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Category Archives: Theory

The Design Particle

This gallery contains 2 photos.

Image Credit: Ardan Özmenoglu

Untitled. Ardan Özmenoglu.

It’s Thursday, you know what that means, another position diagram. Well, not quite. At least not in the 2×2 format we have all come to know and love. The most compelling quality of the recent batch of reading for the design thinking section of our theory course was not how they compared to each other, but rather how they combined.

The readings from Rittel, De Bono, Cross and Buchanan, in particular, present overlapping descriptions of design. I imagine if I could line them up and look through them, like the layers of glass in this untitled work by Turkish artist Ardan Özmenoglu, I would see a complete definition of design. I have attempted to achieve a similar result by distilling and diagraming key aspects of each author’s argument and assembling them into a whole. Resulting in the following definition:

The irreducible essence of design is the interplay of problem definition and solution generation, which happens in the process of making and reframing, in order to discover the desired future state of a specific situation.

Diagrams attached:



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Design Thinking: A Profession or a Way of Being?

Our latest set of readings for Design, Society and the Public Sector paint a very clear picture about design’s role in society, from the importance of it becoming a liberal art to clearly defining it under the framework of what exactly it means to design.

More specifically, how designers and society should think about the problem at hand, wicked or not.

Designers use different tools to find solutions. Each tool is powerful independently, but when implemented collectively, magic happens. These methods of externalizing to provoke new connections, reframing to provoke new ways of thinking, constant experimentation and a willingness to accept failure are integral aspects of the creative and solution finding process. These characteristics of design thinking are not linear nor are they static. The world and the problems at hand are constantly in flux. Rittel (Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning) points out that the world is constantly changing. Problems are not linear, thus our approach to a solution should not be linear.

While Nigel Cross (Discovering Design) recognizes that design is a cognitive skill possessed by everyone, he finds the need to define it so it can take part in siloing itself off and becoming independently its own discipline. I argue that the nature of design thinking is that it is interdisciplinary and will be inherently strengthened if it is embraced as such.

Contrary to Cross, Wyatt (Design Thinking for Social Innovation) emphasizes the importance of design thinking as a point of evolution in the design profession by removing design from the silos through a more systemic approach of creating solutions. Such an approach can yield high impact solutions. One key piece that connects Wyatt’s paper to the other authors is when she states that “design thinking taps into capacities that we all have […] the process itself is deeply human.”

Which brings us to the idea of design literacy. When we talk about social impact through design thinking, there are many scales of problems. One scale is at the fundamental level of early education. The majority of these authors argue that creativity and design ability is something that is either deeply rooted within all of us, or that it can and should be taught.

If we talk about the effectiveness of empowering the people involved in a problem space (Wyatt) and the importance of clearly defining the problem (Rittel) as pertinent means to solution finding, then it only makes sense to teach design thinking at an early age.

So what would it mean if design thinking was the new liberal art? Buchanan (Wicked Problems in Design Thinking) and Pacione (Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy) really bring home that all people should be educated in the liberal art of design. The idea that you can explore, make connections, unpack and examine a problem is empowering and should be taught. This is not just for people who choose to study design as a profession. When we talk about design thinking having impact, a place one could start is in the education system at an early age. Design is interdisciplinary at it’s core. Thus design thinking can be applied to any situation and the boundaries of the silos must be torn down and should be seen as an interdisciplinary scaffold.

I understand that this means there would need to be a cultural shift. A cultural shift that is already in motion (we can see the beginnings of such a shift in the Maker Movement). I will argue that such a shift is necessary for a better future state. Design thinking empowers people to question the current state of things moving them from consumers to creators. Which leads me to the question: Is design thinking a profession or a way of being? After much consideration of the readings from this section and considering where I see the greatest benefit in the future, I will say that design thinking is a way of being first and a profession second.

If I think about why I am here. Here at this school, what brought me here–It’s much deeper than “I want to be an interaction designer.” At the root of it all, is I want to be a better member of my community and this planet. Thinking systemically, being willing to iterate, fail and experiment are all tools that empower one to do so.

You can view my diagram here.

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Is design the new literacy?

In our Design, Society, and the Public Sector class, we have just read texts by six authors around the themes of “Being a Designer” and “Process.” Each author ascribes to the belief that the world has become increasingly complicated, and that complex problems define our time. Their differences lie in their views of design in relation to this complexity. Some take the stance that design is a specialty and some argue that design should be taught as part of basic human knowledge, as the liberal arts are now.

Both Chris Pacione (CEO of the LUMA Institute) and Richard Buchanan (Department Chair, Design & Innovation, Case Western Reserve University) cite the Renaissance as the origin of the liberal arts we know today. The idea that people needed some level of math, literacy, history, natural sciences eventually became the accepted norm in Western education. Buchanan goes on to say that over time, established subjects were explored to their minutiae, and that new subjects were added, leading to a degree of specialization and fragmentation that hinders connection with each other and with everyday problems.

Design, Pacione and Buchanan argue, is the “new literacy” and a “new liberal arts of technological culture” (respectively). I’m drawn to this view of design, and think it should be encouraged in schools and in the general public. Whether or not great design comes out of a more generalized knowledge, at the very least it pulls people along the spectrum away from purely “consumer” roles and into the realm of participation and making. Liz Sanders, founder of MakeTools, pointed out in previous readings that people now have been “inundated with many ways to satisfy their consumptive needs while their creative needs have been usually ignored.” In contemporary culture we can see this need emerging in pockets of “makers” and “hackers,” and acknowledgement of this movement even in consumer-leaning spaces like advertising.

My position diagram of all six readings is posted here. Based on these readings, I have plotted each author along the axes of “design is a liberal art” vs “design is a specialty” and the views that “non-designers are participants” vs “non-designers are consumers.” The position dots are color-coded by my level of positive interest in each opinion. Warm colors signify a higher degree of interest, cool colors less. (Click to view larger)


Although professional design is certainly a specialty and the students at AC4D are all working toward attaining that level of design ability, I agree that design should be generally taught also, for two reasons. One, so that the general population understands the value of design and can use it to address complex issues in their lives and in the world. And two, because I think making things is often joyful and empowering, an experience that “consumers” need to repossess.

Reading List:

Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, by Richard Buchanan

Discovering Design Ability, by Nigel Cross

Serious Creativity, by Edward de Bono

Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy, by Chris Pacione

Dilemmas in aGeneral Theory of Planning, by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber

A Social Vision for ValueCo-Creation in Design, by Liz Sanders and George Simmons

Design Thinking for Social Innovation, by Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt

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Designing for Poverty: Finding Opportunities to Lighten the Cognitive Load

Our latest readings for Design, Society and the Public Sector were on the topic of poverty.Each of authors expresses interest in improving situations of marginalized communities, some do so for more of an economic impact and others for a social impact. With approaches that vary from starting with understanding the human conditions that perpetuate poverty to understanding existing business structures to create the most impact.

Position Diagram 03-01

In Dean Spears’ article Economic decision-making in poverty depletes cognitive control, he takes a very scientific approach to debunking the theory of the ‘undeserving poor’ which states that poverty is a result of bad behavior. Through a rigorous set of experiments, he demonstrates that the cognitive load of being in poverty is so great, it makes it so simple tasks are difficult, resulting in seemingly bad decisions. He goes on to talk about how people of all economic levels have difficult financial decisions to make and the cognitive toll is the same, but the frequency of those decisions is where the difference lies. People in poverty have to make difficult economic decisions everyday– buy soap for the bathroom or buy food for dinner? His findings can be used to inform programs or policy that responds to poverty, which could have both an overall economic and social impact.

Le Dantec, takes an approach to understanding how people in marginalized communities, specifically the homeless, navigate social and support systems. Through his research, like Spears, he finds the cognitive load of being poor is rather great, but his focus is on the importance of identity management and navigating social and support systems. He stresses that more access to information is not the remedy, but proposes that better designed information and technology systems need to be considered. Just simply having access to information will not help people in poverty. There is a way that technology can empower the homeless.

In Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition, Martin and Osberg stress the importance of rigorously defining Social Entrepreneurship, for fear of it being rendered meaningless. Social Entrepreneurs take direct action to generate a new and sustained equilibrium in order to overcome an existing inhumane and unsatisfactory existing equilibrium.  They go on to demonstrate the differences between a social entrepreneur, a social activist and a social service provider, stating that there’s value in taking a hybrid approach. While at first I found Martin and Osberg’s case for better defining Social Entrepreneurship somewhat arbitrary, (after all, those who are driven to make a difference, will be courageous and creative and make things go without a thought about a title for what they’re doing) it is helpful to make a distinction in order to clearly define outcomes.

Hammond and Prahalad, Selling to the Poor, discuss how corporate strategies need to change in order for there to be a true “business revolution.” This “revolution” is driven by the idea of “doing well while doing good.” By expanding economic reach to the untapped market of the poor, not only can businesses thrive, but including the poor in market strategies might help ‘’end economic isolation’’. Hammond and Prahalad do recognize that in order for products to succeed, there must be a deep understanding of circumstances in order for there to be relevance and adoption.

Take Hammond and Parhalad’s recognition that businesses have the ability to empower the poor, while increasing profits and set that next to Yunus’ idea that there is opportunity through innovating business models to have a more social focus–thus using capitalist structures as a way to address global concerns.

All of this made me really consider where the designer lies in this. I think understanding the human needs and cognitive load discussed by both Spears and Le Dantec, are places to start while embracing the overlapping strength that comes from Social Activism, Social Servies and Social Entrepreneurship.

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Secret Agency: The power of the poor

The agency of the poor, or their ability to act in the world as individuals or as a collective, affects the direction and adoption of a designer’s work. Therefore, designers interested in social projects that involve this population must decide if there is agency, where they believe that agency lies, and in what amount. As Chris Le Dantec, Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech, points out, even designers who are not explicitly designing for or with the poor will make a powerful impact on this population. The five authors whose texts we discussed in class each explicitly or implicitly take a stance on how much agency the poor have, and whether that power lies in each person or when the poor are taken as a whole. Lindsay Josal and I have plotted our interpretation of their positions on the diagram below.

position_diagram_3editEach of these authors presents compelling points, and when we try to take a stance of our own, we find it’s not easy to come up with a single positions that represent our feelings immutably. We think the agency of “the poor” or a poor person, or really any person at all is situational and changeable—a position akin to that of Le Dantec. Designers, however, have to pick a starting point in order to work, and it may need to be reassessed on a per-project basis. From that decision point, the designer faces a tricky balance between exercising responsibility for what she puts out into the world, and being paternalistic. But paternalistic or not, that doesn’t excuse a designer from adhering to her moral compass, or just trying to do what’s right in a situation. The silver lining to all this tough decision-making is that it forces the designer toward a greater understanding of the people who will eventually use the product—which is a good thing.


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Profit & Choice: A Position Diagram of 5 Authors

Over the past 3 weeks here at AC4D my classmates and I have read five papers on the topics of poverty and social businesses.  Today I will be presenting a diagram mapping each of these 5 authors on two axes.

The horizontal axis — I’m calling the “Profit” axis — ranges from “Business Profit” to “Social Profit.”  Business profit is focused on making money and creating returns for its shareholders.  Social profit, in contrast, is focused on creating social good as the measure of success.

The vertical axis — I’m calling the “Choice” axis — ranges from “Autonomous”  to “Victim.”  A person is a victim insofar as they are viewed as not being responsible for their choices; their choices are caused by outside circumstances.  A person is autonomous insofar as their choices are theirs, and they are viewed as the creators of their circumstances.

Click the diagram below, to see a full size version of the map:



What I found from this exercise is that if you want to make money, and your concern is not explicitly in creating social change, then you’ll enjoy Prahalad who makes a solid argument for paying attention to an ignored population segment with an enormous amount of combined purchasing power.

If you view poor people as victims of their own circumstances, and believe that it is up to inspired, courageous, creative people with the fortitude to take direct action — aka Entrepreneurs — to create new equilibriums to help these people, then you may enjoy the scientific findings of Dean Spears or the rigorous definition of “Social Entrepreneurship” given to us by Roger Martin.

However, if you’re like me, and you want to grant people the dignity of being autonomous agents — instead of helpless victims — and you want to work with them to find design solutions to help create a better world — instead of dropping in from your ivory tower to solve their problem — I think you’ll enjoy the writings of Muhammad Yurus or Chris Le Dantec.  Both of these authors work with the populations they are trying to help in order to find possible design interventions that could make a practical impact in people’s lives, and I think that is the healthiest and most honorable perspective of the lot.


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Start to finish in the design process: Where do humans take part?

As we study Participatory design in our theory class we’re challenged with the problem of melding 6 different papers on the design process, with all opposing views, to create a position diagram bringing them all together on two different axis for our position diagram assignment this week.

While narrowing down all the different positions one could take from the readings I descried on the spectrum of user engagement over the time of the design process., which I positioned on the y axis of the position diagram below.

Our readings were from professionals with various backgrounds in multiple fields including academia and design research.  It was interesting reading multiple opinions all based on design research and how humans are a part, or not, of the process.

A quote I found interesting from one of the readings was from our very own Jon Kolko, he states “Design research that focuses on human behavior in a broad sense-not on a particular object or service-is the most effective at discovering data for innovation” and I’d say I’d have to agree. Though from our readings not everyone will agree, especially Don Norman, and academic in the field of cognitive science, design and engineering, in who believes that the needs of humans come after the design process and small incremental changes can make improvements within design with time.


Please feel free to view my diagram here. More to follow on this topic as I run off to make my presentation!



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Design Theory: An Integral Analysis

I studied philosophy as an undergrad, which gave me a surface understanding of a wide variety of different philosophical subject areas.  While I enjoyed the mental gymnastics of philosophy, and enjoyed discussing and debating ideas, I have to admit that I left my university without a clear picture, or mental framework, of the world.

Soon after I graduated, I found the philosophy of Ken Wilber.  Ken Wilber maps the entire universe and incorporates every philosophy, psychology, technology and spiritual tradition into a map he calls the “Integral Model.”  He separates the world into 5 digestible chunks:  Quadrants, Levels, Lines, States and Types.  While I don’t wish to discuss the specifics of each of these chunks, it suffices to say that I was blown away by his ability to map everything I had learned through my education in philosophy onto one map (actually 5 interconnected maps).

Over the last week or so we’ve read 5 authors focused on topics of innovation and participation and our assignment was to map these 5 authors onto a 2×2 matrix where one axis is on a scale of “Designing With” to “Designing For” and the second axis is our choice.

I went through a number of iterations of varying levels of depth & complexity, feel free to take a look at those iterations here, but I never felt comfortable with any of them.  No matter how I arranged them, there was a feeling of cognitive dissonance.  I was trying to force the authors into containers that were separate but interrelated — creating what I jokingly referred to as a “false quadotomy” (as opposed to a false dichotomy… get it?  hilarious!)

On the verge of a “screw it” moment, I decided to try mapping the authors within Ken Wilber’s framework of “Quadrants” and at that point, it all started falling into place.

Mr. Wilber’s Quadrants have two axes Individual/Collective and Internal/External.  These axes create four divided areas that can be summed up using pronouns:  I, WE, IT and ITS.  The idea of his integral philosophy is that each of these areas contains an important truth, and in order to have a full accounting of any subject, we must touch on all quadrants.

I have mapped each author’s ability take into account each quadrant.  The shaded area shows their overall success given this criteria.

While I don’t expect anyone to fully grasp Ken Wilber’s philosophy from this graph (his primary text is 850 pages), I do think it gives a nice window into the integral philosophy and provides a nice visual for comparing each author’s substantive differences.

Also, and more importantly, it was extremely useful for myself to be able to successfully orient each of these authors within my own (borrowed) mental framework.


Click the image below for a closer look:

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Who’s creative? A position diagram of five authors

Sometime between sixth and eighth grade, I made a watercolor copy of Woman with a Hat for a required art class. Aside from the face being smushed on one side, it wasn’t all that bad. My teacher was ecstatic about how it came out and told me that no student had ever chosen that image to reproduce in her class before (there’s a lot of patience-sapping detail). This moment, along with a few others, set me on a path as being “different.” I was a “creative” person.

I think many of us have had that moment in some early art class where we were either compelled to be “creative people” or to drop it forever and leave all that stuff to artists, designers, and inventors. In our Design, Society, and the Public Sector class at AC4D, we’ve been discussing texts from five authors (Liz Sanders, Bill Gaver, Jon Kolko, Don Norman, and Paul Dourish) around the subjects of “value” and “participatory design.” One issue touched on to varying degrees by each author is the creativity, or potential creativity, of the people being designed for (or with). Liz Sanders, design researcher and president of MakeTools, delivers a compelling case that “people today have been inundated with many ways to satisfy their consumptive needs while their creative needs have usually been ignored.” I think that’s sadly true. We’re all “consumers,” but the term labels people one thing at the expense of a fuller, more empowered view of our agency. With that prevailing view in mind, what do designers—people creative by definition—think of the creativity of non-designer people? The graph below shows my interpretation of the authors’ views.



Starting from an x-axis of “design with people” to “design for people,” I plotted each author along the spectrum of their views on how much designers should design for people, and how much they should design in partnership with people.

Along the y-axis, I’ve chosen to plot each author’s belief in the creative ability of the people they design for/with. I thought there would be a clear correlation between “designing-with” and a high level of belief, but in the graphing process I discovered nuances that do not support a direct connection.

One caveat is that the positions on this graph represent only the opinions or implications represented by these writings. Some authors did not explicitly refer to their belief in people’s creativity in their paper and may personally hold other views. In addition, Norman’s article particularly was meant to provoke discussion, not necessarily to represent deeply-held beliefs.

If our goal is to create change, especially regarding wicked problems, viewing non-designer people as not-creative may limit or work against the products, services, and systems designers are making. As Dourish points out, people will change whatever designers put into the world, and their creativity and agency needs to be taken into account when designing. Sanders highlights additional benefits of co-creation in designing for social issues, before any product is made, by arguing that co-creation “educates simply through involvement.” I would add that co-creation increases creativity simply through involvement.

While involving participants at every stage of the process will not be appropriate for all projects, the main takeaway from these writings for me is that a designer has to think through points in the process where participation can or should be invited. When that happens, the designer must also be aware of what else (creativity, education, interaction) she is designing while in the process of designing the end product.


Reading list:

What we talk about when we talk about context, by Paul Dourish

Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty, by William Gaver et al.

The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation, by Jon Kolko

Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf, by Donald Norman

A Social Vision for Value Co-Creation in Design, by Liz Sanders and George Simons

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The Value of Design Research to Make Meaning in Society

Over the past couple of weeks, our Design, Society and the Public Sector class has read five articles that discuss different methods of engaging users and the value that such engagement produces. More specifically, the type of meaning created when designing “with” or “for” people and society.
As I considered the different articles, I paid attention to how each author views the importance of engaging the user in the design process and how it directly relates to the importance of either empathy or authority in order to bring value and meaning to society.


Position Diagram
The Value of Co-Creation
Liz Sanders’ article “A Social Vision for Value-Co-creation in Design” emphasizes the importance of Co-creation as a tool for driving significant social change. She defines Co-creation as collective creativity to create an unknown.
While there are three types of value co-creation, monetary, use/experience and social, and while all produce different ranges of value, social co-creation is where the opportunity for significant change and social transformation resides.
“Co-creation puts tools for communication and creativity in the hands of the people who will benefit directly from the results.”
For this to work, empathy for those directly affected by any change is imperative. This is key as the designer becomes the facilitator. She recognizes that everyone is creative and has the ability to creatively solve issues, especially those pertaining to their immediate circumstances.
The Value of Synthesis 
In Chapter 4 of the “Exposing the Magic of Design”, Jon Kolko discusses the importance of ethnographic research as an avenue to innovation. Through the uncovering of a potential for a future state, design research that focuses on human behavior is the most effective at discovering innovation – but it only provides an opportunity for innovation. These two are linked through the process of synthesis where meaning is made from the observations during the research phase.
This process of problem finding through design research and sense making through synthesis paves the way for the design phase to produce something that solves the problem and adds value to the human condition.
The Value of Uncertainty
Bill Gaver discusses the use of probes as a tool for inspiration in his article, “Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty”. He emphasizes that what we “know” has limits and meaning can be found through such inspiration provided by the empathetic reframing of situations.
“Probes are collections of evocative tasks meant to elicit inspirational responses from people–not comprehensive information about them, but fragmentary clues about their lives and thoughts.”
Through such evocative activities, the participant is inspired to reframe their lives. Which in turn, provokes the designer to understand through empathy and feeling rather than lean on rationalization. By reframing your viewpoint, you can create open your mind to new ideas.
“Probology is an approach that uses Probes to encourage subjective engagement, empathetic interpretation, and a pervasive sense of uncertainty as positive values for design.”
It’s more of a tool for inspiration. That reinforces the idea that we must constantly reframe our perspective in order to truly empathize and provoke new ideas and possibilities.
The Value of Context
In “What we talk about when we talk about context”, Paul Dourish recognizes that with the advancement of technology and how it has moved evermore into our everyday lives, our understanding for and consideration of context must evolve.
He states that context arises from the activity. Thus it is dynamic and interactional. We design products that have their own context, and as people interact with the product, they create new context. They create new meaning.
“Finding the social world orderly and meaningful is a practical problem that people solve, endlessly and unproblematically, as they go about their business.”
He does not discuss how people are involved in the design process, but rather how the design process should consider the context of people and practice and how it is a living, breathing thing. He considers the need to design for users to be active participants in making meaning through the use of technology. In this, there is some empathy for the constant evolution and adaptation that is inherent in people (and their need to create)and communities and it is important that technology take this into consideration.
“Practice, is first and foremost a process by which we can experience the world and our engagement with it is meaningful.”
The Value of Technology
Donald Norman’s provocative article, “Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf,” he takes a stance that opposes the ability of such tactics as co-creation and ethnographic research, where human needs come first, to drive significant change for innovation. He champions the lone ranger engineer/tinkerer for all true innovations and downplays the role/ability of design research to drive any sort of innovation.
“The technology will come first, the products second, and then the needs will slowly appear, as new applications become luxuries, then “needs”, and finally essentials.”
Norman believes that now, human needs are a result of the integration of technology into people’s lives. This blends with Dourish’s concept that context is interactional and people adopt and adapt – creating new context and new need.
Meaning is then made once technology is adapted. Technology drives innovation which creates human need, so ethnographic research and co-creation are only useful for incremental product innovation rather than the creation of something new.
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