When in darkness, follow the light


For our Design, Society and Public Sector class, we read articles by Donald Norman, Jon Kolko, Paul Dourish, Liz Sanders and Bill Gaver. The articles provided perspectives on the place design research has in innovation, and the importance of including end users to be – not only the subject of the research – but also a key collaborator in the activities that make part of the research methodology.

For this second assignment, we were tasked to illustrate in the form of a story, the key points of view of these five authors.



Norbert is a mechanic from the quiet and small village of Middletown. One day, right after dinner, he was working on his truck when he saw something fell from the sky.

He walked a couple of miles and reached a big crater. A huge meteorite had crashed and, with the impact, had burst into thousands of pieces. To Norbert’s surprise, around the crater left by the impact, he found a few pieces of branches and trunks that appeared to light up as if they were lamps, odd sound waves were also transmitted right when Norbert approached one of the branches. It appeared like when in contact with a piece of meteorite, a piece of wood would become energized and made it emit light and sound.

After a few tests and experiments, Norbert thought of designing some cool, never before seen musical instruments. He was convinced that the village would love his new inventions. He announced the news to the rest of Middletown and everyone seemed excited for his discovery but, much to his surprise, they had no interest in acquiring any of these instruments.



Donald Norman claims that technology comes first, designers and users assign meaning and use to it after, therefore, technologists are indispensable and drive revolutionary innovation. In the other hand, designers only drive incremental innovation by engaging with users at the end.

Dorbert, the village’s electrician and philosophy teacher was one of the few people that felt truly intrigued by the discovery – He was certain that a source of power like the one Norbert discovered could be of great use only if it was applied in a way that corresponds to the needs of the people in Middletown.

Dorbert decides to reach out to Kolbert, the village’s private detective.

Kolbert, the detective – throughout his lifetime, has learned that by immersing himself in a particular context and understanding the people’s struggles and motivations can, not only help define problems in a particular space, but also, help detect opportunities and potential areas of improvement. It is by doing this immersion and synthesizing his findings, that Kolbert discovers a particular insight that he had not been aware of: A large part of the Middletown population have to walk across the woods every night when coming back from the factory outside of their village. This made villagers feel anxious and paranoid.


Paul Dourish claims that it’s challenging to translate observations from participatory research into technical requirements, but elemental to adapt to an ever changing environment. Participatory research is helpful to get a sense of what should be taken into consideration when designing for a person’s context.

In “the Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation”, Kolko claims that it is by immersing oneself into an end user’s context, and focusing on gathering data related to the user’s behavior and emotion, that makes design research so valuable for innovation.

Inspired by Kolbert’s findings, the village’s government representative, Gabert, decided to reach out to several villagers. He asked 10 of them to draw and describe the favorite and least favorite part of their routine for one week. The results were interesting, and consistent with detective Kolbert’s findings, most of the villagers’ least favorite part of the day had to do with their commute back from the factory . With these artifacts the villagers handed to him, Gabert was able to familiarize himself better with the people from Middletown and get a bigger understanding of needs that were not being met involving their commute to their village from work.


Designers engage end users to participate in activities that help them visually document their environments, interactions and relationships. With these probes in hand, designers gain empathy for their users and, according to Gaver, are able to “predict with confidence which systems (their users) might prefer”.


During his immersion, Kolbert was able to empathize with the villagers as they walked back from work every day for a week. Listening to ominous sounds and screams, and darkness so absolute, no torch could light up more than a couple of inches out. On the same note, with his artifacts, Gabert was able to get a sense of what the villagers inherently hoped and wished for: a feeling of safety when walking back home from the factory.

With all of these findings at hand, Lizbert, the village’s architect, brought 10 other villagers together for a creative session. By having everyone ask themselves “How can we improve the commute experience for Middletown villagers when walking back home from work?” Lizbert tasked the villagers to describe how their ideal commute to the factory looked like. “Safe”, “light”, “comfort”, were just a few of the words that villagers came up with when describing their ideal road.




According to Liz Sanders, people are creative beings and seek an outlet to express their creativity in diverse ways.Continuously involving end users in the design process gives room to uncover problems that users didn’t perceive as a need or opportunity before. This makes the collective design process more engaging and precious.

Dorbert, who was part of these creative sessions, suggested how these findings could be addressed by Norbert’s newly discovered source of light. By applying an array of purple meteorites to the roots of the trees surrounding the walk to the factory and back, the trees will light up the path, providing a sense of security for factory workers, and the beautiful music coming from the trunks will numb down the ominous sounds coming from the rest of the forest.



Creative collaborative techniques and a deep analysis of a community’s way of life, which are methodologies used in design research, helped Middletown villagers improve an aspect of their daily lives that they were so used to, they forgot it was a daily nuisance. This is how Middletown used design to follow the light while being in the dark.



The Land of the Underlings

After reading 5 assigned articles in IDSE 102, our theory class, I spent some time pulling out ideas from the authors and pairing them with my own thoughts and questions surrounding their theories. From there I attempted to make connections between various statements and sentiments as I worked towards synthesizing all of this information. The result was the story you’ll find below, which is a highly interpreted children’s book style tale that reflects on value, innovation, models of thinking about the world and models of researching for design.

You’ll find my notes in red that point out some specific thoughts sparked by the authors, but I encourage you to create you own meaning from the story based upon your own understanding of design.

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Here are the articles referenced in the story:

The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation, Jon Kolko http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2A.kolko.pdf

Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf, Donald Norman http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2A.norman.pdf

Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty, William Gaver http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2B.gaver.pdf

A Social Vision for Value Co-creation in Design, Liz Sanders & George Simons http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2B.sanders.pdf

What we talk about when we talk about context, Paul Dourish http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2B.dourish.pdf

*Please note you’ll need the AC4D log in to access the articles

-Kaley Coffield


The designer I want to be

As a student in his first quarter at the Austin Center for Design, I am beginning to develop my own philosophy for how I want to be a designer when I enter into the professional world. In the course titled Design, Society and the Public Sector, I read foundational texts written by design practitioners and academics that are reflections of what it means to them to have impact as an interaction designer. In the most recent cycle of readings, we focused on the meaning and development of value as well as the underlying principles for creating value for consumers and citizens of the world. In order synthesize the articles, I created a short comic that I will present below. First, I will provide some context for the story I wrote.

As a basis for understanding my perspective, I start with two of the readings (written by Jon Kolko and Don Norman) that introduce differing perspectives of innovation and that pushed me to ask the question: “Where does/should the concept of innovation live?”

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As expressed in the diagrams above, the authors focused on two kinds of innovation. Innovation from the perspective of new technologies can lead to conceptual breakthroughs and eventually change how humans interact. Examples of this are the automobile, the computer and the cellphone. On the other hand, innovation can be seen from the perspective of the consumer. This kind of innovation is subjective and defined by individuals – in the ways they see their own lives and how they use or do not use services and products.

As a future designer, I am interested in focusing on innovating from the perspective of users. Thus steeping myself in the human centered design process makes sense.

Comparing the positions of each of the authors we read (Norman, Kolko, Sanders, Gaver and Dourish), I am beginning to build a framework for thinking about how to develop innovative solutions to wicked problems (as they are experienced on the human level). At its core, the human centered design process is, “…an approach that values uncertainty, play, exploration, and subjective interpretation as ways of dealing with [the limits of knowledge].” (Gaver, pg. 1) This pushes against the dominant belief in the value of quantification, predictive models and a positivist methodology for understanding how to design innovative solutions. However, humans do not experience the world in predictable and rational ways. Instead they are constantly creating the world they live in. The context that people operate in is embodied. Context is, “…something that people do. It is an achievement rather than an observation; an outcome, rather than a premise.”  (Dourish, pg. 22)

Since I want to be a researcher and designer who wants to innovate from the perspective of users, I have to be able to get at the lived experience of humans. I need to figure out methods for capturing that data and making sense of it. It is not as simple as coming up with all the variables that need to be quantified, making objective (context-free) observations, and asking people to respond to surveys. It requires getting at how people really behave, think, and feel. In order to do this, I need a mindset in which I believe I can co-create with my users so that I can access my users’ experiences. Co-creation is an “…act of collective creativity that is experienced jointly by two or more people…where the intent is to create something tis not known in advance.” I believe this loops back to the quote I presented from Gaver. An act is only creative if it is playful, uncertain, and leads to subjective interpretations. As a human centered designer, I need to embody this mindset in order to capture rich data on how my users think, behave and feel. I can do this through creative activities or presenting them with cultural probes wherein I capture reactions to unexpected and irrational stimuli. Of course, just as any positivist scientist would tell you, you need to process lots of data. In the qualitative research world, we do this through synthesis. As Kolko states, “…Synthesis is a sense making process that helps the designer move from data to information, and from information to knowledge.” (Kolko, pg. 40)

Now that I’ve laid out some of the thinking I have been doing on what kind of designer I want to be, I will speak about the story I will present below. As I reflected on the articles, the idea of play stood out.  When humans play, they are doing, creating, and revealing truths about themselves they would not in a rational state of mind. Thus, I centered my story on three individuals, Marvin, Kolko and Sanders. Marvin is lonely and wants to play. Kolko shows up and stimulated by an artifact (a stick), their unconscious desire to fight is acted upon. Sanders shows up and stops them. She works with the boys to co-create another solution to helping them all feel included. They synthesize this information and come up with an insight: they all want to play in a treehouse. I believe within these simple interactions I summarized the above points: the kids innovate changing their lived experience, co-create, play, imagine, and act as a designer should.

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The Magician.


When a young magician completes his studies, his is endowed with a sense of duty to create good. So he sets off into the world of people, and as it happens there are people with problems everywhere you go

He happens upon a group of people looking for food. Luckily, a magician is great a figuring out what the problem is immediately. Emily Pilloton warns, “you cannot design solutions for people who need them unless you fundamentally understand the problems,” but confident in his untested solution, he creates for them field and introduces the group to agriculture. 

What’s happened here can be summarized by Victor Margolin

  • We have a desire to help
  • Our experiences are framed in a value structure unique to our country
  • We try to drive change in a geographic area
  • We inadvertently or explicitly export our value structure

When the magician returns, he realizes that for some reason his solution didn’t stick. Maybe the people just didn’t “get it”. Luckily, he has a solution. As Bernays claims, all it takes is one small, powerful group to sway the larger public in its attitude towards ideas. And after all, this for their own good.

So he creates two influential leaders to guide them. Bernays says that anyone may try to convince others and to assume leadership on behalf of his own thesis. It is the power of the group to sway the larger public in its attitude towards ideas.  This is exactly what the two helpers do.

The first Helper teaches the people Margolin’s expansion model. He shows them that markets drive the world and the path towards happiness is the consumption of goods.

The second Helper believes in Margolin’s equilibrium model and teaches them that the world is a set of ecological checks and balances.

Allowing themselves to be influenced by these two flashy leaders, the people have what John Dewey would call, “miseducative experiences”. They learn a way to live, they learn a way to think about themselves, they learn what they should value, but they don’t learn to think for themselves. 

When the designer comes back, he sees collision and chaos.

Some of the people, influenced by the expansion model hustle get more and more things. They begin to identify with the these objects. A women is no longer a woman, but known as an estate owner after amassing an enormous field.

She’s fallen into an experience that Vitta would summarize by saying: “The individual is overwhelmingly surrounded by goods, constrained to use them only as a way to portray themselves to others”.

Other people, living under the equilibrium model are subject to their goods being taken. They starve and don’t know how to help themselves

The young designer is distressed to see his design cause such chaos and sadness.  His original solution created unintended consequences, just as Hobbes states: “When you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected”. 

He falls into the pit of despair, and the people don’t know what to do. They have had a series of miseducative experiences through the teachings of the “Helpers”.

That is until…

His next idea!

Realizing that he never understood what these people needed in the first place, he decides to flip the script. The magician gives all the people their own wands. Then instead of leaving, as he was so apt to do in the past, he decides to stay. Taking Emily Pilloton’s advice he grows roots and strives to depth over breadth, and scattershot methods of “saving the world”.
The young designer, no longer the master and manipulator of the people, spends his days alongside them learning. They teach him how they live, and he develops deep relationships.

Design In Society Through Out A Story Of Alice In The University Of Wonderland

In the past 2 weeks we studied 6 articles about Manipulation and Globalism wrote by Edward Bernays, Maurizio Vitta, John Dewey, Victor Margolin, Emily Pilloton, and Michael Hobbes.

In my story, I tried to express a point of view of each of the authors on the role of design in society the way it was presented in the articles. The story is about a young girl Alice who is a student the University of Wonderland, trying to find herself. The story contains 6 chapters, in each of them you can find the main points of each author position, adapted to the main storyline.


Chapter 1: Inspired by “The meaning of design” by Maurizio Vitta

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The first chapter of Alice’s story highlights Maurizio Vitta’s point of view on what’s going on with design in the modern world. Designers are used to adding frivolous and unnecessary features on top of the primary, problem-solving functionality of the product. With so much variability, people have gotten used to consuming those products to show who they are (their socio-economic status, culture, and general lifestyle), and not always because of the product’s primary function itself. Maurizio Vitta is encouraging designers to create products with a bigger purpose.

That is exactly what’s happening with Alice – she is attracted to certain things because they change her perception in the eyes of the society. Good for her, her new course of study will change the way she looks at it.


Chapter 2: Inspired by “The need of a Theory of Experience”  by John Dewey

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In this chapter, you will find the ideas of John Dewey about relationships between education and experience. Dewey says that a teacher needs to pay attention to where students are in the process, meet them where they are. The problem of old, traditional education is not that it doesn’t give experience, but that this experience doesn’t lead to the next experience. He believes that designers should design for personal growth.

Alice is very lucky to meet a professor who shares Dewey’s opinion. He will help Alice to find herself in doing great things for the world.


Chapter 3: Inspired by “Global Expansion or Global Equilibrium? Design and the World Situation” by Victor Margolin

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Victor Margolin compares equilibrium model (limitation of world’s resources) with the expansion model (innovations is everything) and talking about the inevitability of a fight between the two. The job of a designer, he says, is to make them work together.

He also mentions that design can be and should be applied to things beyond products.

Alice understands that the resources of the world are limited, and it changes her world view.


Chapter 4: Inspired by “Manipulating public opinion” by Edward Bernays

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Per Edward Bernays, public opinion, on one hand, is slow and reactionary, and does not easily accept new ideas. On another hand, anyone can manipulate with some preparation. Designers can help to identify current opinion and find the ways to change it. Alice has used a major event as the means to manipulating public opinion, while also helping the victims of that event.


Chapter 5: Inspired by “Stop trying to save the World” by Michael Hobbes

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In his article Michael Hobbes tells us about problems of current researches and innovations when designing for social impact. One of them is the tendency to extrapolate working ideas to the whole world without additional research – and gives examples of many failures of great ideas that happened because of that. When you improve something, you change it in the way you couldn’t expect. Elaborate design is the way for social changes, small and big. And it’s worth to make positive changes, even if they are not as big as you wish.

Alice makes the very same mistake Michael Hobbes describes – she tried to make students of all colleges of her Planet avoid purchasing gowns and donate money to the Neighbor Planet instead. Unfortunately, she didn’t perform enough research on the traditions and people of the other schools, and so it didn’t go well.


Chapter 6: Inspired by “Depth over Breadth: Designing For Impact Locally, and for the long haul” by Emily Pilloton

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In her article Emily Pilloton brings up some progressive ideas based on her rich working experience in the field of designing for social impact. She highlights the value of 3 lasting impact requirements: proximity (simply be there, be local), empathic investment (show your personal and emotional stake), and pervasiveness (create an ecosystem instead of a tree).

And this is exactly what Alice did in this story – she moved to the Planet that she wanted to design for, became a local, and helped them through well-designed and impactful social projects.

Potential of Design in Society: Pixie the Traveler

In Jon Kolko’s Design, Society and the Public Sector class, we aim to study the theory behind the social and ethical responsibility of design. We do this by reading the works of several philosophers, design theorists and design practitioners, like John Dewey, Edward Bernays, Maurizio Vitta, Victor Margolin, Emily Pilloton and Michael Hobbes, and interpret their point of view as it relates to the role of design in society.

Our first assignment was to illustrate these six author’s main positions in the form of a story.

I chose to do this through the story of Pixie the traveler:


In a fiction planet, Pixie is a young traveler that wants to know everything about her world. She is a teacher, so whenever she has time, she will go and visit new places. She’s visited hundreds of places, and met wonderful people, languages, cultures and food.

Until one day,

Pixie went down a beautiful mountain and arrived to the land of the Sepan. Sepanese didn’t greet her like Pixie would normally get greeted in other parts she had been. Some of them hid, others looked curious, others panicked, they clearly did not know what to do with this creature that suddenly appeared from the top of the mountain, a mountain that they’ve never tried to cross before.

With a few clues, Pixie was able to figure out what was going on; the Sepanese were made to believe by their long gone leader that they were the only people left on earth. Seeing someone new that wasn’t part of their hundred year old community was not an easy thing to process for them.

Pixie unveiled the truth to them, she showed them pictures of what she had seen past the Sepanese mountains, she tried to play music they’ve never heard of and tried to cook things for them that they’ve never tasted before.

Education is an elemental tool for those who seek the wellbeing of society as a whole. In “The Need of a Theory of Experience John Dewey states that it is only when an individual learns about the world by experiencing it that he can then look forward to become the best version of himself and therefore, better contribute to society. In “The Why & the How” Bernays mentions that society tends to get attached to retrogressive habits, which is why we’re most likely to need a dramatic intervention of a new idea in our lives to get our minds wondering about things we’ve never experienced or thought of before. Both authors illustrate two dissimilar but connected perspectives, if we theorize that there are two types of individuals in the world, those that opt to know the world by genuinely experiencing it, and those that are ok with grasping a summarized version of the world that was previously prescribed to them. According to Dewey, teachers that are given freedom in the classroom to keep their students engaged and that have an understanding of human behavior can better prepare a student to give back to their society and, to Bernay’s point, give them tools that allow them to self-express and therefore, safeguard themselves against any sort of tyranny.

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For her following crusade, Pixie is joined by a Sepanese friend who is curious about the world. They travel the world together after a long journey, Pixie and her new Sepanese friend, Nan, stumbled upon a landfill of artifacts and a river of what looked like unused gadgets. Without knowing it, they had arrived to the land of the Coseeks.

The Coseeks were well known for always being up to date with the latest technology, but this made them lose sense of what was real and valuable. Huge billboard size screens showing beautiful but artificial landscapes would cover the garbage landfills giving the impression that they were in a harmonious environment.

Also curious about their new guest’s culture around objects – which they clearly lack – Cron, a Coseeker, decides to join them in their final part of their journey.

Society has given more value to physical objects, setting aside the initial intention of function and adding unnecessary features and elements that “allow” the individual to project their sense of self. But this is not without consequence. In “The Meaning of Design” and “Design and the World Situation” there’s a connection between Vitta and Margolin’s point of view as it relates to society’s current state of mass consumption. Designer’s practice appears to have become “inadequate and ineffective” and calls for a culture change in the design practice in order to start investing in a “social change” in order to “make possible a different and more balanced relationship with things”. Ideally, the once product designer then becomes a system designer, evolving his current practice from designing vehicles of communication to designing systems based on complex problems. Designing in the intersection between a system of abstention and a system of capitalism, seeking to integrate human beings into a broader more ecological and cultural environments.  IDSE102-Assignment1 9 - 10

While experiencing the things and situations that life has to offer, Pixie was able to positively impact the life of her two new friends. Being almost opposites, Nan and Cron traveled and saw the world through Pixie’s eyes. Their minds grew bigger and their ideas as well. After their travel abroad, all their learning experiences, Pixie, Nan and Cron felt inspired and decided to go back to their own communities and share their experiences, cultivate their kin and their community. There are certainly things that could be improved there, if only they could see what they’ve seen.

A thorough analysis on the users that are meant to use a product before even start to design it is not enough, pervasiveness is what keeps the implementation of your design alive. This is where both Pilloton and Hobbes’ point of view intersect as they refer to design as a practice that should be scalable – concentrating in one place, “cultivating ecosystems rather than plant single trees” and “test models constantly”. This goes back to Margolin’s call out to designers suggesting that they need not only to design products but consider the entire system when they do so. Design’s potential to address complex problems has become a great vehicle to connect entire societies, share their knowledge, and become a stronger ecosystem together. 

Ethically positioning design and society: manipulation and globalism

Over the past two weeks in the Interaction Design, Society, and the Public Sector course we focused on design ethics and responsibility. Jon Kolko facilitated a discussion about manipulation (based on articles by Maurizio Vitta, John Dewey, and Edward Bernays) and globalization (based on articles by Michael Hobbes, Victor Margolin, and Emily Pilloton).

Background. Our assignment was to identify the author’s point of view to ethically position design in society. From there, we were instructed to sketch a storyline as a comic strip that explains the positions in a story.

I chose to work with the construct of a fairy tale for storytelling. The medium seemed relevant since some elements of a fairy tale are vehicles to express design ethics and responsibility. There’s royalty (a designer who lives in a tower removed from those that he designs for); a village with people trying to get by (representing the developing world in most need of social impact design); a dragon (symbolizing design initiatives that are unconnected and with a scale too big to succeed); and universal truths (hopes to make a mark in the world).

The fairy tale designer first struggles with lack of empathy and understanding due to living in a tower and separating himself from the villagers. Once he overcomes that obstacle, he does not have an easy path to becoming an ethical and responsible designer.

Mindful Manipulation. Manipulation requires skill and often is to the benefit of the manipulator. A definition of manipulating is to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner. An example might be to manipulate people’s feelings.

Edward Bernays reasoned that public opinion could be manipulated to become champions of ideas, causes, and products. Bernays argues a moral obligation to shape public opinion thereby advancing new beliefs, ideas, etc. Many might describe PR in softer language, such educational and an attempt to raise awareness about an important topic. An example that comes to mind is LGBTQ perception and role in society. My reality as a gay man is light years away from what I thought it would be when I was growing up. Much of this can be attributed to a comprehensive campaign to shape public opinion.

Even with this understanding of the power of PR, manipulation is inherent in PR. The same can be said about design. Designers should operate a mindful manipulation framework.

Maurizio Vitta radically steps away from the traditional thought of design as form and function. He focuses on a consumer-oriented society by which people express their identity through consumption. Products become semiotics, and their sole purpose is to signal identity to others. My Fitbit becomes a signal to others that I value exercise and wellness. Vitta reasons that the role of designers becomes equally trivial and superficial.

Manipulation comes to mind with John Dewey’s writing of the importance of continuity of experience over time to reify identity. Experiences and continuity can be limiting and arrest a person’s identity/character.

Globalism. Turning to globalism, Emily Pilloton makes a passionate argument for designers to work locally, to be embedded in the community, and to “hold a personal stake in the community.” Uninterested in building a robust portfolio of unrelated small projects (which she calls planting trees), she advocates for a mission driven approach in which designers “…cultivate ecosystems rather than plant single trees.” She goes on to describe, “…multiple initiatives within one community become an ecosystem of projects (multiple trees, shrub, and moss) that feed off each other and support each other symbiotically.” Pilloton takes empathy a step further by stating the case for empathic investment where a designer “must genuinely identify with the community and consider ourselves part of it….”

Michael Hobbes makes the case that big ideas (with lots of money behind them) often go bust because we presume that what works in one place will work in another. His example is the PlayPump, which worked to bring clean water “every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel…” in rural sub-Saharan Africa. One success over a short period resulted in worldwide media attention and millions of dollars to install PlayPumps across Africa. Without testing the service more and understanding the local needs, the pumps were “…abandoned, broken, unmaintained.”

Hobbes lambasts the “paradigm of the Big Idea—that once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic basket.” He goes on to state that “the point is, we don’t know what works, where, or why. The only way to find out is to test these models—not just before their initial success but afterward, and constantly.” The pressure NGOs and others involved in development are under pressure to deliver big, not to build on a small success incrementally, similar to companies that chase quarterly profits for the sake of so much more.

Victor Margolin presents two world models: equilibrium (where the world consists of ecological checks and balances with finite resources) and expansion (where the world is reduced to markets instead of nations and cultures). Margolin writes that designers have the skills to work at the convergence of the two models.

Reflection. After being accepted into the AC4D program, I started to read about the courses in more depth. The first assignment I read was the one that I am about to finish. At the time, perhaps only 4-6 weeks ago, it provoked anxiety: from not being comfortable with sketching to being unfamiliar with Illustrator to learning and discussing theory and so on. And here I am now—the first assignment complete. Sketching felt better than I thought it might and basic Illustrator lessons (and peers) were helpful. It’s a good feeling. With that said, I now have anxiety about my ability to synthesize theory. A new challenge!

As I reflect on the readings, several questions come to mind as I take steps to becoming a designer and learning more about the designer role, responsibilities, and opportunities.

  • Are designers the new hero? If so, what are the pitfalls and how to avoid?
  • How do I manage manipulation that is inherent in design?
  • What degree of empathy is required to be a successful designer for humanitarian causes?
  • What does it mean to identify with a community and maintain objectivity?
  • What are the limitations of proximity and empathic investment constructs?
A fairy tale comic strip about ethically positioning design in society.
A fairy tale comic strip about ethically positioning design in society.

Design in society

In my first assignment for Design, Society and the Public Sector, I summarized six design theorists through a story about aliens that visit earth to bring back knowledge to their dying planet.

As they speak with a wise person, the aliens make idealistic statements based on rumors they’ve heard about the good life of earthlings. The wise person responds to each statement with concepts that expose a reality of living on our planet. Each one is also accompanied by a quote from one of the theorists. I believe that when the reader makes sense of the three components of each panel (statement, concept, and quote), they will get the gist of each author.

Ultimately, creating this comic provided me with the opportunity to synthesize the six authors and begin to develop my own stance on what it means to be an ethical design.

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Teaching Theory at AC4D

“Great timing,” I think to myself yet again. As I was preparing the deck I would use that evening to facilitate a discussion on the opportunities of (social) entrepreneurship, I discovered that a vote by the Texas House of Representatives the previous day had “set the table” for Uber’s return to Austin. (Uber stopped providing rides in Austin a year ago in protest of required driver background checks.) Already in the deck were quotes I had taken from “The sharing economy is a lie: Uber, Ayn Rand and the truth about tech and libertarians,” one of the readings I had assigned for that evening. Also already there were tweets and (other) references to other articles about Uber, some positive, most negative. Into the deck went the headline about the legislature’s vote and a few words from the online article.

Serendipitously encountering tweets, articles, and other information pertinent to a class shortly before the class was typical for me, since I follow people on social media who care about the things I care about and teach about. And I often took advantage of that. I had previously added to the above-referenced deck — which I’ve made available in its entirety here — images from two recent articles I encountered via Twitter about Walmart, including one entitled “Business Exists To Serve Society,” words somewhat surprisingly uttered by Walmart’s Chief Sustainability Officer during a recent interview; we watched that interview during class, since it was of great relevance to arguments made by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in another of the readings I had assigned for that evening, “Creating Shared Value.” That same day, I noticed on Facebook that a former colleague of mine, David Rose, was in town; I had shown a video about David and read a bit from his book, “Enchanted Objects” the previous week in class during another section of the course, and since David was a serial entrepreneur, a guest appearance would be a nice fit for this section of the course as well, so I made it happen.

All of this (and much more) was for an advanced theory course on interaction design and social entrepreneurship that I taught during March and April of this year at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D). Assigned readings included articles — often long and sometimes complex — by renown authors on theory about or of relevance to design and entrepreneurship as well as articles — often more recent and shorter — facilitating the understanding of theory and its relevance to design and entrepreneurial practice today. (All of the assigned readings are listed in a deck you can access here; they might also — depending on when you are reading this — still be listed on the course’s webpage.) The course is one of three that all students take during the final quarter of the AC4D educational program.

Teaching this course was a wonderful experience due in large part to the wonderful students. Each class featured great and often impassioned discussion, and student presentations, each synthesizing designated readings in a personally meaningful way, were always special. One of Sally Hall’s very creative presentations consisted largely of a board game she designed that “follows the development of a non-profit organization working to increase access to education among low-income individuals in Managua, Nicaragua”; the game (being played in the photo below) was designed to help players understand and “explore the complexities of social impact.” One of Kelsey Willard’s presentations was a scary story about the impact of the coming singularity told, appropriately, over a campfire (see photo below). Our examination of power relationships prompted Elijah Parker to share information about his life he had never before felt comfortable sharing. The same examination prompted Conner Drew to explicitly formulate a set of personal design ethics and to call on others to do the same. And repeatedly, Garrett Bonfanti effectively highlighted just how important the role of the designer has become.


I’ve taught lots — inside of companies, via educational institutions, and at professional conferences — with much of my teaching focused on practical skills. General Assembly — where I taught the 10-week, full-time User Experience Design Immersive course several times — is among the up-start organizations claiming that intensive programs focused on teaching practical skills in the context of multiple, real-world projects prepare students for the workplace much better than much longer, more traditional, and much more expensive academic programs. While that is often true, AC4D Founder Jon Kolko has articulated the importance of teaching theory:

Our curriculum at Austin Center for Design is rich with design theory. Students take theory classes that focus on the social and political relationships between design and the culture of society. Students learn theory and discourse related to designing for the public sector, specifically as it relates to ill-defined problem solving and the ethical obligations of designers. They read complex articles from computer scientists, psychologists, and sociologists, and they build arguments that synthesize these articles into new ideas.

Yet the program at Austin Center for Design is a practitioner program, and these students go on to be practicing designers, not academics. They work for big brands, for consultancies, and in startups — and increasingly, they start their own entrepreneurial endeavors. They aren’t pursuing a Ph.D. path, so why teach theory? Why waste precious class time on academic discourse, rather than practical skills?

I’ve thought a lot about what makes a great designer. One of the qualities is craft and immediacy with material. That’s sort of obvious — someone who makes things needs to be good at making things. I’m convinced that theory is also a key ingredient to greatness, a key part of claiming to be a competent, professional designer, but it’s less obvious than methods or skills and is often ignored during design education. There are at least three reasons I think students need theory as part of their foundational design education:

  • Theory give students the basis for a “process opinion.” …
  • Theory give students the ability to think beyond a single design problem, in order to develop higher-order organizing principles. …
  • Theory give students a sense of purpose, a reason for doing their work. …

We’re seeing an influx of design programs aimed at practitioners, programs that intend to increase the number of designers available to work in the increasingly complex technological landscape. I’m skeptical of programs that don’t include theory in their curriculum. It has been argued that vocational programs should focus on core skills and ignore the larger academic, theoretical subject matter. I would argue the opposite. It is the vocational programs that require this thoughtful context the most, as graduates from these programs will have a direct impact on the products and services that shape our world.

I agree with Jon (and with the students who voiced additional benefits from studying theory), and whenever I taught for General Assembly, I made sure to include some theory. However, I was delighted to have the opportunity to dive more deeply via teaching at AC4D.

My thanks to: Jon and to Kevin McDonald who, before the course, shared invaluable information with me about when they had taught the course in the past; Lauren Serota, Adam Chasen, Mini Kahlon, Ed Park, and David Rose for their guest in-person appearances; Daniela Papi-Thornton, Paul Polak, Harry Brignull, Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Jake Solomon, Ricky Gervais, Brian Goldman, Jeff Benabio, Don Norman, Sean Follmer, David Rose, Jared Ficklin, Stephen Colbert, Sally Hall, Pelle Ehn, Kathleen McLaughlin, John Battelle, Jess McMullin, The Police, and a few others whose names I don’t know who appeared on video; and the many authors of tweets and of articles other than those I assigned that I referenced during the course.

The course ended just last week, but I greatly miss teaching it already. I am very happy to have become a part of the AC4D community.

Breaking Out of Our Own Limitations

As children we are told many cliches such as, “the possibilities in life are endless. You can do anything you want to do.” These statements may have become overused, but there’s a truth to it, with the right tools. As we get older, we generally tend to forget this sentiment. I believe this frame of mind comes from becoming more familiar with the way things are, which limits us to seeing the way things could be. Being able to see past what is known is how true innovation happens.


This is where applying techniques of defamiliarization becomes beneficial. In order to be able to see how things could be, we need to defamiliarize ourselves with our own current perception and understanding of the world. Genevieve Bell, et al., argue that, “defamiliarization is a useful tool for creating space for critical reflection and and thereby for opening up new possibilities for the design of domestic technologies.” Defamiliarization can manifest in a variety of techniques such as journaling, conducting ethnographic research, or learning about an opposing viewpoint. I think as long as the method produces reflection or allows someone to ask why beyond face value, then progress will be made.

Let’s take a look at healthcare for a minute. If we take the term for face value it implies a positive relationship. Who doesn’t want to be cared for, especially in regards to their health? Then we look at the typical interaction between a healthcare professional (HCP) and “patients” we realize that the relationship feels pretty surface level. Dubberly, et al., explains that HCP’s, “proposals are not just suggestions, they are prescriptions or literally ‘physician orders.’ Patients who don’t take their medicine are not ‘in compliance.’” This description of a healthcare professional doesn’t give me much confidence in regards to being cared for, especially in a medical scenario where the patient has a life-threatening condition. I think it speaks to how medical education can turn caring for a human being into a job void of emotion with a focus of efficiency and accuracy. The impact becomes lost in this frame. Don’t worry, there is hope.

Clay Johnson, the Dean of Dell Medical School in Austin, TX is employing a mentality to address this exact issue. He says that, “they’re determined to build the new medical school… on the ‘value-based’ health care model, treating patients and rewarding doctors on the basis of actual ‘outcomes’ – how healthy they keep their patients, and ultimately, how healthy they keep whole populations in Central Texas.” This mentality came from challenging the norm and looking beyond the current frame to see what is possible. The outcome is a new program driving innovation within the healthcare industry by challenging current measurements of success and encouraging to look at the whole patient, not just a current symptom they have for a particular condition.

I would argue this approach to medicine is radical innovation within the industry. Donald Norman and Roberto Verganti explain how incremental innovation and radical innovation differ through the hill-climbing paradigm.


Change Map


Don Norman argues that Human Centered Design (HCD) can facilitate in incremental design and improve the current frame, but radical design occurs outside the world of HCD. Radical innovation occurs once a new hill is seen by changing the frame or by introducing new technology to reach another hill. Then HCD can improve upon that new perspective. Clay Johnson saw another hill, and is now climbing towards the top.

When this shift happens it doesn’t mean that it will take effect right away. Norman explains how the acceptance of radical innovations take time. He gives an example of Thomas Edison and the light bulb.


Thomas Edison


Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, but improved on the existing technology and infrastructure to allow widespread adoption. This is where I think the line between radical innovation vs radical effect could be clarified. Edison’s development aided in incremental innovation which allowed a radical effect to occur. I feel our society leans towards the encouragement of radical innovation when both radical and incremental innovation models are important. Taking into account that true radical innovations occur once every decade or so, we should celebrate looking at incremental innovation, but through the lens of the how we can allow incremental innovation to have a radical effect.

Opportunities for improvement and impact exist all around us, but we limit ourselves without branching out of our own bubble. As designers, we have the skills and knowledge to be able to zoom in and out of our own limiting mindset in order to recognize these opportunities. Let’s not limit ourselves by only focusing on climbing the hill, but also keeping an open mind as to other hills we could climb instead.