Recycled Reads: Mapping Service Slices


Our design team – Susi Brister, Adam Niederpreum, and Kelsey Greathouse – has been working with Recycled Reads, a used bookstore that’s a branch of the Austin Public Library system. They sell both ex-library materials and donations accepted from the public. In the early stages of our research, we interviewed 24 research participants in various roles at Recycled Reads, the Austin Public Library, and the City of Austin, and accompanied them while doing their daily jobs. From this research, we recorded approximately 25 hours of audio interviews, which we then transcribed.

From the total hours of transcription, we selected 2 hours across 6 participants to map into service slices. The purpose of creating service slices is to focus on what happens within a service during a particular moment in time, but intentionally separate that moment out into 4 separate diagrams – one diagram each for:

  • Behavior & Information Exchange
  • Power, Policy, Influence, & Emotion
  • Artifacts found in the environment
  • Diagram of the environment

Mapping actions, feelings, objects, and environment separately allows us to separate each from the other, and examine how these interact and affect each other. The service slices allow us to make sense of a complex system by pulling layers of that system apart.


We’ve had the feedback that as a team (and individually), we tend to be product-focused rather than process-focused. This has been beneficial to us because we have been working toward the goal of crafting our client presentations alongside the methods and research that support that presentation.

But has also caused, at times, less emphasis on the process itself – so the underlying work and synthesis itself has been minimized in favor of the presentation of a small portion of that work, rather than flushing out the research more fully before starting on the presentation.

This time, our assignment spanned the week break of school between Quarter 1 and Quarter 2. Since we had no classes to attend and no other assignments due, we challenged ourselves to take the necessary time and attention to focus on a more thorough, rigorous process and think less about any final structured outcome.

To accomplish this, we worked together in conjunction as a team, making sense of our data, but also making sense of the new methodology, leveraging each other’s perspectives to work through the complexity of the assignment.


Mapping the service slices was time-consuming and challenging, particularly  teasing apart what people were doing (Behavior & Information Exchange) and what they were feeling about what they were doing (Power, Policy, Influence & Emotion), largely because the latter required a degree of interpretation. While what people were doing was somewhat obvious and factual, the power, policy, influence, and emotions that surrounded those actions were not directly expressed.

Although we only used 2 hours of transcription for our maps, they became complex and chaotic very quickly. With one glance, it becomes clear how interconnected behaviors and emotions are within an organization. We made several iterations of our diagrams to help us better understand those connections, while retaining all the data from the transcripts.


When we finished mapping our environment diagram, we realized that most actions within Recycled Reads happen at the front desk, and in the very back room of the store. This is represented visually by a huge absence of artifacts in the blank middle space. For our final iteration of our service slices to present to our client, we decided to reintegrate some specific interactions from all four maps, effectively collapsing them again to a single diagram, but with much greater simplicity and focus on a few key areas. To reinforce the two discrete areas of action within the store, we mirrored that spacing visually in our final composite service slice diagram to present to our client.

Our 'Environment' service slice diagram of Recycled Reads
Our ‘Environment’ service slice diagram of Recycled Reads illustrates most actions taking place at the front desk and the back room.
Our final hand-drawn iteration of the re-compiled service slice diagram visually echoes the interactions in the physical environment.
Our final hand-drawn iteration of the re-compiled service slice diagram visually echoes the interactions in the physical environment.


When presenting our service slices to Recycled Reads, we wanted to focus on two key opportunity areas that we uncovered through this process, one in the front of house and one in the back of house. Although we aren’t going deep into problematic issues at this stage in our overall process, we wanted to bring up these two areas for initial discussion and to lay the groundwork for our next presentation, when we will be discussing problem areas in more depth.

The main artifact we identified in the front of house as an area of opportunity is a scale located at the front desk that is used to weigh customer book purchases when they leave the store. Because Recycled Reads’ primary purpose is to divert used library materials from the landfill, they keep track of the weight of those materials as they leave through the front door, and report that to the administration at the Austin Public Library. What we discovered through mapping out service slices was that even though the scale performed a very important role in their service, it was not addressed in the customer interaction in any way. Customers weren’t aware of what was happening with the scale, nor of its importance in the role of carrying out Recycled Reads’ mission. Moreover, we discovered that several other side tasks are undertaken by staff at the front desk that may be disruptive to their role as the primary customer-facing staff member of the store.

In the back of house operations, we also identified an artifact that was influencing behavior in different ways, depending on the individual staff member or volunteer. Ex-library books and public donations are sorted in the back of house into books that are kept to sell in the store, and those that are sent downstream to another repurposing partner. A major part of this sorting process is a set of criteria determined and revised as needed by the manager of Recycled Reads, which is referred to as a sorting chart. The chart defines, by category (or genre) of book, how recently published a book must be and what condition it must be in to be kept for resale or not.

A volunteer points out the sorting chart in the back room at Recycled Reads.
A volunteer points out the sorting chart in the back room at Recycled Reads.

Through our service slice mapping, we discovered that one staff member was aware of the sorting chart criteria, and sometimes used it to determine what books he kept and what books he didn’t. On many occasions, though, he would override those criteria and instead base his judgments on his own personal criteria, whether that be personal preference and censorship, or a knowledge of current book-purchasing trends. An air of autonomy in one’s job is present at Recycled Reads, and this particular staff member embraced that with gusto.

On the other hand, a volunteer doing the same sorting job used the chart very differently. Not only did he rely heavily on the sorting chart criteria but expressed that he felt he would always do so. Moreover, there were times for him when the chart wasn’t specific enough, and he required the input of the manager or other librarian staff members for an ultimate decision. Where the staff member sorting books reveled in his ability to make autonomous judgments, this volunteer felt more of a struggle with some of the ambiguity.


The three full-time staff members at Recycled Reads that we presented our service slice diagrams to were impressed by the complexity that the initial, chaotic maps illustrated, and commented that they couldn’t believe so much was happening in their space. They appreciated the more focused version that illustrated the single front of house and single back of house areas of opportunity.

The issue that emerged with the scale at the front desk was appreciated but did not have as much impact as the map showing the varying usage of the back of house sorting chart, which was discussed with enthusiasm. The manager mentioned that she had begun to recently pick up on a few hints that there was something to be addressed, but our diagrams brought some clarity and definition to what was just beginning to be recognized. We discussed the dichotomy between autonomy and structure and she expressed a burgeoning reflection that she herself may have moved away from the sorting chart and was not being an appropriate role model for staff and volunteers.


We have completed our service slices and are working to finish up identifying behavioral and attitudinal patterns from our collected transcription data. In combination, these patterns and our service slice diagrams will point us toward creating insights – provocative statements about behavior – that can be presented to our client as the basis for addressing distinct areas of opportunity at Recycled Reads.

Design Thinking’s role and misconceptions

The presentation I will be giving today (Oct 11) features eight authors who discuss topics relevant to understanding design thinking.
Herbert Simon’s article, published in 1973, discusses issues initially concerned with artificial intelligence. This article and its examples provide a means for framing problems and solutions in the same manner as a designer would. He makes a case that traditional logic is ill-equipped to deal with the dynamic nature of ill-structured problems (ISPs). Edward de Bono (article from 1988), Rittle and Webber (article from 1973) similarly make the case that a misconception exists where logic appears to solve ISPs after the fact. Simon and de Bono both provide unique approaches to ISP solving, but both involve generating new information or a “dialog” that nudges the solution along in a new direction or new goal. These four men, Simon, de Bono, Rittle, and Webber, have helped us identify a new form of problems prevalent in our contemporary culture.
The other four authors, Pacione, Cross, Wyatt, and Buchanan, recognize that the old liberal arts of mathematics and science were particularly useful in the Industrial Age, but these traditional problem-solving disciplines fall short handling the complex problems of Experience Age. Design, as a discipline of the new liberal arts, has been argued as particularly suited to tackle the dynamic complexities of ISPs, therefore Pacione, Cross, Wyatt, and Buchanan are advocating for the teaching of a new design literacy so that a higher number of people could be brought to bear on a number of contemporary social problems. Pacione parallels a design literacy with how Fibonacci made mathematics useful and accessible with the book, Liber Abaci. Pacione makes a strong point about how Fibonacci’s contribution to teaching and explaining mathematics not just for mathematicians but to everyone else developed into an accessible math literacy, a scaffold on which Western Europe began to flourish and drive both the Industrial and Information Age.
My attendance at the Austin Center for Design was meant to build a more profound understanding of design thinking for me.
Pacione brings up a point in his article from 2010 that resonates with me as a designer. He says a pervasive misconception of design would hamper the progress of design thinking. I agree with this point and perceive a future need to define this problem more. I frequently deal with colleagues and clients who misappropriate the value of my role to bring design’s importance to the table. I think its pretty evident to anyone who has been in a working environment that teams will collaborate far better when roles are clearly understood.
Most people over-inflate the superficial value of style. Vitta and Papanek shared their concern for this misfocused emphasis. Style is but one communication tool out of many. Substance and real communication come to life through various forms like photography, color palette, tone, pace, rhythm, structure, motion, texture, auditory cues. Design serves content and content serves intent.

I attended a design school that called the program Visual Communications. The name helped me affirm my understanding but only after the true nature of design was genuinely understood by me years later. Although calling design, visual communications could help the public reframe design; I think we’re after something else.

I think that it’s more important for the design team to understand what they are defending and nurturing so that conversations with clients are reframed to push content value forward. “Make the logo bigger.” is a common enough demand that its a joke. Try explaining the logo’s size from the defense viewpoint of style. Would that defense sound something like this “A bigger logo would stylistically ruin the balance of the layout.” Either way, defending style is bound to come off like design arrogance, “My opinion is more nuanced than your opinion.” You’ll probably lose the interest or the trust of the client. The communication preference would balance the conversation towards involving the client in a discussion around the hook of the messaging or the order of importance on the page/screen (hierarchy). A designer could also include discussions of the other brand visual cues that already reinforce the company’s presence. The designer has likely nudged the client towards more meaningful input and design rationale.
I will continue to reflect on misconceptions about design and maybe even design thinking. Communication from the product or service point of view will always serve a vital role. A misunderstanding of marketing research and other scientific methods also exists. These reading are also essential because they touch upon this other misconception as well. I will have to find a different time to explore this more but hopefully before I need to explain this to a new client.

Creating Something from Nothing

Having free reign and autonomy on a task is simultaneously the most exhilarating and daunting experience. In our final Studio Foundations assignment, I teamed up with Kay Wyman, Gerald Codina, and Aaron Steinman to start with an empty slate and make something that fits the format of a digitized storyboard that showcasing all that we have learned in the last three months, give or take a week. We learned A LOT.

Initially, the entire team had doubts, and real concerns about the time constraints considering the fact that we have two other projects, presentations due, and service slices to prepare for. Effectively, we were chicken with our heads cut off for part of the time.

In an impressive display of collective strategizing, prioritization, respectful and responsive communication and team empathy, the four of us gathered what energy we can find and finished something lovely, granted to our own standards.

During these pressing times we, surprisingly, were able to draw from our past experiences from individual research projects, and theory class’s ideas to implement the problem-solving methodologies we’ve entertained, mostly abstractly.  We defined the element needed, all the moving pieces, time constraints, the problem to solve and desired end-state.  All the while, we actively project managed the tasks and built-in flexible and collaborative opportunities as much as possible to support the conflicting schedules we each had. The following video blog is each member’s reflection of the process.

Here is a link to our video blog.

Please note that while I named for four team members, including myself, the video blog consists of three. As mentioned before some of us has unavoidable obligations. None the less each person carried the weight of the responsibilities to their best abilities and contributed amazingly to the end result.

Diving into design thinking

For our last assignment in our design theory class we read and discussed articles about design thinking. Each seemed to be pretty similar to me in their enthusiasm for creative thinking and how this can be applied to problem solving. As someone who is new to design it can be difficult for me to understand some author’s views of design as this thing that’s going to change the world and is better than apparently everything else that ever was. However, when I reframe design thinking in my head as creative problem solving or something similar then it starts to make more sense. This is something that I don’t think is new to our society or humanity, as some authors hint at, but I can get behind the idea that it is growing in popularity and acceptance as a desired skill/profession.

Our assignment was to create a comic strip style story illustrating how viewpoints from each of the author’s articles. Sitting in class a few days ago and discussing Rittle’s article I read a sentence of his with the word “ripple” and got my idea for this comic. A diving competition with some of the author’s as the participants. It seemed only natural that Rittle be front and center as the announcer since he sparked the idea. As you’ll see in the story each of the authors will display a viewpoint from an article, and at the end the dive competition being aired will be turned off and the strip zooms out to reveal that an instructor was showing it to me, (Laura), a dive student. The student is then asked to try a dive. This is the point in the story where I get to reveal my viewpoint through the student. The dive I choose is based around the author’s who stuck with me the most initially. As I continue going through the program I hope to expand my dive to include additional viewpoints and execution, but right now, I’m just experimenting with design thinking and trying to enjoy myself along the way.

Diving into Design Story

Theory: Being a Designer

Throughout this Theory class I’ve been asked again and again to show my perspective. Regurgitating the info we’ve learned isn’t enough. And a lot of what we’ve read in this last section resonated with me more than the other readings. (I’ve heard the same from other students, I imagine this is by design.) And I’ve been thinking about what I should use for the presentation and whether I should tell a story similar to my Harry Potter presentation and if so, what device should I use? Mad Men? The Wire? Beyonce lyrics? Beyonce gifs?!

And all of that seemed like something else for me to hide behind. This reading section is about Problem Solving, Being a Designer and Process. I’ve been calling myself a designer for 20 years, this needs to be about me.

When I graduated high school, instead of buying the official graduation announcements I designed my own (mostly because my dad is cheap and wouldn’t pay for the official ones when we could do them ourselves). I opted to put a quote in the announcement and this is what I chose.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
-Pablo Picasso

Maintaining this child-like approach to creativity I think would create the world Pacione envisions where everyone should be designing. Everyone should be thinking of ways to create something that does not yet exist, no matter what discipline they consider themselves to be in.

Fast forward a few years and I’ve been a designer at a print shop, a marketing firm and an ad agency and I’m frustrated. I get a new job (chalkboard artist/signmaker) at a company I admire (Whole Foods Market) and I’m doing work that feels important. At least, making local profile signs for local farmers feels more important than making business cards for oil company employees.

And in hindsight I realize that in that role–more than in any of my others–I got to use Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt’s concept of inspiration, ideation and implementation at a very fast pace. For example, I learned that chalkboards were not masterpieces, they were usually erased and redone quite frequently. It was better to try something quick and get the message up than it was to use several valuable hours attempting perfection. So if I didn’t like something, I’d have the chance to do something better in a week. They weren’t complete failures but I’d walk through the store and make notes, like, “Well, that doesn’t look as good from far away as I thought it might.”

A few years later I definitely got to use what Edward de Bono calls lateral thinking. I was in a new role, still at Whole Foods Market, that had never existed before in our region, supporting the store artists, and I was charting my own course. I hired two more support people, former store artists as well, and we set a plan to help hire, train and support store artists so they didn’t feel like silos. We didn’t adopt a system of colored hats but we had to constantly update and change our guidance and advice because what worked for one store didn’t always work for another store. (That sounds like Hobbes, too, while we’re at it.) And since the chalkboard artist role was so unique, we were the only members of the regional team who could truly empathize and help problem-solve.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m still at Whole Foods Market, but I’m the Regional Art Director. I have a team of 6 and I get to be part of exciting projects, like designing a whole new sign template for the Produce department. (I’ve actually inadvertently done what Pilliton suggests and I’ve immersed myself in a culture for 3-5 years so I can better problem-solve for with the users.)  But I wasn’t happy.

What was missing?

First, while some of the problems I was solving could be called ill-defined, none of them were even close to being called wicked. Second, Pacione’s model of learning/understanding/making really resonated with me but it’s not what I was doing at Whole Foods Market, or at many of my past jobs. His model shows a repeating cycle of looking at a problem, understanding it, making something to solve the problem and through that making acquiring a deeper understanding. Repeat. Through repeating that process, one arrives closer to a solution.

Pacione’s model looks like this:


I feel like what I’ve been doing my whole life, not just at Whole Foods Market looks more like this:


There was no reflection or understanding after the making step and I know I’ve seen projects happen where there was no understanding before it.

So here I am at AC4D and I’m looking forward to using the creative thinking I’ve been using all my life and applying it across other disciplines.



Here we are at our last theory presentation and an opportune moment to reflect back on the past 7 weeks. In theory class, we began with readings on Ethics & Responsibility, continued on to The Role of Research, Design & Poverty, and finished on Design Thinking. Reading Design Theory is intended to not just inform us as designers, but help us to determine who we are as designers. In my Statement of Purpose when applying to AC4D, I spoke of why design was important to me by discussing design as it showed up throughout my life outside of traditional design roles. One enjoyable aspect of Theory class has been putting concepts and language around those experiences.

For our final presentation, we are presenting on how designers think. We were encouraged to approach something we would like to improve and for me that is storytelling and, not just processing and synthesizing our readings, but how that applies to me as a designer.

namibia table sunrise

Throughout this section of readings, I have been thinking back to a moment when I broadened my sense of design. The setting for the conversation was quite dramatic; sunrise atop a mountain in the Namibian desert. I was working as a Safari Guide at time and on this specific day I was off duty as a guide and tasked with setting up a surprise breakfast for a group of guests. While overlooking the otherworldly landscape along the Kunene River into Angola, I made what started as small talk with a guest who informed me he was a designer. Prior to this I had studied fashion design and construction, worked for an interior design firm, and read glossy design magazines with people sharply dressed, often in black. I was taken aback because nothing about this guest indicated to me he was what I identified as a designer. He explained to me that he had worked for Apple many moons ago and was part of the design team for one of their early model computers. In his description of the work he told me that the 12 designers signatures were etched into the mold for the hardware just as an artist signed their painting. I have never found literature to support his story, but for me the idea of a signature on a piece of hardware INSIDE of a computer broadened my definition of the art of design. As our conversation continued it turned into a discussion of technology in the world today and, as I would describe now, the wicked problems that have resulted. Elements of the conversation included the renaissance and the enlightenment and a future where qualitative human thought is of the greatest value. Wyatt’s article was poignant as she discussed the transition from design based on aesthetics to design providing solutions to complex problems, and human experience at a local level to identify user needs and perspectives.

Artboard 1

The period of industrialization marked an increase in technology that moved us away from being an agrarian society and gave birth to social problems, which Horst Rittel termed “Wicked Problems.” A frustrated urban planner, Rittel defines the nature of problems and identifies quantitative solutions cannot resolve social problems because each problem leads to a new problem. Another one of our authors, Herb Simon, defines well structured problems solvable by artificial intelligence and brute force and Ill-structured problems which require qualitative information. Ill structured problems are unpredictable and therefore the best approach to a solution is to MAKE something. He introduces problem solving as an iterative cycle that evolves forward based off of the external environment and long term memory. Nigel Cross discusses making things and the role of abductive reasoning, and the need for designers to intentionally inform their intuition.


Just as industrialization changed society through technology producing more efficiently than humans, computers are able to outperform humans in deductive reasoning. Chris Paccione argues for the need for universal design skills as a human literacy to be taught in school by following the societal benefits of the spread of math literacy that resulted not from Fibonacci making math accessible to people through his teaching methods. There will always be space for design as a specialized profession because we live in a world of wicked problems. Buchanan explores design as a discipline at a micro level where there can be cross contamination between design arenas of signs, things, actions, and thoughts. He proposes that instead of organizing around outputs, we organize around process.

Artboard 2

DeBono explores the creative process by pairing it with the constructs of humor to describe lateral thinking, the process of jumping from a rational line of thought to an unexpected parallel line of thinking. One of the ways he proposes transitioning between lines is through provacation; he describes a project with cigarettes and opening the dictionary, and randomly selecting the word stoplight. While this seemed absurd to me it reminded me of the statement of purpose I mentioned earlier, design is ubiquitous and interconnected because it is purposeful.

Artboard 3

In the context of this story, it was ironic that we were in a desert occupied by one of the last nomadic tribes in the world, the Himba. During a week off work I headed to Windhoek, and escorted a local Himba working in the lodge to ‘the big city’ for a dental appointment. To me this was a moment of two worlds colliding because I had assumed the tribe to live in a bubble and not be going to town for dentistry but instead applying a solution passed through generations. The two worlds collided when Ben and I drank beer in a cafe and he asked me to make a facebook account for him, which first involved setting up an email account, and then lots of explanation about why and eventually discussion about our digital identities of today’s information age. And thus a nomadic Himba was now part of the digital era where computers have the answers to all our questions… just not the answers to the true problems. I’ve always wondered about Ben’s facebook journey and its purposes: What value did facebook provide him? Did he find ‘friends’? What sort of advertising targeted him?!

My thoughts have changed and instead of thinking of technology as the driver of good or bad change I am thinking about design as the driver of positive change… Hobbe’s water wheels, Yunus’ social businesses, Pilloton’s call for immersion to address the real problems.

When writing a blog post about theory class at the beginning of the term I referenced what level of physical torture I would be willing to endure to not have to do the theory readings. I am happy to report that I now look forward to our readings; I liken it to how the first month or two back at the gym is miserable but as you build up those muscles again the tables turn and it can feel miserable when you DON’T get to the gym. What are we going to do without Tuesdays and Thursdays with Scott next term?! As Scott’s first set of students, I consider us fortunate that we had intellectual discussions brought to life with his amazing sense of humor and had the benefit of learning from somebody that had been in our shoes as an AC4D student not too many years ago. Thanks for an awesome term, Scott!


Lateral Thinking In The Past: Final Theory Assignment Q1

Every time we delve into a new focus subject of design theory we are building a bank of literacy and thoughts for ourselves. We move forward with a longterm memory of the concepts and ideas that the authors present, and we can cognitively input the knowledge into the work we do now and in the future.

However, some of these more complex ideas are quite hard to grasp and I’ve found that it is harder to fit the confusing ideas into a mental toolbox to access later. In response I have found it to be a good challenge to dig into my personal memories and identify wicked problems that existed around me far before I knew about ill-structured problems were.

When I was in K-12 I went to inner-city Minneapolis public schools. The schools that were situated in more privileged neighborhoods had far better reputations and performance than the schools in tougher neighborhoods. The standardized education system simply was not built to accommodate a diverse society and the social landscapes that it lives in.

The Minneapolis district was bussing a limited number of kids from the low-income neighborhoods to the better schools. The district was trying to tame—create a well-structured problem—out of an irreducible ill-structured problem. They could even sell it as “diversifying the classroom,” and this would benefit the locals from the neighborhood and the students getting bussed in—full disclosure, the kids who were local to the high performing high schools were primarily caucasian and the kids being bussed from other areas were primarily African American and latino.

In retrospect the whole thing sits uneasy with me. And I decided to examine it through the lens of the authors we’ve read these last two weeks.


I aim to talk about the touch points of redefining the problem I was witnessing as a student, examining where the faults are, and asking why the education system is ill-equipped to handle transformation.


I have organized a sequence of how to examine the problem based on the authors we’ve read and the insights I’ve pulled from them (ISP stands for ill-structured problem).


Herb Simon is the author that speaks most directly about ISPs.


By looking at Simon’s identifications of an ill-structured problem we are able to clarify that fair access to quality education is most definitely an ISP.


Simon defines that there are two types of problem solvers and one of them solves things that are already real, and the other solves for ideals. Pacione hones in on defining who these people are and clarifies why designers are good candidates for complex dilemmas.


Pacione compares masters—a subject expert trained to solve well-structured problems—with virtuosos—those that can drop in to problems and work around their ambiguity.


The next three authors draw us a picture of what techniques designers use in complex projects.


In a nutshell, designers enter a problem space/opportunity spaces and use abductive reasoning and lateral thinking to explore all hypotheses and prototype different solutions. Wyatt most clearly lays out the design thinking cycle of inspiration, ideation, and iteration.


Redefining the problem is a technique, but in the case of public education and most ISPs it is also a huge obstacle.


In redefining the problem statement you have to ask deeper questions about the context of the current state problem. Can you get to a positive end goal by solving the problem as stated? This can spiral upwards and outwards as you start to see symptoms of other problems. How does a designer iterate when the consequences of a failed project can have lasting negative effects?Final_Presentation_Blog.012

Finally, ideas from all of the authors would support the introducing some capacity of design education in school.


Each has their own specification of what is most important about design education.


I really appreciate this quote as it demonstrates that it is the designer’s responsibility to initiate something that is sustainable and lasting. Teach the people to fish instead of fishing for them.

How’d you get your values?

Here’s a quick profile of my values:

  • 40% Catholic
  • Golden-rule centered ethics
  • Heavily family influenced
  • American, but not fervently patriotic
  • Belief in the dignity and possibilities of humankind

Broad, sure. But I’ve been trying harder to analyze my particular values this last week of our Theory course. This is because as we read from the pantheon of design gods, there’s a heavy emphasis on should. As opposed to Science, which defines what is. 

“Should” is a statement of intention and value. Often when we use “should” we’re subconsciously supporting ancient beliefs, passed down through people, books, and institutions. “We should have universal health care.” Sometimes we drop the word for emphasis, “Freedom of religion is a human right.”

My insight from this week is this: design can be about making what should be, but designers cannot define values (or don’t display any particular knowledge in that department). This means as designers we must look to other sources to guide our work. As I enter into quarter two of this school, I’m looking to have an ongoing discussion of finding common ground on values, and the best environments in which to do that work.

Below is the short story I created that speaks to this insight:




“So you want to think like a designer?…”

Here is a hypothetical conversation between three different designers (a engineer, graphic designer and AC4D student) and their thought process. This conversation strongly reflects the  views of Pacione’s “Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy”, Brown & Wyatt’s Design Thinking for Social Innovation.

Engineer: What do you even learn in design school?

AC4D Student: I do what you do: “imagine something that doesn’t exist and then plot the path from imagination to existence” (In the words of Pacione)

Engineer: So you think you can do what we do?

AC4D Student: well, the similarity is that we all solve problems. Entertain this: “how would each of you design something to solve “Food Waste”

Engineer: Obviously people need a garbage can. Let see, an average person can easily pick up about 10lb of weight therefore a garbage can that yields 4 gallons would work. The dimensions would be have something like a 36″ height and 24″ diameter. I’d have to be made out of galvanized aluminum to be not only light weight but recognizable- you know that iconic silver aluminum trash can.

Idse 103 how designers think page 3

The graphic designer reached for napkin to sketch on. 

Graphic Designer: “I would make a reciprocal that is pleasing to the eye and simple. I would label it “trash” in san serif font. I probably should add an interesting feature like a pedal to open the lid. I have a feeling that will be a big seller!”

Idse 103 how designers think page 4

AC4D student: I like both your ways of approaching the problem. One solutions is subjective- rooted in what we know and designing how things are. The other more objective that utilizes intuition and designing how things ought to be. They answer the question: “What do we use to dispose food waste?” However what would you design if you answered the question: “How do people dispose of their food waste and Why?” I first must acknowledge that it is a wicked problem.

The student then highlighted examples of how “food waste” is a wicked problem as outlined by Rittel & Webber.

  1.  Managing food waste is not about a right or wrong solution but rather a good or bad. A trash can is a perfectly good solution and there are hundreds of different plausible solutions that fall on the scale of bad to good.
  2. Keep in mind that food waste is a symptom of a larger problem. For example, in USA, 40% of prepared food goes to the garbage. This mentality is an influencing factor to the problem of food waste disposal.
  3. “the designer has no right to be wrong”; He or she is responsible for any unintended consequences of a design. For example our current food waste system leads to turtles getting caught in soda can plastic thing. In a way, that responsibility is on the designer.


AC4D student: Once I’ve thought about the scope of the problem, I will try to define the problem. I will observe in the kitchen how people interact with their food waste and document their behaviors. With this information I would then make a prototype and iterate. This whole theory or method, if you will, is related to the practice of”design-thinking”. A solution that best reflects the design thinking method would be the garbage disposal. It is integrated into behaviors of the user. They are at the counter preparing food or washing dishes, and the sink is a very convenient location to put food scraps. Then it get transported out of the house through plumbing. This cuts out the step of taking the waste to the curb than a truck takes it to a landfill. I am not proposing that this is the most optimal solution, but only a solution based on human behavior.

Idse 103 how designers think page 5

Engineer: So did you come up with these methods  yourself?

AC4D Student: No I’m borrowing methods from other designers who practice Design-thinking. Currently there is not a true formalized discipline, like your fields.



Why design?

Over the past two months, many people have asked me why Austin Center for Design. As we’re now in the final week of the first quarter of the program, it feels like an appropriate time to reflect upon life events that led to my decision to attend using the context of the final set of readings in our Design, Society and the Public Sector theory course.

In retrospect, it’s easy to draw lines between the dots that have led me to where I am today. If you had asked me as I was graduating from college, however, where my career would lead then I would have had 20 different answers for you. In the same vein that Edward de Bono explained that self-organizing systems set up patterns, my career path feels perfectly logical in hindsight.


I earned my bachelor’s degree in something called cognitive science. It was effectively a bachelor of arts hodgepodged together with required course credit options spread across the disciplines of psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and neuroscience. Richard Buchanan might have asked if studying cognitive science undermined or contributed to my ability to solve complex problems, and I hope that my path ever since would indicate that it has helped.

I learned relatively early in my career the importance of considering the culture and needs of people living in a community before trying to design a solution for — or better yet, with — the locals. As Peace Corps volunteers, we were encouraged to learn from and study solutions that were already working in our communities (or “positive deviants”, as Jocelyn Wyatt would say) to try to model these best practices in our work.

In my current role at the City, I espouse to incorporate the viewpoints of a number of our latest set of authors in my daily work. I first became interested in working for the City of Austin because I learned about the Office of Innovation and Design Technology while managing a small startup coworking space. Since renamed to be the Office of Design and Delivery (ODD), this department focuses on integrating human-centered design to help the City better serve its citizens.

Taking a page from the “Case for Design Literacy” by Chris Pacione, ODD is working to educate City staff that design is not just for designers, but for anyone whose business is to create or lead something. This recognition that fostering design literacy among a staff can lead to a stronger public sector was what motivated me to apply for my current role facilitating code education and outreach.


Herb A. Simon might argue that community outreach is inherently an ill-structured problem. While well-structured problems have an initial state, goal state, and constraints clearly defined, my team has none of these. While we know that our overall purpose is to increase education and awareness of city codes, there is very little data to illuminate the initial knowledge state of Austinites, nor how exactly to quantify a goal state, nor a concrete definition of the parameters within which we must work (beyond budgetary constraints).

When Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber say in their article “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” that “the formulation of a wicked problem IS the problem”, it reminds me slightly of our team’s key performance indicators. How best can we measure success or progress when our mission and work might itself resemble a wicked problem? Do we monitor and record the number of community events attended each year? The number of code violations found by inspectors per year? Or the percentage of cases resolved by voluntary compliance? Each of these metrics and attempts to formulate ways in which we can measure progress toward a goal inherently tell only a small piece of the story.

Like any good fledgling design thinker, I will end with optimism. I would agree with Nigel Cross that “design ability” is possessed by everyone. I also appreciated Simon’s perspective that solving ill-structured problems requires the acquisition of and use of expertise of context-specific knowledge. In each role that I’ve had in my career, I’ve learned more and more about myself and the world around me. I’ll combine this perspective with Wyatt’s statement that “one of the biggest impediments to adopting design thinking is simply the fear of failure”.


When Scott asked our class “what does fear of failure mean to you?”, my instinctual response was “lack of experience”. By this, I think I meant that the more life experiences I have, the less I fear failure and rather look forward to new challenges and opportunities. So, why design? Or, more specifically, why Austin Center for Design? I’m drawn to this program because it pushes me to stretch my limits and learn more about myself and the world around me. And hopefully, in doing so, I will be setting myself up today to help solve the wicked problems of tomorrow.