Designing for Life

As we explored readings around problem-solving and design thinking in our theory class, a characterization of wicked problems particularly struck me. Defined by Horst Rittel as indeterminate and messy, wicked problems are not unlike something we are all quite familiar with – life. There is nothing more indeterminate and messy than life itself.

In suggesting wicked problems embody the same qualities as life, I must explore how these problems live, breathe, grow and adapt, as we do.

So, are wicked problems alive? 

We start with a field.


It receives sun, water, wind.


And the living things that those elements invite.


Under the right conditions, those living things sprout. And grow. And rise.


Until small changes get bigger and bigger still.


The ecosystem expands, fostering new life and inviting change.


There is no way to anticipate that change. An understanding of the ecosystem emerges gradually. (Simon, Rittel)


Every factor in the ecosystem also depends on every other factor. Temperature, rain, sun, plants, animals: outputs for one become inputs for the other. “There are no ends to the chains that link interacting open systems.” (Rittel) A change to one part of the whole means a change to another. Every change has a consequence.

Although other ecosystems might look similar, there will always exist a unique property in each ecosystem. We will never find the same exact combination of elements, down the smallest grain of soil.


Designers can navigate this complexity through placements. They can establish temporary constraints that allow us to see the ecosystem in different frames. Is it an ecosystem full of plants?


Animals? Trees?



This exercise generates many mini-hypotheses. Eventually, we can exchange one hypothesis for a better one. (Buchanan, Cross)

These placements or frames must also be flexible and temporary, so we may never force ideas that worked for one ecosystem to fit another ecosystem.

Designers also develop an understanding of the ecosystem by examining its interconnectedness. In exploring integration points, we are not required to be fern or deer or oak experts.


But rather, we explore the integration points, connecting useful knowledge from each field. (Buchanan)


As ecosystems grow and adapt, they also organize themselves into a variety of patterns. These patterns do not always align with the patterns in which we think. Lateral thinking allows us to disrupt and cut across natural thinking patterns in order to align with those of the complex ecosystem. This practice helps promote creativity, supporting our arrival at innovative ideas. (De Bono)


As a designer, when we approach living wicked problems, our tools must parallel them. Our means for understanding and creating must be as dynamic as the ecosystems we enter. Designers can practice integrative thinking to find understanding between the parts that make up the whole.

Similar to the ecosystem of a forest, wicked problems take a long time to develop and a longer time to solve. As designers, we must approach each wicked probelm as an ecosystem, focusing on single parts, but acknowledging its larger whole. Change takes time, but so does life.

As a budding designer, the problems I immediately encounter may not seem inherently wicked, but I suggest we search for the messiness in every problem we face.

Connecting each problem to its larger ecosystem is the first step towards addressing the wicked problems of our world. 


Get Where You’re Going


This is a story about mobility.

In the past two weeks, we focused on design and poverty in our theory class. Infusing the perspectives of eight authors, I explored a story of vulnerability – a mobility breakdown. This narrative allowed me to invite and challenge each author’s approach to addressing what happens when your means of mobility falls apart.

All points of view are reflected in the way each author would respond to Janet’s situation. Their positions on poverty are incorporated into the narrative. She declines and accepts help as she sees fit.


Introducing – Janet.


Shape 4

She is on her way to work. She relies on her car to get there every day. It can be a tiresome commute. The travel accumulates. It has consequences. 

Shape 8

Today Janet’s car breaks down. 

Other vehicles travel past, but Janet remains. Staring at her broken down car, she looks up and feels stuck. Janet must figure out what to do. She has to keep moving forward.


Shape 6

Exacerbated, a passerby stops. He offers her a ride for the fair price off $300. Janet knows she needs to escape this situation. This could be her best bet, but what about her car? What about her ride back? What about tomorrow?

Shape 10Shape 11

Another man stops. He claims to know exactly what’s wrong. “Miss! I’ve seen this before. I know what to do. It’s definitely the tires.” The man strongly recommends adjusting her tires. He has seen it work before. He knows it will fix her problem. He has to fix her problem. And Janet starts to feel like she should let him.

Shape 13Shape 14


Hesitation kicks in. Not prepared to make a decision, Janet stalls. In a rush, the man leaves. Anchored to her car, she remembers how stuck she really is.

A woman later asks to join her. She talks with Janet, watches, listens. The woman recognizes what this situation means for Janet and grows invested in helping her address this problem.

Shape 15

Together, they work on the car collaboratively. They address the vehicle’s immediate needs. Their efforts will get Janet to the closest repair shop. The woman acknowledges that Janet is in a place where she can manage this issue on her own.

At the repair shop, the owner explains that the cost of the car is high. Janet panics. She needs a moment.

Shape 21Slide 16

Pacing, an idea emerges.

Shape 20

This doesn’t only affect me. Cars break down. People can’t afford them. Everyone deserves to get where they’re going. Carpool. What if I charge a flat rate for carpool services? This will pay for repair costs. This can help people.

Darting outside, Janet tells the repairman she will return. She heads to the nearest bank. Someone might believe in this idea too.

Shape 18Shape 19

Janet explains her current situation. She walks the banker through her idea. The banker thoughtfully listens. She finds her idea promising and offers a loan just enough to cover the cost of the repair.

Shape 9

She returns to the repair shop and pays for the car’s repairs. Handing the money over, Janet is committed to the carpool service She begins her endeavor. For a fair price, she opens her car to others.

Slide 18Shape 2


Together, they get where they’re going.

Shape 6

In the end, Janet’s experience exposed her to the alternate side of mobility. With help along the way, she disrupted an existing system and generated something new. She used her car’s role as a gatekeeper to share its space with others. Mobility was transformed.

As I synthesized these readings, this story reinforced a few ideas.

  • Selling to the poor is good when it helps elevate, not reinforce or perpetuate a vulnerable position.

Janet’s service moved people forward.

  • Generative disruption happens when design research is rigorous – requiring proximity, empathetic investment, and pervasiveness of the designer.

Janet formed part of the community through personal investment in the problem space.

  • Social entrepreneurs are created through the passion to drive meaningful change and recognition that success requires the intentional application of design methodology.

Social entrepreneurship isn’t born but built through the earned understanding of a problem space. 

In the design research I’ve conducted with a non-profit committed to preventing and ending homelessness in Austin, I have seen the dynamic role that mobility can play.

Individuals that are experiencing homelessness and seeking services often rely on transportation to make change possible. Attending case manager meetings, collecting and delivering documentation, using scheduled public resources, getting to interviews on time.

Mobility is a barrier to access for each of these things. In its ability to grant and limit access, mobility determines where you go in life. It embodies power as a gatekeeper and serves as a source of agency.

Mobility makes a difference – mobility is a gatekeeper. When services propel people forward, research is rigorous, and understanding is earned, design can be applied in transforming gatekeepers and expanding access.

Everyone deserves to get where they’re going.


your design personality: what kind of cereal are you?

We have all taken a personality test once or twice in our lives. Perhaps it was to satiate a fleeting attention span in the pursuit of finding out what kind of cereal we are. Maybe we sought to find out what divine four letters Myers-Briggs would bestow upon us. Whatever the reason and whatever their validity, personality tests are an exercise in making sense of who we are or who we hope to be.

In our theory class, we explored the role of design research and accordingly, the role of the design researcher. As we read through the perspectives of eight authors, I began to consider personality types in the context of research. What personality must we adopt as researchers to create meaningful design? Does our research personality align with our own?

For the sake of this blog post, let’s suspend scientific opinion and suggest, personality tests are accurate. So if personality tests indicate how people perceive the world around them and make decisions, how can they measure the ways in which we conduct design research?

And without further ado… My Myers-Briggs personality is ENFP: extroverted, intuitive, thinking, and prospecting. I’m a Campaigner and have been so for a while now (after taking this test in high school psych.) According to, “Campaigners are fiercely independent, and much more than stability and security, crave creativity and freedom”.

If this is who I am outside of design research, then who am I within this new context of design? Is it even possible for those two people to be different? As I read through the works of eight authors* in design theory, I embarked on finding out.

In an attempt to measure personality, I took to a diagram. Each axis would serve as a metric for quantifying the unique characteristics of the design researcher personality.

empty diagram

Considering the x-axis, I hoped to measure how designers conduct research: For or with users.

This metric evaluated how designer’s treat user participation in research. If the actors are users and designers, and design research sets the stage, when is the designer the lead, a supporting actor, or a passive audience? When is the user fulfilling these roles?

As the readings exposed the ways in which designers treat user participation, I proposed questions to better understand where each author fell on this axis while employing different research methods.

  • Is user participation passive or active?
    • Forlizzi. product ecology
    • Suri. corporate ethnography
  • How creative can users be in their participation? Can they build things?
    • Gaver. cultural probes
    • Sanders. co-creation
  • In what design stage does participation occur?
    • Sanders. co-creation
    • Le Dantec. participatory design (publics)
  • Where does research happen?
    • Kolko. contextual inquiry
  • Do users engage with prototypes?
    • Forlizzi: product ecology
    • Suri: experience prototyping
  • To what degree are users invested in the design goal? I
    • Le Dantec: participatory design (publics)

Considering the y-axis, I hoped to understand how designers view their own bias during design research. Do designers view their bias as: integral or inconsequential.

Whether intentionally or not, designers project their bias into design research. This affects the ways we work with users and shapes the outcomes of our designs. There are also ethical and creative implications in the levels to which we channel our world views into our research.

I asked questions throughout the readings to better identify where each author fell on this axis as they introduced different research theories.

How is the designer’s bias viewed?

  • It is indivisible from the research itself
    • Dourish: phenomenological theory
  • It should be embraced; Subjective interpretation should be reinforced
    • Gaver: design for every day pleasure
  • It should addressed with intention of minimizing its influence
    • Suri: designers immersed in others’ subjectivities
  • It can be ignored entirely
    • Dourish: positivist theory
  • It does not matter
    • Norman: incremental innovation

In comparing user participation with designer bias, I have provided the Myers-Britt design researcher personality test. You’re welcome for the compelling pun.

personality diagram

Four personality types emerge: the Protagonist, the Advocate, the Adventurer, the Architect. The following descriptions are in part derived from

ENFJ: The Protagonist

(Team Vision) Protagonists easily see people’s motivations and seemingly disconnected events, and are able to bring these ideas together and communicate them as a common goal eloquently. They take a great deal of pride in guiding others to work together to improve themselves and their community.

INFJ: The Advocate

(User’s Vision)  Advocates will act with creativity, imagination, conviction, and sensitivity not to create an advantage, but to create balance. Nothing lights up Advocates like creating a solution that changes people’s lives.

ISFP: The Adventurer

(Designer’s Vision) Adventurers live in a colorful world, inspired by connections with people and ideas. These personalities take joy in reinterpreting these connections, reinventing and experimenting with both themselves and new perspectives.

INTJ: The Architect

(System’s Vision) Architects are self-confident in the skills and ideas they focus on. Using their insights and logic, they push innovation through by sheer willpower. It may seem that Architects constantly deconstruct and rebuild every idea and system they encounter.

Through these readings, I took this personality test for each author as seen in the diagram below.

diagram authors test1


In seeking innovation, designers should explore how each personality informs their designs. We ask, in what situations do we limit or lean into our own subjectivity? We examine which scenarios receive the most or least value from increased user participation. Conditions shift and requirements change, so why don’t we? Unlike the personality tests we know best, I suggest we no longer limit ourselves to one type.

As designers, the problems we face will inevitably vary in complexity, but we must continually question what personality is best suited for the one set out before us.






Designs on Dignity: Perceptions of Technology Among the Homeless – Christopher A. Le Dantec, W. Keith Edwards

A Tale of Two Publics: Democratizing Design at the Margins – Christopher A. Le Dantec, et al

The Product Ecology: Understanding Social Product Use and Supporting Design Culture – Jodi Forlizzi

What we talk about when we talk about context – Paul Dourish

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

A Social Vision for Value Co-creation in Design – Liz Sanders & George Simons

Going Deeper, Seeing Further: Enhancing Ethnographic Interpretations to Reveal More Meaningful Opportunities for Design – Jane Fulton Suri & Suzanne Gibbs Howard

Experience Prototyping – Marion Buchenau & Jane Fulton Suri

Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf – Don Norman

The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation – Jon Kolko

Design, Four Ways

Two weeks as an AC4D student down, but the reality of what it means to design has just begun to take shape. With the question of design’s role in society, we were tasked with making sense of the following pieces of literature.


Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How by Edward L. Bernays

Design with a Cause and Creativity vs. Conformity by Victor Papanek

Informing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

The Meaning of Design by Maurizio Vitta

The Need of a Theory of Experience by John Dewey


These authors came from several fields, some in design, some not. They produced their work at various times, the 1920s, the 70s, the 90s. All differences considered, compelling patterns began to emerge. Each reading captured a unique perspective which built upon the viewpoint of another. 


With my interpretation of the readings, I answered two questions from each author’s perspective. What is design? Moreover, what is good design? I described summaries of their attitudes in figure 1.



figure 1.


Upon further review, distinct relationships began to form. Authors, Bernays, Papanek, Postman, Vitta and Dewey, understood design within the larger context of four ideas: language, resources, experience, and power. From their point of view, the purpose of design was defined by these terms.


Through the lens of language, design became a vehicle for communication, an expression of social relationships, and an external phenomenon. If viewed as a resource, design is a reaction, a tangible material, and a solution. Framing design as a source of experience, it becomes a catalyst for behavior and an opportunity for interaction. In its relationship with power, design can influence, deviate from expectation, and serve as a source of failure. 


Within this framework, design was a basis for language, a creator of resources, a source of experience, and a foundation for power.


In the following figure, four circles represent design’s role within the context of these four themes. As seen below, each author is placed inside the circle that correlates strongest with his viewpoint as described in figure 1.

Artboard Copy2


figure 2.


If design spans these overarching ideas, what qualifies as good design from each perspective? Indicators for good design must adapt to the context in which design operates. 


In its relationship with language, I believe design should assess its own voice, seek to understand social implications, and address the cultural context of its surroundings. As a resource, design should respond to the needs of people, minimize waste, and seek to identify real problems. As a source of experience, design should value our humanity and generate opportunities for social progress. Finally, in its relationship with power, I believe design should seek to understand its power, explore potential consequences, and claim responsibility for outcome.


The graph below ranks viewpoints based on criticality to the modern designer’s role in society. The graph is further broken down to identify where each viewpoint most strongly associates. 


figure 3.


Experience, language, resource, power –


Design’s purpose is defined by these terms, but collectively, these definitions represent society at large. So, what makes for strong indicators of good design now?


If we view design’s ultimate purpose as the benefit of society, there are countless questions to unpack. Many of which call for my own self-reflection. How do I define benefit? What qualifies as progress? When “society” advances, who is left behind?


Two weeks at AC4D down. Let my search for answers begin. 


AC4D Orientation Diaries

Day 0.5. Couldn’t sleep much the night before the first day of orientation. It was 2 AM and even the humming of The Office’s dialogue failed to self-medicate as it loyally has before. The anticipation wasn’t a feeling I was completely unfamiliar to, but it did feel new.

Day 1. “Make things, build empathy, trust your intuition.” It sounded like a holy trinity I was prepared to make a career out of. I scanned the room and it seemed my classmates felt similarly. I was increasingly excited to get to know them. Ruby later reintroduced the concept of wicked problems and dispensed its many definitions. One definition stuck with me. “Every wicked problem is a symptom of another wicked problem.” In my former engineering classes, most problems were isolated cases with clear, definitive answers that were either a product of optimization or ruled by the law of physics. This was going to be very different.

Day 2. In our first assignment, we tested our design research skills while interviewing local food truck staff, owners and managers. I felt vulnerable but motivated by the challenge. How do you learn from people in the context of their lives? Find problems? Form understanding? Build empathy?

As it turns out, it’s pretty tough. I realized active listening is a muscle I might use less often than I’d like to think. And how do you ask poignant open-ended questions that lead to meaningful discoveries? I always thought empathy shaped my daily perspective, but practicing empathy in the context of design felt unfamiliar. While at moments I felt awkward or unnatural, I was energized knowing I had room for so much growth.

Day 3. Time to make sense of it all! Jon said, “Words become semantic containers for ideas,” and I slowly recognized how heavily design research relies on verbal language. We transcribed and collected the words of our participants into “utterances.” With these utterances, we tried to find meaningful patterns shared amongst them and later transformed those themes into insights. Words carried weight in every step of this process. Are design and language working in parallel? Or are they just one the same?

We later selected an insight and were tasked with creating multiple variations of ideas which addressed it. Generate 300 concepts. Iterate and diverge. I experienced a moment of nostalgia while practicing this way of thinking. It felt like something I often used in childhood but forgot as I got older. Although the exercise was tiring and challenging, it was ultimately liberating.

Day 4. We attempted to visualize our ideas in practice. We were tasked with creating a sketch for five of our previously generated ideas. This process also felt somewhat foreign. As I tried to sketch each idea, I witnessed the idea reshape and refine from my initial perception of it. The ideas slowly began to transform and awaken.

Day 5. Reflecting over this week and everything that had to happen for me to make it here – AC4D is far from home, but exactly where I’m supposed to be.