As we finish our first quarter at AC4D, we continue to ask fundamental questions: What is a design? What makes design unique from other domains? Can a computer design? What’s a design problem?
What is design?
I started this program with a semi-cogent definition of what design is and why I wanted to be a designer: I wanted to make things. I wanted to help people.
Right now, I’m at the peak of the complexity curve. I’ve gathered so much new information, and haven’t had enough time to internalize it and simplify it. With more information than ever, I’m also more confused than ever.
So this section as we discussed design thinking, process, and what it means to be a designer — I kept coming back to intuition. Sure, I can absorb information; tell you the difference between an ill-structured problem and a well-structured problem, regurgitate the 10 principles of wicked problems, or teach you a creative exercise using random words. But when presented with a truly wicked problem, can I trust my intuition to know where to start? Can I find my voice as a designer to feel comfortable experimenting with creative problems?
To help me illustrate this internal tension, I started thinking about the idea of programming these learnings to create a robot design assistant. If you can program something, then you must truly understand it, right?
In 1973, Harold Cohen created AARON, a computer program designed to produce art autonomously.
Cohen trained AARON to create drawings through iterative design progress — evaluating the output and then modifying the program to reflect his own aesthetic. AARON cannot learn on its own, it needs input from Cohen. AARON has received a lot of attention as a feat of engineering and artistic effort — but Cohen is cautious to say AARON is creative.
It is Cohen who codes his process — he provides the rules. AARON is also incredibly prolific, sometimes making 50 images in an evening. But is it Cohen who chooses from this massive collection of work. He curates the experience. It’s the act of deciding what to teach AARON and curating his paintings that is truly the creative process.
So even if I could codify all principles of design and internalize them perfectly, when do I apply them? What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?
Distilling Principles of Design
In my comic, my character seeks to do just that — with the help of our lastest seven authors aka The Design Council. I start by trying to identify distinct design abilities. Pacione, Cross, and deBono have all identified key skills of a designer.
Pacione says design skills can not only be codified, but they can also be taught. Cross insists that a designer must be able to:
“Produce novel, unexpected solutions
Tolerate uncertainty, working with incomplete information
Apply imagination and constructive forethought to practical problems
Use drawings and other modeling media as means of problem-solving”
And deBono feels that serious creativity can be taught — through concepts as simple as his 6-thinking hat system.
While deBono and Pacione’s perspectives are encouraging for making a design robot, Cross forces my character to start to ask questions. How can a program work in uncertainty? Likewise, when do I, as a designer, know when to tolerate uncertainty or when should I dig further?
Despite this setback, my character moves forward with what I know. D, the robot design assistant, can now draw and share deBono’s creative prompts.
Then I move onto Wyatt and Buchanan. While Wyatt has a seemingly simple process for design thinking: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation; each process is incredibly nuanced. Buchanan starts to confuse me even further. He says that design can be applied to any area in the human experience.
If that’s true, then what is a design problem? How can I teach my design assistant (or myself) where to focus?
Again, I move forward with the tangible and my robot can now test prototypes and regurgitate the 3 I’s: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation.
My character is starting to understand design abilities and frameworks but is stuck on this idea of problem finding. I talk to Simon and Rittel in hopes of gaining clarity.
Simon has identified the differences between well-structured problems and ill-structured problems. What a great place to start! But unfortunately for my robot — almost all problems are ill-structured.
Rittel pushes this confusion further, saying:
“In the absence of an overriding social theory or an overriding social ethic, there is no gainsaying which group is right and which should have its ends served.” – Rittel & Webber
So not only are problems complex and difficult to find, they are everywhere, and there is no unified social order for which problems to prioritize.
Ultimately, my robot ends up spewing out quotes from deBono, Cross, and constantly asking “Why.” While these are all valid contributions to being a designer, it’s vital to know when to apply these tools. You must develop your designerly intuition.
So just as AARON creates artwork for Cohen, it’s up to Cohen to determine what to teach AARON, and ultimately, which pieces are truly creative.
I could create a design robot based on the fundamentals of these readings, but it is only through the act of designing that I can start to develop my own voice and intuition.
This is Part Two in a Service Design Project for Austin Parks Foundation. For Part One: Stories from the Field, go here.
Since August, our team (Kyle, Michelle, Laura) has been working with Austin Parks Foundation to help them better understand the feelings of ownership over green spaces; specifically how those feelings of ownership can develop and drive behavior.
OUR DESIGN PROCESS
As students, we are segmenting the design process into small, digestible pieces. In most practical applications, these processes can happen concurrently and are less isolated, but for the sake of learning, we’ve broken the design process down into five clear steps:
After 16 interviews with 19 participants, we developed 3,031 utterances. To help us make sense of this data, we make it physical. The act of hanging our utterances up on a wall helps in many ways:
We start to develop a mental map of where things are physically hung in the space. This type of spatial connection cannot happen in a spreadsheet with 3,000 rows.
The focus is on the idea, not the person. Many of our utterances were hung randomly, rather than organized by participant. As we read through the wall, we start to develop new connections with these utterances that abstract them from the person and allow us to focus on the behavior.
As we find connections, we physically move an utterance from one side of the room to another, next to other like-minded utterances. We then use this pool of utterances to develop themes.
The goal is to find emergent patterns among this mass of data that we can ultimately use to derive insights, problem statements, and design ideas. Here’s a sampling of five themes we uncovered as related to us by our interview participants (names and identifying information have been changed):
A SENSE OF OWNERSHIP DRIVES IRRATIONAL BEHAVIORS.
Park space is public. Austin Parks Foundation doesn’t own it. Park Adopters don’t own it. No one person owns it, yet we observed many actions that may have been appropriate for private spaces, such as someone’s own backyard, but were downright irrational in the context of a public park.
Madeline told us how ownership can manifest irrationally in Austin community gardens. A large tree that shaded part of the garden was growing even larger. Planning ahead, they realized they would either need to cut limbs off the tree or shift the location of garden plots that soon wouldn’t get enough sunlight. The response from an impacted gardener couldn’t have been more emphatic: “Limb up the tree! I cannot move” (Line 126). She described the attachment of people to their plots saying, “People have a huge sense of ownership because they’ve been cultivating it. I think that’s almost biblical in a way. You’ve been working the soil, there is a lot of energy and ownership that comes out of that” (Line 127).
Another participant, Jim, has spent the last 10 years helping maintain a preserve that is 25 minutes from his house. “For a while, I was coming here every day” (Line 2). He told us he “never goes anywhere without a weeder and a handsaw” (Line 152) — just in case he spots the #1 thing on his “shit list” — an invasive tree, Ligustrum. Although he admits that this battle against the invasive tree is never going to be won, he tirelessly persists in working to restore a more natural balance of native species to this space.
Robert lives adjacent to a neighborhood park that has recurring issues with waste left by park users including biohazards like hypodermic needles or condoms. Rather than choosing other places for himself and his family to recreate, he visits his park regularly, often twice a day, and frequently with his son. While we were visiting the park with him, he picked up a needle abandoned in the grass. He’s acutely aware of the risks, telling us, “You don’t know what’s on the other end. One wrong prick and you’re dead…Don’t laugh but I went out and bought welding gloves” (Line 135). Yet he continues to help maintain the park, even getting his son and other neighbors involved. Showing off the results of a recent park clean-up he had organized he told us, “The children are remarkably good [at helping with park clean-ups]. We told them, just don’t touch a needle or a condom. You’ll be fine. Look at this work – it’s great” (Line 80).
PEOPLE DON’T BELIEVE THEY RECEIVE THE SUPPORT THEY DESERVE.
Despite the city and Austin Park Foundation’s efforts to engage with the community, park-goers regularly expressed a feeling of being forgotten, ignored, and lacking support. Daniel, a lawyer, is concerned about the growth of Austin and the reallocation of funds away from his central neighborhood. “You know, a lot of money it’s been going to this sort of donut around the outskirts of town and trying to get them to spend money in existing parks when there’s new needs and new constituents. It’s always been a competition” (Line 72). He was one of several people who conveyed concern or curiosity about the way that resources were being allocated to parks by the city.
THERE ARE BATTLES BETWEEN ‘OLD AUSTIN’ AND ‘NEW AUSTIN.’
Most of the people we talked to had an awareness of Austin experiencing unprecedented growth. Different people were grappling with the changes in their own ways. Anders, a GIS analyst and East Austin resident, felt growth was positively impacting the parks, but honed in on sustainability and transportation as a problem that Austin was ill-equipped to address as it grows. He blamed newcomers in the suburbs for blocking the spending that needs to happen to improve transportation infrastructure in the city center. “Because the suburbs are only growing…the suburbs are growing faster than everything else and the suburbs are always going to vote against spending on the inner city” (Line 129).
Robert, a long-time Austin resident told us aggressive conflicts between developers and current residents. He explained, “Because we’re sort of in the thick of new development in Austin. Just trying to make sure developers don’t run rampant over the neighbors” (Line 54). He told us about the transition of his neighborhood park from a privately owned parcel to public land. In the process, a developer owned the land, but was stymied by the presence of protected heritage oaks that kept him from being able to convert the lot to a dense residential development. “He tried to poison these trees. Rumor is [company redacted] did it. But that I can’t stand up in court with that. Sprayed it with pesticides to try and kill the trees, then it rained hard, that washed the rain down the hill, and there’s a pond behind you. So it killed off the pond, but saved the trees” (Lines 8-9). While good luck and the right weather kept the developer from getting his way, Robert sees it as the responsibility of Austinites to be proactive in protecting their communities from developers.
An APF employee admitted that these concerns are commonly expressed to them when they are working on east side park improvements: “[Eastside residents said] ‘if you do something then it will be nice, and then everybody will want to move here. And then we’ll be priced out.’ I mean, it’s not an irrational fear” (Line 132). Many people we spoke to were acutely aware of decades of unfair treatment of and disregard for existing communities, especially in redlined neighborhoods. These residents are justifiably skeptical about “improvements” happening in their parks.
THE AVENUES FOR AFFECTING CHANGE IN PARKS ARE CUMBERSOME, SLOW, AND OPAQUE EVEN FOR INSIDERS.
In pursuing threads connected to feelings of ownership, we talked to many people whose sense of ownership sparked them to take action. Consistently we heard that the experience was cumbersome, slow and opaque. Even Daniel, who had considerable experience navigating local government told us:
“We have folks come out to join us for the meeting, or we’ll send a delegation down, a committee that come and meet with our council members. But, it’s also working your reps, saying you’re unhappy, moaning and groaning. It seems to work, but it’s pretty slow” (Line 99). His naivete about which of his many actions actually produced the intended result was common, as was the approach of trying as many things as possible in hopes that one will actually be effective. Even at the end of navigating the process, people were still not sure what worked, how they arrived at the final outcome, or why the city or APF supported their vision for the park.
When Bryan was trying to plan a free cycling event in a park, he felt the hurdles were too great and opted out. “The person who was directing it told me about the amount of paperwork he had to fill out just for a free event with no money tied to it in any form or fashion…When he told me what he had to go through I thought, ‘No, sorry, no’” (Line 53). This story was one of many missed opportunities of people who tried to improve the experience of park users, either through physical improvements or community programming but were thwarted by the bureaucratic dimensions of the process. Within the organizational structure of PARD and APF we found even more “black boxes,” processes that were so complex and opaque that employees could not explain them to us and that slowed or undermined their ability to do their jobs.
PEOPLE HAVE JUDGEMENTS ABOUT WHO BELONGS IN THEIR PARK SPACES.
There were substantially differing opinions about what is acceptable park behavior — and who are acceptable park users. Park users conveyed complicated hierarchies about who belonged using criteria like class, geography, ethnicity, and age. These were often hard to tease out, as people were generally aware of not wanting to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people in front of a live microphone. People were less shy about telling us about behavioral criteria. Behaviors like bike riding, car driving, dog walking, drug use, and drinking, and unauthorized camping had both vocal supporters and detractors.
Daniel told us that he feels his park is being “usurped” by outsiders. “Because of the size of this park, it’s considered a local neighborhood park. It’s not like Zilker, a citywide park. But the people who really love it don’t live here.They tend to be Hispanic. They have grown-up parties in the ballfield, and kid birthday parties down here. Year after year, the same kids come back and have their pinatas.” (Line 131)
He was certain these visitors were not from the neighborhood because his neighbors mostly drive “European cars”, whereas these other park visitors “drive trucks and minivans”. Changes that he was advocating for in the park would reduce parking, and make his park less accessible to people from outside the neighborhood. He said, “I don’t want to be harsh about it, but we pay our taxes. We chose to live here because of the parks. We should have some sort of first dibs on what happens in those parks.”
Amongst those considering behavioral criteria, by far the most common concerns were about homeless people living in parks. People generally felt strongly about the issue–either in favor of making parks safe and inclusive for all people, especially vulnerable populations like those experiencing homelessness; or convinced that the use of parks by homeless people is incompatible in most or all circumstances with other park use and can’t be prioritized.
Park Adopter Rico is concerned about their impact: “There are homeless people here and they’re chopping down trees. And I’m like, ‘Heck No!’ The one that was hoarding–remember I told you about all that trash–not only was he hoarding, but he was drug dealing. Zero tolerance when it comes to stuff like that.” (Line 128) He and many others made negative assumptions about the actions of those they perceived to be homeless or poor, with or without evidence, and felt that “normal” park use should take precedence.
On the other end of the spectrum, PARD employee Oliver felt that all are welcome in parks – even homeless park users.“Another thing that I think people really don’t accept on a subconscious level in Austin, is that homeless park users are part of the community of users. There is no right way to enjoy a park.” (Line 137)
As Austinites grapple with the issue of homelessness in parks and beyond, many have come to understand homelessness as a state that many are at risk of experiencing, not a lifestyle choice or the natural consequence of poor decision-making. This more nuanced understanding leads to a view that park use can be judged primarily by the impact of the use and in the context of the users’ needs. Parks can meet the needs of housed and unhoused users. The stereotyping of users based on appearances leads to behaviors that make the lives of homeless people even more difficult. Oliver explained compassionate approaches to support those who have nowhere else to stay in ways that honor that person’s humanity and also provide them opportunities to lessen their environmental impact in parks.
These five themes are just a sampling of the patterns we uncovered. We’ll continue to use this data to make sense of our problem space. Over the next three weeks, we’ll reference the same interviews to help us get a “birds-eye view” of the entire park system to develop service slices. Stay tuned! Want a deeper look at our interview process and stories from the field? Go here.
To help illustrate the many differing opinions, I created Impact Fighter: the game that seeks to find the World Savior. In this comic about the game, I am the main character trying to “Choose My Fighter” and hopefully be crowned World Savior. Keep in mind: this is a game — so the stakes are high and the rewards are unrealistic. I don’t believe any one person can be the world’s savior, but we can try.
Choose Your Fighter
Before I can battle it out, I have to choose my fighter. What writer’s powers and methods will I adopt?
Will it be Emily Pilloton and Michael Hobbes: the Go Local Gang? They suggest dreaming smaller and focusing on one community to make an impact, rather than scaling untested ideas to maximize results. I do agree that all too often businesses and celebrities try and help broadly (likely to maximize PR coverage). Ultimately, my character doesn’t choose them as my fighter because after all, I’m trying to gain the title of World Savior.
Next, I evaluate Sally Osberg and Victor Margolin: the Definition Duo. Osberg and Margolin fight for a clear definition of entrepreneurship and world models, respectively. While I agree it’s important we have a unified vocabulary when discussing design and globalism, I don’t feel their perspective was actionable enough.
Then I come across Dean Spears aka the Depleter. Spears is an economist who determined through handgrip squeeze tests that “poverty, by making economic decision-making more difficult for the poor, appears to have depleted cognitive control.” While I think this is interesting distinction to make: people are not poor because they are bad decision-makers; again, it lacked a call-to-action that I am looking for.
Finally, my character comes across Muhammad Yunus aka the Redefiner. Using the Grameen Bank as a primary example, Yunus argues that a social business model could empower capitalism to address global concerns. This resonated with me because he provided clear examples and a sustainable business model that features not only financial but social profit.
With this combination of skills, I choose him as my fighter. To win, I have to fight C.K. Prahalad aka the Profiteer. Prahalad argues that the poor are the largest untapped market in the world and you can empower them by including them in the market. While I think it’s important we empower marginalized populations, I don’t think that the sole reason should be to profit.
The Redefiner vs The Profiteer
In this fight, the Profiteer throws the first punch by tossing his money bags at The Redefiner in hopes of knocking him down. The Redefiner, however, has the power to funnel money for good and instead absorbs all of the cash into his social business that provides water to undeveloped countries.
He continues to reinvest his profits into his business and grows even BIGGER — allowing him to knock out the Profiteer with his high-pressure water supply and be crowned World Savior.
Crowned World Savior
His model has prevailed, he’s provided water to undeveloped communities, and now he’s mastered the game of Impact Fighter. But before the crown can fall on his head, Jeff Bezos sweeps in and steals it.
Bezos undercuts the Redefiner’s business model with ultra-cheap water bottles and buries the Redefiner in plastic. The bottles keep coming and coming until Bezos can sit on (or in) his throne of plastic bottles. Bezos wins.
While dramatic for the sake of storytelling, I am concerned that even if we redefine business models, the giants of the world can control the market — knocking any well-intentioned businesses right out.
Let me ask you a question: what’s your park? Is it the pocket park at the end of your block? Is it a splash pad that your kids frequent on Saturday mornings? Is it the trail on the edge of town where you recharge from the city? No matter your preference, you’ve likely found your place – – your park that feels like home.
For the past month, we’ve been working with Austin Parks Foundation exploring how Austinites develop this feeling of ownership towards park and more interestingly, how those feelings of ownership affect their actions.
Austin Parks Foundation (APF) is a non-profit dedicated to developing and maintaining outdoor spaces in Austin. For a city with a culture so devoted to fitness and green spaces, Austin parks are surprisingly underfunded. APF attempts to bridge the gap between what park users need and what the city is able to provide through fundraising, volunteering, and events.
Our ultimate goal as designers is to present APF with a new understanding of their stakeholders and identify problem areas that they may not be aware of. To achieve this, we are starting with 30 hours of contextual inquiry, interviews, and activities, with 19 Austinites in the park they call home.
With our focus on ownership, we wanted to find folks that have a strong connection to parks, so we posted on NextDoor, Craigslist, Facebook, asked PARD and APF, and ultimately found participants that fell into 3 groups:
People who have limited access to green spaces and come to parks to commune with nature or do outdoor activities;
People who take action to improve public green spaces; and
People who use public space to participate in organized activities.
We interviewed a forager who uses parks as a source for herbs for medicine, a frisbee coach who uses parks to train his athletes, park adopters who dedicate hours of their week to improving their park, and much more. Below is a peek of five of the 19 stories we uncovered — all names and identifying information have been changed to keep our sources anonymous.
Meet our park goers
Robert is an artist whose home studio looks out at his neighborhood park. From this vantage point, he has a clear view of the day-to-day activities of park-goers. However, he doesn’t just observe the park from afar, he’s frequently in the park connecting with other park users and just as often out and about in his neighborhood chatting about local issues.
He has collaborated with several local agencies to fund and park improvement projects and has a few more improvements in mind for the future. In several years of living next to his park and advocating for his neighborhood, he’s learned to navigate overlapping civic and non-profit organizations with the help of more experienced mentors.
He told us about his vision for the park. “We planned on cutting through the bamboo to make it a trail for dog walkers and cyclists… You can walk to the side of the pond, but you can’t do a full circle. So we were talking about putting a bridge across and creating a nice path through the trees.”
As we toured his park with him, Robert pointed out areas for potential improvements and also discussed the complications of balancing the needs of neighbors experiencing homelessness who have at times sheltered in the park with the concerns of neighbors who are worried about impacts on the park and the neighborhood.
Madeline moved to Austin 9 years ago and found the core of her community by connecting with others in parks. She joined a local community garden and established friendships through time spent in the gardens and creating other opportunities to come together with events like potlucks.
“A community garden can be like a microcosm of like everything else going on. You have different political affiliations, you have different genders, all different kinds of people coming together. So it’s a microcosm of your community, which is a good thing.”
Now, Madeline is more likely to spend time in parks with her husband and young son. They visit splash pads and playgrounds or just get some fresh air on an evening walk after work. She’s more likely to schedule time in parks around existing friends and family than to meet new people.
She still highly values parks and their potential to turn strangers into neighbors and friends. Madeline thinks Austin should invest in parks and gardens as spaces for people from all walks of life to come together, learn from each other and share with each other while reaping the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
Bryan is a native Austinite who has been planning cyclocross events in Austin parks for seven years. A father of two daughters, he wants his cycling events to be more than just a competition — he wants to create a community where attendees can bring their families, friends, and hang out all day.
“I wanted this to be like a Roman Colosseum. [. . .] Music, announcing, basically everything is right here, just going around you. [. . .] I wanted people to be here, and feel no need to go somewhere else.”
To achieve this, he’s put a lot of effort into his events. From hand-cutting ragweed with a machete to booking food trucks and beer sponsors, he’s 100% hand-on. He’s developed a strong relationship with Travis County Parks, too, something he could not do with Austin Parks & Recreation (PARD).
“It’s very refreshing working with them. Travis County Parks has a ‘can do’ attitude. My partners in the parks […] understand that I’m responsible, that I’m willing to go the extra mile when it needs.”
While Travis County is a great partner, their parks are unfortunately on the outskirts of town. He understands the limits PARD faces, but still wishes that he could plan events that are more central. But for now, he’s counting on Travis County expanding their parks instead of trying to work with PARD.
“I’ve gone the path of least resistance with Austin PARD.” — and for Bryan, that means not working with them at all.
Wes is a 24-year-old software engineer who resides on Austin’s East Side. His park experiences are focused around playing basketball whenever and wherever he can. He recently started looking at purchasing a house and told us he was scouting out the neighborhood on Google Earth to see what parks would be in walking distance to any new properties. When we asked him to draw us a map of his park ecosystem, it was no surprise that almost all the parks had a basketball court. He adamantly proclaimed
“It’s a staple of an American Park to have a basketball court.”
He plays multiple times a week, sometimes with friends or at pick up games, but also sometimes just to clear his head. In the past, he and his friends would walk 25 minutes in the summer heat to get to a court where they could play a full-court game. This was because the closest court to his then residence was missing a backboard. This isn’t the only issue he has taken up with the facilities around town. At his now local court on the eastside, he told us…
“One issue with this side is the tree is hanging over the court, you can’t really do a fair, full-court game. Like someone’s going to be a disadvantage on that side.”
When we asked him about reaching out to the city to get some of the issues fixed, he said he had thought about it before, but never actually reached out. He was telling us that he would not be opposed to donating to help improve his local park too, but he wasn’t sure if he would ever see the results.
“I really want to know, how can I make a difference? [. . .] Is it really going to make a difference where I want it to? Is that me being selfish by wanting to improve one park that’s close to me versus improving the parks in Austin as a whole? ”
Summer and her partner Jake have been hosting an electric circus in Zilker Park going on their 10th year. They are old school Austinites who embody the “Keep it weird” motto every day. When we were gathering some basic demographic info about them like getting their age, we got the quirky response of
“I’m 14 going on 52.” from Jake, and “I’m 736, but in this life.” from Summer.
They are both really proud of the community that they have built through their park festival which showcases people experimenting with flow arts, like hoola-hoops and rolla-bollas, where the tagline of the party is where you are the star.
“That’s how you get to grow the community. You show it to new people. Basically the park is an audience. They don’t know they are the audience, they don’t know they are going to be the participants either.”
They love to share their experiences with anyone who is interested, and use the festival as an opportunity to lead by example. They do a roll call before dusk to get all festival-goers to clean up the site so they can leave the park better than they found it. They also like to leave an emotional imprint on people as well. At another public festival called The Fairy Trail, Summer told us a story about a mom and her daughter had been coming to see her for multiple years in a row. The little girl came up to Summer and wanted to thank her for giving her fairy blessings every year, so the girl said it was her turn to give Summer a blessing.
“I knelt down there and the little girl gave me a blessing and blew glitter on me and I started crying. It was the cutest thing ever.”
With our research wrapped, we are now focused on finding themes among our participants. With a desire to design with — and not for — our participants, we invited a few into the studio to help us interpret our research. Stay tuned in two weeks as we present our findings.
AC4D is a ‘practice what you preach’ program — if you haven’t already figured that out. This week, we are knee-deep in design research for our clients, so of course, we are also discussing ethical research methods and the power of designing with– not for– our users.
For me, these readings felt really serendipitous (though I’m sure they are meticulously planned). As we grappled with the implications of interviewing folks suffering from homelessness, our first reading by La Dantec explored the same issue and showed us what a thoughtful, ethical research approach looks like. He also inspired us to avoid ‘cultural safari’ territory, and ultimately, we decided against seeking homeless participants.
As we wrap up our interview phase, these readings also helped me think about what it truly means designing for versus designing with users.
What does it mean to design with?
Our most provocative reading was by Donald Norman, the writer of Psychology of Everyday Things and an advocate for ‘just-noticeable differences’. He asserts that design research cannot be used to make innovative changes — only inventors can do that. Design research, he argues, is most effective when used for incremental change.
Because this is seen as such a controversial statement, this helped me to understand one key thing: we are moving towards a trend of designers and companies thinking the gold-standard is to design with their users. But it seems they rarely do because inventors, egos, market research, and/or budgets stand in the way.
As we’ve learned from Kolko, design research is an investment– in time, money, and resources. It’s an investment in understanding nuance and culture, and leads you towards more creative, future-thinking ideas. His approach feels rooted in long-term strategy — in contrast to Norman who seeks to only use design research to make better buttons. So with Kolko in one corner, and Norman in the opposite — we start to see quadrants emerge:
Designing for short term vs long term
Designing for the short term is purposefully vague here — I applied it to mean either small iterations (like Norman suggests), design intended to please quarterly earnings reports, and design that seeks to capitalize on fast trends. To me, designing for the short term tends to be motivated by profits.
On the other end of the spectrum is designing for the long term — cultural shifts, social changes, and slow-moving endeavors. In general, I assume that if you are designing for the long term, you (hopefully) have more time to integrate true collaborative research. The short-term, however, changes so quickly that collaborative research in all processes may prove to be inefficient or too expensive.
Le Dantec, Kolko, and Sanders all discuss highly-collaborative — and rigorous methods — that both strive for social impact and intimately involve the end-user.
Gaver and Forlizzi, on the other hand, involve users less. Gaver, as an artist-researcher, leaves a lot of interpretation in the designer’s hand but does seek to understand key cultural insights. Forlizzi seeks to build methods that give power to the designer to look at the effect of products over time — which is why she lands closer to the “long-term” strategy point.
Norman, as we’ve already discussed, only recommends design research for iterations. Fulton Suri, on the other hand, as a business leader at frog falls more towards the middle — choosing research methodologies for the projects at hand.
And finally, we have Dourish in a corner alone. His complex focus on context could be applied for both short and long-term, but I placed him more towards the short term because context is ever-changing. He most definitely seeks to involve the end-user, because only they can truly understand their own context.
As I was trying to “brand” each quadrant, I wrote out short sayings (like ‘we’re better together’) that ultimately reminded me of presidential slogans. So, for some fun extra context, here are the quadrants explained with presidential slogans throughout history.
For reference, here’s the full list of readings:
Designs on Dignity by Christopher A. Le Dantec, W. Keith Edwards
A Tale of Two Publics by Christopher A. Le Dantec
What we talk about when we talk about context by Paul Dourish
The Product Ecology by Jodi Forlizzi
Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty by William Gaver
The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation by Jon Kolko
Technology First, Needs Last by Don Norman
A Social Vision for Value Co-creation in Design by Liz Sanders and George Simons
Going Deeper, Seeing Further by Jane Fulton Suri and Suzanne Gibbs Howard
Experience Prototyping by Jane Fulton Suri and Marion Buchenau
Over the past two weeks, we have been tasked with reading five prominent writers’ perspectives on design:
Edward Bernay’s “Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and the How” (1928)
John Dewey’s “The Need of a Theory of Experience” (1938)
Victor Papanek’s “Design for the Real World” (1970) and “Creativity vs. Conformity” (1971)
Maurizio Vitta’s “The Meaning of Design” (1985)
Neil Postman’s speech “Informing Ourselves to Death” (1990)
As any good theory should, these writings have truly withstood the test of time. Arguably the most relevant for today was the oldest — Bernay’s piece on propaganda.
Our ultimate goal with these readings is to identify how each writer views the role of design in society, and then determine which is the least or most important. Before diving deeper, I felt the need to define a) “what is design?” and b) “what does it mean to be important?”.
What is design?
For the purposes of this assignment, I found myself attracted to Papenek’s broader definition of design that focuses on pattern finding and themes, rather than products or consumables. Papanek defines design as “the planning and patterning of any act toward a desired, foreseeable end…” (Victor Papanek. Design for the Real World, 1971).
What does it mean to be important?
Rather than focusing on how each writer views the importance of design in society, I wanted to develop my own perspective. Which writer’s principles do I want to hold top-of-mind (most important) as we embark on this challenging mission to become designers? Through which writer’s lens can I start to draft my own opinions? What should drive me as a designer?
From this point of view, I plotted each writer from least important to most important. With the top writers being the ones I want to keep in my ear (cheering me on or scolding me) as we interview users, come up with ideas, and become true designers.
At the bottom is Bernays. While I think he’s deeply important to read and understand, he views the public as holding all the power which dissolves designers of their responsibility. Although a nice sentiment, power is not equal and we need to be conscious of inequities when designing.
Vitta again does not take enough responsibility for what designers create. I wholeheartedly agree that individuals are overwhelmed with goods and the act of consumption is really a process of communication. But ultimately, he lacked a call-to-action that I want to drive me as a young designer.
Postman and Papanek, on the other hand, have equally urgent pleas for the public to break free of the patterns and distractions that bind us and focus on what truly matters: bettering humanity. Society is broken, and rather than “creating” using worn-out traditions or researching more information for information’s sake, we should use design as a powerful way to enact meaningful change.
Dewey ultimately builds on all of this by saying not only should designers consider ethics and what’s best for humanity, but we should also create experiences that are unique and foster growth.
These readings have already provided an interesting reflection into the goals of AC4D; some are radical, provocative ways to think about design — a seeming core tenant of the school. I chose AC4D for a reason — a huge part being ethics and social impact — and I’m happy to see that both are incorporated in every step from the start.
As I’ve heard a lot over the past two weeks, we get a major mulligan as students, so we should experiment and use it to our advantage. With the freedom to flex and get weird, I got hope to keep these principles top-of-mind so I don’t accidentally flex in the “wrong” way.
Our 3-day bootcamp just wrapped, and I’m invigorated, excited — and exhausted. We condensed big ideas we’ll use throughout the entire program into three days: user interviews, theme finding, insight development, ideation, sketching, and presenting.
I’m not exhausted for obvious reasons: our days weren’t long, we didn’t have reading homework, and most of our tasks were fun. I’m tired because this week forced me to stay present, get uncomfortable, and challenge my “normal” thinking patterns.
My “anxiety graph” this week
Normal first-day jitters were high, but I quickly calmed down when Ruby reminded us why we are here: to make things, build empathy, and trust our intuition — the three pedagogical tenants of AC4D.
So what did I learn?
I need to think bigger. After working in corporate environments for the last six years, I’ve taught myself to value feasibility, profitability, and efficiency above all else.
Our bootcamp was centered around exploring challenges specific to food trucks. We cold-intercepted users, transcribed interviews (something I thankfully have experience with!), created utterances, found themes, and then the hard part began: creating provocative insights.
My first “provocative statement” was “food truck owners should make prioritize making SoPs to avoid serious issues”. Not so provocative, right?
After some nudging from Jon and a lot of discussion, we landed on:
“Food truck owners resist delegating responsibilities in a highly transient workforce for fear of operational breakdown. Management should be non-hierarchical and compensate all workers equally.”
Is it feasible? Is it profitable? Is it efficient? We don’t know, but it definitely inspired us.
Then came the hardest part of the week: ideating three hundred ideas from this one insight.
We got our first flood of ideas out quickly. Then we had to challenge ourselves: is it a product, service, policy, environment, or system? How, where, what, who, when, or why?
We recommended a lot of accidental big-brother, socialist, capitalist, ethically questionable, idealist, and random ideas. Then came sorting.
To find our “best” ideas, we used three criteria:
Impact: Does this impact the people we are trying to serve?
Feasible: Could this exist – on earth?
Mission: Does this reflect our “should” statement?
Through sorting, we stack-ranked 15 ideas, and then sketched out five. As someone with limited sketch experience, I struggled to not constantly critique myself. (How do people draw hands really?) Luckily, we were constantly reminded to not judge ourselves.
Then we listened to our classmates’ concepts, shared our sketches, and from there — we could relax. The rest of the afternoon we spent learning Sketch, which has been a breeze (so far). I’m sure I’ll struggle more once I move beyond circles and rectangles.
Ultimately, I feel really excited for the months ahead. And I hope to fulfill AC4D’s promise of autonomy — and never feeling stuck again.