find Forlizzi’s Product Ecology to be an interesting, dynamic framework to look at networks of people in relation to products. In cases where the final physical deliverable is the emphasis, this method of study is the best for understanding how the product is used and possible improvements. 

However, the tradeoff is an approach that is less participatory in nature. It deemphasizes true user input except in a superficial sense, focused on features and function. Of all of the models we’ve covered here, I would argue this model lends itself most to the unethical use of research participants: subjects could be seen as interchangeable, and their input not as foundational to the end result.

I’d like to end with some thoughts about how mutual benefit in a business ecology would actually play out in day-to-day design work. Ideals are such for a reason: they don’t always work out in terms of client demands, budgets, and expectations for deliverables. Still, I think ideals are crucial to establish your orientation in the world, and what aspirations to focus on. 

In considering how to best aim for this ideal, some questions to ask in this process may include: “What does mutual benefit in this situation look like?” “How should we handle multiple conflicting stakeholder priorities?” “What about the ‘wicked issue’ of someone’s problem we’re solving around (such as homelessness)? What is our ethical—or human obligation in this scenario?” 

We can’t assume to solve for everyones’ problems. But we can trust in every person the inherent capacity as participant designer, and to grant us illumination in our own perceived or actual shortcomings.

Design as Waste

This article is about the power and responsibility that comes with communications and experience design. I’m centering my argument on the notion of waste, because each of the following authors’ approaches equates to lesser or greater waste of human/natural resources.

Design as Waste

(In the course of this argument I’ll refer to “design” loosely defined to include communications and experience design; and “waste” to include that of human and natural resources, as well as lost time and efforts.)


Bernays is considered the “father of public relations,” a historically dubious field for ethics and responsibility. Bernays proclaims persuasion is a right in our democracy, that the practice of giving voice to our wants/needs will fight off any tyrannical powers that use PR for authoritative means.

This claim is wildly idealistic. It’s oblivious to the major players of PR in our society: companies fueled by profits and agencies supporting them, often in cases where they’re saving face for a public blunder. Are Bernays/these companies concerned about the implications of their persuasion? Only as far as it advances their agenda; which very likely means greater consumerism, waste of money, and wasted human potential.

Dewey’s experiential continuum assumes we will not waste human potential if educational experiences are framed to facilitate lifelong learning. His case for education reform is a positive, progressive one, but his continuum framework is essentially neutral. What if one’s learning environment values deceit and trickery, and a pupil advances in these and is celebrated for it? In the waste spectrum, Dewey’s theory only moderately accounts for what we’d consider wasted time.

Vitta’s argument does explicitly identify waste, which he perceives in mass production of designed objects. But his concern is less with the implications of waste, and more with semiotics: the lost meaning of objects and the designer making them. He shares sentiments with the next two thinkers that design needs a multi-disciplinary approach, but his ethical argument stops there.

Postman and Papanek make similar explicit cases for the reduction of waste, parallel in their concern for the responsibility of designers and the ultimate fate of society. I position Papanek on the farthest end, as his case is specifically about the ongoing waste of earth’s resources and human potential for solving genuine problems; whereas Postman’s argument on waste of excess information is ultimately more concerned with a loss of sensemaking and spiritual meaning.

Orientation Reflections: Trusting in the Process

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

In May 2014, just about this time five years ago, I was doing some random Google searches. This doesn’t sound important, but it is part of why I am here at AC4D today.

I’d been trying to figure out for a while how to marry my interests in creative work and making a positive difference in society. “Social impact design,” “social good design” and other similar phrases led me to several grad school programs across the country. I had already been considering grad school for some time before, either for writing or nonprofit management. But these new programs I was encountering were not what I expected. 

Where the two former subjects were interesting and seemed like logical steps for my career, design thinking was compelling and just felt right, though I couldn’t yet understand why. 

Jump ahead to present day, August 2019. I’m now a more experienced graphic and visual designer: earning an associate’s in graphic design, serving on the AIGA Austin board, and working in the industry for nonprofits and then as a freelancer. 

I had applied to AC4D a year and a half earlier, after amassing a portfolio I was proud to showcase. After a long while of thinking it wasn’t going to happen and continuing my professional life elsewhere, the opportunity to attend finally arrived.

Somehow, even though this had been my goal for over five years, I got cold feet.

Enter the inner critics and naysayers: How does this change my plans? What about all the other projects I’d started in the meantime? Why do I need this anyway? What if I’m not good at it after all? What if I can’t take it? What if I change all my plans, and then fail at this? (My brain can be a hyperactive place!)

One way I often dial down that noise is to educate myself and do research. I did the needed probing to calm my monkey mind, to reassure myself this is a step in the right direction. But I still wanted to ensure my mindset was in the right place. The Sunday before orientation week, I visited someone that reminded me of one of my greatest values: trust your intuition. 

I can move forward even on an unfamiliar road. I don’t have to, nor should I try and control everything. Doing this doesn’t mean I’m abandoning everything else. Release, and let things fall in place.

On the first day of orientation, Ruby walked us through expectations of the program and the three pedagogical tenants of AC4D:

  • Make Things.
  • Build Empathy With People.
  • Make Inferences. Trust Your Intuition.

When I saw this exact same phrase mirrored back to me in the official introduction to our experience here, I knew it was an important message. I know I’m in the right place.

And I know that message will be continuously countered through the course of the year. I have been impressed with AC4D on several points, one of which is their total transparency about how challenging this program will be. 

In day three of orientation, we conducted our first practice round of field interviews. I have done AC4D bootcamps and similar design thinking interviews before. But for some reason, preparing our questions for this one and the prospect of having to talk to strangers scared me in a way it hadn’t before. Enter the inner critic again: are you sure you’re up to this? This is the real deal now! What have you signed yourself up for?

And my counter-message to myself: Trust your intuition. Trust the process. Trust you deserve to be here as much as anybody else. 

I trust my personal background and prior design experience will be valid and useful through the course of the year. By the same token, I expect those same experiences may be a hindrance in stepping outside of my own understanding. I trust I will resist change, embrace it, and shed my ego when necessary. 

Finally, I trust I will build the skills necessary to exercise true autonomy — even if I don’t know what that looks like yet.