Innovation and The Limits To Imagined Possibilities

In our Theory of Design & Social Entrepreneurship course, we’ve been considering what might limit our imagination and the scope of innovation, with the hope that we can move beyond those limits and seek further possibilities.

Understanding Innovation
Don Norman and Roberto Verganti discuss the difference between incremental innovation and radical innovation in their article, Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research Versus Technology and Meaning Change. They introduce the hill-climbing paradigm applied to incremental and radical innovation, which illustrates that human-centered design is capable of incremental innovation, as designers find the highest maximum point for a particular space (or ‘hill’).

norman - hill paradigm

Moving to an entirely different, and even higher ‘hill’ requires meaning or technology change. In Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf, Norman ascribes this type of radical innovation to inventors and technologists, stating, “They invent because they are inventors. They create for the same reason that people climb mountains: to demonstrate that they can do so.”

But Norman omits a key group of innovators that also push culture and society to reach that other, higher peak: Artists. Artists impact both incremental and radical innovation because they drive meaning change and challenge the way technology can be applied.

Art & Innovation
I received my MFA in Studio Art in 2008, and have been a professional artist for over a decade, so I’m in a position to examine both design and art with an intimate gaze. Artists and designers have a range of overlap, most notably in that they operate from a sense of curiosity and that they are makers of ‘things,’ although those things take many different forms. The key difference between the two groups, however, is that while designers seek solutions, artists experiment with ideas.

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When it comes to innovation, this distinction is a fundamental differentiator.

In Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education: An Interview and Discussion, Roger Martin states, “A traditional manager would take the options that have been presented and analyze them based on deductive reasoning…whereas a designer uses abductive reasoning to say, ‘What is something completely new that would be lovely if it existed but doesn’t now?’” I would take this thought one step further and propose that then an artist might say, “This [material, idea, technology] is intriguing…I wonder what will happen if I play around with it for awhile?”

Artists aren’t bound by the constraints of a solution. As in Don Norman’s investigations, in which “every radical innovation he investigated was done without design research, without careful analysis of a person’s or even a society’s needs,” artists are primarily exploring ideas simply because they are driven to.

Garry Winogrand, the American 20th-century street photographer famously said, “I photograph to see what something will look like photographed.”

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To me, this exemplifies the artistic spirit: to do something for the curiosity of doing it. Unlike designers, artists have both the license and the luxury of making things to see what happens when they do. This pure drive of curiosity can often bring about more creative experimentation than making something to solve a particular problem, as designers are often tasked to do. The drawback to ‘art for art’s sake’ is that the creative innovations it reveals are often embedded in singular artifact, unsuitable for practical application in its artistic form. Design and technology can learn from artists and then take specific aspects of that work and apply them in appropriate, reasonable ways.

But this is not a novel idea. I attended graduate school at Concordia University in Montreal – a large, public Canadian university. At Concordia, a multi-school research institute called Hexagram is housed. Hexagram defines itself as an “international network dedicated to research-creation in media arts, design, technology, and digital culture.” From my own experience of Hexagram, the idea is that if you provide cutting-edge technology to artists (and other interdisciplinary researchers), they will find ways of pushing the boundaries of what that technology is capable of. Hexagram refers to their members as ‘research-creators,’ acknowledging that by removing the constraints of finding ‘solutions,’ their research-creators can be free to experiment for the sake of experimentation, and innovation is more likely to occur.

Danielle Feliciano, in her article What Artists Can Teach Creative Thinkers, states that “creativity thrives in the artistic community because it is appreciated there. Accidents, playfulness, and frivolity are encouraged because they lead to the unusual and the innovative.”

I wonder – are accidents, playfulness, and frivolity encouraged in design? Could they be?

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Implications for Design
So what can designers do to access and adopt the experimental processes and innovative qualities of artists? Most of all, designers should let curiosity reign. Take a few moments to allow lateral thinking and wild playfulness enter the studio. Curiosity and experimentation are at the heart of any radical innovation.

On an individual level, designers should expose themselves to art and artistic practices, especially contemporary art – visit shows and read articles, for a start. Be aware of how artists are using technology in novel ways, and then consider adopting useful aspects of that work to more practical applications in design. More broadly, we should cultivate the tendency to encounter ideas and disciplines that we are unfamiliar with.

Rethinking Discipline Boundaries
What is it that limits what we can imagine? Overall, I believe it’s the division and insularity of disciplines. We need to get out of our own silos and rethink the boundaries on our fields of work and study. As Bruce Sterling says, “Rather than thinking outside the box…we surely need a new understanding of boxes.”

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The art world is set up to serve those who are interested in art. It takes a concerted effort to go out of our way to encounter and experience it. Similarly, design, business, technology, and the social sciences all reside in distinct spheres. We each remain too closed-off within a particular field, a way of thinking, and and our own common patterns. We lack the integration that will allow us to innovate. We need to adjust our view of who we are and how we make efforts to intersect. There are overlaps in the way different professions work and what we wish to achieve, but the products of our efforts are limited by our individual channels. I propose a new model where we don’t think of art vs. design or design vs. technology, but of a collaborative, integrated, and intersectional model in which the norm is that we eagerly access and learn from each other.

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What limits what we can imagine?

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been reading about the limits to imagination. And outside of school, I’ve been reading this book:

In this book, Kat Holmes talks about how many designed products reject their users, e.g. a computer mouse and can openers for right-handed people or maybe an app that only iPhone users can use.

I’ve thought quite a bit about inclusivity and design during these past few weeks as we read these articles. When we read about doctors and how they’re trained to think about patients, I thought about one of our interviews we did for our capstone project. We interviewed a transgender woman who introduced us to the idea of trans broken arm syndrome. Which effectively means that trans people don’t get the care they need for basic health concerns, like a cold or a broken arm because the doctors tend to focus on their trans status and hormones.

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This type of prejudice in health care happens to people of color as well. Last week, Milwaukee proclaimed that racism was a public health crisis. “More than a hundred studies have linked racism to worse health outcomes. In Wisconsin, the highest excess death rates exist for African Americans and Native Americans, at every stage in the life course.”

And this type of racial inequality exists everywhere, especially in tech. Here’s a chart of the lack of diversity in tech companies as of 2017. (image links to website.)

Diversity in Tech

And why does this matter?

Because when we’re mostly white and we design for ourselves, this is what can happen:

Racist soap dispenser - Imgur

Ian Bogost talks about his frustration with technology when he says, “So many ordinary objects and experiences have become technologized—made dependent on computers, sensors, and other apparatuses meant to improve them—that they have also ceased to work in their usual manner.”

Kat Holmes says a similar thing when she says that, “Designing for our own abilities as a baseline… can end up excluding many more people.”

So when I think about the question that Richard has been asking us, “What limits what we can imagine?” I’m afraid the answer is us. WE are the doctors approaching people with our implicit bias. WE are the ones designing can openers for right-handed people. WE are the ones designing soap dispensers for white people.

So what’s the solution? Well, also us! WE are the designers here at AC4D learning user-centered design. WE are the ones who want to design with instead of designing for.

So hopefully we can learn from their mistakes.

Imagination in Design

Imagination and its limits were the topics of concern over the last week. In a past post, I had asserted that self-fulfilling prophecies are not a phenomenon but a human condition. This is because of the concepts of Psycho-cybernetics. In short, the concept of psycho-cybernetics states that the human mind once introduced an idea will continue to work on that ideas until it reaches its goal or solution.  Some ways we see this play out in our day to day are things like when we lose something and we ‘miraculously’ remember where it is later.

At the same time, the way we talk about the worlds impacts the ways we perceive and interact with the world. In a study looking at the way language and one’s thinking relates, “UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff has proposed that the way we think about concepts is fundamentally metaphorical. In other words, we don’t simply talk with metaphors, we think with them. We rely on what is simple and familiar to us, like money, to understand what is more complex and distant, like time.” (Metaphors can change our opinions in ways we don’t even realize by Steve Rathje).

This has implications on imagination and its limits. Much of our language has a tone ownership over ideas. For this reason, we limit our own thinking because we have shaped our minds to believe that ideas are one of a kind, hard to come by and creates a fear in us to push boundaries. Our culture seems to have an obsession with the concern of ideas and imaginations being a limited source.

One way we can jumpstart this short on our imagination juices is through play, and reframing our understanding of the world. When we grow up we assume that we stop playing because we have seen this behavior modeled to us. But by not playing we stop learning. But what if we continue to play, explore and not allow social behavioral expectations to hold us back.

Making delightful things to stretch the boundaries of our imaginations, which in the long run can serve to help reshape our culture and behavior in a way that conditions us to be better to one another.

The Limits to Our Imagination

Is there a limit to what we can imagine? We’ve been tackling this issue in our Advanced Theory class recently and it’s been a particularly interesting topic to address.


It seems a strange question to ask, “what are the limits to imagination?” After all, the imagination is seemingly free to wander where it may. However, there are many invisible blinders that we either cannot see or comprehend that impose limits to the imagination’s freedom.


Our imagination is limited by the words we use to both speak and think. When I took Spanish in high school, I distinctly remember having a dream where everyone was speaking in Spanish. At the time I was elated about the dream. It felt like a rite of passage and it gave me the feeling that I was actually learning. But looking back, I have to ask — was the dream actually in Spanish? I know the nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. were Spanish for sure but was the syntax correct? Or was the language spoken in the dream Spanish jibberish?

One of my favorite quotes comes from George Bernard Shaw:

“The sinlge biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

We imagine that the vision in our brain which we communicate with words, gestures, and symbols perfectly translates to another person. This, of course, is a fallacy of our device. It’s comfortable to believe we are understood perfectly but anyone who’s played a game of Telephone knows this is never the case.

Steve Rathje writes about how metaphors are more pervasive in our culture than we generally acknowledge. We not only use metaphors to relate to external phenomena but think in metaphors as well which affects the output of our thoughts. In his remarks at the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center in San Antonio, JFK famously said:

“America has tossed its cap of the wall of space.”

To think of space as a wall is absurd, especially since that wall is assumed to be low enough to toss something over. The metaphor he evoked allowed his audience to view space not as the vast expanse in which we exist, but a hurdle to a new era of science and exploration.

The way we communicate also has an effect on the way we view topics closer to home. Hugh Dubberly writes about how new doctors are limited by the language in the health care field.

“The way we usually think about health today is bound up in the language of our health care system.”

Interestingly enough there is a metaphor in the quote above: our thoughts are bound in language. Health care is a field with huge amounts of asymmetric information. Because of this, patients tend to believe the doctor is always right. Dubberly proposes that the doctor-patient relationship should be a two-way learning experience instead of the current, traditional paradigm where doctors wield all the control.

“The System”

Systems that exist, that we are born into and inherit from our predecessors, place limits on what we can imagine. It’s human nature to follow the herd. This is not true for all, but certainly it is for some portion of the population.

The health care field provides examples of this type of limitation as well. April Starr and Byron Good write about the medical field and the doctor-patient relationship. Byron Good shares a story about a medical student who was chastised by a superior for “telling the wrong story” about a patient. The superior was frustrated that the student didn’t ‘get to the point’ fast enough, only looking for a very short synopsis of the patient’s status. Here the system is limiting the way that this particular student thinks about people. More specifically, the student is being trained to view patients as an object rather than a social/emotional being.

Another example of a system limiting our imagination is the human body itself. Ray Kurzweil tells us that the brain has a limit to the number of computations it can complete per unit of time. He believes that one day we will merge with technology in a Singularity that will forever change the course of humankind. Reading Kurzweil’s writing evoked images of Captain Pickard when he was assimilated by the Borg (a reference for fellow Star Trek nerds).



We are limited by our past experiences. As humans, we are products of our past experiences and use that knowledge for the everyday life decisions we face.

For designers, I believe it is particularly important to embrace methods that allow for the defamiliarization of things we usually take for granted. This is the point of Genevieve Bell’s essay, “Making by Making Strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies.” She states:

“The challenge for researchers and designers is to see beyond the naturalizing of devices and experiences to their cultural roots.”

Part of the reason this is so difficult is due to the nature of culture. When culture changes, it is often so subtle that we don’t realize it. We generally don’t view culture as something that changes quickly, especially in comparison to the speed at which technology has evolved in our lifetime. This is a subject that Tom Vanderbilt addresses. We can see concrete examples of innovation and technological leaps and therefore extrapolate what form future innovation may take. However, when we do this type of forecasting, we often insert our current culture into that scenario and ignore how that innovation will affect our society.

Predicting who we will be is harder than predicting what we will be able to do.”

My Thoughts

I agree with many scholars that there are limits to our imagination, especially as it pertains to what we can design. One limit that stands out to me is our economic system. Viability is king. If a project doesn’t have a positive ROI, there’s almost no chance it will be undertaken. This is potentially problematic for systems that have had round after round of technological bandaids appended to “fix” problems within that system. A full redesign may be the best course of action in the long-run, but businesses tend to focus on short-term gains.

Many of the things limiting our imagination are unknown. When we identify a limit, we could begin finding a way to exceed it. An example of this from above is Genevieve Bell’s call to defamiliarize ourselves with everyday objects and experiences. We acknowledge that limit, and we find ways to break it. Therefore, living life with a focus on reflection and the experiences of others is the best way to recognize limitations and free our imaginations from their bounds.

The Future of Design (Or, How Things May Not Be That Different From Now)

Yuval Noah Harari
Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

I would like to tell you about a book I’ve just finished. It’s one of the finest books I have ever read.

Reading this book also bolstered the belief that I’m in no position to make the previous claim. I’m a human, a fledgling designer, and a biological creature. Which makes me a product of evolution, prone to cognitive dissonance, and recency bias.

The implications of these faulty human traits become clear in Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. But more than proving we’re faulty creatures, Harari’s thesis should resonate with anyone who has a stake in design.

Humans, Just Another Animal? 

Harari is a historian, a realist, and most likely, atheist or agnostic. He contends that humans have dominated the planet due to our creation of fictions.

Our fictions are the fuel that propels our dominance on the planet. These stories define our uniqueness within the animal kingdom: the ability to organize in groups far above 100. The utility of money is a tangible example of a shared global fiction. A $100 bill is a piece of paper, but we all agree on the fiction that it has value.

Harari details how our ability to organize under shared fictions has led to the Anthropocene, the current age where human activity is the dominant force on the Earth’s environment. But it’s not only the Earth we’re changing.

We’re beginning to modify our genetic code, we’ve extended our lifespans, and we can ingest mood-lightening pills to ease our worries. Harari writes that as we reshape our biology with greater precision, it’s the old and new fictions that will guide what we create.

Huxley, Orwell, and Atwood all warn us through their literature that as we gain greater biological control over ourselves, we’ll lose our humanness. But maybe those warnings aren’t predictions just yet. Today, mitigating depression with an accurate dosage of chemicals has made life livable for many people. The trouble, Harari writes, is that our scientific developments in the life sciences (biology, behavioral economics, cognitive psychology) are quickly eroding the dominant shared narrative most of us live by.

You’re a Humanist, Like It or Not 

The dominating narrative of our age is humanism. Most of us have grown up with a feeling that “I am a unique individual with a clear inner voice that provides meaning to the universe.” Humanism sanctifies life, happiness, and the power of Homo Sapiens. It’s a story that says, “It’s up to me to choose what is right, what is art, what ice cream is best.” It also says “It’s up to you to choose the same for yourself.”

“Feelings” can have a very touchy-feely connotation, but it’s also humanism that fuels capitalism, choice, and our sense of freedom. It’s what legitimizes voting, and urges us to seek more equitable justice.

And it’s here that Harari’s warnings begin:

The humanist belief in feelings has enabled us to benefit from the fruits of the modern covenant without paying its price. […] What, then, will happen once we realize that customers and voters never make free choices, and once we have the technology to calculate, design, or outsmart their feelings? If the whole universe is pegged to the human experience, what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket?

We’re Walking, Justifying, Narrative Machines

If you’ve ever concluded that humans are irrational and fickle, you’ll not find much argument from Harari. What sets his writing apart is how he synthesizes scientific developments in light of our ancient human fictions.

A few of the unsettling scientific developments in irrationality:

  • fMRI scanners have proven your brain makes decisions before you’re aware you’ve made them
  • Split brain experiments have shown that humans are experts in cognitive dissonance, sliding into rational explanations even under bewildering circumstances
  • Behavioral economics has shown humans “narrative self” consistently overpowers our “experiencing self,” which turns the irrational, unpredictable choices we make into the illusion of a coherent, individual story (referred to as “System 2” in Daniel Kahneman’s terminology)
Daniel Kahneman receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Many of his experiments led to the conclusion that we have a "narrating self" that makes justifications inconsistent with our "experiencing self"
Daniel Kahneman receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Many of his experiments led to the conclusion that we have a “narrating self” that makes justifications inconsistent with our “experiencing self”

Dear Algorithm, Tell Us What To Design

Most of us don’t design by religious guidelines or by a dictator’s demands, we design for an environment where individuals are free to choose: my barstool or Ikea’s, your app or Apple’s. We believe in choice, and we design knowing there is a choice on the user’s end (most of the time).

Harari foresees a conflict here. On one side, the humanistic legacy and individual choice. On the other, the developments of science and technology, along with the rise of algorithms which increasingly make choices for us. Harari writes: 

Humans are relinquishing authority to the free market, to crowd wisdom and to external algorithms partly because we cannot deal with the deluge of data. In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information. […] Today having power means knowing what to ignore. So considering everything happening in our chaotic world, what should we focus on?

This leads me to imagine a loop that will impact designers at a high level:

  • We’ll continue to design based on witnessed human behavior, but will have to fight louder for a voice among the screams for large quantitative data
  • Big data collection and the algorithms will increasingly affect what gets made
  • What gets made = what gets used
  • We’ll increasingly study human behavior that’s created or influenced by algorithms

Pessimistic enough? I suppose Harari brought it out of me. But his book isn’t simply pessimistic. It’s an exercise in reflection and an attempt at broad foresight. More optimistically, it helped me gain a sense of the big picture of creating things for fellow humans.

Are we in danger of designing for “data fiends” who may trust algorithms over individual feelings? In reaction maybe we’ll design for the opposite, an “intentional ignorance,” or peace of mind that purposely avoids the prescriptiveness of data. Perhaps the data will show us more clearly our cognitive dissonance and we’ll act differently, more efficiently, or even more ethically.

Whatever we’re called to design, we should recognize the fictions we’ve been operating on, and act on the the stories we want told in the future.

An Unlimited Imagination Limited

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Internal Sensemaking

This past week, we’ve been grappling with one main question: What limits what we can imagine? This question is quite complex. Our imaginations are complex. And our imaginations are also immense. Ironically, our imagination itself is greater than we can imagine. Or rather our imagination is greater than we can comprehend.

Imagination happens all the time in our brains, consciously or unconsciously. It’s the sensemaking we do to our imagination that limits it. The sensemaking that comes when we try to understand what our brain is telling us and the sensemaking that we use to then convey it to the external world. Even the act of our consciousness trying to understand our imagination puts new constraints on it.

I’m imagining things right now that I could never explain to you. I can’t even explain them to myself, because they don’t make sense. Because making sense means fitting into the constraints of our current world.

Think about the last dream you had. Try to tell it to someone else. As you begin to unravel the dream itself, you are realizing that there are things within the dream that don’t make sense. As you slept, it felt totally normal, but now to your conscious, sensemaking brain, you can’t comprehend it. As you tell it, you use metaphors and similes to describe how it’s “kind of like” this or that. Ultimately, when you finish telling it to someone else, it’s not the same as the dream you had. You may think that you’ve explained it as best you could, but the retelling of it wasn’t how it happened and didn’t make you feel how you felt when it happened to you in your dream.

This is your brain creating things that you can’t comprehend. The subsequent act of your brain trying to understand those thoughts is the first constraint that your imagination undergoes.


External Communication

After internal sensemaking occurs (the first constraint on what we can imagine), the second constraint occurs: communicating to the external world. We want to deliver this thought to others and make it more tangible. Our first resource we draw from is language, spoken and written.

Language and Perspective

As we seek to externalize thoughts from our imagination, we draw from our language. While language can help us communicate our ideas to others quickly, it also constrains our ideas into only thoughts that can be expressed in our language. Language is a good system for some things, but it’s not a perfect system. In his piece “Metaphors Can Change Our Opinions in Ways We Don’t Even Realize,” Steve Rathje explains how language changes the way we view things and ideas. He states, “Because of the role [metaphors] play in our thought processes, the metaphors we choose to use can dramatically impact people’s perceptions in ways that have real-world consequences.”

Language matters. Language limits not what we imagine, but limits how much of our imagination we can understand and how much we can communicate to others. As Rathje puts it, “Words matter, and if we are careful with our words, we can use them to make a positive impact. Like poets, we can approach our language with grace and precision, crafting metaphors that are persuasive and give people new ways to think about issues.” Our language may constrain our original imagination, but it can also be used to create new frames of looking at problems and reframing can spark our imagination all over again.

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Perspective also can limit how we understand or communicate our imagination. Language often alters our perspective. Take the medical field for example. The verbiage and environment of understanding anatomy creates a new perspective of the human body. Instead of seeing humans as people, medical practitioners can switch to seeing humans as bodies. In his article “How Medicine Constructs Its Objects” Byron Good explains how this perspective alters the way medical students see their patients. He writes, “Students are quite aware that they are learning an alternative way of seeing, that it is a way of seeing that they can usually ‘turn on and turn off,’ but that they are learning to ‘think anatomically’ in a way that is central to the medical gaze.”

Learning this new perspective combined with its new language, provides opportunity to see and understand in a new way. However, doctors must be wary of where this perspective comes into conflict with the alternative perspective of human bodies as people not just objects. Medical professionals have to constantly be code-switching between medical jargon and an anatomical perspective to a human-based, empathetic way of understanding and communicating. If they cannot do this effectively, the whole system struggles because humans are not either people or bodies, they are both and medical professionals need to operate to serve both.

It’s not just the professionals. Ultimately, it’s the medical system that inadequately prepares and inadequately cares for the medical professionals within it. Because the doctors and nurses are not just walking medical databases, they are people too and they need humanizing care as much as the patients.

The Role of Fear

Fear is another constraint we have on the implementation of our imagination. The limitations that fear impose can be good or they can be bad. The can limit us in moving toward certain directions and they can show us potential downfalls to our ideas.

Fear can be tacit or explicitly depicted. Some fear is internal and guides us from implementing or acting on things that scare us. This can hinder our ideas by not giving them the opportunity to grow in new ways or address the parts that scare us. Fear can also be depicted outright to hinder our growth or to call attention to potential darkside of our implementing our imagination. For instance, in the short videos “Strange Beasts” and “Sight,” we explore the potential of augmented reality only to discover that it could creep into our lives in unexpected ways. Unexpected ways that change the way we interact with other people, change our behavior, change our culture, and change us. This fear can hold us back from implementing our imaginations, which could be detrimental to our growth, but these short videos also call attention to potential repercussions that we may not otherwise consider. So, fear can be a constraint, but it can also help us grapple with the responsibility we need to have over implementing our imagination in real life.




In “Reframing Health to Embrace Design of our Own Well-Being,” Dubberly et al. promote a reframing of the medical system to promote the voice and responsibility of the patient. They argue that the current field often reduces patients to a childlike status, where medical professionals have all the power and all the responsibility. Dubberly et al. propose a reframe to increase the autonomy of the patient, the responsibility of the patient, and the view of health. This new perspective would change the way that the whole system works and would especially change the way that healthcare professionals and patients interact. Reframing is an important design tool that can allow designers to look beyond dominant lenses to understand a problem from multiple perspectives and in various contexts. 


Bell et al. uses defamiliarization as a way to reframe perspective. As an example exercise, Bell et al. has people “describe something as if they were talking to someone from Mars…[or] imagine that [you] are from Mars and are seeing our world for the very first time.” They describe defamiliarization as “first and foremost a literary device, a style of writing…available as a strategy to anyone with access to a pen and paper.” Still constrained by the limitations of language, defamiliarization can be used to open up new ideas and understanding through a specific type of reframing. Reframing and defamiliarizaton can be used as strategies to stimulate new thought and push ourselves beyond our current understanding of a problem. As an example, here’s a short video of defamiliarization of food to reframe how we think about what we eat.

Finding a Balance

As designers, we need to balance multiple perspectives and fill in the gaps of where our knowledge ends. We can help fill out our repertoire of perspectives by doing our best to experience what others go through. We call this type of understanding ‘empathy’ and as human-center designers, we try to build it with our users in everything we do. But, be wary of where immersion within a community or a perspective can constrain your ideas. Be ready to switch between multiple perspectives.

As designers we need to balance not only how we develop our ideas, but also how we communicate them. Language has its strengths and words matter, but there are other mediums to express our ideas and they should be utilized throughout our work. Drawing our concepts helps move us beyond the constraints of language. Making mockups or prototypes can allow people to interact with our ideas in new way. Drawing and making can not only allow us to communicate to others in a new way, the process of externalizing our ideas can change how we understand them as well.

Our knowledge and understanding can limit that way we implement our imagination. Having a holistic look at something can push us to understand an issue from multiple frames and can provide us with new ways of understanding a certain problem.


Collaboration can be used throughout the design process to reframe problems, to balance perspectives, to fill out knowledge gaps, and to provide feedback on our ideas. Collaboration is a powerful tool that can be used to stimulate thought and feed the imagination. It can also be a constraint, but if used well, it can be the key to powering our imaginations. 



Our imaginations are not constrained in and of themselves, but our sensemaking and communication of our imagination imposes limitations on what we can comprehend and externalize from our imagination. Our knowledge, perspective, language, and even fear, add layers of constraint. However, strategies such as reframing, defamiliarization, finding a balance, and collaborating can help us cope with some of the constraints and find new ways of understanding and new ways to communicate our ideas.

What will we allow to challenge what we can imagine?

This week in our theory class we read a number of articles that took a very strong stance on a couple of topics. While all were intended to explore this question of “What limits what we can imagine?”, many focused on a specific arena from healthcare to futurism to the technology of things and had a very clear opinion on the positive or negative nature of these things.

These strong opinions led me to consider that maybe we were not asking the right question as we read these articles, maybe we should be taking a more critical lens to their arguments in general, rather than focusing on the author’s approach to this specific question, “What limits what we can imagine?” (which, by the way, implies we should set limits on what we can imagine and that just seems absurd any way you slice it).

I don’t believe the issue is our imaginations. We need more imaginative thinking in the world today. The issue is how steadfast we should be our pursuit of the future we imagine. The real question should be, “What will we allow to challenge what we can imagine?” And, I will tell you why.

Michael Lewis, the writer of books like Money Ball, The Big Short, and The Blind Side, has created a new podcast that was released April 1st. It is called Against the Rules and explores the idea that Americans have lost faith in the referee (the person who calls out missteps beyond the rules of law, games, etc. in government, business, media, and beyond). I listened to the first two episodes this week. I highly recommend listening to it and was struck by their relation to the statements being made in our readings.

What struck me about these episodes and our readings in relation to us (our class) becoming designers pretty soon is that, in some ways, as designers we are referees. We have power. We are the ones with the power to decide what is ethical and what is fair in terms of the products we design. We are entering the design world at a time where, as Michael Lewis would put it, many groups that hold power in some way are under scrutiny from to police officers to journalists in regards to what they have found to be fair. I believe, we should be held to the same standards as any of these groups.

What our readings lacked and what this podcast highlighted for me was a lack of faith in humanity to make the right decision. The podcast spoke about ways that certain industries are combating this sentiment by giving more sets of eyes to making calls about what is ethical and what is not. For instance, the first episode talked about the NBA call center, where refs review calls previously made by other refs.

How this applies to our readings

In some of our readings, specific social groups were targeted for not being ethical enough or creating products that were deemed unethical.

As an example, last Tuesday, we walked into class to be greeted by this screen:

Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 2.08.42 PM

Essentially, our attention was being drawn to this “popular” hashtag because it easily summarized an argument made in some of our readings this week. One of those readings was by Byron J. Good and, in it, he talks about the sort of miseducation that happens in med school where you are rewarded for “’not how much time you spend with your patients or how caring you are with them or how good a rapport you establish with them…’, but your presentation of cases.” In a reading by April Starr, a designer who’s husband recently spent a week in the hospital, she says doctors can be (insinuating that all are), “control freak(s) (who) want to stroke (their) ego by talking with the patient in front of all (their) resident minions.”

What I want to point out about these articles and the 111 slides of deck that were created by our instructor to support their argument is that it is blaming humans who operate within a system. If I could distill their argument into a sentence or two, it would be something akin to, “Doctors are imperfect and make poor decisions and so we must do something to stop doctors from being imperfect and making poor decisions.”

If we took that approach, we should probably be tackling the ways that all of humanity is imperfect and makes poor decisions. And the reality is that humans are and will be as human as they ever were and nothing (other than outsourcing human tasks to things like robots) will prevent them from continuing to do imperfect things. But, what we can do is help one another make better decisions and that is what we should be discussing.

How our discussion of the readings missed the point

An interesting thing about the deck that guided our discussion on this topic (which again was mirroring the arguments made in a few of our readings) was that on the 111th slide, it flashed simply the title of a reading that made a more productive argument. Slides 114-117 had screenshots of tables from this article as well but were flipped through at such a rapid rate there was no time to consider them. This reading was about, “Reframing our health to embrace design of our own well-being.” Essentially, it offers an argument that, “Healthcare’s many stakeholders can’t agree on a solution, because they don’t agree on the problem. They come to the discussion from different points of view, with different frames,” placing more onus on the system rather than the humans operating within that system.

The solution they offer to the same problem that these other readings have brought up in a less productive way is something called self-management. “Self-management suggests a fundamental shift of responsibility. Patients reclaim their role as adults responsible for their own well-being.” In other words, the writers of this article, Hugh Dubberly, Rajiv Mehta, Shelley Evenson, and Paul Pangaro, are offering that maybe part of the solution to healthcare is to create products and solutions that empower the patient to guide their own care.

The deck quickly shifted back to the negative consequences of imperfect doctors and the poor decisions they can make. By the 133rd slide, we were talking about instances in which doctors felt so ashamed of the imperfect nature of people in their profession that they felt inclined to apologize.

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The 133rd slide of our reading discussion deck

At just a moment when a portal was opened into discussing the cause of the sentiment that was expressed in our readings and in the subsequent slide deck, the portal was closed, as we quickly flipped to the next slides. It felt like the deck was structured in such a way that was meant to guide us towards a “right” opinion, doing all it could to present the case for this one argument. And it was trying so hard to convince us that it was right, that it negated actually discussing what caused the issue in the first place.

What it means to us as designers

I could talk a bit more about some of the articles we read the past week, about the Internet of things and futurism and management. An article we read by Tom Vanderbilt on futurism states, “Futurology is almost always wrong.” Ian Bogost argues against the Internet of things in saying, “Nobody really needs smartphone-operated bike locks or propane tanks. And they certainly don’t need gadgets that are less trustworthy than the ‘dumb’ ones they replace, a sin many smart devices commit.” Ultimately though, I believe my recount would become a bit repetitive. Most all of the readings have a similar theme. It is that they take a stance around what is right and pit the opposite against it as wrong. As if to say, there is always a good and evil. Black and white. My side and yours. But do little to discuss the actual cause of the issue they are concerned with.

What we need in the world today is not more people who are so convinced their “side” or their opinion is right. As designers this is exactly what we should be moving away from. What we need is not to discuss (even chastise) certain social groups because of the ethical missteps of a few. As designers we should not be as concerned with discussing whether a certain social group or design fad is good or bad. but rather what the negative implications of our designs might be and how be can create a solution that solves for those.

What we need, much like Michael Lewis is stating are more referees in some instances, reform to the policies of the referees in some other instances, and more faith in the referees in the rest of the cases. The world feels more polarized right now than it has ever been before and statements like #DoctorsAreDickheads are not the kind that will bring us together and are never the kind of statements that lead to a conversation that ends in a solution. What’s more, conversations centered around these kinds of statements, whether it is, “The Internet of things is ridiculous,” #DoctorsAreDickheads, #BlackLivesMatter vs. #PoliceLivesMatter usually digress into a conversation around whether one side or the other is “right.” These conversations are unnecessary and shallow when they negate discussion of the actual cause of these issues.

What we need are people who are interested in learning more about one another’s experiences. We need lines of communication between “vying” populations. We need to be talking about the systems at are in place that create any sort of injustice, examining those systems, and then adjusting them, rather than blaming the imperfect humans who operate within those systems

Mobile Banking App Product Feature Brief

Over the past 2 quarters we have been workmen on building a banking app. We started with examining the architecture of existing banks with concept maps, building out screens, user testing our flows, meeting with developers to obtain sizing estimates and creating timelines for building and relating the app. Our final step is creating a design strategy and feature brief to illustrate why our product and strategy is valuable. The goal of the feature brief is to be a stand-alone document that can answer the questions of multiple stakeholders.  (complete brief available here)

Behavioral Insights

The app design is based upon 3 main insights:

Todays professionals are mobile and need access to financial services when  they are away from home. MB is a local Chicago without branch locations outside of the Chicagoland area, therefore it is essential to provide a secure mobile platform to fill in the gaps.401 MB Design Brief.004

During our user testing, security was a primary focus for clients. Traditionally, banks have been trusted institutions to deposit your money and valuables for safe keeping. Todays customers are worried about safekeeping of their identity and account data just as much as their physical assets. Our product must include multiple touchpoint to assure clients their trust is protected.401 MB Design Brief.005

The professional landscape is changing. Today’s professionals change jobs more frequently and are more likely to have more than one stream of income. Providing access to real time spending and budgeting capabilities will empower our users to take proactive steps toward a healthy financial future by monitoring the financial decisions they make day to day. 401 MB Design Brief.006

Value Proposition401 MB Design Brief value prop.001


The app will be built over a 150 day time frame with a first release occurring after 30 days and subsequent releases every 30 days. 401 MB Design Brief.008

The app releases begin with basic account access and expands into a tool for financial planning. 401 MB Design Brief.009

Below illustrates a detailed look at what features will be built for each release.401 MB Design Brief.010


Insta balance is an optional feature to provide a quick glance at account balances by using either your fingerprint or face-recognition software built into your mobile device. This feature allows a quick view of your account status without having to enter your password in public or over shared wi-fi networks that may be vulnerable. 401 MB Design Brief.016

The account home screen includes recent transactions,  further detail for each transaction includes a list of transactions by vendor, with notations of any abnormal spending. 401 MB Design Brief.017

Security is a priority, and our clients expressed concern when making mobile deposits via the camera on their mobile device. The deposit screen includes the photographic images taken by the customer of the front and back of the check. For added assurance, the account number and routing number of the check being deposited to your account is automatically populated into the deposit confirmation so that users can verify their photograph has acquired the proper details of the transaction. 401 MB Design Brief.018

The mobile banking app allows you access to the services you would find in your local bank branch and more. The app integrates the ability to send a friend money today, at a single future date, or on a recurring basis.

401 MB Design Brief.019


The feature brief will is the most critical tool in bringing our visions into reality but it can be a challenge to have foresight into the questions stakeholders outside your department will need answered. During our class discussion, each member of our small groups was assigned a role by Scott and provided a set of objectives. As the marketing director, I was interested in when this new feature would launch and how I could tie this into getting a bonus. When designing this brief, I never would have imagined my audience could be someone in marketing looking to position this launch into a raise for themselves. This was a helpful introduction to creating a product feature brief.



Let Me Be Brief

Our banking app journey has come to an end, but not without one last deliverable: the feature brief. In developing a feature brief we needed to be able to quickly and clearly translate the value promise, the why, and the how of the product to the reader without necessarily being there to present it. This also meant a printed and bound deliverable.

Click the the image below to view the feature brief I created for the Candid Banking App.

Click to view the full feature brief
Click to view the full feature brief

Things I learned:

  • The same elements that work in a slide presentation do not necessarily translate to a printed presentation for individuals. For example, slide builds are great in live presentations, but annoying to flip through on paper if it’s just a visual build without descriptor text on each page.
  • Printing is finite, and tricky. When I printed all 115 pages of my brief (5 copies) I found that there were some pages that had elements that were invisible when viewed on my computer, but very clearly there when printed. I will be printing test copies next time before going all in on multiples.
  • I also got feedback that quotes and pictures of real people are important and would have made the insight section more impactful and added more credibility to the brief.



Your vision should speak for itself: Design Strategy Feature Brief

Three months ago, we unwittingly began crafting wireframes for a banking app re-design that is culminating here in a Design Strategy Feature Brief.

Roadmap to the Roadmap

We began by sketching the existing digital system and reconceptualizing how we thought it should look. Next we built out the wireframes and conducted user testing to see how usable our system was and what changes we ought to make. We partnered with developers to size our apps (estimating how long it would take to build out each feature) and created a strategic product roadmap for the app’s rollout based on which features should be built out and released first for maximum user value.

Feature Brief
This assignment challenged us to create a document that could stand on its own and support our decisions for the product rollout to various types of stakeholders. We will not always be present to argue for our decisions, so our vision needs to be able to speak for itself. Below is the introduction to my feature brief that frames the problem to be solved, target users, and the guiding principle for the app design.

Preface to the Bank of America app design strategy feature brief
Preface to the Bank of America app design strategy feature brief


View full Design Strategy Feature Brief here.

Challenges and Learnings


Much of my app re-design focused on recreating the existing banking app features as I learned about digital concept mapping, controls, data visualization, accessibility standards, think-aloud user testing, differences between mobile and desktop environments, and how to use Sketch for wireframing. *Phew* That was a lot to take in in one sentence, and it was a lot to learn in 8 weeks!

Ultimately, I did not create an ideal vision of my banking app based on design pillars (north-star goals) or deep insights. I stumbled through the process and learned through reflection on shortcomings and mistakes. This made crafting and promoting a future vision of the app’s rollout that various stakeholders would find compelling very difficult as I had to extract insights and argue for why I made particular decisions retroactively.

Since my all user testing involved participants in their 20’s and 30’s, I premised my simple banking app on pervasive digital products that stress people out and annoy them. I wanted to create a banking app that would be more utilitarian than feature-heavy in order to lessen the burden of *another app* on the lives of generations of people growing up connected to everything through a digital lens, from their social media reputation to their own heartbeats (e.g. Fitbit).

1 of 3 core design insights
1 of 3 core design insights gained from user testing + design theory


In a conversation with Scott Magee, I realized that I could have made a stronger argument for designing my banking app to suit my limited user testing with mostly Millennials.

“Only, I do not actually believe that.” – me

In our feature brief review with an alumnus, I was challenged with the question, “but Bank of America is an established brand with a broad user base; what about older users?” I answered that a simplified app would serve older users who, perhaps, have less digital savviness precisely because it was simplified. Only, I do not actually believe that. User testing with the intended users is the only way to confirm that all users form something “simple.” Scott pointed out that since this was a new app rollout, it was smart to target a smaller audience first (early adopters) in order to minimize risk.

Feature Brief

My strategy brief originally contained language that contradicted itself and confused the reader about who was “building the app” (an outside consultancy or an in-house design team?) and if the app already existed or if it were to be completely new. This was because my perception of the assignments kept shifting over the past three months. In our Designing Digital Interfaces course, I understood that we were mapping an existing banking app and then “redesigning it.” By listening to classmates’ presentations over time, I realized that assumptions of existing infrastructure, such as whether or not the bank had brick and mortar locations, had critical impact on how the app should function, what would be the most important features to include and to roll out first as we progressed into this Product Management course.

To best frame and prioritize my decisions, I should have considered the narrative of why this app was being created and the existing infrastructure from the beginning. Even though it was left to us to imagine which scenario we were solving for, I should be honing my instincts to begin any project by understanding and mapping/sketching the ecosystem in which it currently resides. Rooting my understanding of the problem space in reality as possible would have helped me craft better arguments for decisions and led to less confusion about my intentions for the app.