Designing for Value Systems: Part I

Last week I led a 30 minute, focused conversation connecting the readings on dark patterns in UI with the mission statement and value promise of JUST – our partnered client in this years Capstone projects.

The goal was to make assumptive leaps around what other values we could tease out of the organizations message – values that might pertain to the organization, the clients, or both. And then to see how these values emerge, or don’t, through examples of dark and light patterns in user interface design.

Setting the Stage

I wanted to preface the conversation and activities with two takeaways I’d had from our introductory session with JUST President and CEO, Steve Wanta, and their Director of Design and Research, Erika Ortiz.

They both spoke about using intentional friction on two levels – to create space for mental slack, and also to nudge toward a desired behavioral outcome that would be beneficial to both JUST and their client. Additionally, there was a curiosity around wanting to understand how JUST could manufacture role models or ‘aha’ moments to inspire, educate, or empower.

I wanted to present both of these takeaways as something to hold in the back of our minds as we moved through several exercises.

Activity #1 – Making Value Assumptions

Lauren read aloud the JUST mission statement and value promise. Using Scattergories boards and a sand timer, we took 3 minutes to unpack what values might be important to JUST and their clients.

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Sean added these to a white board as we called out one value at a time, crossing off duplicates as we went.


As a facilitator, it was exciting to witness the energy and curiosity that created. While I intuitively grabbed the game on my way out the door, I hadn’t anticipated how it could be structured into the conversation until we were all interacting with it.

We were all surprised to see how many we had come up with as several of us expected to have the same set of answers. There were some hmm’s and ahh’s.

The conversation that followed led us into how and when we consider a person’s values – at what stage of the ‘design’ process? Does it begin when we engage them in conversation? Is it when we start to move from problem space to opportunity space?

Activity #2 – Matching Values to UI Design

Using some of the examples from our readings of bad UI as well as several examples of good UI – that the internet graciously culled for me – we asked ourselves two questions:

Based on this list of value assumptions, does this example support, reinforce or engage a user in their values? Or does this example negate, subvert or devalue a user based on these values?


The exercise created room for conversation, particularly around those examples that weren’t so easily placed:

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We closed out the conversation with a question borrowed from the Liberating Structures library of exercises. By then we’d run out of time to reflect on this together. In the future, I would anticipate this potential outcome and print a takeaway so folks could consider this on their own time, and perhaps spark conversation down the road.

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As I understand it, good facilitation is a product of thoughtful preparation – considering what the boundaries of the conversation should roughly be, what activity could promote understanding, curiosity or engagement. It also requires leadership – to know when to reel a conversation in, to push it forward, or pull in perspectives that might be missing.

In writing this post, it was tempting to set down words that are buzzy – that make sense on a “smart” level. But when I step back to think about the experience, I take myself back to the feeling. What did I feel during that process? What did I notice in other people? What was the energy? What was the vibe? The tone? When were people engaged or disengaged? What visual cues communicated this to me? Did they like it??

Facilitation Rubric

This diagram is a rough stab at visualizing what goes into thoughtful preparation for me. The questions I’m asking afterward are similar to the questions I’m asking at the outset. How can I set a stage with these in mind?


Here are a few things I would refine in the future:

  • Include a clear objective and takeaway on the slide deck! Since I was using one it would have made sense to clearly state this and use the deck as a tool for helping people digest the goal and the desired outcome.
  • Get into the activity quicker to allow more time for group reflection and conversation, both during and after.
  • Tell people what they’re in charge of rather than asking them to volunteer for roles. Everyone is expecting, and needing, that kind of take charge confidence.
  • Prepare a takeaway in the event your conclusion builds toward reflection, or something that begs further consideration.

If you have additional thoughts on how I could build or improve on the activities listed above – please reach out to me!


(Design) Thinking about Food

Through the first six weeks of theory class, we have been learning the foundations of design research, sensemaking of data, and most recently how these apply to real world scenarios through social business and social entrepreneurs.

For this assignment, we focused on the idea of “Design Thinking” and how that coincides with our current curriculum. Discussions revolved around the processes and tools we use for problem solving, how we frame problems in different ways to generate unique perspectives, and also how we determine who is or is not a designer. How do we draw that line, or is there even a line to be drawn?

This section about who is a designer resonated with me because it spoke to the concept that everyone has the ability to be a designer by evoking certain skills from the designer playbook. A teacher may make a diagram to help them do seating assignments, an accountant may build a spreadsheet to optimize their workflow, or a writer may write various versions of their story to test which one creates the best outcome. All of these tools are considered design because they are done with intent.

“The process of design is not just for designers, but for anyone whose business it is to create or lead something… anyone whose job it is to imagine something that does not yet exist and then plot the path from imagination to existence.”   

 – Harold Nelson & Erik Stolterman

This is what I had in mind when I set out to create a story for the presentation. I wanted to take the tools of a designer and put them in the hands of a non-designer to show how interdisciplinary the design field is. The understanding that all people have some degree of designer within themselves does two things – it gives them agency to be problem solvers, but it also creates a commonality for discussion when we work together as designer and non-designer.

With that in mind, please enjoy the story of Rex, the sous chef who utilized Design Thinking to push his cooking to the next level.




This is Rex.  He’s a sous chef at a local restaurant that cooks traditional Italian food, and everyone at the restaurant knows him for his amazing homemade ravioli. He makes the best ravioli because he uses a traditional recipe that was handed down to him from his grandmother, who he lovingly called Omi. Like most grandmas, Omi’s food was always the best.


Rex is a dreamer, and he has always dreams about opening his own restaurant and creating his own menu. He loves the idea of thinking creatively and wishes he was able to experiment more at his job. One day, he was reading a cooking magazine, when he saw an ad for a “Best New Recipe” contest and it paid $20,000!! He knew this would be enough to start his own food truck if he could win the contest.


So he went to work tweaking his recipe from the restaurant, but the changes were only making it incrementally better. He knew this wouldn’t be enough to win a best new recipe contest, so he searched for ways to approach this problem differently. He came across a couple articles about “Design Thinking”, and they really struck a chord with him.

“Design thinking taps into capacities that we all have, but that are overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices.”  

– Jocelyn Wyatt

“The process of design is not just for designers, but for anyone whose business it is to create or lead something… anyone whose job it is to imagine something that does not yet exist and then plot the path from imagination to existence.”  

– Harold Nelson & Erik Stolterman

“This sounds like me!” he thought, so he tried to practice some techniques the articles talked about. He wanted to think laterally, which meant to cut across the pattern he had built of making his ravioli the same way each time. This lateral thinking led him to re-think his ingredients. He was toying with lots of ideas when suddenly, Aha! he remembered an amazing trip he took to Seattle and imagined mixing this meal into his traditional ravioli. Having this experience gave him a depth of knowledge to lean on with his intuition, to give an unexpected result to his recipe.

“Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive…to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as being functional.”

– Jocelyn Wyatt

He instantly knew his passion from this trip would come through in the recipe.


So Rex goes back to the kitchen with his new ideas. He cooks, he tests, pushing the boundaries of flavor so he knew when to pull it back in. He asked his wife to taste it, and his friends for advice. Adding their perspectives, each iteration of the recipe seemed to be getting better and better until he decided it was right, and it was time to send the recipe in to the contest. He created easy step-by-step instructions that boiled down his process to make sure they made it exactly how he intended. What good is information if people can’t understand it right? Then he had to wait. And wait. He was so anxious and excited by the idea of winning until one day his phone rang………He won!!


He was on top of the moon! Rex was so happy and so proud, but he also felt thankful. He bought a food truck and named it after his grandmother by calling it “Omi, Oh my!”  He took some time to reflect about how this happened, and he came to realize he managed to take the tradition his grandmother taught him and use his own inner designer to innovate a new recipe. The value of tradition was strong in his identity and in the pasta recipe, but the traditional way of thinking wasn’t getting him out of the rut he had of cooking similar dishes. By using design thinking to integrate his emotions and experiences, he was able to level up the recipe and create something both new and familiar at the same time. If you must know, the recipe was for Salmon and potato stuffed ravioli with a dill cream sauce on top – magnifico! One day he plans to have a family, and he hopes that this might be able to teach his kids and their kids this recipe in the same tradition his grandmother taught him.

A Series of Situations

As our first assignment in Theory, we were tasked with formulating a stance on ethics and responsibilities of design in society, as we understood it from the readings of five authors (Papanek, Bernays, Dewey, Vitta, and Postman). Through my own interpretation and class discussions, I tried to make sense of the positions each author made in their writings, and then bring that interpretation to life through a graphical diagram. 

Before jumping into the diagram, I feel I need to frame the assignment as I understood it. The brief began with “the readings discussed different ways of ethically positioning design in society.” So first, I needed to understand how I was going to use the term design as a control point. Design is both a noun and a verb, giving it little sense of place in the context of an assignment. Because each author did not directly speak to design in the noun sense, that of creating physical forms and blueprints, I chose to use it in the sense of a verb. 





verb: design; 3rd person present: designs; past tense: designed; past participle: designed; gerund or present participle: designing

  1. decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), by making a detailed drawing of it.
    “a number of architectural students were designing a factory”
  2. do or plan (something) with a specific purpose or intention in mind.


Using the second definition of design in verb form, I felt I could connect with each author in a meaningful way because each spoke distinctly of acting with intention. 

To better make sense of how I was interpreting their positions on design, I made up a fictitious quote for each author as I imagined they would feel. I think these would actually be really good pickup lines to try at a bar sometime.

AC4D_IDSE102_01_designer role graph_v3_8.28.19


As you notice from my graphic, I felt each author held the ethics of design in high regard. I battled with this conclusion mostly with Bernays, who I believe was more economical in his writing than the others. Although after consideration, I believe he was talking about design as well when considering that all public relations campaigns used to sway public opinions were thought out and planned with intention, and that he too felt that design was critical to our social fabric in this regard. 

Without more readings and context, I found it hard to marginalize the difference between the value each author put on design. To say Papanek is slightly higher on the scale than Vitta seemed trivial, and because the scale was so abstract to begin with in makes sense to align them all at the same point. 

This notion of all the authors having a similarly high regard for the use of design in society, and designers in general, is better illustrated when we think about how their views work together. 



The series of situations is a recurring cycle that we can jump into at any point. The idea of a series of situations was noted by Dewey in the context of interactions happening between people and their environment, and that an experience can not be separated from either the people or places in context, without altering the experience altogether.



If we hop into the cycle at the top, and believe that having a positive experience will encourage the growth of any individual, but in this case a designer, we can assume that the designers will evolve into a better version of themselves. This was the perspective of Dewey. The experience knocks down barriers we may have setup for ourselves, and allows us to imagine more freely and thus be more creative. The positive experience encourages multiple new experiences, creating diversity of knowledge and culture enabling us to think with empathy.  The idea of various experiences giving more perspective was brought up by Papenek. Having empathy, as said by Postman, is what differs us from machines, and guides us to search for problems worth solving. 

When the well-informed designer begins problem solving, they have more tools in their tool-belt for how to tackle foreign situations. They think in new ways and are not afraid of failure. The idea of trying to fail and not being chastised for failure are ideas brought up by both Papanek and Dewey. Failure at trying to solve a worthwhile problem is better than succeeding at creating a useless solution. The designer also has more tools than ever before and new technology that can be creatively put to use in ways we had not previously imagined. Postman harps on how technology has been applied without a positive impact on society, but applied to a meaningful product he would agree in the value of information. The unorthodox thinking and availability of technology allow us to create a better, more purposeful products, which are addressing problems worth solving. This is a sentiment shared by both Postman and Papanek.

I believe Vitta thinks that we interact with designers on a daily basis, because everything around us has been designed, and it gives an heir of influence to the designers. The designer, who now has great responsibility, also has the power of persuasion. Persuasion is a specialty of Bernays. By persuading the public to invest in the purposeful product, and because the product was well designed and well informed, the public has a positive experience when they interact. The positive experience this time is of the public, but it propels the cycle to start again. This positive experience is one of the key teachings of Dewey. As other designers begin to see the value of empathy, problem solving, and using technology for the advancement of society, we have changed their perception by exposing the cliche that bad designers are bad for society. We can thank Bernays for that tactic. 

There is a catch to all of this, one that I believe was abundant in Postman’s reading. What if we do make a new, purposeful product, with great intention and positive experience? How can we know for sure what the ultimate consequences will be? It’s impossible to predict how 7.5 billion unique people will react to a new situation, because they all have prior baggage which is affecting their perspective. How do we know someone won’t take the technology we designed for good, and use it for greed and profit, or worse for harm? We don’t, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do the right thing.

Theory: Being a Designer

Throughout this Theory class I’ve been asked again and again to show my perspective. Regurgitating the info we’ve learned isn’t enough. And a lot of what we’ve read in this last section resonated with me more than the other readings. (I’ve heard the same from other students, I imagine this is by design.) And I’ve been thinking about what I should use for the presentation and whether I should tell a story similar to my Harry Potter presentation and if so, what device should I use? Mad Men? The Wire? Beyonce lyrics? Beyonce gifs?!

And all of that seemed like something else for me to hide behind. This reading section is about Problem Solving, Being a Designer and Process. I’ve been calling myself a designer for 20 years, this needs to be about me.

When I graduated high school, instead of buying the official graduation announcements I designed my own (mostly because my dad is cheap and wouldn’t pay for the official ones when we could do them ourselves). I opted to put a quote in the announcement and this is what I chose.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
-Pablo Picasso

Maintaining this child-like approach to creativity I think would create the world Pacione envisions where everyone should be designing. Everyone should be thinking of ways to create something that does not yet exist, no matter what discipline they consider themselves to be in.

Fast forward a few years and I’ve been a designer at a print shop, a marketing firm and an ad agency and I’m frustrated. I get a new job (chalkboard artist/signmaker) at a company I admire (Whole Foods Market) and I’m doing work that feels important. At least, making local profile signs for local farmers feels more important than making business cards for oil company employees.

And in hindsight I realize that in that role–more than in any of my others–I got to use Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt’s concept of inspiration, ideation and implementation at a very fast pace. For example, I learned that chalkboards were not masterpieces, they were usually erased and redone quite frequently. It was better to try something quick and get the message up than it was to use several valuable hours attempting perfection. So if I didn’t like something, I’d have the chance to do something better in a week. They weren’t complete failures but I’d walk through the store and make notes, like, “Well, that doesn’t look as good from far away as I thought it might.”

A few years later I definitely got to use what Edward de Bono calls lateral thinking. I was in a new role, still at Whole Foods Market, that had never existed before in our region, supporting the store artists, and I was charting my own course. I hired two more support people, former store artists as well, and we set a plan to help hire, train and support store artists so they didn’t feel like silos. We didn’t adopt a system of colored hats but we had to constantly update and change our guidance and advice because what worked for one store didn’t always work for another store. (That sounds like Hobbes, too, while we’re at it.) And since the chalkboard artist role was so unique, we were the only members of the regional team who could truly empathize and help problem-solve.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m still at Whole Foods Market, but I’m the Regional Art Director. I have a team of 6 and I get to be part of exciting projects, like designing a whole new sign template for the Produce department. (I’ve actually inadvertently done what Pilliton suggests and I’ve immersed myself in a culture for 3-5 years so I can better problem-solve for with the users.)  But I wasn’t happy.

What was missing?

First, while some of the problems I was solving could be called ill-defined, none of them were even close to being called wicked. Second, Pacione’s model of learning/understanding/making really resonated with me but it’s not what I was doing at Whole Foods Market, or at many of my past jobs. His model shows a repeating cycle of looking at a problem, understanding it, making something to solve the problem and through that making acquiring a deeper understanding. Repeat. Through repeating that process, one arrives closer to a solution.

Pacione’s model looks like this:


I feel like what I’ve been doing my whole life, not just at Whole Foods Market looks more like this:


There was no reflection or understanding after the making step and I know I’ve seen projects happen where there was no understanding before it.

So here I am at AC4D and I’m looking forward to using the creative thinking I’ve been using all my life and applying it across other disciplines.


Design & Poverty: The Harry Potter Lens

Sometimes when I want to understand something deeper I apply a Harry Potter lens to it. I’m a Meyers-Briggs ISTP, which Harry Potter character is that? Oh, it’s Harry. That makes sense: I’m in my own head a lot, I’m not trying to be the center of attention but when it comes down to it, I’ll get things done. And I’m an Enneagram 5, which Harry Potter character is that? Snape? Oh, well, that didn’t help as much.

So I did the same thing for this assignment. I created a comic strip called “Harry Potter and the Plight of the House Elves.” In adding my perspective, I chose to do it through Harry. The author’s perspectives I chose to have Harry represent were Hobbes, Pilliton and Yunus.

For the entire comic strip, click here.

Harry Potter spitting Hobbes realness.
Harry Potter spitting Hobbes realness.

I definitely agree with the idea that what is a good solution for one group won’t apply to everyone across the board. As a designer it’s a reminder for me to dream small and perhaps more importantly, stay flexible! In solving wicked problems I may never be able to dust my hands and feel like I’m done.

Harry Potter and the Words of Pilliton.
Harry Potter and the Words of Pilliton.

In theory I agree with Pilliton that you have to really immerse yourself into a culture in order to solve the problems worth solving and ensuring that they are problems worth solving to that community. But it’s terrifying and I don’t feel ready to commit to that level of work yet. I’m sure that if something arose that I was passionate about, I’d move in a heartbeat. But selfishly, right now, I’d rather find a problem worth solving somewhere cool, like Stockholm or Berlin.

Harry Potter and the Grameen Bank.
Harry Potter and the Grameen Bank.

Harry’s final solution looks a lot like Mohammad Yunus’ plan for the Grameen Bank- incremental freedoms (amounts of money in the case of the Grameen Bank) to help them lift themselves out of poverty. When I first heard about the Grameen Bank 10ish years ago I thought it was revolutionary. I haven’t looked into it recently, maybe as Hobbles suggests, the model has cracks showing now that it’s expanded and maybe it doesn’t work everywhere. (That would be my suspicion.)

In the end, Harry finds himself wondering if there were a magical school where he could learn to solve these wicked problems. In that regard, Harry and I are in the same place: school. But he’s learning magic and I’m learning methods. Hopefully one day, though, when I’m practicing what I’m learning here it can look like magic.

The Role of Design Research: 8 Authors, 2 Questions

Over the past 2 weeks we’ve read a variety of articles that touch on theories, frameworks and practices of design research. We were asked to consider if they were designing with or designing for. I interpreted that as designing with or for the end user. As a designer I was most curious about where each author would put the designer in the problem-solving process.

8 authors and where their theories land in the cross-section of these two questions.
8 authors and where their theories land in the cross-section of these two questions.


1. Paul Dourish
As human computer interaction expands, Dourish wants us to consider, or rather reconsider, context when we’re gathering data. I placed him toward designing with. And I doubt he envisioned designers being at the forefront of that process, though I don’t think he’d be against it so he’s in the middle.

2. Liz Sanders
Sanders extols the value of co-creation, which she defines as collaboration to create something not known in advance. She thinks there’s value in using co-creation at all levels of a company and at various stages of the design process depending on the goals. She does say that the earlier in the process co-creation happens, the greater and broader the likely impact so I’ve placed her in the upper left.

3. Jodi Forlizzi
Like Dourish, Forlizzi wants us to think about context. Her Product Ecology framework clarifies how we should select design research methods to solve problems. As her focus is mainly on qualitative research and product design I’ve placed her in the designing for quadrant with the designers entering the process later in development.

4. Jane Fulton Suri
In her articles, Suri illustrates the benefits of experience prototyping and corporate ethnography. In every prototyping, the designers are running the show but she’s absolutely designing for since she’s not utilizing the end user in her process. In discussing corporate ethnography, she acknowledges that it’s useful but still needs to go deeper in order to solve the wicked problems.

5. William Gaver
Gaver takes a wholly unscientific approach as he explains the value of using Cultural Probes. His point is that by posing open and even absurd questions, we’ll get surprising answers. He’s bucking the traditional system of being objective. So while he’s using designers at the beginning of the process and designing with the end user in his data collection, he’s not interested in doing anything with that data.

6. Christopher Le Dantec
I’ve placed Le Dantec at the top left because he’s out in the world using design research to design with. He describes his process to gain empathy from the homeless community and understand how technology affects their daily lives.

7. Don Norman
Norman argues that there is no room for design research in innovation. He points to random past inventions (planes, trains, automobiles) as proof that we don’t need design research. His tone is very get-off-my-lawn and I think he’s uncomfortable with the idea of designers at the helm of the innovation ship, a position he, as a technologist, has traditionally enjoyed. I don’t even think he necessarily believes his own argument but he wants designers to prove that they should be there.

8. Jon Kolko
Kolko wants us to use all research to learn from and emphasize people, not technology or business. It’s possible that lightning-strike innovation (of the kind Norman references) exists but design research + synthesis is a formula for getting us there without lightning.

When I first thought of making this graph with the vertical axis being the role of the designer, I thought it would make a straight line of dots from the upper left to the bottom right. Upon deeper reading + having deeper conversations I was both surprised and intrigued to find the outliers.

Ethics Diagram: Rating Authors of Theory

Assignment #1 Diagram

Rating authors and thought leaders on a scale from least important to most important is a tough request. But reframing and asking which of their ethics is most important to me makes the exercise a little more approachable. I created a diagram that has two parts. On the bottom are player cards that label the authors based on their position in my rating, communicating their perspective on the role of the designer, why I value that perspective, and a quote from the reading that exemplifies my choice.


When I went to position the authors along a graph I wasn’t sure why I was leaning towards one or the other. It is very difficult to disregard my emotional responses to their writing styles, expository or persuasive. I did my best to avoid dwelling too much on the history of when these authors were actively publishing—for example Bernays wrote about ‘propaganda’ at a time when it didn’t have the same connotation that it does now. But then again some of the latter authors—Postman and Vitta—are writing about topics that didn’t exist in the discourse of early 20th century debate.

I decided to focus on my affinity for the ethics that emphasize the demand for design to be malleable, cyclical, user-empowering, inclusive, and humbling. Bernays—although deceptively inclusive—and Vitta do not give agency to users as integral and equal parts of the interactions that make a product or a service. When I read these authors users feel like a flock of sheep. Dewey and Postman vouch for a human-centered design that is interactive and non-discriminatory.

Design is a cycle, and Vitta does good to bring light to this despite his cynicism. When designers partake in the massification of consumer culture, the chain does not end with their invention in the hands of a user. If the designer is not considerate and responsible in their innovations, the uselessness of their products will come back to bite them in the behind. The product doesn’t end with the consumer. The consumers, along with their belongings, fuse a bridge back to the originator—the designer.

Ethically, it is the designers that must be held accountable to the power of design. When we were discussing the readings in class several people said the oft repeated quote, “with great power comes great responsibility.” I don’t disagree with that. But when the imagery in my mind went to Superman I felt hesitant. So I had to make an additive statement that clears up my frustration with that saying:

Design should be powerful.

Designers should be humble.

I believe designers have some of the tools to be the most influential cultural and societal influencers. But we owe it to design and to the active agency and participation of users to achieve great success in healing and developing.

Designerly Imagination: Fencing Us In

What limits what we can imagine? That’s the provocative question and theme we explored the past two weeks with Richard Anderson.

It’s a more complicated question than it might appear on the surface. After all, who hasn’t been told at least once (or been the person imparting the wisdom) that the only limitation is imagination? As if imagination can be tapped into if only we try hard enough.

The readings impart several barriers to what we can imagine:

Language. The word we use matter and shape our perception of the world. In healthcare, individuals are patients (even when they’re healthy), and providers are health care professionals.


Context. We must look deeper to understand the meaning and the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea. In science fiction, despite imagining worlds that have never been seen but later became a reality, “one limitation of the past and current science fiction communities is that they disproportionately feature the contributions of a particular author demographic (i.e., white men). If we admit that visions of the future are influenced by the present context of the author, this is an important point to consider when adapting ideas from science fiction narratives.”


Education. Professionals, from doctors to MBAs to designers, are taught to think a certain way and to becomes masters of specific tools and processes. This embedded way of thinking frames how we view the world.


Trends. Trends tell us where the world or the market are heading. There are smart reasons to jump on a trend. It’s often a recipe for success. But patterns can have unintended consequences, such as convenience and efficiency which has become the hallmark of technology and design. Trends are not inherently bad. What if we refreshed our hot trend more regularly?


Perseverance. Stick-to-it-ive-ness is often a good thing. But knowing when to walk away is a good thing too. The answer to lousy technology often adds more technology. What if there’s a different solution?


Objects. Physical objects offer limitations of their own. For a writer, it might have been a typewriter or pen and paper. For a designer, sharpies, and post-it-notes?


Fencing Us In

People of all stripes are subject to these limitations of imagination. And it seems there are endless limitations. Culture. Religion. Empathy. It goes on and on.

Design Limitations


For designers, a common trap is thinking that we’re the innovators and saviors. Everyone should think like a designer. Literature can learn more from design than design from literature. Got a wicked problem? Get a designer.

Designers are taught to embrace constraints when working on a project. Constraints are our friends. So perhaps we need some limitations to what design is capable of imagining.

Just like ego can affect our ability to receive critique and to collaborate, it can affect our ability to be open to creativity. Design and humility are a good match. It leads to an understanding that design works best when partnering with other disciplines and taking every opportunity to learn and leverage other talents. I’m all about design, but even I am growing tired of headlines that tell practically every profession to think like a designer.

What if these were our limitations?

At the start of the quarter I wrote that design is human and in another post I wrote about the need for design agency, a distinctly human ability. I thought they were simple, yet provocative statements. It’s also complicated.

In an era of artificial intelligence and exponential growth of technology, what it means to be human is up for debate. Faith Popcorn, a leading futurist who has worked with some of the most significant companies in the world, said that “we already live in a world with self-driving cars soon taking to the roads and a robotic citizen.” Faith thinks that “things will become even more sci-fi. We’re on the bridge from the past to the future. It’s going to be even faster than we think. People must move forward and redefine what work means, whether we must work, and consider what it means to be human.”

The Road Ahead

That’s going to take a big dose of humility and a multidisciplinary team to prototype, test, and iterate. Grab the post-it-notes and let’s get to work!


Rethinking Design Agency

Lately, I’ve heard the word agency over and over in contexts that sound new to me. I’m listening to NPR and someone will say something like “There are other things in life besides being safe, like having the sense you’re running your own life and having a sense of agency.” A few days later, someone will say “Addressing the wrong through official channels will give you a sense of agency.” And at the end of the 3-part lecture on power, the final words on the screen were from Alan Cooper, “agency grows the more you exercise it.”

So between NPR and the lecture, I was urged to unpack the word. What does a sense of agency mean?

When we hear the word agency in a design context, likely top design agencies come to mind. What I discovered is that a sense of agency is the feeling that one has of being the author of one’s actions. And in fact, agency is of great interest to psychologists and sociologists, to name just two fields of study.

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Psychological Perspective

Psychology tells us that a sense of agency refers to the feeling of control over actions and their consequences. A sense of agency refers to the feeling of power over actions and their results.

This sense of agency is essential for people to feel in control of their life: to believe in their capacity to influence their thoughts and behavior, and to have faith in their ability to handle a wide range of tasks or situations (Psychology Today). Having a sense of agency affects your stability as a separate person; it is your capacity to be psychologically stable, yet resilient or flexible, in the face of conflict or change.

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Sociological Perspective

Sociology offers another definition. “Agency refers to the thoughts and actions taken by people that express their power” (ThoughtCo). Agency is the power people have to think for themselves and act in ways that shape their experiences and life trajectories.

In the social sciences, there is a debate over structure or agency in shaping human behavior. “The core challenge at the center of the field of sociology is understanding the relationship between structure and agency. Structure refers to the complex and interconnected set of social forces, relations, institutions, and elements of social structure that work together to shape the thought, behavior, experiences, choices, and overall life courses of people” (ThoughtCo).

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Shared Agency

Agency can be in individual and collective forms. Collective agency is where we see people act together, united by a common cause, harnessing the power and influence of the group. Sometimes individuals work together, and sometimes they move independently of one another. It’s a distinction that matters. You are likely to make more headway in a difficult task working with others; and even if there is little progress, there’s at least the comfort and solidarity that comes with a collective undertaking (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Examples of a collective or shared agency include institutions or laws established by everyone working together for status or a cause. Civil rights, and recently LGBTQ rights are examples. Within groups, you also see them working together to advance shared ethical rules, for example, doctors. You’ll see this across a variety of disciplines, including politics, social science, economics, law, and so on.

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A Working Definition

A designer’s sense of design agency refers to the feeling of control over actions and their consequences, and the thoughts and actions taken by designers. Design agency can take individual and collective forms. Its hallmarks include a feeling of power over actions and their results. Designers with design agency are resilient yet flexible in the face of conflict or change.

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So What?

Design has significant power to shape the world around us and to create behavior change. In history, we’ve seen design as a tool of colonialism in Morocco. Most recently, we’ve seen designers using attachment anxiety in emotional design and marketing; and in the world around of us, the world that user experience is creating, and data usage by Facebook.

Roadblocks to design agency include individual mindsets and designers as a whole.

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Building Design Agency

A path to design agency rests with designers. There were strategic actions and tactical paths in our readings about how designers might go about this in a real-world environment. Design agency is all about designers having the ability to take action, to be effective, to influence our work, and to assume responsibility for our designs and what we put into the world. Developing design agency is a step in reconciling that design is political and human.

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In class discussion, we struggle with recognizing our power and responsibility (design agency) as designers. It’s not going to be easy. Our call to action as we enter the design profession is resounding: be the change we want to see in the world.


Just Unfuck It

As I began to make sense of the articles and discussions for design theory with Richard Anderson, With the Best Intentions, design is human, and design is political came to mind. As designers, we work with and among people to achieve a larger purpose.

Mark Manson, in his article Everything is Fucked and I’m Pretty Sure It’s the Internet’s Fault, reminded me that some of our most urgent work in social entrepreneurship is to redesign existing systems, processes, and to create behavior change that leads to a better world. Matson makes the case that technology has unintentionally formed divides which are at play today on a global scale.  

How might designers unfuck the current situations that we find ourselves? Perhaps said more often, how might we redesign or reimagine it? With ‘it’ as a placeholder for a broad number of wicked problems, such as civic engagement, poverty, and racism. An excellent place to start is to recognize the human and political nature of design.

I’m Only Human, Born to Make Mistakes

A simple statement but with a lot of meaning: design is human. Human-centered design is a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs (IDEO). And if design is human, it’s also subject to the frailties of human nature.

We read several articles about selfish altruism, which lead me to research selflessness and human nature. Many believe that there can be no such thing as an altruistic act that does not involve some element of self-interest. Whether it’s a sense of pride, or more direct compensation, self-interest is unavoidable. Despite best intentions to perform a selfless act, turns out there is no such thing.


Political Animals by Nature

Design is political. Also a simple loaded statement. Looking back on post-it notes as I read the articles, I see similar phrases written over and over as if it was a realization: design is political; design by definition is political; design and politics. Is design intentionally politically? Can we divorce the political from design?

Laura Bliss, The High Line’s Next Balancing Act, wrote that the “famed linear park may be a runaway success, but it’s also a symbol of Manhattan’s rising inequality.” The founders of the High Line shared several ideas for what they could have done differently to avoid the unintended consequences: asking better questions (such as “what can we do for you” vs. input on visual design, and working more closely with the government for zoning and land usage.

If design is human and political, then design is also a form of political activism. The problems we choose to focus on. The people that we work with. Who is the project really for? Design for good. Social entrepreneurship. And if we are redesigning something, then that gives rise to a changing tide. Our professor wrote that because of his experience with the healthcare system, today he’s working to redesign that system. Is he an activist?

In another post, Anderson posed a question that is on topic, Is it Ethical for Designers to Function as Activists When Practicing their Profession? If So, When? If So, How? The short answer (from my perspective): despite best intentions to be an ethical designer, we can’t divorce our humanity and political point of view from our work. Nor should we. Perhaps a new definition of what it means to be an ethical designer is needed.


Despite the hazard of best intentions, several areas of opportunity come to mind for designers:

  • What if we consistently ask ourselves, who is this project really for?
  • What if humanity, with all of its flaws, itself can be un-fucked?
  • What if we are less cynical? After all, design schools and design firms might sell activism the same way a big business sells a t-shirt.
  • How might we apply deep learning to our work?
  • How might we balance cynicism with what we know to be true?
  • How might we recognize the dignity of the people we endeavor to design for and develop a shared understanding of what it means to treat people with dignity?