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Category Archives: Theory

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 02-02

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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It takes two: Convincing clients of the value of design research

I’ve spent the last two weeks mulling over five readings that were presented under the umbrella of “participatory design”. The readings come from academic to pop-industry publications. What they all have in common is they address the user’s roll in the design process, and its value. The diagram below explores the implications of these reading in the context of participatory design and the influence of user input. Based on this exploration, I have good news.

First, all of the authors believe that the user has some valuable role to play in the design process—none of them advocate that the user’s only role is to buy the product. The “designing with” to “designing for” axis is relative, not absolute. Don Norman, who falls the furthest toward the “design for” end of the spectrum, still maintains that user input gathered through design research has value for improving existing products. Second, none of the authors suggest that the designer is not necessary and can be replaced by user input. The model presented by Liz Sanders, who is furthest toward “designing with”, is still in fact designing with. The designer has an important role to play as partner to the user in the co-creation process.

The third piece of good news is that when each author’s position is plotted on an x-axis of designing with to designing for and a y-axis of the influence of the user on the product, the points can basically be described by straight line. On one hand, this is obvious. The more the user is involved in the design process, the more the user influences the final product. On the other hand, this often the first hurdle to overcome in convincing a client of the value of design research. Yes, it will actually affect the outcome in a way that other data does not!

It takes two


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Six positions on design – by ambition

Over the last week we’ve been discussing the following pieces on design:

  • Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and the How (Edward L. Bernays)
  • The Need of a Theory of Experience (John Dewey)
  • A Tale of Two Publics: Democratizing Design at the Margins (Christopher A. Le Dantec et. al.)
  • Global Experience or Global Equilibrium?  Design and the World Situation (Victor Margolin)
  • Depth over Breadth: Designing for Impact Locally and for the Long Haul (Emily Pilliton)
  • The Meaning of Design (Maurizio Vitta)

Based on these readings, our task is to summarize the authors’ positions on the role of design in society, and in turn, to plot those positions on a graph, using a scale of our own choosing.

In my case I chose to use a measure based on the authors’ apparent ambition for design, as I interpreted it from the readings.  The axis proceeds from left to right in order of increasing importance (or ambition), whichresulted in labels of “Analytical” on the left, to denote a more orless neutral position where the authors describe design in more practical terms; “Instructional” in the center, to denote the promotion of a particulartechnique that might be employed to improve design in some way; and “Aspirational” on the left, to denote grander ambitions.

On this scale, Vitta and Bernays were grouped into the Analytical (or neutral) category, Pilloton and Le Dantic et al fell into the Instructionalmiddle, with Dewey and Margolin filling out the Aspirational end of the spectrum.


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The Importance of Consumerism and Designing for Impact

In our Design, Society and the Public Sector class, we’ve been reading through multiple authors who discuss design’s position in society. For the first assignment, we were to rate these readings on a scale from Not Important to Most Important based on a specific criteria. I wanted to illustrate how consumerism gives design a point of reference to start from in order to design for impact in society. I measured this importance by analyzing the level at which each author takes into account the relationship of design and consumerism and the current impact it is having on society as well as the notion of how that relationship can be a powerful leveraging tool for change.


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Solving the problem right or finding the right problem to solve

Exploring the topics of Ethics and Responsibility in our first section of our readings has lead us to our very first individual project: to create a position diagram based on a perspective we’ve identified through the 6 different essays we’ve previously read and discussed. We’re then creating a short presentation to the class explaining our outlook and further illustrating our unique perspectives.

Frankly, I’m still trying to soak in the new readings as this first week or so has flown by as fast as you can imagine! I feel my brain isn’t yet warmed up to this new world of thinking and creating.  I gathered together the articles again and started to piece together a connection between all 6 and discovered either problem stating or problem solving seemed to be a theme I directly was pulled to.  Starting from the left side of the diagram with the statement heavy readings and moving to the right- the solution based doing of design.

As a summary of both extremes, they have both their good and bad points to be learned from. Quite possibly a middle chart balance (landing in the middle of the chart) is the best approach to solving a problem. By the two sides of my diagram, jumping in full force may seem like the best way to start and move forward with a project, fully immersing your entire life into a project, yet can leave you with tunnel vision- missing out on important insights along the way. And on the opposite spectrum, contemplating everything down to it’s mere existence can be debilitating and just plain depressing if you think to far down the road with it.

I’d love to move forward knowing the future of what I’m making will never screw up anything and will have the exact outcome I predicted. Yet it seems that nothing works that way. But all isn’t lost. If you remain patient and open to everything you experience and gain through the process, taking your time to listen and remaining curious with every moment, your mission may take you to a more exciting and special place that you would have missed otherwise. I think they say that’s when the magic happens.

Click here: Diagram 1 & Diagram 2 (authors quotes)


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Design Accessibility Through Mass Consumption

In reading about the ethics and responsibility of design through the lens of authors like Maurizo Vitta and Edward Bernays in my first theory class at Austin Center for Design, I began developing a sense for the role I believe design and designers have in society. There are combinations of elements evident in each of these author’s positions that make design more or less accessible including participation, acceptance, distribution and mass consumption. Each of these elements impacts the scalability of design. Accessibility in this context is defined as making a design idea, product, service or system available broadly to as many people as possible.

What this position diagram strives to achieve is demonstrating how each author’s position makes design more or less accessible to society. For design to make forward progress as a discipline and profession, its intention must be to achieve scale and be mass consumed.


IDSE102_Position-Diagram-1-FINAL-FOR-WEB_Maryanne-Leeclick for full size

The entry point for design accessibility begins with participation. End users of the design solution are involved with the making. Emily Pilloton’s overarching belief is that long-term success is not achievable without activating design through participation by being in the place end users. She classifies this as having “a personal stake in the community” and doing work that is “wide-spread and pervasive.”

While Pilloton’s intention is to be focused on the depth of design impact in one place, participation can be limiting if a design idea does not grow into acceptance by an increasing number of people. Fostering continued belief in that has wide reach requires this notion that John Dewey refers to as “The cause for our preference is not the same thing as the reason why we should prefer it.” Layering preference into design means that people are able to qualify both functionally and socially what they do or do not accept into their lives. Victor Margolin takes this a step further emphasizing that advocating for design to have a greater role in society means addressing the expectation design has “As an art of conception and planning [which] occupies a strategic position between the sphere of dispositional ethics and the sphere of social change. This is its power.”

That power is what begins to shape what I see as the creation of demand that prompts mass production or distribution of design. An effort to make design more widely accessible is accomplished through what Christopher LeDantec cites as having not only a participatory design process, but an understanding for ways to “generate opportunities for participation and action.” Action becomes purposeful in the technique offered by Edward Bernays through “the mass distribution of ideas.” A designer must “know how an idea can be translated into terms that fit any given form of communication, and that his public can understand.”

Mass distribution that results in mass consumption breeds and sustains what Vitta refers to as “the designer’s centrality” in “continually transform[ing]” in which “the task of expressing the cultural, esthetic, or semiological values that interact behind that transformation [as being] the designer’s specific duty.” In making design more accessible, designers expose themselves to greater vulnerabilities that result from losing control over an idea once it exists in the world. The consequence of mass consumption Vitta identifies in which consumers take on the identity projected by the use of an object also inversely is an opportunity for consumers to collectively define a brand through the significance an idea, product, service or system has in their lives. It is across this bridge of self-definition that the meaning and value consumers inject for many that makes design most accessible.


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Making Our Way into the Unknown

The future is bright, the future is scary. Most of all, the future is uncertain. Whether you’re hopeful or anxious about what’s next, it’s difficult to face the future without some trepidation. How will we address tomorrow’s consequences of today’s problems? Answers may lie in disciplines as varied as government, activism, art, and science. As a student of design, I’d like to know how effective a role design can play as well.

In our Design, Society, and the Public Sector class at AC4D, where we discuss the theory behind design, we’ve been reading the texts of six different authors. The focus of each article varies, but all reveal a distinct viewpoint on how effective design can be as a means of addressing the future. I’ve plotted out what stances the authors might take in this diagram.

At the “less powerful” end of the spectrum is Maurizio Vitta. In The Meaning of Design, Vitta writes that designed objects in our society have lost their functional identity. These objects can only serve as instruments for communicating who their consumers are. Our objects say to other people, “he’s the type of guy who owns a BMW.” Based on this analysis, design occupies a role that shows us who we are, or at most, a projection of who we’d like to be, but isn’t very effective at addressing how situations and people might radically change.

At the other end of the diagram is Victor Margolin. In Global Expansion or Global Equilibrium? Design and the World Situation, Margolin postulates that designers are in a unique position to tangibly demonstrate “new values in action.” Because designers make systems, products, services, etc., they sit at a “strategic position” between a highly market-driven worldview (expansion model) and one that takes into account the finite and interconnected nature of our resources (equilibrium model). Furthermore, he believes that demonstration has the power to convince where pure argument can’t—a key component in the adoption of solutions.

My views tend to align more closely with Margolin, because I think an effective way of exerting a degree of control on the future is by making things. Be cognizant about making things that can educate, respond, comfort, and convince others of their value, and you’ll have made a dent in the future. To Vitta’s point, not all objects will operate along Margolin’s equilibrium model, but based on the readings I think that in general design holds enormous potential for both making and mitigating change.

The Meaning of Design by Maurizio Vitta
Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How by Edward Bernays
The Need for a Theory of Experience by John Dewey
A Tale of Two Publics: Democratizing Design at the Margins by Christopher Le Dantec
Depth Over Breadth: Designing for Impact Locally, and For The Long Haul by Emily Pilloton
Global Expansion or Global Equilibrium? Design and the World Situation by Victor Margolin

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