News and blog posts from our students and faculty

Category Archives: Regulation

Healthcare: A Proposal for Supporting Recovery

Over the last few months Jacob Rader, Bhavini Patel and Scott Gerlach have been studying healthcare.  Our research focused on the documents and records that patients interact with and how these artifacts affect their relationship with the medical industry as well as their understanding of their own health.  Through contextual, qualitative research we had the opportunity to learn from a wide variety of people and identify many opportunities for design to make an impact in the healthcare system.




In talking to patients in at-risk communities we encountered a disconnect between the quality of care that people have access to and their perception of that care.  Put simply, most people’s perception of healthcare is largely linked to the extent that their healthcare reaches out and meets them on their level.

Patients will not be proactive in their own care, they need the system to guide them and help them establish accountability.

Through our research we found that when healthcare was at its best was when patients were being proactively engaged by their healthcare provider; the provider would meet the patient on their level and would facilitate care for them.  Even in situations where the technical care was good, if the system didn’t reach out to them, patients didn’t feel as stable.  Whereas, people who have access to healthcare that addresses simple things like helping them schedule appointments and arrange transportation feel much more supported and cared for by their providers.



On the other side of this we saw that healthcare professionals are stretched very thin, pulled by both the volume of patients they care for and the bureaucratic demands of their work.  Much of the time and energy that professionals have to expend is not directly perceived by patients.

Due to the technical nature of modern healthcare doctors have lost a common language for communicating with patients.

As modern medicine has developed it’s become increasingly complex and specialized forcing doctors and medical providers to develop a vernacular and understanding of the care their providing which is increasingly disconnected from their patients.  Additionally, most professionals’ technical workflows don’t lend themselves to an understanding of the patient’s experience of healthcare: so problem areas like confusing or conflicting documentation don’t get addressed and become an additional obstacle that patients must negotiate.


Good Communication

When the two previous insights are layered together, we start to understand why miscommunication and misunderstanding so often develop in medical care.  If we understand some of the factors driving poor communication between health actors, it becomes crucial to define what good health communication looks like.

Good health communication happens through interactions that meet the patient on their level.  It gives patients small, understandable pieces of information as well as the time needed to process them.  It gives patients actionable information and prompts when they need it.  Ultimately good health communication helps a patient build understanding while encouraging self reflection.


Supporting Patient Recovery

Our goal is to leverage interaction design to help extend more support and clarity to patients without demanding more time and energy from professionals that are already stretched to their limit.  In our research the most pronounced need for this sort of good health communication is in the transition from inpatient hospital care to outpatient recovery.

From the moment a patient enters the hospital, the hospital staff must be preparing for that patient’s departure.  The high-volume nature of the hospital along with the reality that so many individuals in the hospital have a part to play in the care of each patient means that there must be very clear goals that create some alignment between all the professionals.  Near the top of that list is ensuring that the patient can leave the hospital as soon as they are well enough to do so.  The consequence: as they are leaving a hospital’s care, patients receive a condensed burst of information about their recovery.

Many of the doctors and nurses who participated in our research reported that the majority of patients who call during recovery are asking redundant questions that had been addressed with the patient through written or verbal instructions prior to them leaving care.

Clearly, patients are not processing the information they are being given in a way that is relevant to their recovery.  This doesn’t just lead to confusion and redundant phone calls, it also leads to complications in recovery.  Patients don’t understand or adhere to the treatment plans that doctors have in mind for them.  They don’t heal properly, aggravating weakened areas which often forces them to be readmitted to the hospital.  This causes extra strain on an overloaded system.  Readmittance is a problem area that many hospitals are actively trying to problem solve, in part because of new guidelines in the Affordable Care Act.


Our Proposal

The current system overloads the patient with a deluge of technical information at a single moment.

We propose taking all the information and sending it to the patient in manageable pieces over time via text messages.

We see a system that reinforces the education that patients receive while in care with timely reminders after they return home. What might this look like:

Patient is informed about the text messaging program as they’re preparing to leave care.

The patient starts receiving texts while still in care and the messages continue after care at targeted times that corresponds to the patient’s recovery.

Weeks out of care and the patient is still receiving helpful recovery information and appointment reminders.



We believe that a system like this will help on a number of levels.  Firstly, it will connect patients with information at appropriate times in a formats they are more likely to digest and act on.  Secondly, it will reduce preventable complications and readmissions.  Finally, systems like this will encourage patients to think about their health on a more continuous basis and will help them feel more connected to their own health and the healthcare system.

Posted in Regulation, Social Innovation, Startups | Leave a comment

Designing a Course Scheduling System: Take 1

Within this quarter’s Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving class, we were tasked with designing and developing a course registration system. Turns out that our collective memory of archaic, bulky and unfriendly undergraduate class registration processes aren’t a far cry from what exists today.

To attack this problem, we fabricated personas around which we could design. This provides both a set of constraints and assumptions that gives the designer a realistic place to start.

So, my persona. Tony is a second year Information Technology student with a Psychology Minor who live off campus and cares part-time for a sick family member. Because of this, he is limited to afternoon and evening classes and ones that he can get to from the furthest away parking lot (the only one he could afford). He already knows his student ID, login, and has already met with his adviser to talk about this upcoming semester. In front of him, he has a list of classes they discussed during this appointment.

Part of this process was a series of think-aloud user testing which identified (at least) three core problem areas with the first draft. Before we get to them, here are the frames:

Presentation here!

In the next iteration, I have three priorities.

  1. Be more communicative with where the user is within the task. This is based on comments such as “How do I go back?” and “If it’s on the calendar, am I registered?”
  2. Add a ‘map your major’ component where the student can track overall progress within his/her major and minor track.
  3. Get rid of the dropdown menus. Forever and ever.
Posted in Interaction Design, Regulation, Scale | Leave a comment

Art, Design, and Science Funding

Yesterday, I tweeted:

Did you know that in 2012, the NSF budget was $7,000,000,000 while the NEA budget was $146,000,000? Yay, arts.

One of the responses I received was:

“And… one cures cancer & powers future, the other cures aesthetic doldrums. Both important, but matters of degree…

I thought I would respond why that rubs me the wrong way, in more than 140 characters. I’m going on the general assumption that government funding of research is a good idea; if you disagree, this probably isn’t going to be very relevant to you.

First, the discussion is confused, because there is no outlay of money for design; we have no National Endowment for Design, and so design activities are grouped within both the NEA and the NSF (and, broadly speaking, other agencies, too.) The NSF used to fund a program called CreativeIT, which has offered multi-million dollar grants to some compelling programs like “Co-evolution of Designers and Critics for Fast Exploratory Form-Finding” and “Personalized Tools to Enhance Musical Creativity”. The funding has been archived, and there’s no similar replacement. They had a single grant awarded through their archived and ironically named “Science of Design” program, and they continue to fund designerly  research through the Engineering Design and Innovation program which is quite purposefully not called the Engineering, Design, and Innovation program. The NEA offers a variety of grants to the fine arts, the applied arts, craft-based design, and so on; while they fund programs focused on innovation, there is no explicit grant or section for grantees.

So, simply comparing the budgets of the two organizations is probably not a completely fair assessment, because it leaves out these cross-overs; however, suffice it to say that the arts are poorly funded, and design is poorly funded, and the two are conflated.

Returning to the idea that science plays a “more important role” than either art, design, or innovation, I’ll argue that popular culture is demanding a more and more fundamental understanding of creativity and the managing of complexity, yet we still have only a rudimentary understanding of how creativity works (and I don’t mean on a neurological level, only: I mean on a comprehensive level). In May of 2010, IBM conducted a survey with 1500 CEOs in 60 countries: “’Coming out of the worst economic downturn in our professional lifetimes – and facing a new normal that is distinctly different – it is remarkable that CEOs identify creativity as the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future,’ said Frank Kern, senior vice president, IBM Global Business Services ‘But step back and think about it, and this is entirely consistent with the other top finding in our Study – that the biggest challenge facing enterprises from here on will be the accelerating complexity and the velocity of a world that is operating as a massively interconnected system.’”

Over the last ten years – as the problems of society and culture grow increasingly complex and multifaceted – there has been an increased popular, professional, and academic shift towards including creativity and design theory and method in traditionally engineering or technology-led solution areas. In popular media, Authors Dan Pink and Sir Ken Robinson have called for the entire re-arrangement of education focused not only on STEM, but also in design and art. Dan Pink has called the master of fine arts – the MFA – the “new M.B.A”, while Sir Ken Robinson describes that “creativity now is as important in education as literacy.” Academic research has identified powerful relationships between creativity and knowledge production through sensemaking, and there is increasing evidence that inference-based design synthesis is the foundation of innovation.

We’ve claimed that creativity is a fundamental and critical skill for the next generation, but we largely don’t understand how it works, why it works, how to foster it, how to teach it, and how to leverage it. That type of knowledge is pure knowledge: it’s knowledge that’s suitable for funding from the government. And I’ll argue that if your goal is a cure for cancer, it’s more important to fund knowledge of design and creativity than science, because it’s going to be an “out of the box”, “innovative”, “creative”, “alternative”, “unexpected”, “unpredictable”, “surprising” solution that ultimately provides that cure. I’m not arguing that designers will solve cancer. I’m arguing that the knowledge designers use – knowledge about process, making, flexibility, inference, systems, and empathy – should be the same knowledge everyone else uses, too. A STEM focus for research drives a STEM focus for education, and it leads to the overly rationalized western world we now experience. This is the reason we end up with the “worst teacher in New York” having some of the best students in the city, why airplanes are uncomfortable, why – ironically – the NSF has so much more funding than the NEA. We perpetuate the idea that we can “science” our way out of problems that are of our own making. Science is a study of natural phenomenon. Airplanes, funding, teaching, and – arguably – cancer – are of our own making. They aren’t natural; they are artificial. It’s going to take a different approach to fix them, and that approach has to include the ingredients of design. And it’s going to take a concerted level of support from the government, through funding, where the history and precedent of public outcry for this type of support has already been clear.

In retrospect, this is all a strawman. I don’t want less funding for Science. I want more funding for Science, Art, and Design. These things are too important to keep missing on.

Posted in Creativity, Reflection, Regulation, Theory | Leave a comment

How To Start A School In 10 “Easy” Steps

When I describe what I’m doing at Austin Center for Design, the common reaction is, “You started a school? How do you do that?” I’m not exactly sure, honestly, because the process only seems logical in retrospect: I sort of made it up as I went along. However, I thought it might be informative to describe the steps I went through in a purely mechanical manner, as an example of the process one might encounter in trying to bring change to a regulated industry like education. Some of these steps are unique to the state of Texas, and others are general to forming any new company.

1. Forming the organization. l created a new organization, and had a lawyer craft bylaws and articles of incorporation for the non-profit corporation. The decision to act as a non-profit was important for a few reasons. First, as a non-profit, AC4D can receive grants and donations. Next, non-profit status for a school offers an indication to the world that our goal is on the production and distribution of knowledge. What I didn’t realize, however, is that a non-profit doesn’t actually have an owner. Once you create a non-profit, the entity exists, but no human actually has control of it; instead, a legally appointed board of directors assumes control of the organization. So, when people say things like “Wow, you own a school”, that’s technically inaccurate. For what it’s worth, this cost $300.

2. Getting an EIN. I visited the IRS site, and registered for an EIN number. This is the corporate equivalent to a social security number. It’s the easiest interaction with the IRS I’ve ever had.

3. Applying for tax-exempt status. While you can declare yourself a non-profit in Texas (and, I would assume, in other states), that doesn’t get you the benefits of non-profit status, which include a tax-exemption from the IRS and the ability for your supporters to receive tax-deductions for any donations they make. Achieving tax-exempt status is straight forward, but extraordinarily time consuming. I worked on the paperwork (a form called the 1023, which is 29 pages long) for close to two weeks. A few examples of the things I wasn’t expecting:

  • I needed to run a print advertisement in a local paper, articulating our non-discrimination policy, and include a physical clipped copy of it with my form
  • I needed to predict revenue and expense for two succeeding tax years, which I suppose is easy if you have an existing company, but extraordinarily difficult for a brand new entity
  • I needed to include a copy of the Secretary of State Filing Certificate
  • I needed to pay $750 to file the form.

I sent the package to the IRS, and received a response in about five months. A unique representative was assigned to review my proposal, and she requested a few corrections, changes, and clarifications. I received my exempt form (a simple one page letter) approximately six months after I started this process.

4. Developing curriculum. I developed the courses, outcomes, pedagogy, and other academic materials over approximately three months. This includes writing a comprehensive course plan, individual course descriptions and sequencing, the various outcomes and assessment criteria for each course, and then beginning to develop the content in each actual course. A course is 8 weeks long, and has either 8 or 16 sessions; each of these requires planning and attention, and so once the entire structure is developed, I methodically created a framework for each course. When I create curriculum, I treat it like a design problem. I use big brown butcher paper and a sharpie, and I start by considering my audience. I try to map out their wants, needs, and desires, and visualize some of the opportunities for design-led change. Once I have a sketch of the curriculum structure, I use a tool like Excel to create a more formal illustration of how quarters, classes, skills, and outcomes align.

5. Getting certified. AC4D is approved and certified by the TWC, a state organization in Texas. They review our curricula, our faculty, our policies, and so-on. The process to receive certification is straight-forward, but time consuming; the initial package I provided to them has 50 individual word and excel documents, ranging from a description of activities in each class, to profiles for each faculty member (including their transcripts, resumes, etc), to the expected and proposed budget for the school. This certification process (from completing the forms, having our finances audited, having various forms notarized, and having the program approved) took approximately five months. It required me to have a formal audit conducted by a CPA; this cost $1500. The filing fees for the forms cost $1170. We’re up to $3720, and I haven’t actually done anything related to education yet. Yikes.

6. Creating the website. I developed the initial site and all of the content.

7. Recruiting students. Legally, I couldn’t advertise for the program until all of the above had been completed. In reviewing the timeline of creation, it took approximately a year from me telling my wife “Hey, I think I’m going to start a school,” to the point where I actually began telling people that we existed. I then started recruiting, using my academic writing and public speaking as a platform to spread the work about the school. The very first time I spoke publically about AC4D was at interaction’10 in Savannah, February of 2010.

8. Receiving my first applicant! I received my first application for enrollment on April 1st, 2010 (about two months after I started advertising). 78% of my applicants waited until the last 48 hours before our application due date, giving me a mild aneurism.

9. Filling out enrollment paperwork. There are a number of records that are required by various agencies to substantiate our operations. This requires a careful catalog of things like student application forms, payment records, evidence that they toured the school and spoke with a registered representative, and so on.

10. Celebrating the first day of school. We started on August 30th, 2010, with an orientation session on August 28th, 2010. The first day of class was one of the proudest moments of my professional career.

As I reflect on this process and experience, the “hardest” part was also the most fun: writing the curriculum, structuring the academic program, crafting a series of learning interactions that result in a competent interaction designer and a visionary entrepreneur. The majority of the startup process was not hard, but rather, long: it required paperwork, and communications, and conversations, and meetings, and organization. Through this process, I recall countless conversations with my wife, questioning the intent. Would anyone apply? If they did, is the curriculum any good? Would the program be successful?

I observe the same dialogue occurring in my students, as they start their own companies. Will people use the service? Will it be successful? Am I doing it right? How can I do it better? These questions are important, because they indicate a reflective entrepreneur: they show that the students have the ability to observe themselves from afar, rising above the tedium in order to have a “meta moment” of self-evaluation. But these questions can also be poisonous, because they can balloon into a never-ending spiral of self-doubt, which can be crippling for forward momentum. I found the most success when I continually focused on actions, the methodical steps above: what can I do, and what can I control?

I hear that education is ready for “disruption” – for the conservative, traditional structure to come crashing down. As entrepreneurs tackle new educational paradigms, I hope the pragmatics of my own experience serves as a useful point of reference.

Posted in Classes, Design Education, Reflection, Regulation | Leave a comment

Challenging The Financial Assumptions That Run The World

New York Times Columnist Joe Nocera can’t retire, because he doesn’t have any money. But, like a lot of people who are probably in the same position, he did mostly the right things, like putting money in a 401(k).

As I was growing up, I was taught the same “right things”, and I’ve taken the majority of these for granted as being appropriate things to do in a modern society. These include:

  • Put your money in a bank, because a bank is safe.
  • Max out your 401(k) contributions.
  • Save 25% of your income.
  • Consider large purchases through careful research.

Underlying all of these are assumptions about how capitalism works, based on ideas like rational actors working methodically to maximize personal value and support their self-interests. This walks alongside assumptions about work ethic: working hard leads to long-term financial success, and the harder you work, the more you’ll succeed. For many of us, these create our base understanding of the world: they are the scaffolds upon which major assumptions are built, and these assumptions color the way we think of democracy and equitable exchanges and fairness.

As these assumptions were being ingrained during my childhood, I remember having a perpetual sense of awe as I discovered various technological advancements. I remember space shuttle launches, and the Lego Technic sets, and learning how modems work. These engineering and technological feats build upon one another, and have always left me with the notion that humans can do anything.

I think, for myself and for a lot of other people, our technical abilities have become conflated with civic abilities, and we’ve made the incorrect leap that because we, as a society, are capable of building fantastic engineering marvels, we are somehow equally as capable of building societal marvels. But the more I understand the extremely short history of our financial system, the more I become convinced that we have no idea what we’re doing. Quite literally, everything we’ve been taught to accept about economics is a crap shoot, and we should all probably start challenging the most basic of financial assumptions. I realize observations like this are challenging, because they make us feel uncomfortable, but let yourself absorb these provocations, and see where your brain heads:

  • The cost of an item should reflect all of its externalities. As you walk through the aisles at Whole Foods, you put some locally produced items in your cart. They cost next to nothing, because they’ve been produced at a facility around the corner from the store. You decide to treat yourself. You select a green pepper. It has a label, which lists the pesticide tax and the VAT, as well as the shipping and freight fees. The pepper costs $84. Later that night, when you eat it, you take your time, prepare it simply with salt and pepper, and savor each bite.
  • A bank that stores capital should not also invest capital. When you go visit your bank, you can enter a room that has your money in it. It’s all there, the $65,000 you’ve saved, in various forms of precious metal. You pay a series of mandatory fees to have your money stored at the bank, but it’s worth it, because you can see your wealth expanding and depleting. When you make a purchase with your bank card, a little robotic arm pushes coins around. It looks like a video game.
  • People shouldn’t retire. As you reach 40, you’ve decided to cut your hours back to four days a week. Then, at 50, you switch to three days of working – you pick Tue/Wed/Thu, so you get a nice solid break for travel. By the time you are 70, you go in to work just one day a week. It’s an accepted norm to scale back to one or two days by the time you are 80.

I’m not naïve enough to think that these ideas should or will happen, or even that people will think them good. But the article cited above ends with a quote from Teresa Ghilarducci, a behavioral economist at The New School who studies retirement and investor behavior. “’The 401(k),’ she concluded, ‘is a failed experiment. It is time to rethink it.’” I think the entire system is an experiment, and many parts of it are failing. Innovation and creativity require a runway for exploration; as we develop new products and services, we’re realizing that comments like “that will never work” are self-defeating and unproductive. I think the same is true in areas of economics and policy. Tom Peters describes an idea as “a fragile thing.” Jonathan Ive explained that ideas “begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.”I can tell you 50 reasons why any of the above scenarios are bad, but I also realize that good ideas come from unexpected places.

Derivatives were awful and didn’t work. They were a financial innovation, and part of innovation is accepting the risk that things will fail. I don’t fault those who invented these financial instruments for trying innovative things. I do fault them for doing it with the resources of those who had no say or ability to weigh the risk. But we need more new thinking around economics and the core assumptions of capitalism, and we need to first realize that new thinking will always come with associated risk, and we need to approach the risk responsibly. This will require that we give more time to ideas before “logically” explaining them away based on our assumptions of economics and policy. We need to start challenging basic assumptions about how financial and policy decisions work, because frankly, they haven’t been working at all.

Posted in Reflection, Regulation | Leave a comment

The Ethics of Disruptive Innovation in Wicked Problems

Academics frequently conduct research as an end in itself. Practicing designers (sometimes known as “design researchers”) attempt to “use” the research to provoke new ideas. These practitioners have formalized a process of design-led innovation, where this applied ethnography is followed by reframing (looking at a situation in new or unexpected ways) and iterative ideation (trying things with real people in an effort to see how well these new and unexpected ideas work) as a way of driving disruption in tired or conservative industries. A formal or traditional approach to ethnography requires a researcher to remain impartial and attempt to intervene as little as possible, but the observations extracted by a design researcher are frequently driven by direct participation and active intervention. A design researcher may stop a participant and ask them to explain what they are doing, why they are doing it, or if they always do it that way. One of the “best practices” of a form of design research called Contextual Inquiry is to establish a master and apprentice relationship with a participant, where the design researcher literally learns from the participant by trying things, much like a master craftsman shows an apprentice how to use a tool. The design researcher’s intent is to engage in rapid and active learning, and to gain empathy. This is sometimes called (affectionately by designers, and with disdain by academics) ethnography light or guerrilla ethnography, and is used in contexts as varied as understanding how people purchase perfume to how the workflow of vehicle assembly can be streamlined.

In academia, the phenomenon of “informed consent” plays a major role in determining the scope, scale, and approach of research that is conducted with these at-risk populations. The use of human subjects in experiments has a tainted history, and so governance boards (called IRB, or Institutional Review Boards) have been established to ensure these populations are not targeted in unethical or problematic ways. In the United States, researchers who receive funding from government agencies (such as the National Science Foundation) are required to have their research reviewed by an IRB, which is regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services. The Belmont Report – the document that established a majority of these research rules – was adopted in1978. This is one of the first attempts at defining informed consent. A critical component of the report is duplicated below, in full:

Respect for persons requires that subjects, to the degree that they are capable, be given the opportunity to choose what shall or shall not happen to them…

Injustice may appear in the selection of subjects, even if individual subjects are selected fairly by investigators and treated fairly in the course of research. Thus injustice arises from social, racial, sexual and cultural biases institutionalized in society. Thus, even if individual researchers are treating their research subjects fairly, and even if IRBs are taking care to assure that subjects are selected fairly within a particular institution, unjust social patterns may nevertheless appear in the overall distribution of the burdens and benefits of research. Although individual institutions or investigators may not be able to resolve a problem that is pervasive in their social setting, they can consider distributive justice in selecting research subjects.

Some populations, especially institutionalized ones, are already burdened in many ways by their infirmities and environments. When research is proposed that involves risks and does not include a therapeutic component, other less burdened classes of persons should be called upon first to accept these risks of research, except where the research is directly related to the specific conditions of the class involved. Also, even though public funds for research may often flow in the same directions as public funds for health care, it seems unfair that populations dependent on public health care constitute a pool of preferred research subjects if more advantaged populations are likely to be the recipients of the benefits.

One special instance of injustice results from the involvement of vulnerable subjects. Certain groups, such as racial minorities, the economically disadvantaged, the very sick, and the institutionalized may continually be sought as research subjects, owing to their ready availability in settings where research is conducted. Given their dependent status and their frequently compromised capacity for free consent, they should be protected against the danger of being involved in research solely for administrative convenience, or because they are easy to manipulate as a result of their illness or socioeconomic condition.

There’s very little in the report that’s controversial, because the report takes a very common-sense, humanitarian approach to research. The majority of researchers doing work in academia are already well aware of this ethical conversation; it’s a standard consideration in formulating a research approach, and it’s part of the culture of the academy.

But this same process of design research is used outside of academia, by practitioners: design research is considered one of the keys to disruptive innovation. Design research, followed by reframing and ideation is increasingly being adopted by practicing designers at companies like Nike, Starbucks, and Procter & Gamble. In these contexts, this design research is positioned as a form of market research, aimed at identifying latent needs and provoking new product and service ideas. And, the same process is used by social entrepreneurs in the context of humanitarian problems, known in circles of design as “Wicked Problems”. Broadly, these problems are the systemic issues of poverty, hunger, education, drug abuse, and so on – the large, interlinked, and societal issues that stem from our public policies, our use of technology, and financial inequality. Designers who engage in tackling these problems realize the potential of design as a tool for affecting positive change, and so they immerse themselves in the cultures they are hoping to effect. They utilize a number of different design research methods, such as Contextual Inquiry, Participatory Design, or Bodystorming, all in an effort to gain empathy and understanding with a target audience. Design researchers, coming from academia, professional practice, or acting as social entrepreneurs, may live on the streets with the homeless, volunteer at shelters, engage with case workers, and otherwise explore the phenomenon of homelessness.

The same process of looking at behavior is used in academic research, in for-profit commercial research, and in both for- and non-profit contexts of social entrepreneurship.  This presents a problem, because the safeguards put in place by law to protect at-risk populations are largely ignored by those doing non-academic research. In my experience, I’ve found that design research, applied outside of academia, is nearly void of a formal ethical process. And there is a cruel irony in this, because these are the same innovators who are likely to actually produce new products and services. The results of their work will be more prevalent and impactful, and the positive and negative repercussions felt more broadly than academic research stuck in the confines of an academic journal. It is in a commercial or entrepreneurial setting that ethics are more important, as the potential for manipulative practice is more likely.

Some (very few) design researchers may make rudimentary efforts to simulate the intent of the IRB. They may have their participants sign consent forms, or the researcher may go out of their way to articulate the research process and the compensation a participant may receive for their participation. They typically describe to the participant that they can quit the research process at any time and will still receive the compensation offered to them. But these efforts are minimal and inconsistent. And the lack of informed-consent form is just one of the problems we encounter when we apply design research in commercial contexts.

Some of these problems are listed below; these are all problems I’ve actually observed, and I’m sure there are many more.

Forming a Non-Sustainable Relationship. Designers, intent on learning about a particular situation, form a relationship with a member of an at-risk population, such as a homeless person. They learn about this person, understand their wants and needs, and learn to empathize with them. In doing so, the participant becomes either emotionally, physically, or socially dependent on the researcher. When the research phase of the project is over, the designer leaves.

Safety. Designers (and particularly, design students) find themselves in unsafe situations, such as sleeping on the streets or participating in drug purchases, in an effort to learn about a particular culture or empathize with a specific audience. The richness of these experiences is alluring, and it’s difficult for the student (and the professor) to identify appropriate boundaries. This is compounded by popular celebration of this behavior (for example, Sudhir Venkatesh’s research work with inner-city gangs, popularized in Freakonomics).

Broad, Impromptu Research Activities. Designers depend on a fluidity of action in the field, where they observe actual behavior and can respond to the activities they observe. This is hard to plan – the entire benefit to the research is in its fluidity and reliance on actual behavior as a prompt – and so the research plan that is produced is broad and vague. An IRB may be unwilling or unable to approve such a broad set of activities. This is echoed by academic Michael Schmidt in a thread on the PhD Design mailing list, “…  the review boards are often comprised of people who know very little about qualitative research and who in some cases even hold a bias against anything outside a conventional quantitative study, randomized trial, or a rigorous mixed methods approach. Ironically, low-impact, non-invasive studies like carefully constructed interview protocols can be the hardest for which to receive approval.”

Equitable Compensation. In order to engage with a population, a design researcher typically offers compensation in response to a particular set of actions. One of my former colleagues at frog design, Jan Chipchase, describes that “Defining ‘equitable compensation’ can sometimes be tricky for the simplest of design research activities (e.g. a home interview), but is especially problematic when researching highly financially constrained communities where the gulf between the wealth/power of the participants and the researchers can be considerable.” He’s exactly right. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced teams have the necessary experience that Chipchase has to make this assessment, and what’s worse, only very rarely do teams even have this conversation. For those in at-risk populations, inequitable compensation may provoke negative consequences, such as the purchase of drugs, a competitive or violent reaction from peers, or the inability for a participant to end a research engagement when they feel uncomfortable.

Use of Research For Questionable Means. Research conducted outside of academia is used to provoke new products and services. There is extraordinarily little conversation in industry as to the responsibility a design researcher has in translating observations into product insights. In the Epic 2006 conference proceedings, Stokes Jones describes a fascinating body of work related to homeopathy remedies in South Africa. As an anthropological study, it sheds light on the unique bottom-up approaches to innovation in developing countries. But it’s not just an anthropological study: this research was funded by Procter & Gamble with an explicit ambition, to “design new preparations specifically for Southern Africa (to fit Africans’ tastes and habits) as well as to target ‘lower income consumers’ (low for P&G’s targeting but average for South Africa).” I don’t fault Jones at all, as his presentation and description of the research indicates a thorough reflection on the ethical complexities of this research. But I also wonder what happened at P&G after this research was presented, and based on my experiences with big-brand consumer insights teams, I can only assume the response to South Africans putting Vaporub in their hot drinks was met with giddiness at the new financial potential. This is the “design imperialism” argument, which I frankly view as less critical and more of a red-herring than the other four points above.

The summary of these points is that, first, there is no IRB for professionals or for social entrepreneurs, and there is no understanding of the role of such a board. While there exist independent review boards, it is safe to assume that the vast majority of practicing design researchers are not aware of them and do not engage with them. Next, there is little shared understanding of the ethics of design research for professionals or for social entrepreneurs, and the degree to which design research activities are examined in a particular context is extremely inconsistent. And finally, there is a larger conversation around ethics in design research that is only happening in the periphery (there are a few small journals and respected individuals talking about this, but only a small number.)


And so presents a strange, albeit complicated and extremely textured problem. Well-intentioned designers hoping to learn about an at-risk population with the intent on helping that population must become a part of that very population, learning the language and the culture, understanding the workflow and broken policies and procedures, and trying their best to feel the emotions of that population. And in doing so, these well-intentioned designers may be forming important relationships, acting in life-saving capacities, learning the private and intimate details of people’s lives, and otherwise disrupting the status quo. They are frequently performing these activities on behalf of for-profit companies, and in the context of finite projects. There is a tension between the selfish and the responsible. Research in creativity and innovation increasingly describes the need for iterative design, the ability to fail and learn from failure, and the importance of playful, divergent thinking as a way of sparking new and unexpected ideas. This presents a problem for those engaged with an at-risk population, because these qualities are at odds with accepted behavior about at-risk interventions.

This tension and problem is exemplified by a recent experiment at South By Southwest, an extremely large technology conference in Austin, Texas. At the 2012 conference, one of the strangest stories to emerge was that of the Homeless Hotspots – a project coordinated by the non-profit Frontsteps and the for-profit advertising agency BBH Labs. The premise of the project is simple, but the implications are extraordinarily complex. Homeless individuals in Austin were given technology that allowed their physical presence to act as a 4G hotspot, and wore t-shirts that announced the presence of the hotspot. Nearby individuals could utilize the free bandwidth, and if they wanted, they could donate money to the homeless individual for providing the service. The project received the following feedback:

It sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia

The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall

It has to do with digital divides, haves and have nots, and the idea that a fellow human being is of no more use to you than as an Internet jack

One way of viewing and considering the Homeless Hotspot project is through a lens of disruptive design, or design thinking. This is the process by which a designer examines a situation and then attempts to reframe it by challenging, reconsidering, or outright rejecting existing norms. A traditional way of thinking about helping the homeless is by fulfilling their basic needs, such as food, water, and shelter, and then providing case management skills to help them find a job. An innovative way of thinking about helping the homeless is by combining their geographic independence with technology, and giving them a service to offer those around them. This argument describes the Homeless Hotspot as a successful design approach, because the designers were able to learn from the activities of the prototypical situation and can now improve subsequent ideas based on these findings. What’s more, this argument paints the process – “try crazy things that question and disrupt our standard way of viewing a situation” – as fundamental for affecting innovative change.

Another way of viewing and considering the Homeless Hotspot project is through a lens of ethics and empowerment. From this stance, the homeless are unable to adequately assess the financial and social implications and repercussions of acting as a mobile hotspot, and by definition, their socio-economic status precludes them from objectively and knowledgably consenting to such an intervention. The work is dehumanizing because it leverages a group that is in no position to appropriately assess the mental or social harm that might come from such an intervention. This argument describes the Homeless Hotspot as a harmful failure, because the designers took advantage of a population that was unable to properly assess the tradeoffs of a decision to participate. What’s more, this argument paints the process of iterative reframing and disruptive design as harmful and exploitive.

The situation is not a simple one, and there is no easily supported, one-sided judgment of the project. What is clear is that there exists no real depth to the conversation of design ethics in the context of wicked problems. The population of design researchers is small, disparate, and without a shared language or set of ethics to ground their important activities.

There are academic design researchers like Chris Le Dantec, who study at-risk populations, design interactions and interventions, and then describe these in written, peer-reviewed journals. Typically, these design researchers are constrained by the rules of their university, which strictly comply with the IRB rules. Graduate students and faculty who conduct research in these contexts submit their research plan to the IRB well in advance of their actual research plan, and revise the plan according to feedback from the IRB committee in order to ensure an ethical and responsible approach to research.

There are practicing design researchers at for-profit companies, who study an at-risk population for a paying client, design interactions and interventions, and then monetize these. Typically, these design researchers have no professional constraints on their behavior, and so they proceed as they have been trained through prior experience. If they experienced ethical oversight of their research in a University or educational setting, they may advance those ethics in their work. If they work in a large corporation, they may have a corporate policy that they must adhere to. Or, most commonly, if they work in an agency or design consultancy and developed their skills without formal training, there is no oversight or formal consideration to the ethical implications of their work. The question of “What are the implications of this research on our target population” is never asked. For all of its positive qualities, IDEO’s Human Centered Design Toolkit – funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – fails to even mention ethics at all.

And there are design-led social entrepreneurs, who study an at-risk population and attempt to build double-bottom line services to support that population while simultaneously generating profit. Because of the bootstrap, rapid style of entrepreneurship, research in these contexts is usually conducted in a “quick and dirty” fashion. In some evolving methodologies, the entire point of the research is to test a small, ill-thought out idea before investing a great deal of time in planning or reflecting.

Ultimately, I agree with Chipchase that “The real design imperialism comes from those people who assume that the world’s poor are not worthy of the attention.” But I think the ethical considerations of design are being largely ignored by many practicing designers, most of whom are fully intending to do good and have only the best of intentions.  And so I encourage these folk to engage in the conversation, evaluate their own work, and further examine not the intent, but the actual mechanisms and potential repercussions of their actions – and to realize that the power of design demands an ethic of design, as well.

Posted in Reflection, Regulation, Theory | 3 Comments

Reimagining Market Dynamics: Market Issues Related to Design

The last decade has seen a growth of design in large corporations and a more nuanced understanding of the value designers bring to business, organizations, and product or service problems and opportunities. Design has been heralded as the prime mover for startups. Provocateur Bruce Nussbaum argues that “we are seeing a dynamic expansion of the scale, range, and power of traditional design. It promises to revive a broken VC model…” [1] It’s increasingly recognized as a key differentiator for bringing industry disruption and changing the face of business and society, and – as Luke Williams describes – it’s about “inverting or denying industry clichés [in order to arrive at] significant business breakthroughs.”[2] There appears to be general consensus amongst intellectuals in technology and business that design is a non-aesthetic and non-trivial part of solving problems, and provides value in the context of the marketplace; a recent Reuters article proclaimed that “The new breed of ‘user experience’ designers – part sketch artist, part programmer, with a dash of behavioral scientist thrown in – are some of the most sought-after employees in technology.” [emphasis added]. [3]

As design has “arrived”, we are now able to broadly advance the discussion around design-impact in a given market to consider the relationship between designerly ways of thinking, and traditional economic or market issues and trends. This may lead us to collectively make wiser design decisions, or it may help us re-evaluate assumptions about how a marketplace should be structured or moderated with relationship to creative thinking and decision making.

My hope with this post is to identify the large areas of intersection between design and market forces, to describe places where further commentary, research and discussion are necessary, and to offer a view of where more or revised economic and policy interventions might be necessary.

Design-driven Intellectual Property is Uniquely Messy

Intellectual property, and the ability to patent a particular invention, has been a part of the fabric of American culture as long as our nation has existed. The amount and type of litigation related to IP enforcement has recently come under scrutiny, primarily driven by technology patents related to mobile phones and other hand-held devices. Larry Lessig, a well-known law professor at Harvard, has described that “’novel,’ ‘nonobvious’ or ‘useful’ is hard enough to know in a relatively stable field. In a transforming market, it’s nearly impossible for anyone – let alone an underpaid worker in the U.S. Department of Commerce who spends on average of eight hours evaluating the prior art in a patent and gets paid based on how many he processes – to identify what’s ‘novel.’” [4] Lessig’s point is apt, and is more pronounced when considered in the context of interaction design or “user experience”. Interaction design is frequently not visible, and although it can be described through narrative and other artifacts, the description is commonly not rich enough to appropriately capture the actual experience. It’s quite common to hear designers say things like “you just need to try it,” implying a sense of tacit knowledge established through experience. It’s extremely likely that the same underpaid worker at the patent office is not likely to be trained in or experienced with judging the novelty, patent-appropriateness, and ubiquity of a flow through an interface or a designed-shift in behavior, especially if they need to actually experience the innovation to understand it.

Additionally, the uniqueness of an interaction in the larger context of a product suite or brand experience is difficult to rationalize. Consider the absurdity of Apple’s granted patent application for Slide-To-Unlock [5]: it’s hard to substantiate the need for protection on such an inconsequential piece of a larger whole, and it’s easy to see how this type of nuanced protection can quickly become unsustainable. One might patent “Tap-To-Take-Photograph” or “Double-Tap-To-Check-In” with equal justification, and with equal absurdity.

Additionally, innovation always requires a creative recombination of existing ideas, which implies that there will always be some form of bleed-over from an invention into existing creative precedent. Designers learn – and are explicitly taught, in school – to utilize and generously borrow from existing ideas, themes, patterns, trends, and concepts – and recombine them in interesting ways. The majority of incremental innovations that occur in industry might be seen as obvious, but only in retrospect. It’s difficult to discern what creative innovations should actually be protectable when comparing them to the fairly standard but dated test of “new, useful and non-obvious.” The US Patent Office may have set an unfortunate precedent by allowing protectable but incremental innovations, and it’s now necessary for a comprehensive re-evaluation of terms of protection for design patents, particularly for user interfaces, user services, and other forms of behavioral design.

Iterative Design  Has Market Consequences

Designers work in an iterative fashion; they produce something, try it with people, learn about the results, and make changes. This process has recently been adopted by various startups under the guise of “lean” – rapidly producing the smallest possible thing, and then understanding how people respond to it (and learning if they are willing to pay for it). This idea of iterative design has consequences: it is not simply a neutral empirical test. Iterative approaches to product design actually change both individuals and the market in which these iterations are attempted. The first is less interesting in the context of economic observation (although of great importance for considering ethics of design); the second has tremendous, but subtle, consequences. These consequences are evident in the culture of silicon valley, where these iterations provide clues to large corporations as to potential new disruptive services and business models. Competitive audits, performed by consultants and innovation agencies, constantly identify fledgling design activities in incubators and accelerators and map these to market axis in an attempt to drive corporate repositioning. The iterations leave traces, and the traces infiltrate the less agile corporation – which is a financial powerhouse, able to influence, lobby, or otherwise buy a competitive edge.

There is a consequential result of this type of fast-follower culture, and as our financial systems struggle and discontent grows with the financial divide in the US, a re-analysis of Joseph Schumpeter may be necessary, particularly to understand his prediction of the demise of capitalistic structures. Schumpeter identified a form of “creative destruction”, upon which disruptive innovation emerges to challenge and ultimately erode old, tired ways of approaching business. Iterative design is the spark of these disruptive efforts – the first glimpse of them in the marketplace – and begins to support this notion of constant and dynamic market momentum. But Schumpeter goes on to argue that a form of congealing of creative efforts will naturally take over the free market, where “Innovations would no longer be connected with the efforts and the brilliance of a single person. They were increasingly to become the fruits of the organized effort of large teams. This would be done most effectively within the framework of large corporations.” [6] As the single entrepreneur was supplanted, Capitalism would give way to a form of Corporatism, which would encounter increasing critique and violence from the masses.

And this is precisely the social, economic and political climate we seem to find ourselves in today. If Schumpeter was correct in predicting these changes with such accuracy, it is useful to consider the remainder of Schumpeter’s argument: as he describes, socialism will eventually replace capitalism, unconditionally.

A Pursuit of Scale Drives Blanding

Design is about humanizing technology and increasing the quality of the human experience. But as design is seen as a differentiator in big business – a way to escape commoditization, and a way to drive branded change – success becomes inextricably tied to marketing efforts related to scale, units sold, profitability, and the amplified spread of a design through mass production and social distribution or sharing. This pursuit of scale has a natural tendency towards “blanding”, as features, aesthetics, and designed personality and eccentricities seem to regress to the mean of acceptability. Put another way, a company will minimize innovative components to mitigate the risk of adoption and to overcome the cost of execution, while emphasizing components that are considered “normal”, “tablestakes”, or “expected.” This can be attributed to the need to map a design solution to marketing segmentation, in order to cater towards an aggregate and amorphous representation of a user. This has the confusing and subtle consequences of offering a product that provides some experiential value to everyone, but never provides all of the value to anyone.

This is most striking in the determination of feature sets for mobile devices. Typically, a marketing team will conduct a competitive audit in an effort to understand the various elements necessary to achieve brand parity. This audit, combined with a focus on internal strategic imperatives (“focus on social sharing!” or “celebrate device convergence!”) will result in a feature specification, or product requirements document, which is then used to provoke design activities. Market segmentation will create tiers of product offerings, adding or removing features and creating bundles of capabilities in an effort to appeal to a particular user group. Customization and pricing is tied to this segmentation, resulting in the types of devices, service offerings, and product releases we see at various consume electronic conventions.

This process is a result of a homogenized view of the “right way to launch a product”, much of which is codified in MBA programs and in the early experiences marketers have when entering the workforce. And as a result of this homogenization in process, which is itself a result of a focus on scale and sharability, we diminish the value of the innovative “design thinking” that might come from an extremely local focus on user wants, needs, and aspirations, or that might arrive as a result of playful creative exploration. These local solutions will, by their very definition, appeal to fewer people, but will have a higher degree of appeal; this is the problem, and opportunity, of breadth vs. depth.

Big-Data Experiences Are Colliding With Advertising Intent

We’re only beginning to understand the promise of Big Data, which has been afforded to us by cheap hardware sensors, a ubiquity of data capture infrastructure, and the human urge to share interesting content. Big Data has the powerful ability to change the way we see the world around us; it encourages “regular people” (read: people who aren’t technologists or designers) to understand their bodies, their actions, and their environments with a more nuanced and thoughtful level of detail, and to make changes to their behavior based on this understanding. For example, products like Fit Bit, Nike+, or the Body Media arm band allow us to gather different feeds of data related to our bodies – body temperature, pulse rate, blood pressure – and see relationships between this data and our food intake, our interactions with our friends, and even the way we choose to go to work or attend different events.

This is a huge advance for the human race, as we can begin to visualize and understand how complicated natural phenomena occur over time, without really needing to understand the complex science behind these phenomena. We can identify potential correlated or causal relationships in our own lives. And, once we visualize and understand these phenomena, we can take action to correct things we don’t like – such as unhealthy but habitualized behavior.

But while we now face a huge opportunity in understanding the patterns that surround our lives, this opportunity is running head-first into advertisers, who see a different but equally massive potential in Big Data. Google, Facebook, and likely Apple, Microsoft and other large device and software manufacturers are in a unique position to sell this data to those who want to optimize their marketing efforts through unique profile-based targeting. It is only when one purchases a Facebook Ad or launches an AdWords campaign that one truly understand the frightening power of profile-based advertising, which leverages the same Big Data to display advertisements only to those likely to transact. The intent for these companies is not to use Big Data to empower consumers, but instead to utilize the same data to treat consumers like consumptive sheep. Consider the not-so-distant-future of Facebook’s Ad Platform:

A Design Fiction: The Promising Future of Facebook Ads

There exists a need for legislation in the US to define policy related to data ownership and portability, providing power to individual consumers to own, audit, loan, and retract data about themselves, and to manage the increasingly vast digital definition of themselves.

Equally problematic is the existence of often misaligned privacy laws in foreign countries, forcing irrationally branched design solutions based on locale. While the promise of a unified, world-wide privacy policy is quite obviously a pipe-dream, it would behoove the United States government to understand this issue and begin discussions with policy makers in other countries around unification of ideals.

We Need Legislation In Support of Remix Culture

Some of the most interesting services to launch in the last six months emphasize a second-generation of user-generated content related to content organization and containment, where people are able to organize, remix, share, and discuss media in structured environments. Pinterest and tumblr offer services that focus on unique “containers” or “objects” for content, where a user acts as a curator or organizer rather than a producer or creator.

Design-driven solutions typically recognize the limitations of a given audience and attempt to support that audience by offering optimized tools and capabilities. In this case, audiences of both services may not have the ability to create raw content from scratch, but are afforded the ability to mix, mash, and otherwise combine content into new forms.

Yet existing copyright law and the precedent of DMCA-driven takedown notices have forced a strange set of rules for these companies, which manifest in their terms of services. The original terms – which were recently revised, due to a public outcry of dissatisfaction, included:

By making available any Member Content through the Site, Application or Services, you hereby grant to Cold Brew Labs a worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free license, with the right to sublicense, to use, copy, adapt, modify, distribute, license, sell, transfer, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, stream, broadcast, access, view, and otherwise exploit such Member Content only on, through or by means of the Site, Application or Services. [7]

These services, likely by both legal and financial need, transfer litigation responsibility to end-users. This presents a strange collision of innovation related to the “network effect”, where mass audiences consume, change, and share content, and the existing legal structures related to copyright enforcement. This may soon create an equally strange clash between existing media conglomerates, like News Corp or NBC, with equally affluent financial services offerings, like Union Square Ventures – VC for the aforementioned services. But irrespective of this potential fallout between financial powerhouses, there exists a need for forward-thinking legislation related to the existing fair-use doctrine, with a redefinition that expands the boundaries of an individual creating an entertaining or satirical mash-up. And, there exists a need for social-media companies like pinterest and tumblr to take a more progressive stance towards their user-base, embracing the experiential qualities of their design over the legal norms of protecting their own interests. These companies need to support their users in challenging unforgiving and irresponsible copyright laws.

Normal Incentive Structures Are At Odds With Design Intent

In both large corporations and startups, an incentive structure focused on growth and wealth is colliding with the incentive most designers realize and embrace: making quality products that improve the quality of life. In large corporations, a pursuit of quarterly profits provides a constant distraction from execution and follow-through. Reorgs, refined priorities, and a knee-jerk reaction to industry news constantly confuses and disrupts design-driven approaches to product development, with valuable work shelved or redirected as a result of a stock-price-driven fire-drill.

The same incentive structure, albeit with a much longer outlook, exists in circles of venture capital. For startups funded by a typical VC, there is an expectation of a financially solvent exit within 3-5 years, producing 5-10 times the original investment in newly created wealth. This exit is usually in the form of a buyout or merger, but could also be the result of taking a company public. But the pursuit of the exit places constraints on the original product offering, including an artificial timeframe for success, artificial financial goals based on initial valuations, and an artificial demand to scale, quickly. Counter-intuitively, these pressures can serve to actually stifle innovation, as evidenced by the education startup space and the role of Blackboard, the industry incumbent. Rather than compete with startups, Blackboard buys them, and this acquisition strategy leads not to a better product for consumers but instead to the extermination of existing innovations.

In a healthy market, a product or service acquisition should be a positive event, producing value not only for those acquired and their investors, but for the consumer and community at large. That statement is echoed by both Henry Ford and Peter Drucker. Drucker says that “It is the customer who determines what a business is … what the business thinks it produces is not of first importance”, [8] and Ford agrees: “Power and machinery, money and goods, are useful only as they set us free to live.” [9] Clearly, the intent of our capitalistic structures are failing us with defensive, non-productive acquisitions like those described above.


I’ve described six problems in the way design is considered within the context of business. I do not purport to have the solution to these problems, although I have suggestions to managers at large companies, founders at startups, and to our politicians, based on my own experiences. The fact that design is finally considered of consequence within the larger conversation of capitalism is extremely positive. The fact that there exist so many areas of opportunity for improvement is to be expected, given the relatively shallow understanding of design within most decision making circles. My hope is that this article is sufficient in causing executive-level decision makers to question their behavior and habits, and in causing the conversation of design-driven innovation to elevate to a level of policy and responsibility.

  1. Nussbaum, Bruce. Accessed on March 19, 2012
  2. Williams, Luke. Accessed on March 19, 2012
  3. Shih, Gerry. In Silicon Valley, designers emerge as rock stars. Accessed on April 16, 2012
  4. Lessig, Lawrence. The Problem With Patents.,1902,4296,00.html Accessed on March 18, 2012
  5. Spradlin, Liam. Apple Granted Slide-To-Unlock Patent, Bearing On Android Yet To Be Seen. Accessed on March 18, 2012
  7. Yung-Hui, Lim. Pinterest Revises “Terrifying” Terms of Service, Soon To Release Private Pinboards and API. Accessed on April 16, 2012
  8. Drucker, Peter. Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices.
  9. Ford, Henry. My Life and Work.
Posted in Regulation, Startups, Theory | Leave a comment

Another Attempt at Design Certification

Conversations of official design certification have come and gone over the last few decades, with little traction. There’s another attempt to organize designers - in this case, graphic designers, who seem to focus exclusively on logos and static websites – and the attempt seems exclusively focused on the fly-by-night $200 website shops that deliver precisely on their promise: pay $200, and get a website that’s worth approximately the same.

I’ve always had an immediate and negative reaction to the idea of some official certification board – similar to the process of AIA certification that an architect must achieve – but I’ve never really tried to analyze why. I think I’m at a point where I can formulate several reasons why it’s a non-starter.

  1. The conversation almost implicitly reduces design to aesthetics, which is increasingly the least relevant and appropriate use of design talent. The “bad design examples” provided on the site are gratuitous looking, and that’s where the conversation starts and ends. There’s no mechanism to judge the interaction design, the functionality, the cultural need, the benefits to users, the value provided to the company, or any of the other facets of a design problem. And while design aesthetics aren’t entirely subjective, the resonance of visual design is obviously in the eye of the beholder: Not ironically, I found the design certification site itself to be poorly thought out, with an ugly information hierarchy, a sophomoric use of type, and silly clip-art icons added without clear rationalization.
  2. The idea of certification is presented as a method of protecting those who purchase professional design skills. I’m not aware of any data – qualitative, quantitative, or otherwise – that indicates these people need protecting. It’s far-fetched to assume that one who purchases a $99 logo has a deep and passionate need for a strong, well thought out mark and identity package. When you buy a car for $400, you don’t expect it to last very long or be very effective. This idea of “protecting the purchaser” seems like a ruse to protect the fragile aesthetic sensibilities of designers who just don’t like ugly design work.
  3. The one reason that might be appropriately provided FOR certification is almost never considered: that design has a cultural resonance of equal or greater weight than law or policy, as design decisions are reproduced in mass and permeate the visual and semantic landscape of our world. And even this is mitigated at both a federal and a local level, through the use of bans on billboards and requirements about misleading advertising.

It feels like those clamoring for a professional body of certification are trying to protect a profit margin on a skill that may have already been commoditized. The rallying cry to “empower business” isn’t necessary: designers are empowering business through intellectual, strategic and appropriate design work.

Posted in Regulation | 1 Comment