The designer I want to be

As a student in his first quarter at the Austin Center for Design, I am beginning to develop my own philosophy for how I want to be a designer when I enter into the professional world. In the course titled Design, Society and the Public Sector, I read foundational texts written by design practitioners and academics that are reflections of what it means to them to have impact as an interaction designer. In the most recent cycle of readings, we focused on the meaning and development of value as well as the underlying principles for creating value for consumers and citizens of the world. In order synthesize the articles, I created a short comic that I will present below. First, I will provide some context for the story I wrote.

As a basis for understanding my perspective, I start with two of the readings (written by Jon Kolko and Don Norman) that introduce differing perspectives of innovation and that pushed me to ask the question: “Where does/should the concept of innovation live?”

innovation-01 innovation-02

As expressed in the diagrams above, the authors focused on two kinds of innovation. Innovation from the perspective of new technologies can lead to conceptual breakthroughs and eventually change how humans interact. Examples of this are the automobile, the computer and the cellphone. On the other hand, innovation can be seen from the perspective of the consumer. This kind of innovation is subjective and defined by individuals – in the ways they see their own lives and how they use or do not use services and products.

As a future designer, I am interested in focusing on innovating from the perspective of users. Thus steeping myself in the human centered design process makes sense.

Comparing the positions of each of the authors we read (Norman, Kolko, Sanders, Gaver and Dourish), I am beginning to build a framework for thinking about how to develop innovative solutions to wicked problems (as they are experienced on the human level). At its core, the human centered design process is, “…an approach that values uncertainty, play, exploration, and subjective interpretation as ways of dealing with [the limits of knowledge].” (Gaver, pg. 1) This pushes against the dominant belief in the value of quantification, predictive models and a positivist methodology for understanding how to design innovative solutions. However, humans do not experience the world in predictable and rational ways. Instead they are constantly creating the world they live in. The context that people operate in is embodied. Context is, “…something that people do. It is an achievement rather than an observation; an outcome, rather than a premise.”  (Dourish, pg. 22)

Since I want to be a researcher and designer who wants to innovate from the perspective of users, I have to be able to get at the lived experience of humans. I need to figure out methods for capturing that data and making sense of it. It is not as simple as coming up with all the variables that need to be quantified, making objective (context-free) observations, and asking people to respond to surveys. It requires getting at how people really behave, think, and feel. In order to do this, I need a mindset in which I believe I can co-create with my users so that I can access my users’ experiences. Co-creation is an “…act of collective creativity that is experienced jointly by two or more people…where the intent is to create something tis not known in advance.” I believe this loops back to the quote I presented from Gaver. An act is only creative if it is playful, uncertain, and leads to subjective interpretations. As a human centered designer, I need to embody this mindset in order to capture rich data on how my users think, behave and feel. I can do this through creative activities or presenting them with cultural probes wherein I capture reactions to unexpected and irrational stimuli. Of course, just as any positivist scientist would tell you, you need to process lots of data. In the qualitative research world, we do this through synthesis. As Kolko states, “…Synthesis is a sense making process that helps the designer move from data to information, and from information to knowledge.” (Kolko, pg. 40)

Now that I’ve laid out some of the thinking I have been doing on what kind of designer I want to be, I will speak about the story I will present below. As I reflected on the articles, the idea of play stood out.  When humans play, they are doing, creating, and revealing truths about themselves they would not in a rational state of mind. Thus, I centered my story on three individuals, Marvin, Kolko and Sanders. Marvin is lonely and wants to play. Kolko shows up and stimulated by an artifact (a stick), their unconscious desire to fight is acted upon. Sanders shows up and stops them. She works with the boys to co-create another solution to helping them all feel included. They synthesize this information and come up with an insight: they all want to play in a treehouse. I believe within these simple interactions I summarized the above points: the kids innovate changing their lived experience, co-create, play, imagine, and act as a designer should.

Value comic-01 Assignment 2-02 Value comic-03 Value comic-04




The Magician.


When a young magician completes his studies, his is endowed with a sense of duty to create good. So he sets off into the world of people, and as it happens there are people with problems everywhere you go

He happens upon a group of people looking for food. Luckily, a magician is great a figuring out what the problem is immediately. Emily Pilloton warns, “you cannot design solutions for people who need them unless you fundamentally understand the problems,” but confident in his untested solution, he creates for them field and introduces the group to agriculture. 

What’s happened here can be summarized by Victor Margolin

  • We have a desire to help
  • Our experiences are framed in a value structure unique to our country
  • We try to drive change in a geographic area
  • We inadvertently or explicitly export our value structure

When the magician returns, he realizes that for some reason his solution didn’t stick. Maybe the people just didn’t “get it”. Luckily, he has a solution. As Bernays claims, all it takes is one small, powerful group to sway the larger public in its attitude towards ideas. And after all, this for their own good.

So he creates two influential leaders to guide them. Bernays says that anyone may try to convince others and to assume leadership on behalf of his own thesis. It is the power of the group to sway the larger public in its attitude towards ideas.  This is exactly what the two helpers do.

The first Helper teaches the people Margolin’s expansion model. He shows them that markets drive the world and the path towards happiness is the consumption of goods.

The second Helper believes in Margolin’s equilibrium model and teaches them that the world is a set of ecological checks and balances.

Allowing themselves to be influenced by these two flashy leaders, the people have what John Dewey would call, “miseducative experiences”. They learn a way to live, they learn a way to think about themselves, they learn what they should value, but they don’t learn to think for themselves. 

When the designer comes back, he sees collision and chaos.

Some of the people, influenced by the expansion model hustle get more and more things. They begin to identify with the these objects. A women is no longer a woman, but known as an estate owner after amassing an enormous field.

She’s fallen into an experience that Vitta would summarize by saying: “The individual is overwhelmingly surrounded by goods, constrained to use them only as a way to portray themselves to others”.

Other people, living under the equilibrium model are subject to their goods being taken. They starve and don’t know how to help themselves

The young designer is distressed to see his design cause such chaos and sadness.  His original solution created unintended consequences, just as Hobbes states: “When you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected”. 

He falls into the pit of despair, and the people don’t know what to do. They have had a series of miseducative experiences through the teachings of the “Helpers”.

That is until…

His next idea!

Realizing that he never understood what these people needed in the first place, he decides to flip the script. The magician gives all the people their own wands. Then instead of leaving, as he was so apt to do in the past, he decides to stay. Taking Emily Pilloton’s advice he grows roots and strives to depth over breadth, and scattershot methods of “saving the world”.
The young designer, no longer the master and manipulator of the people, spends his days alongside them learning. They teach him how they live, and he develops deep relationships.

Design In Society Through Out A Story Of Alice In The University Of Wonderland

In the past 2 weeks we studied 6 articles about Manipulation and Globalism wrote by Edward Bernays, Maurizio Vitta, John Dewey, Victor Margolin, Emily Pilloton, and Michael Hobbes.

In my story, I tried to express a point of view of each of the authors on the role of design in society the way it was presented in the articles. The story is about a young girl Alice who is a student the University of Wonderland, trying to find herself. The story contains 6 chapters, in each of them you can find the main points of each author position, adapted to the main storyline.


Chapter 1: Inspired by “The meaning of design” by Maurizio Vitta

Section 1 Vertical-01

The first chapter of Alice’s story highlights Maurizio Vitta’s point of view on what’s going on with design in the modern world. Designers are used to adding frivolous and unnecessary features on top of the primary, problem-solving functionality of the product. With so much variability, people have gotten used to consuming those products to show who they are (their socio-economic status, culture, and general lifestyle), and not always because of the product’s primary function itself. Maurizio Vitta is encouraging designers to create products with a bigger purpose.

That is exactly what’s happening with Alice – she is attracted to certain things because they change her perception in the eyes of the society. Good for her, her new course of study will change the way she looks at it.


Chapter 2: Inspired by “The need of a Theory of Experience”  by John Dewey

Section 2-01

In this chapter, you will find the ideas of John Dewey about relationships between education and experience. Dewey says that a teacher needs to pay attention to where students are in the process, meet them where they are. The problem of old, traditional education is not that it doesn’t give experience, but that this experience doesn’t lead to the next experience. He believes that designers should design for personal growth.

Alice is very lucky to meet a professor who shares Dewey’s opinion. He will help Alice to find herself in doing great things for the world.


Chapter 3: Inspired by “Global Expansion or Global Equilibrium? Design and the World Situation” by Victor Margolin

Section 3 Vertical-01

Victor Margolin compares equilibrium model (limitation of world’s resources) with the expansion model (innovations is everything) and talking about the inevitability of a fight between the two. The job of a designer, he says, is to make them work together.

He also mentions that design can be and should be applied to things beyond products.

Alice understands that the resources of the world are limited, and it changes her world view.


Chapter 4: Inspired by “Manipulating public opinion” by Edward Bernays

Section 4-01

Per Edward Bernays, public opinion, on one hand, is slow and reactionary, and does not easily accept new ideas. On another hand, anyone can manipulate with some preparation. Designers can help to identify current opinion and find the ways to change it. Alice has used a major event as the means to manipulating public opinion, while also helping the victims of that event.


Chapter 5: Inspired by “Stop trying to save the World” by Michael Hobbes

Section 5 Vertical-01

In his article Michael Hobbes tells us about problems of current researches and innovations when designing for social impact. One of them is the tendency to extrapolate working ideas to the whole world without additional research – and gives examples of many failures of great ideas that happened because of that. When you improve something, you change it in the way you couldn’t expect. Elaborate design is the way for social changes, small and big. And it’s worth to make positive changes, even if they are not as big as you wish.

Alice makes the very same mistake Michael Hobbes describes – she tried to make students of all colleges of her Planet avoid purchasing gowns and donate money to the Neighbor Planet instead. Unfortunately, she didn’t perform enough research on the traditions and people of the other schools, and so it didn’t go well.


Chapter 6: Inspired by “Depth over Breadth: Designing For Impact Locally, and for the long haul” by Emily Pilloton

Section 6 Vertical-01

In her article Emily Pilloton brings up some progressive ideas based on her rich working experience in the field of designing for social impact. She highlights the value of 3 lasting impact requirements: proximity (simply be there, be local), empathic investment (show your personal and emotional stake), and pervasiveness (create an ecosystem instead of a tree).

And this is exactly what Alice did in this story – she moved to the Planet that she wanted to design for, became a local, and helped them through well-designed and impactful social projects.

Potential of Design in Society: Pixie the Traveler

In Jon Kolko’s Design, Society and the Public Sector class, we aim to study the theory behind the social and ethical responsibility of design. We do this by reading the works of several philosophers, design theorists and design practitioners, like John Dewey, Edward Bernays, Maurizio Vitta, Victor Margolin, Emily Pilloton and Michael Hobbes, and interpret their point of view as it relates to the role of design in society.

Our first assignment was to illustrate these six author’s main positions in the form of a story.

I chose to do this through the story of Pixie the traveler:


In a fiction planet, Pixie is a young traveler that wants to know everything about her world. She is a teacher, so whenever she has time, she will go and visit new places. She’s visited hundreds of places, and met wonderful people, languages, cultures and food.

Until one day,

Pixie went down a beautiful mountain and arrived to the land of the Sepan. Sepanese didn’t greet her like Pixie would normally get greeted in other parts she had been. Some of them hid, others looked curious, others panicked, they clearly did not know what to do with this creature that suddenly appeared from the top of the mountain, a mountain that they’ve never tried to cross before.

With a few clues, Pixie was able to figure out what was going on; the Sepanese were made to believe by their long gone leader that they were the only people left on earth. Seeing someone new that wasn’t part of their hundred year old community was not an easy thing to process for them.

Pixie unveiled the truth to them, she showed them pictures of what she had seen past the Sepanese mountains, she tried to play music they’ve never heard of and tried to cook things for them that they’ve never tasted before.

Education is an elemental tool for those who seek the wellbeing of society as a whole. In “The Need of a Theory of Experience John Dewey states that it is only when an individual learns about the world by experiencing it that he can then look forward to become the best version of himself and therefore, better contribute to society. In “The Why & the How” Bernays mentions that society tends to get attached to retrogressive habits, which is why we’re most likely to need a dramatic intervention of a new idea in our lives to get our minds wondering about things we’ve never experienced or thought of before. Both authors illustrate two dissimilar but connected perspectives, if we theorize that there are two types of individuals in the world, those that opt to know the world by genuinely experiencing it, and those that are ok with grasping a summarized version of the world that was previously prescribed to them. According to Dewey, teachers that are given freedom in the classroom to keep their students engaged and that have an understanding of human behavior can better prepare a student to give back to their society and, to Bernay’s point, give them tools that allow them to self-express and therefore, safeguard themselves against any sort of tyranny.

IDSE102-Assignment1 5-8

For her following crusade, Pixie is joined by a Sepanese friend who is curious about the world. They travel the world together after a long journey, Pixie and her new Sepanese friend, Nan, stumbled upon a landfill of artifacts and a river of what looked like unused gadgets. Without knowing it, they had arrived to the land of the Coseeks.

The Coseeks were well known for always being up to date with the latest technology, but this made them lose sense of what was real and valuable. Huge billboard size screens showing beautiful but artificial landscapes would cover the garbage landfills giving the impression that they were in a harmonious environment.

Also curious about their new guest’s culture around objects – which they clearly lack – Cron, a Coseeker, decides to join them in their final part of their journey.

Society has given more value to physical objects, setting aside the initial intention of function and adding unnecessary features and elements that “allow” the individual to project their sense of self. But this is not without consequence. In “The Meaning of Design” and “Design and the World Situation” there’s a connection between Vitta and Margolin’s point of view as it relates to society’s current state of mass consumption. Designer’s practice appears to have become “inadequate and ineffective” and calls for a culture change in the design practice in order to start investing in a “social change” in order to “make possible a different and more balanced relationship with things”. Ideally, the once product designer then becomes a system designer, evolving his current practice from designing vehicles of communication to designing systems based on complex problems. Designing in the intersection between a system of abstention and a system of capitalism, seeking to integrate human beings into a broader more ecological and cultural environments.  IDSE102-Assignment1 9 - 10

While experiencing the things and situations that life has to offer, Pixie was able to positively impact the life of her two new friends. Being almost opposites, Nan and Cron traveled and saw the world through Pixie’s eyes. Their minds grew bigger and their ideas as well. After their travel abroad, all their learning experiences, Pixie, Nan and Cron felt inspired and decided to go back to their own communities and share their experiences, cultivate their kin and their community. There are certainly things that could be improved there, if only they could see what they’ve seen.

A thorough analysis on the users that are meant to use a product before even start to design it is not enough, pervasiveness is what keeps the implementation of your design alive. This is where both Pilloton and Hobbes’ point of view intersect as they refer to design as a practice that should be scalable – concentrating in one place, “cultivating ecosystems rather than plant single trees” and “test models constantly”. This goes back to Margolin’s call out to designers suggesting that they need not only to design products but consider the entire system when they do so. Design’s potential to address complex problems has become a great vehicle to connect entire societies, share their knowledge, and become a stronger ecosystem together. 

Ethically positioning design and society: manipulation and globalism

Over the past two weeks in the Interaction Design, Society, and the Public Sector course we focused on design ethics and responsibility. Jon Kolko facilitated a discussion about manipulation (based on articles by Maurizio Vitta, John Dewey, and Edward Bernays) and globalization (based on articles by Michael Hobbes, Victor Margolin, and Emily Pilloton).

Background. Our assignment was to identify the author’s point of view to ethically position design in society. From there, we were instructed to sketch a storyline as a comic strip that explains the positions in a story.

I chose to work with the construct of a fairy tale for storytelling. The medium seemed relevant since some elements of a fairy tale are vehicles to express design ethics and responsibility. There’s royalty (a designer who lives in a tower removed from those that he designs for); a village with people trying to get by (representing the developing world in most need of social impact design); a dragon (symbolizing design initiatives that are unconnected and with a scale too big to succeed); and universal truths (hopes to make a mark in the world).

The fairy tale designer first struggles with lack of empathy and understanding due to living in a tower and separating himself from the villagers. Once he overcomes that obstacle, he does not have an easy path to becoming an ethical and responsible designer.

Mindful Manipulation. Manipulation requires skill and often is to the benefit of the manipulator. A definition of manipulating is to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner. An example might be to manipulate people’s feelings.

Edward Bernays reasoned that public opinion could be manipulated to become champions of ideas, causes, and products. Bernays argues a moral obligation to shape public opinion thereby advancing new beliefs, ideas, etc. Many might describe PR in softer language, such educational and an attempt to raise awareness about an important topic. An example that comes to mind is LGBTQ perception and role in society. My reality as a gay man is light years away from what I thought it would be when I was growing up. Much of this can be attributed to a comprehensive campaign to shape public opinion.

Even with this understanding of the power of PR, manipulation is inherent in PR. The same can be said about design. Designers should operate a mindful manipulation framework.

Maurizio Vitta radically steps away from the traditional thought of design as form and function. He focuses on a consumer-oriented society by which people express their identity through consumption. Products become semiotics, and their sole purpose is to signal identity to others. My Fitbit becomes a signal to others that I value exercise and wellness. Vitta reasons that the role of designers becomes equally trivial and superficial.

Manipulation comes to mind with John Dewey’s writing of the importance of continuity of experience over time to reify identity. Experiences and continuity can be limiting and arrest a person’s identity/character.

Globalism. Turning to globalism, Emily Pilloton makes a passionate argument for designers to work locally, to be embedded in the community, and to “hold a personal stake in the community.” Uninterested in building a robust portfolio of unrelated small projects (which she calls planting trees), she advocates for a mission driven approach in which designers “…cultivate ecosystems rather than plant single trees.” She goes on to describe, “…multiple initiatives within one community become an ecosystem of projects (multiple trees, shrub, and moss) that feed off each other and support each other symbiotically.” Pilloton takes empathy a step further by stating the case for empathic investment where a designer “must genuinely identify with the community and consider ourselves part of it….”

Michael Hobbes makes the case that big ideas (with lots of money behind them) often go bust because we presume that what works in one place will work in another. His example is the PlayPump, which worked to bring clean water “every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel…” in rural sub-Saharan Africa. One success over a short period resulted in worldwide media attention and millions of dollars to install PlayPumps across Africa. Without testing the service more and understanding the local needs, the pumps were “…abandoned, broken, unmaintained.”

Hobbes lambasts the “paradigm of the Big Idea—that once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic basket.” He goes on to state that “the point is, we don’t know what works, where, or why. The only way to find out is to test these models—not just before their initial success but afterward, and constantly.” The pressure NGOs and others involved in development are under pressure to deliver big, not to build on a small success incrementally, similar to companies that chase quarterly profits for the sake of so much more.

Victor Margolin presents two world models: equilibrium (where the world consists of ecological checks and balances with finite resources) and expansion (where the world is reduced to markets instead of nations and cultures). Margolin writes that designers have the skills to work at the convergence of the two models.

Reflection. After being accepted into the AC4D program, I started to read about the courses in more depth. The first assignment I read was the one that I am about to finish. At the time, perhaps only 4-6 weeks ago, it provoked anxiety: from not being comfortable with sketching to being unfamiliar with Illustrator to learning and discussing theory and so on. And here I am now—the first assignment complete. Sketching felt better than I thought it might and basic Illustrator lessons (and peers) were helpful. It’s a good feeling. With that said, I now have anxiety about my ability to synthesize theory. A new challenge!

As I reflect on the readings, several questions come to mind as I take steps to becoming a designer and learning more about the designer role, responsibilities, and opportunities.

  • Are designers the new hero? If so, what are the pitfalls and how to avoid?
  • How do I manage manipulation that is inherent in design?
  • What degree of empathy is required to be a successful designer for humanitarian causes?
  • What does it mean to identify with a community and maintain objectivity?
  • What are the limitations of proximity and empathic investment constructs?
A fairy tale comic strip about ethically positioning design in society.
A fairy tale comic strip about ethically positioning design in society.

Design in society

In my first assignment for Design, Society and the Public Sector, I summarized six design theorists through a story about aliens that visit earth to bring back knowledge to their dying planet.

As they speak with a wise person, the aliens make idealistic statements based on rumors they’ve heard about the good life of earthlings. The wise person responds to each statement with concepts that expose a reality of living on our planet. Each one is also accompanied by a quote from one of the theorists. I believe that when the reader makes sense of the three components of each panel (statement, concept, and quote), they will get the gist of each author.

Ultimately, creating this comic provided me with the opportunity to synthesize the six authors and begin to develop my own stance on what it means to be an ethical design.

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Teaching Theory at AC4D

“Great timing,” I think to myself yet again. As I was preparing the deck I would use that evening to facilitate a discussion on the opportunities of (social) entrepreneurship, I discovered that a vote by the Texas House of Representatives the previous day had “set the table” for Uber’s return to Austin. (Uber stopped providing rides in Austin a year ago in protest of required driver background checks.) Already in the deck were quotes I had taken from “The sharing economy is a lie: Uber, Ayn Rand and the truth about tech and libertarians,” one of the readings I had assigned for that evening. Also already there were tweets and (other) references to other articles about Uber, some positive, most negative. Into the deck went the headline about the legislature’s vote and a few words from the online article.

Serendipitously encountering tweets, articles, and other information pertinent to a class shortly before the class was typical for me, since I follow people on social media who care about the things I care about and teach about. And I often took advantage of that. I had previously added to the above-referenced deck — which I’ve made available in its entirety here — images from two recent articles I encountered via Twitter about Walmart, including one entitled “Business Exists To Serve Society,” words somewhat surprisingly uttered by Walmart’s Chief Sustainability Officer during a recent interview; we watched that interview during class, since it was of great relevance to arguments made by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in another of the readings I had assigned for that evening, “Creating Shared Value.” That same day, I noticed on Facebook that a former colleague of mine, David Rose, was in town; I had shown a video about David and read a bit from his book, “Enchanted Objects” the previous week in class during another section of the course, and since David was a serial entrepreneur, a guest appearance would be a nice fit for this section of the course as well, so I made it happen.

All of this (and much more) was for an advanced theory course on interaction design and social entrepreneurship that I taught during March and April of this year at the Austin Center for Design (AC4D). Assigned readings included articles — often long and sometimes complex — by renown authors on theory about or of relevance to design and entrepreneurship as well as articles — often more recent and shorter — facilitating the understanding of theory and its relevance to design and entrepreneurial practice today. (All of the assigned readings are listed in a deck you can access here; they might also — depending on when you are reading this — still be listed on the course’s webpage.) The course is one of three that all students take during the final quarter of the AC4D educational program.

Teaching this course was a wonderful experience due in large part to the wonderful students. Each class featured great and often impassioned discussion, and student presentations, each synthesizing designated readings in a personally meaningful way, were always special. One of Sally Hall’s very creative presentations consisted largely of a board game she designed that “follows the development of a non-profit organization working to increase access to education among low-income individuals in Managua, Nicaragua”; the game (being played in the photo below) was designed to help players understand and “explore the complexities of social impact.” One of Kelsey Willard’s presentations was a scary story about the impact of the coming singularity told, appropriately, over a campfire (see photo below). Our examination of power relationships prompted Elijah Parker to share information about his life he had never before felt comfortable sharing. The same examination prompted Conner Drew to explicitly formulate a set of personal design ethics and to call on others to do the same. And repeatedly, Garrett Bonfanti effectively highlighted just how important the role of the designer has become.


I’ve taught lots — inside of companies, via educational institutions, and at professional conferences — with much of my teaching focused on practical skills. General Assembly — where I taught the 10-week, full-time User Experience Design Immersive course several times — is among the up-start organizations claiming that intensive programs focused on teaching practical skills in the context of multiple, real-world projects prepare students for the workplace much better than much longer, more traditional, and much more expensive academic programs. While that is often true, AC4D Founder Jon Kolko has articulated the importance of teaching theory:

Our curriculum at Austin Center for Design is rich with design theory. Students take theory classes that focus on the social and political relationships between design and the culture of society. Students learn theory and discourse related to designing for the public sector, specifically as it relates to ill-defined problem solving and the ethical obligations of designers. They read complex articles from computer scientists, psychologists, and sociologists, and they build arguments that synthesize these articles into new ideas.

Yet the program at Austin Center for Design is a practitioner program, and these students go on to be practicing designers, not academics. They work for big brands, for consultancies, and in startups — and increasingly, they start their own entrepreneurial endeavors. They aren’t pursuing a Ph.D. path, so why teach theory? Why waste precious class time on academic discourse, rather than practical skills?

I’ve thought a lot about what makes a great designer. One of the qualities is craft and immediacy with material. That’s sort of obvious — someone who makes things needs to be good at making things. I’m convinced that theory is also a key ingredient to greatness, a key part of claiming to be a competent, professional designer, but it’s less obvious than methods or skills and is often ignored during design education. There are at least three reasons I think students need theory as part of their foundational design education:

  • Theory give students the basis for a “process opinion.” …
  • Theory give students the ability to think beyond a single design problem, in order to develop higher-order organizing principles. …
  • Theory give students a sense of purpose, a reason for doing their work. …

We’re seeing an influx of design programs aimed at practitioners, programs that intend to increase the number of designers available to work in the increasingly complex technological landscape. I’m skeptical of programs that don’t include theory in their curriculum. It has been argued that vocational programs should focus on core skills and ignore the larger academic, theoretical subject matter. I would argue the opposite. It is the vocational programs that require this thoughtful context the most, as graduates from these programs will have a direct impact on the products and services that shape our world.

I agree with Jon (and with the students who voiced additional benefits from studying theory), and whenever I taught for General Assembly, I made sure to include some theory. However, I was delighted to have the opportunity to dive more deeply via teaching at AC4D.

My thanks to: Jon and to Kevin McDonald who, before the course, shared invaluable information with me about when they had taught the course in the past; Lauren Serota, Adam Chasen, Mini Kahlon, Ed Park, and David Rose for their guest in-person appearances; Daniela Papi-Thornton, Paul Polak, Harry Brignull, Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Jake Solomon, Ricky Gervais, Brian Goldman, Jeff Benabio, Don Norman, Sean Follmer, David Rose, Jared Ficklin, Stephen Colbert, Sally Hall, Pelle Ehn, Kathleen McLaughlin, John Battelle, Jess McMullin, The Police, and a few others whose names I don’t know who appeared on video; and the many authors of tweets and of articles other than those I assigned that I referenced during the course.

The course ended just last week, but I greatly miss teaching it already. I am very happy to have become a part of the AC4D community.

Breaking Out of Our Own Limitations

As children we are told many cliches such as, “the possibilities in life are endless. You can do anything you want to do.” These statements may have become overused, but there’s a truth to it, with the right tools. As we get older, we generally tend to forget this sentiment. I believe this frame of mind comes from becoming more familiar with the way things are, which limits us to seeing the way things could be. Being able to see past what is known is how true innovation happens.


This is where applying techniques of defamiliarization becomes beneficial. In order to be able to see how things could be, we need to defamiliarize ourselves with our own current perception and understanding of the world. Genevieve Bell, et al., argue that, “defamiliarization is a useful tool for creating space for critical reflection and and thereby for opening up new possibilities for the design of domestic technologies.” Defamiliarization can manifest in a variety of techniques such as journaling, conducting ethnographic research, or learning about an opposing viewpoint. I think as long as the method produces reflection or allows someone to ask why beyond face value, then progress will be made.

Let’s take a look at healthcare for a minute. If we take the term for face value it implies a positive relationship. Who doesn’t want to be cared for, especially in regards to their health? Then we look at the typical interaction between a healthcare professional (HCP) and “patients” we realize that the relationship feels pretty surface level. Dubberly, et al., explains that HCP’s, “proposals are not just suggestions, they are prescriptions or literally ‘physician orders.’ Patients who don’t take their medicine are not ‘in compliance.’” This description of a healthcare professional doesn’t give me much confidence in regards to being cared for, especially in a medical scenario where the patient has a life-threatening condition. I think it speaks to how medical education can turn caring for a human being into a job void of emotion with a focus of efficiency and accuracy. The impact becomes lost in this frame. Don’t worry, there is hope.

Clay Johnson, the Dean of Dell Medical School in Austin, TX is employing a mentality to address this exact issue. He says that, “they’re determined to build the new medical school… on the ‘value-based’ health care model, treating patients and rewarding doctors on the basis of actual ‘outcomes’ – how healthy they keep their patients, and ultimately, how healthy they keep whole populations in Central Texas.” This mentality came from challenging the norm and looking beyond the current frame to see what is possible. The outcome is a new program driving innovation within the healthcare industry by challenging current measurements of success and encouraging to look at the whole patient, not just a current symptom they have for a particular condition.

I would argue this approach to medicine is radical innovation within the industry. Donald Norman and Roberto Verganti explain how incremental innovation and radical innovation differ through the hill-climbing paradigm.


Change Map


Don Norman argues that Human Centered Design (HCD) can facilitate in incremental design and improve the current frame, but radical design occurs outside the world of HCD. Radical innovation occurs once a new hill is seen by changing the frame or by introducing new technology to reach another hill. Then HCD can improve upon that new perspective. Clay Johnson saw another hill, and is now climbing towards the top.

When this shift happens it doesn’t mean that it will take effect right away. Norman explains how the acceptance of radical innovations take time. He gives an example of Thomas Edison and the light bulb.


Thomas Edison


Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, but improved on the existing technology and infrastructure to allow widespread adoption. This is where I think the line between radical innovation vs radical effect could be clarified. Edison’s development aided in incremental innovation which allowed a radical effect to occur. I feel our society leans towards the encouragement of radical innovation when both radical and incremental innovation models are important. Taking into account that true radical innovations occur once every decade or so, we should celebrate looking at incremental innovation, but through the lens of the how we can allow incremental innovation to have a radical effect.

Opportunities for improvement and impact exist all around us, but we limit ourselves without branching out of our own bubble. As designers, we have the skills and knowledge to be able to zoom in and out of our own limiting mindset in order to recognize these opportunities. Let’s not limit ourselves by only focusing on climbing the hill, but also keeping an open mind as to other hills we could climb instead.

Inherent Power and Responsibility in Our Day-to-Day

Designers wield an immense amount of power, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that power is present, especially in conditions where designers may lean more towards the side of implementation rather than the creation of something new and original.

Design is mostly manipulative. Jon Kolko states, “Interaction design is largely about removing cognitive friction or producing a happy path — in order to manipulate someone into realizing a goal. That type of manipulation is typically called ‘helping,’ and it is often, actually, helpful.” Manipulation generally carries a negative connotation, but as Jon points out manipulation doesn’t have to trick someone into doing something they didn’t want to, but rather a designer can guide them towards something they do want to accomplish.

Design is most successful when it allows an experience feel so frictionless the end user barely even notices it. One example where positive manipulation comes into play is TurboTax. Yes, I know this example is used quite a bit, but there’s a reason. TurboTax takes a task of consolidating what feels like never-ending amounts of paperwork that is very confusing to begin with and manipulates the information in a way where many people can actually digest it. TurboTax makes it easy to submit your taxes, but they also make it easy to know what to actually submit. Their approach gives me the confidence that I can do my own taxes, but also that I’m doing them correctly.




I wish all examples of manipulation in interaction design were as elegant as this one, but unfortunately there are people and companies out there that do manipulate data in a way to trick the user into doing something he or she did not want to do, such as incorporating a dark pattern. A dark pattern is an interaction model where the user is deliberately tricked into doing the opposite of what they actually want to do. One of the more malicious examples I can think of is phishing for private information, such as passwords. People will create an email or webpage which looks like a legitimate version of a service such as Facebook, Google, or a bank account in an attempt to trick the user into giving them their username and password. This manipulative action leads to private information being accessible. Here is an example of someone trying to get access to an individual’s amazon account:

Amazon Phishing


Facebook uses a less malicious dark pattern when trying to persuade someone from deactivating his or her account. They utilize attachment anxiety, defined by Brian Cugelman, PhD, as the “uneasy feeling you experience when you’re feeling insecure about a relationship, and uncomfortable about a potential breakup.” When you proceed to deactivate your Facebook account the user is presented with five pictures of their friends with the claim that each one of them will miss you. Facebook has no idea that this is the case and probably simply uses an algorithm to surface people you’ve either recently interacted with or interact with the most.

They take it a bit further and give you a call-to-action (CTA) to message the individual and navigate away from deactivating your account. I’m assuming their hope is that you do so and forget you were deactivating in the first place getting sucked back in to the extremely addictive, and even compulsory, timeline.


Facebook Deactivate Page


I don’t think utilizing anxiety attachment to retain users is necessarily wrong, but the way Facebook utilized is unethical. Primarily by the claim they make of “Zoha will miss you.” The big problem I have with this example is the fact that Facebook is making an /*unsubstantiated claim*/ using someone else’s supposed opinion to manipulate users’ into staying on their platform. This isn’t based on facts but rather assumptions.

My partner deactivated his Facebook account about 4-5 years ago, but quickly realized the primary method of seeing updated pictures of his Godson, Colin, was in fact through Facebook. This led him to reactivating his account. If Facebook had changed the phrasing to something along the lines of, “you will no longer see pictures of Colin posted to Facebook,” I’d have much less of a problem with this tactic being used here. Primarily due to the fact they wouldn’t be making a claim that was unsubstantiated, especially in regards to an emotional relationship.

Dropbox uses the same type of strategy when a user tries to cancel his or her paid account, but doesn’t make any claims they can’t back up. Because of the way they approach their messaging and what they’re displaying I have much less of an issue with it.


Dropbox Downgrade

Although, Dropbox still treats the primary CTAs in a way that your attention is drawn more towards their goals to keep you as a paid user as well as forces you to scroll through descriptions of the features and information which you’ll no longer have access to, which is definitely a fact. They show you the amount of online storage you’ll be losing. The descriptions include the number of backed up photos, and the collaborative files you’ll lose access to.

Their presentation still approaches the feeling of breaking up with a service, but they show you the exact features and benefits the user will no loner have if they continue down a path of cancelling their service. To make this particular example less manipulative I think Dropbox could make the bottom right cancel CTA a little more forward facing, but I understand that’s not in the best interest of their business goals. Does this mean that need to optimize this page for their business and not their user, no. I actually like the way that Dropbox reminds me of the features I would lose connection to, especially if I had forgotten about those collaborative folders, but I don’t like how the design of the CTAs draws my attention more towards their goals, rather than mine. Albeit, I’m hesitant to say this choice is malicious.

Designers have the power to influence and make these design decisions from a strategy standpoint (using anxiety association) to a micro-detail execution. I believe someone once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” As cliche as this quote may be it doesn’t take away from the truth to it. If designers are the people executing on decisions like this, even if directed from a superior, we have the responsibly to speak up and make ethical decisions on a day to day basis. That also doesn’t negate the fact that people who have less of a design role within their company are void of this responsibility. Any decision maker should be taking this into account and the implications of these decisions.

You don’t have to work at a non-profit with a mission to change the world to do good within the world of design. Mike Monteiro proposes and then answers the question, “Where can you do good work? The answer is so obvious as to be painful. Right where you stand. That’s where you do good work.” No matter the level of experience a designer holds within a company, nor the type of company a designer may be working for, a designer has the power and therefor responsibility to make ethical decisions every single day.

Jon Kolko made a statement in his article regarding manipulation which reads, “I fear there are practitioners who are competent or even extraordinary craftsman, yet have learned no real ethic, no guiding set of axioms in which to ground their work. I don’t mean that designers are lacking morals, or are even bad people. I mean that many practitioners seem to have no consistent set of values that they automatically fall to when doing their job.” This made me realize I haven’t defined explicitly my set of values on my day to day job. I like to think of myself as an ethical person, but without having concretely laying down where my ethics stand I don’t have a way to keep the decisions I made in check. Here’s what I came up with:


  1. Make decisions based on the best interest of the users.
  2. Avoid creating patterns or a system that will inherently afford unnecessary compulsory behavior.
  3. Never use a design that is intended to trick the user into something they don’t want to do.


These guiding principles do not limit my responsibility as a designer, and will no question mature over time, but the fact that they now explicitly exist makes me pay even closer attention to my design decisions than I did previously. Having power comes with the ability to affect change, and therefore is not limited to designers. I urge everyone to create their own personal set of principles to drive decisions because our decisions affect others whether we are aware of it or not.

The Outcome, Regardless of Intention

As designers, everything we do from the type of problems we work on solving to making the choice of using a radio button or a check box stems from intention. Without intention, choices are made blindly causing an arbitrary execution. I believe intentions are important within design, but where the conversation becomes a bit muddy is when we began considering the outcome of our intentions. There are examples where, despite the best intentions, the outcome is less than ideal, and vice versa. This leads me to ask the question, “how important is intention when the outcome is what creates impact?”


One space where this question applies is when developing for the emerging world. Most people are familiar that there is a good amount of effort in assisting developing countries who are less fortunate than our own. There was an effort to provide clean water to people who did not have easy access. Michael Hobbes explains, “It seemed like such a good idea: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other.” In theory this is a fantastic idea, except when the outcome is examined. After implementing the PlayPumps, Frontline returned to see the impact that had been created. They, “Discovered pumps rusting, billboards unsold, women stooping to turn the wheel in pairs. Many of the villages hadn’t even been asked if they wanted a PlayPump, they just got one, sometimes replacing the hand pumps they already had.”


The biggest opportunity in this example would have been to reach out to the recipients of the PlayPumps and learned how this effort would have been received. If the community wanted this or if they would even use it. It would have been discovered that this solution may not have been the best solution to the situation at hand, or even a solution at all.


There is another example where working with the developing world was in fact successful. New Story was able to build 151 houses in Haiti which ended up housing 1,200 people where as the Red Cross changed course after only building six houses even though they had raised half a billion dollars for the cause. The Red Cross, “struggled to attract residents because,’ the areas they planned on building were, ‘too far from basic needs like work and food.” The cofounder of New Story, Alexandria Lafci, explains, “This is what participatory design is so crucial and is something we incorporate into all of our communities. We ask families for their input about the location, the style of home, broader community needs, etc.” The findings led New Story to deciding to build their community only about 10 minutes away from their jobs and support networks. Because of this, the community was in a position to adopt the housing because it fit into what was important into their own personal life, unlike the PlayPump example. They are expanding to launch similar efforts in El Salvador and Bolivia, but the models will be slightly different because each location affords unique needs. Participatory design will be used once again to accommodate the small amount of income that exists (unlike the population in Haiti) and will implement a pay it forward model to invest in future communities. Once again, tailored to the specific needs of the population New Story is designing for.


A mix of these two efforts include the example of New York’s High Line project. Robert Hammond had the idea of “turning a disused elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into a high-design ‘linear park’. He thought it would attract maybe 300,000 visitors a year.” The problem lies in that, “he and his co-founder Joshua David didn’t really think about what the High Line could do to the neighborhood, apart from adding a little extra breathing room.” The project was successful in the sense that it drew new business and condos, as well as the expectation that it will generate $1 billion to the city over the next 20 years. Where the project was unsuccessful is that the park didn’t appeal to the direct neighborhood it was originally intended for. On either side of the park were local housing projects, which consisted primarily of people of color. The traffic the park ended up drawing were predominately white and mostly tourists. Reactions to the park consisted of feelings that local residents, “didn’t feel it was built for them; they didn’t see people who looked like them using it, and they didn’t like the park’s mulch-heavy programming.”


During the project locals were asked questions similar to which colors they liked, not necessarily what specifically they would like from the park itself. Because of this Hammond admits that, “ultimately, we failed.” Where they story begins to change is when you look at what happened next. This self proclaimed failure led Hammond creating the High Line Network, which is a coalition of designers and planners building adaptive reuse parks in the High Line mold. The entire purpose of the network is to further examine how to improve neglected neighborhoods, without pushing away they very people they intend to serve. A component of this organization is conducting listening sessions to hear feedback about his project, which started a number of new initiatives including paid-job trainings and further development on the two housing projects previously mentioned. These efforts are due to participatory design, which leads to a more successful execution of intention.


Another frame within this conversation is that of corporate philanthropy. One side of this conversation tends to lean towards a negative view that corporations are only incorporating philanthropy into their business model in order to sell more goods, regardless of the outcome. For example, the PRODUCT (RED) campaign is a campaign founded by Gap that has asked companies to create a red version of their product and donate a percentage of the proceeds towards the HIV/AIDS effort in Africa. One could argue that this effort feels ingenuous due to the fact companies are pushing commoditization as an effort for social impact. They see the effort as saying, “if you buy this product, then you’ll save lives.” In fact their slogan is quite literally “buy (RED), save lives.” On one hand I completely agree and there is something unsettling about this effort that doesn’t seem to fit the effort.


With that being said, despite some room for improvement in transparency, the organization has raised $465 million dollars and claims to have impacted over 90 million lives. It has allowed doctors to spend more time on their research and slow down HIV transmission. This is where intention becomes tricky. I can see the intention of this effort coming from a place of genuine interest in causing an impact, but I can also potentially see the motivating factor being that to drive higher profits via a philanthropic effort. This is a detail we may never fully know, but one fact remains: the amount of money raised to increase resources for a social cause. If this is the outcome with either intention driving the effort, then how much does it truly matter? An opportunity was identified to raise a significant amount of money for a good cause and was acted upon. Yes, I would love to believe that the effort was genuinely altruistic, but if you were the one directly benefiting PRODUCT (RED), does it change the outcome of the benefit?


Initial intentions in design can be come from a variety of motivating factors, but I would argue that the outcome is what is most important. Action can come from a place of good intention yet have negative outcomes, while it can also come from a place of poor intentions and have positive outcomes. Regardless, the outcome is what we are left with whether that be further conversation, fundraising, or housing for people in need. Ideally, we should consider the outcome while we are designing in order to optimize our intentions.