Because we have these ways of seeing

Our most recent section of Theory of Interaction Design and Social Entreprenuership focused on what limits what we can imagine. One can start with the question, “Is imagination boundless?” That’s a romantic thought, but if we consider things that are routinely labeled “unfathomable,” we ca start to see the boundaries of the human mind.

Take Glen Berger’s “three incontrovertible facts” from his forward to his play Underneath the Lintel:

“1) The universe contains well over 500,000,000,000 galaxies, with each galaxy containing over 1,000,000,000,000 stars, of which, our vast, blazing and life-bestowing sun…is one. 2) The Earth is 4,600,000,000 years old, in which time, from the Pre-Cambrian Era to the Present—a dizzying, terrifying number of inhabitants—amoebas and trilobites, dust mites and Neanderthals—have all struggled to live from one hour to the next. (Indeed, more living creatures are in my stomach (and yours) at this moment than the total number of human beings that have ever existed.) 3) I will die. I will be dead in sixty years, though it’s entirely conceivable that I’ll be dead before the week is out.”

The three incontrovertible facts Berger lays out here are unfathomable  to me. 1,000,000,000,000 stars – I cannot hold the concept of that many stars in my head, much less imagine them all at once. As much as I have seen and contemplated death, I honestly cannot imagine what the moment of expiration will be like, or what it’s like after. Berger’s facts help me put a few initial boundaries on my understanding of the limits of my own imagination.

A saying I heard once in high school that I firmly believe and which may or may not have been inspired by John Berger's Book "Ways of Seeing"
A saying I heard once in high school that I firmly believe and which may or may not have been inspired by John Berger’s Book “Ways of Seeing”

 

Role of Imagination in Design

In design thinking, the designer must rely on her own understanding of the world and of her research in order to frame a problem and come up with a solution. 

Design is premised on our ability to think creatively in the face of constraints and imagine the way things could be. Our imagination, then, is a fundamental and critical part of design – so understanding it’s boundaries should be of primary concern to us.

The readings in this past section have highlighted several was in which our imagination can be limited, which have a deeper implication for how we should approach design. 

I believe that the human imagination is limited the three primary factors of knowledge, biology (the physical structures and chemical processes of our mind and senses), and context.

Three Limits to the Human Imagination
The Limits to the Human Imagination

 

Knowledge: What we know – who we are

The first limitation of imagination is what we know. We are each just one person, and the things we know about the world are circumscribed by our education, our personal beliefs and our emotions. 

Byron Good references how doctors in training are drilled with “facts” about the physical aspects of people that they may cease to holistically include their social-emotional aspects.

“I would occasionally be walking along a street and find myself attending to anatomical features of persons I passed, rather than perceiving them as persons with social characteristics…” Byron Good

Designers are not usually experts in the domain for which they are designing. How much a designer knows about a particular problem area and what she believes about it will influence the solutions she creates. A lack of knowledge or understanding can lead to the implementation of ineffective, tone-deaf or harmful ideas. If a designer is an expert, it is also possible to have an “expert blind spot” due to being too close to a problem. 

Biology: How we think  – education, language, perception and prediction

The physical structures and chemical processes of our mind and bodies affect how we think and what influences us. Language, Cognitive tendencies, and cultural norms all influence how we view the world. “Reframing” is a device of language that creates new context by revising a narrative.

Context: What already exists –

Context involved power dynamics, current environment, and is interpreted to create “meaning.”

“Radical innovation comes from changes in either technology or meaning.” – Norman and Verganti

 

Context affects how we interpret a situation and can even affect what we know to be "fact"
Context affects how we interpret a situation and can even affect what we know to be “fact”

What does this mean for how we should approach design? 

Acknowledge our own limitations, use methods of overcoming our imaginative barriers, never assume we know the whole story, include others in our acts of creation to fill in gaps of understanding (participatory design), or perhaps even acknowledge that you are not the best person to work on a particular problem space. 

Limits to what we can imagine also affects what we design and how users will be affected. Design should foster empathy and understanding between users, such as doctors and patients, in a way that breaks down prejudices. I am hesitant to use the word “unbiased” because I do not think that human beings are capable of a purely “objective” point of view. We are creatures of subjective and limited perspective. We cannot hold every fact in our heads at once, if one can even argue that we can discover every “fact.”

I agree with Norman and Verganti that radical innovation comes with changes in meaning. I studied the History fo Ideas because I believe that. A good example of this is Dubberly, et al’s piece on reframing health to Embrace Design of Our Own Well-being. 

The authors describe a framing shift from people in the role of patients being told what to do to their own health advocates and managers. This re-framing has new language that shifts work and responsibility to the individual and creates a new societal-level meaning for health care. It’s largely the care of one’s self. While this in no way “solves” healthcare, it does bring a focus back to each individual’s well-being over all time, rather than just the minutes spent with a doctor or nurse. 

The thing that has largely sparked this movement is one of the biggest limiters of imagination not yet discussed: Money. Insurers would have to pay out much less if their customers were more healthy. And a modern understanding of physical and mental health is premised on day-to-day self-care. 

Money also limits what we can imagine
Money also limits what we can imagine

 

Money

The ultimate and pervasive limiter of almost all initiatives and a big driver of what we will be allowed to create in and formal capacity. Clients and businesses will have their own needs and requirements. We need to keep in mind that these constraints will almost always be the heaviest ones. 

Where I want to design

I’ve been keen on designing in the realm of immigration for years. It’s why I came to AC4D. The image below is a map I drew in a journal three years ago as I planned my career.

The career map I drew in a journal in 2015
The career map I drew in a journal in 2015

The readings on power and this recent section on the limits to imagination have made me question that goal. Should I if I am not an immigrant? Who can I bring on board? What will my institutional constraints be? Will I be able to design for those with less power, or will I be required to design things to entrench power imbalances? In that environment, what will be the boundaries of my imagination?

This is a deep question to be considered before I take on any job or project, and throughout.

 

Reading List

How Medicine Constructs Its Objects / Tenacious Assumptions in Western Medicine
Byron Good / Deborah Gordon

Free Ideas from a Human-Centered Designer for Hospitals that Want To Be (or Make it Seem Like They Are) Patient-Centric
April Starr

Reframing Health to Embrace Design of Our Own Well-Being
Hugh Dubberly, Rajiv Mehta, Shelley Evenson, Paul Pangaro

Metaphors Can Change Our Opinions in Ways We Don’t Even Realize
Steve Rathje

Making by Making Strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies
Genevieve Bell, Mark Blythe, Phoebe Sengers

People are people, but technology is not technology
Gary Marsden, Andrew Maunder, Munier Parker

Incremental and Radical Innovation: Design Research vs. Technology and Meaning Change
Don Norman, Roberto Verganti

The Dilemma of Empathy in Design
Richard Anderson

Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education
David Dunne, Roger Martin

Design Fiction
Bruce Sterling

Why Futurism Has a Cultural Blindspot
Tom Vanderbilt

The Law of Accelerating Returns
Ray Kurzweil

Why Nothing Works Anymore
Ian Bogost

You Are Already Living Inside a Computer
Ian Bogost

Promoting Failure

Introduction:

Jen, Laura and I launched ATX Fail Club to reframe failure as growth and empower more women to persist and succeed. We do this by cultivating communities in which women are encouraged to share and celebrate failure.

Since our last update:

  • We drafted a sponsorship ask email to send to local businesses explaining what ATX Fail Club is about. We are using this email to test the assumption that local businesses will want to align with our mission and vision and market to our members through in-kind and/or financial sponsorship.
  • We created a list of 87 sponsor prospects and reached out to 25 about sponsoring the April pilot dinner or future events. So far we’ve heard back from six businesses, secured one sponsor for the April dinner, and an offer to host a future event in May.
  • To promote the pilot we have posted on our ATX Fail Club social media accounts and personal accounts explaining what attendees can expect at the dinner. These posts have resulted in 21 visitors to our website, 2 new email list sign-ups, and very positive interactions and feedback.
  • Lastly, we made updates to our website to include our new sponsor, mission, and vision.

Lessons Learned:

  • Sponsorship requests take time and doing them sooner rather than later is better. We’ve learned that many businesses have budgeted amounts for community giving and are allocated on a first come first serve basis.
  • We learned how to set up a team in Canva to create, share and modify social media posts so we can all be working on promotions with continuity.
  • We iterated upon the current version of our final presentation to incorporate the feedback we heard last week.

Our Next Big Questions:

  • How can we measure the impact of ATX Fail Club for our members?
  • How can we design these experiences to scale beyond Austin?

Now we’ve got to:

  • Coordinate the logistics for the upcoming pilot and organize all the needed materials.
  • Identify potential magic moments, and create a method for integrating them into our pilot for testing.
  • Continue refining our presentation narrative and artifacts.

One way you can help right now is:

Mentorship Pilot

We launched our pilot this week! Our time over the past week has been spent on recruiting & matching mentor-mentee pairs and developing the facilitation resources for mentors and mentees unique to our solution.

Since our last update…

  • We recruited 3 mentors and 3 mentees, created matches based upon logistics (location, schedule), and set up meetings for the pairs
  • Designed an activity for the first meeting between mentors and mentees to provide an introduction and set goals
  • Designed an activity for the second meeting focused on identifying multiple paths to solve a problem
  • Created a short feedback form for mentors and mentees to complete after their first meeting
  • 2 mentor-mentee pairs had first meetings (the third pair meets Saturday afternoon)

Lessons learned

We received validating feedback from our first mentor-mentee pair following their first meeting and activity. The mentee not only felt more conscious of goals and the meeting served as a reinforcement. We received feedback indicating mutual engagement between the mentor and mentee:

“The conversations with [mentor] were great. I look forward to seeing her reach her goals as well as mine.”

Now we’ve got to

Schedule second meetings for mentor-mentee pairs
Schedule face-to-face follow-up interviews to speak with users (mentors and mentees)
Keep iterating on our final presentation

One way you can help

If you know a first-generation American college student who would like to participate in our pilot, we would love to speak with them.

christina.davis@ac4d.com
susi.brister@ac4d.com
catherine.woodiwiss@ac4d.com

Launchpad Status Update

Launchpad is on a mission to provide teachers the confidence, community, and autonomy to feel more mobile in their careers. In order to do this, Launchpad will offer a 3-week summer workshop series accompanied by year-round events and a website with resources that support career transition. We help teachers reflect on their decision to explore new career paths, hear stories of others who have taken non-traditional career paths, and build the autonomy they need to feel they can access the resources and connections to move beyond their current position.

 

Since our last update, we have defined, planned, and begun to run a pilot of our business concept.

 

Our pilot includes three phases that mirror the three phases of our workshop series (as well as the three essential aspects of making a decision to leave a traditional path that we identified in our genesis research):

  1. Reflection Quiz: The first aspect needed to decide to transition is time to reflect. We created a Google form quiz that prompts teachers to tell us about their experience teaching, asking some basic questions like how long they have been teaching and then progressing into questions about their satisfaction and whether or not and how much they have considered a transition.
  2. Visibility Newsletter: The next aspect needed in order to make a decision to transition away from a traditional path is what we have called visibility. Essentially, it is important for people to see and hear stories of others who have decided to leave mostly linear paths. In order to simulate this we prompted all quiz takers to tell us whether they wanted to receive an email with stories of others who have considered a transition. We have crafted and sent that newsletter which includes the story of one teacher who decided to transition into the field of corporate training.
  3. Autonomy Meet-up: The final thing that allows people to take the leap into another career is a feeling of autonomy. People who feel comfortable reaching out beyond their current community and resources feel empowered to build the career future they want. To test this, we will prompt all individuals who receive our newsletter with the question of whether they would like to be connected with another individual who is considering or who has already gone through a career transition out of teaching. Depending of how many respondents live in a particular location these may be one on one meetings or happy hour/coffee shop chats.

 

At this point, we have promoted our quiz and have gotten 101 responses. Of those 107 respondents, 71 opted in to receive our newsletter. We have learned a lot from these responses and plan to analyze them further over the next couple of weeks. A couple interesting highlights from our responses so far are:

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 9.48.00 PM
13 respondents said they have thought of leaving teaching but are scared to admit it.

To the question, “What would prevent you from leaving teaching?” respondents had answers like:

“Being a teacher is all I know. I don’t want to leave the profession and feel clueless elsewhere.”

To the  question, “What are the reasons that your current work is misaligned with what brought you to teaching?” respondents had answers like:

“I do not feel as though I am teaching. Sometimes I just wish the profession was less political and more worth the effort that you give. I cannot imagine giving myself another 20 years like this, I’ll have nothing left in the end.”

We will be sending out the newsletter today and will begin pairing up teachers or planning our coffee meet/happy hour in the next week.

 

Now we will work to …

  • Solidify the narrative of our final presentation
  • Continue running our pilot

 

To do this, over the next week, we will be…

  • Running through our presentation with classmates AND anyone who is interested in being a guinea pig for our presentation. Reach out if you are interested in seeing it pre-final presentation reveal!
  • Finishing our pilot and analyzing our results

 

One way you can help right now is…

  • Sharing our Google form quiz with teachers who are interested in transitioning
  • Offer insights or feedback about our concept. Feel free to email them to us at launchpad.careerexploration@gmail.com

 

SELect Progress Report

SELect

We exist to create a world where advisors are positioned to normalize social and emotional learning with college students who are struggling to persist for non-academic reasons.

SELect is a social and emotional learning tool. For students, it’s a questionnaire where they can reflect on their current non-academic obstacles. For advisors, it’s a report that prioritizes which conversations to have with students. It is used ideally to spark conversation in face-to-face meetings, the human element of mentorship.

Using SELect will provoke more conversations around “root cause” obstacles in a student’s personal life — especially if the student is ready to speak up, but doesn’t know how.

Movie Non Trad student

Overview

  • Key metric: Engagement and use by local partner organizations. We’ve had participation from 2 college persistence programs and pilots tested with 15+ students.
  • What’s going on: Piloting a mechanical turk MVP.
  • Support area: We are looking for more organizations and offices with diverse advising approaches to pilot SELect.

Over the last week we passed our pilot into the hands of partners and we are currently midway through receiving the results of the iteration. We have received questionnaire responses from students, and now turn towards advisors to synthesize and interpret the results, ultimately implementing the behavioral insights in conversation or contacting students about big flags

Next steps

  • Complete the advisor phase of our pilot
  • Continue to build relationships with other growing partnerships
  • Network our tool further to capture validation outside of our immediate ecosystem in Austin

How you can help

If you are part of an advising team or know someone who is part of a college advising office, we want you to participate. We have built out several versions of our pilot including a low-touch version using real student data from other orgs. We want to see how your advisors interact with this information and how it might affect behavioral change in your office and your practice.

Please get in touch with…

Me – zev.powell@ac4d.com

Cristina– cristina.suazo@ac4d.com

Adam – apruem@gmail.com

FundEDU Newsletter

FundEDU

We exist to create a world where financial pressures no longer force working students to prioritize work over school, allowing them to achieve their long-term goals.

Overview:

  • Key metric: Engagement (measured by sign-ups to our pilot)
  • What’s going on: Website creation and social media marketing
  • Support area: Looking for more students

Over the last week, we made a simple website for the FundEDU pilot and advertised the site on FaceBook.

Screen Shot 2019-04-12 at 4.57.46 PM

So far the FaceBook ad has received 437 impression and 3 clicks. We have also had one student reach out to us about the pilot.

Our next big question is: “will a campaign reach its funding goal without help from the campaigner’s immediate network?”

Next steps:

  • Continue advertising and reaching out to local businesses regarding campaign sponsorship and support
  • Find more students looking to raise funds for small (between $0 and $500) education expenses (books, utensils, lab fees, etc…)
  • Focus efforts on increasing campaign visibility with potential donors

How you can help:

If you are a working student, know a working student struggling to fund his/her education expenses, or are interested in supporting a working student through a small (but meaningful) donation, please let anyone on our team know.

Me – aaron.steinman@ac4d.com

Kim – kim.nguyen@ac4d.com

Kay – kay.wyman@ac4d.com

 

 

Innovation and The Limits To Imagined Possibilities

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

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

norman - hill paradigm

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

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

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

theory blog images.001

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

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

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

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

winogrand quote.001

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

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

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

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

theory blog images.002

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

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

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

theory blog images.003

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

theory blog images.004

What limits what we can imagine?

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 5.02.21 PM

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

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

Diversity in Tech

And why does this matter?

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

Racist soap dispenser - Imgur

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

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

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

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

So hopefully we can learn from their mistakes.

Imagination in Design

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

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

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

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

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

The Limits to Our Imagination

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

QuantumTheory

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

Communication

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

One of my favorite quotes comes from George Bernard Shaw:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The System”

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

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

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

TheBorg

Experience

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

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

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

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

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

My Thoughts

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

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