What’s Missing From Your Design Toolkit?

For the last few weeks, my classmates and I have been reading and discussing a set of readings focused on Design Thinking. This has run in parallel with the work in our research class, where we are actively applying the design thinking methodology. In this post I’ll be processing my thoughts on design thinking methodology, where I think it works best, and where I think it might be lacking.

First, some of the main authors and their ideas:

Edward de Bono – Discusses the importance of creativity and gives us a variety of tools to aid in the process of withholding judgement and allowing our brains to go to weird, new places. He argues that “the normal behavior of the brain in perception is to set up routine patterns and to follow these. In order to cut across patterns, we can use deliberate techniques.”

Nigel Cross, Discovering Design Ability – Explores what design is capable of and seeks to establish design as a “discipline in its own right. He also makes the case that design can be taught.

Horst Rittel & Melvin Webber – Asserts that design is meant for big, messy, wicked problems. And, in fact, the formulation of the wicked problem is, itself, the problem.

Tim Brown & Jocelyn Wyatt – Posits that design thinking and design need to be separate words, as they mean different things. They argue that design speaks specifically to the product, whereas design thinking speaks to the system, or the context in which that product will be operating.

Richard Buchanan- Build the idea that design is layered, and operates in the world across four main areas: symbolic and visual communication, material objects, activities and organized services, and then finally complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning.

Herbert A. Simon- Believes that a well defined problem isn’t a real thing. If you think you’ve distilled a discrete problem, then you are missing the context. In the world, there is going to be far too much to measure.

Chris Pacione – Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy – Suggests that design is the new math. Essentially, math was once a skill only mathematicians used. But now, it’s integral to our society and to nearly all professions. Design could and should be the next math.

Now, my take on design thinking.

I’m a believer in its power. I am drawn in particular to Pacione’s take on the value of design across a broad array of professions and work types. Design thinking allows us to open up our minds, to see things that no one has seen.  Latent problems exist all around us and we have to be actively engaged in uncovering them in order to do so. The methodology of design thinking helps us do just that.

However, all of the tools we’ve been learning and applying in our design research course only give us a way to gather and make sense of qualitative, biased information. We meet people and we ask them questions and we learn how they operate, what motivates them. Essentially, we are learning their perceptions of reality. From there, patterns emerge from what we have learned.

From this point, there is a HUGE jump toward insights. We gather no new data, but somehow designers are able to jump from identifying a pattern to knowing why it’s interesting and matters in the context of the larger story. That’s a huge leap. And the only way a designer gets there is by using his/her intuition. Intuition, by definition, is instinctual. It’s a gut feeling about something. But that intuition comes from somewhere. It’s made up of all of our life experiences, our knowledge base, and what we know to be true about the world. We use our own lens to evaluate patterns in others perceptions and then we arrive at an entirely new ideas.

But what about times when a designer doesn’t have a lot of knowledge about a space? I’d argue this is where quantitative data could come in. We are out in the field learning as much as we can from people, why not integrate quantitative data to paint a more robust picture?

My classmate, Michelle, crystallizes this idea in her recent post by saying “people may believe quantitative data is reductive, dry, lacks personality or nuance. But when I hear those critiques, I think, ‘You’re just looking at the wrong data!’ The right quantitative data for your problem will spark curiosity, will express nuance, will prompt expansive thinking. With practice interpreting or visualizing data, quantitative data can tell a lively and highly specific story, or at least point you in the direction of one.”

I’d ask designers not to shy away from quantitative data, but to lean into it. Use it as another tool. Quantitative research methods might have flaws, but you can learn some things from it that you can’t learn from 15 interviews. Integrating it into the design thinking methodology would make for a more rigorous process and help drive toward much more significant insights.

Saving the World

A lot of people want to save the world– especially those of us who have grown up without want and in a safe and loving environment. So many of us want to help, but what we’ve been learning and discussing in our Theory class through the last set of readings is that helping is complex. Any action one takes, or change one makes in the attempt to better the life of another, is going to have implications. There are always possibilities for unintended consequences.

There is also nuance. What works for one community might not work for another. Or, maybe it will work for a while, but the solution isn’t long-lasting.

When reviewing the work of seven authors, I’ve done my best to formulate and then figure out how to articulate my own thoughts on helping those in poverty. The authors we have discussed believe:

C.K. Prahlad: While the poor across the globe do not have much money, there are a lot of them. By creating a product they will need or want and selling to them at scale, there can be a mutually beneficial situation. The poor have more than they did before and the seller can build their own wealth.

Dean Spears: Econometric analysis has found that decision fatigue really is a thing–and for the poor, it’s further compounded. With less money at their disposal, every purchasing decision a person experiencing poverty has to make, the more stress and fatigue they experience. This means they are more likely to loose discipline to make good decisions faster than someone without the same financial burdon.

Roger Martin: Defining what “Social Entrepreneurship” means is important as the term gains traction. a Social entrepreneur is someone who builds a business that solves a market problem and sustains itself with earned revnue, but at the same time is making a positive impact on society.

Muhammad Yunus: Yunus pioneered the practice of “micro loans. He found that in very poor countries, people were unable to receive loans from a regular bank as they had no collateral to offer. He found, however, that by loaning small amounts of money to people and instilling a sense of responsibility in the entire broader community, 97% of the loans would be paid back.

Emily Pilloton: Proximity is key. One cannot know what is needed for a population without first becoming one with the population. Pilloton believes one must live the experience before they can improve it.

Victor Margolin: Big, messy, wicked problems are not always solvable. One solution may lead to other new and unexpected problems. It’s important to define what the problem is, and the dimension of the problem. This will inform the dimension of the needed solution.

Michael Hobbes: Solutions to big social problems don’t often scale. Every community is different and every problem is nuanced.

My personal opinion is explained through the story below.


This is me.


I’ve got a big heart but I’m pretty low key. I work a 9-5 job, and on the weekends I like to hang out with friends and mostly keep to myself.

I have a Friday night ritual of stopping by the gas station, buying one Lotto ticket, and then watching the local news until the numbers are announced and then heading to bed.

One night, I’m dosing of as I hear 5-3-5-6-1-1-2. Wait, WHAT!? I can’t believe it. Those are my numbers. those are all my numbers!! I feel like I’m on cloud 9.


I start to think about all of my options. I could buy a yaht, or a mansion, or go clubbing in Ibiza, but what I really want to do is use my money to help others who are less fortunate.Presentation1

I look for nonprofits to donate to, and choose several with missions that resonate with me. I feel good giving the money away, and even better thinking about the lives I’ve impacted. After several months I follow up with the nonprofit and ask how the community is doing where I made my gift. I’m so saddened to learn that the nonprofit has stopped serving the area! They said the area wasn’t improving, and rather than keep trying to make an impact, they wanted to cut their losses and find another area that might be easier to help.

I can’t believe it.


I wanted to help people. and my money has done nothing.

This time I decide to take matters into my own hands. I wonder if maybe those in poverty just don’t have the tools they need. Maybe they need a plan to follow to make improvements in their community. Bono has been getting a lot of press lately for bringing PlayPumps to African villages. Water is clean and much easier to access, and kids get to play on the PlayPump, and their energy produces the water. How cool is that?  If Bono is in I’m in.


But then, after a couple of years, I stop getting update letters. Once again I stop hearing from the organization so I check in. It turns out that while this worked for a little while, it wasn’t a sustainable solution. The PlayPumps have been abandoned and the community is arguably worse off than before the PlayPump was installed! I just can’t believe it.

My last attempt is a rather new idea, and I think it will help empower the people receiving the money as opposed to dictate how the money should be used. I begin to make micro-loans. One in particular I make to Tom. He makes hats and he needs a sewing machine to be able to make more of them.Presentation3

My investment goes ok, but the next year when I return Tom has only been able to make a few more hats that he did the previous year. He said he’s selling more but he doesn’t want to make so many that he can’t sell them.

To be honest, I’m happy Tom is happy, but once again I’m so disappointing.  I wanted to make a big impact. I wanted to give my money away and have it improve the quality of life for someone else. Presentation4

I give up, go shopping, finally take that trip to Ibiza, and live a mostly unfulfilled life.

What I didn’t realize, was that Tom’s life DID change… slowly.



Slowly, over time, Tom was able to build his business, and eventually leave that legacy to his daughter. The change didn’t happen quickly. But over time, situations changed, the world became more global, Toms town grew, and my investment in Tom had set him up for slow growth and future success. Tom saw some of the gains, but his child saw even more. I wanted to make a big impact and change the world, but I wanted immediate gratification form that change, and that was pretty selfish. Change take time.

The Methods of Design Research & The Power It Can Wield

The concept of design research is an interesting one for me. Research conjures up thoughts of science, and numbers, and p-values. It makes me think of a hypothesis and of measuring results. But, what I’m beginning to come to terms with is that design research isn’t traditional research at all.

Research in the context of design might be better characterized as a search for inspiration. There is no statistical significance but rather intentional bias. You aren’t trying to understand what is happening, you are trying to understand what could be. Design research, in my view, is about gathering as much information as you want, however you want, and using all of those inputs to spark something new.

Beyond the question of how to conduct this research, another interesting question is how powerful can it be? By understanding people and their behaviors, are designers able to identify and solve really big, complex, wicked problems? Are we able to truly innovate? Or, is design research best for identifying opportunities for incremental improvement?

For this project, I considered first, how 8 authors believe a designer should be going about understanding the behaviors of others. Is it by observing from afar? Is it by asking someone? Is it by putting oneself in the position of another and trying to emulate the same experience? This is charted on an x axis where the left is “designing for” a user and the right is “designing with” a user.

Then, I’ve added a y axis where I will plot how powerful each designer believes design research can be in solving these messy, wicked problems.

lauren sands image


  1. Donald Norman – In the context of the other 7 authors, Norman’s opinion is extremely thought provoking. He characterizes design research a luxury without much functional return. It is technology, he argues, and the way people organically adopt it that leads to innovative breakthroughs.
  2. Jodi Forlizzi – Her work (not too dissimilar from Norman’s opinion) is product first.  She seeks to understand the “complex context” between a product, a user, and the surrounding society by distant observation. Once the context is better understood, small adjustments can be made to the product.
  3. Fulton Suri – Suri asserts that there can be significant power in design research. A lot of that research is conducted by designers physically emulating the role that a user would typically take. By doing this, she sees the potential for sustainable innovation.
  4. William Gaver – He remains removed from his research subjects, giving them only Probes with which to capture their experiences. From there, he and his team are on their own, coming up with brand new ideas and using the results of their research only to job their own creative juices. While not explicit, he seems to suggest there are no limitations to the potentials of this work.
  5. Christopher A. Le Dantec – He clearly outlines that he believes design research should be approached “not as design for … but as design with, recognizing [users] as socially legitimate and masters of their own choices.” He takes on big and complicated challenges, like homelessness, and seeks to address related challenges in tandem with the end user.
  6. Paul Dourish – Admittedly, Dourish was difficult to place on my x and y axis because he writes in more theoretical terms, and less about the application of design research. However, he introduces a very nuanced and powerful way of thinking about context and its importance in design research. Based on his “notion of context in ubiquitous computing” I would argue that he sees a lot of power in the ability to deeply understand a user’s behavior and the way that behavior impacts a surrounding world. If he were to engage in design research, I image he would do so hand in hand with the users.
  7. John Kolko – Kolko’s design research methods focus only on what can be gleaned directly from a user. No statistics, science, no numbers will do. He believes that designer’s ethnographic methods of design research can lead to finding root problems. Only then, can “engineering, supply-chain management” and other traditional business functions be added in to achieve real innovation.
  8. Liz Sanders – In her approach to design research. She’s focused on “co-creation” and sees the designer as a facilitator who empowers the user to create for themselves. Sanders’ sees no limitation to what this can accomplish, either in an organization or in the world at large.

lauren v2 theory

Perspectives to Consider When Building the Case for a Code of Ethics in Design

Today, most professions have a guiding code of ethics.  Some of the quickest to come to mind for you may be law or medicine, but even human relations, realty, and nonprofit fundraising have a standard code that has been agreed to and is easy to reference.

Designers are in the middle of a movement to better understand the role of ethics in our own profession. While the act of designing has been around (arguably) since the beginning of time, its sophistication and broad impact has begun to grow exponentially. This growth is due in large part to the explosion of computers and, therefore, information.  Humans are looking for ways to make sense of everything, and designers are here to help.

But, are we really helping? And, who are we helping?  Designers use our understanding of human psychology to influence and persuade the actions of a user. Part of the formula, however, comes from the fact that users have absolutely no idea it’s happening.

Lawyers abide by a code of ethics because it is assumed that clients may not be as sophisticated as their lawyer. The code is intended to protect that client from potentially devious actions of the lawyer. Put even more simply, it prevents lawyers from maximizing their profits at the expense of the client.

It is for that same reason that I believe we should all be advocating for a formal code of ethics in design–to prevent designers from maximizing their profits at the expense of the user.

In the image below, I’ve ranked five thought leaders based on how important I believe their perspectives are when building a case for the need of a code of ethics in design. Bernays is ranked most important, because as a result of his work, our world has seen how dangerous unbridled freedom of persuasion can be. We now know that Hitler’s minister of propaganda used Bernay’s exact playbook when building affinity for the Third Reich. An individual using such powerful tools should be bound by a code of ethics.  Vitta is next, because he teaches us that design is pervasive and has much more influence than was once thought. This influence needs to be handled responsibly.  Papanek explains that designers have the power to solve problems, and it is our responsibility to use these skills to address “the true needs of men” instead of wasting them.  Postman describes a world where people are inundated and overwhelmed by information.  He explains that information alone solves no problems–if anything it causes more.  The tools of a designer can help humans make sense of it all.  Dewey sees everyone as a designer, because every interaction any human ever has contributes to their overall experience. Dewey is ranked as least important when building the case for a code of ethics in design, because if everyone designs, regardless of their formal profession, a code may not have a strong impact.

A formalized code of ethics would give designers much needed guidance on how to be responsible, and how to treat users with respect and dignity.


Reflections on AC4D Orientation 2019

Orientation week at Austin Center for Design is coming to a close.  In a very short period of time, our class of twelve was introduced to a wide variety of topics and activities.

At it’s core, design strategy is about experience, emotions, and stories. Humans are inherently emotional and irrational, and I found it both interesting and refreshing that design not only allows for that, but embraces and builds for it. I was also excited to learn what a creative process design strategy can be. It’s iterative and offers a lot of freedom. There’s ambiguity and there’s space to explore.

Our first project was a sprint to speak with food truck owners and employees, synthesize what we learned, and make inference which led to ideas. Generating hundreds of fresh ideas was a fun but taxing activity. It felt like flexing a muscle that I hadn’t used in a very long time.

Our instructor reiterated several times that it was important to trust the process. It was tempting to jump ahead and think about potential solutions while still gathering information. But, the fast-pace of this first assignment was a great way to test and see the value of that advice. Ultimately, many ideas and inferences came to our group while staring at our sticky notes that we never would have thought of two steps earlier.

The initial overview of Design Strategy has me looking more critically at the narratives being communicated to us every day: the places we live, the clothes we buy, the cars we drive, but also the way we build relationships, spend our time, and structure our lives. How much of this is being influenced by a thoughtfully crafted external force? What are the implications? Is that good… is it bad? How do we know?

I do know that I’m excited for these next 8 months and excited to dive right in.