Design Methods and Complex Contexts

“I believe that this big shift in the responsibilities of composers, performers, and audiences is a good model of what is needed now in design: a change from the specifying of geometry, physical form, to the making of a context, a situation, in which it is possible for others, for us all as users, makers, imaginers to determine the geometry ourselves.” (Jones 1992, xxxvi)

Do contemporary design methods differ from those used thirty years ago? In 1970, design author John Christopher Jones reflected on the role of design in an industrialized society. Described in his book Design Methods, Jones saw a need for the development of new design methods appropriate for the complex challenges facing a modern society, “perhaps the most obvious sign that we need better methods of designing and planning is the existence, in industrial countries, of massive unsolved problems that have been created by the use of man-made things” (Jones 1992, 30). As designers, we have a rich heritage of scholarship that informs our work as social and cultural mediators. Beginning with Jones and continuing to today, designers have articulated myriad starting points for engaging problems of expanding scale and scope. However, designers interested in playing an integral role in solving global problems will need methods that propagate problem solving beyond the scope of a single field or discipline.

Jones’ observations contribute to a major trend in design scholarship that is focused on a fundamental principle of design: human participation. Whether trained in design or not, people unconsciously participate in design on a daily basis. They adapt the environment to suit their needs. However, popular notions of design of seek to separate it from the activities of everyday life. Viewed as a specialized area of expertise, design has become the practice of a select group of skilled individuals. Such a perspective leads to the training of expert designers who investigate problems and provide solutions for people unfamiliar with formal design practice. Although user-centered approaches help designers develop targeted solutions based on understanding human behaviors and needs, we frequently remain separate from the contexts—people, environments, structures, and tasks—for which we design. Additionally, the wicked problems of contemporary society extend beyond geographic and cultural boundaries. No single profession can solve wicked problems alone. The change needed to impact wicked problems requires collaboration among individual people, communities, and institutions. Designers invested in facilitating solutions to wicked problems need to ask: how can I develop design methods that fully integrate a philosophy of designing with rather than designing for people and places? Using methods that designers have utilized to consistently deliver effective solutions, people can work together to address complex problems.

Today we continue to face the challenges laid out by Jones over three decades ago—compounded by drastic growth in computing and network technologies. Of course, design practitioners and researchers have not stood idly by as technology evolved. Entirely new disciplines such as participatory design, interaction design, and service design have emerged to engage problems directly at a systems level. As participatory design experts Liz Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers state:

“It is now becoming apparent that the user-centered design approach cannot address the scale or the complexity of the challenges we face today. We are no longer simply designing products for users. We are designing for the future experiences of people, communities and cultures who now are connected and informed in ways that were unimaginable even 10 years ago” (Sanders and Stappers 2008, 6).

Understanding that problems often span multiple settings, designers incorporate a wide array of design methods intro their process in order to manage interrelated contexts. Designers working at a systems level cannot rely on intuition. To gain insight into the complex relationships that compose systems, designers follow a rigorous process of gathering, analyzing, and synthesizing data. Articulating moments of influence and feedback are essential to describing how multiple components of a system work together to create an experience—positive or negative, inhibiting or empowering. The methods we use during this process include visualization and iteration, as well as appropriated practices like ethnography, which offer insights into the way people behave, communicate, and organize. In fact, the methods and skills designers use for “human-centered design” (Brown 2008) have placed design in the international spotlight. Design-thinking is fast becoming a highly touted skill for business and political leaders at the helm of the twenty-first century global economy. With this growing attention focused on designers—framed by business and political leaders seeking innovative solutions to complex problems—it is time to position design methods as a means for understanding the vast structural systems and deeply-seated human behaviors connected to social problems.

Current design methods utilize tools for documenting and describing the context of a problem. To support problem solving at the level needed to impact wicked problems, designers will need to facilitate methods that empower all people to share visions and insights about the places they live and work. Just as designers approach a problem by talking with the people directly related to it, citizens of a community can inform each other of possibilities for change. Rather than rely on an outside expert to identify latent opportunities for design intervention, community members can themselves use design to actively engage the assets and deficiencies in their surroundings. Spanning a breadth of techniques, design methods use tools that are adaptable and flexible to the context in which they will be used. From drawing to dialogue, mapping to physically acting out experiences, design methods include diverse ways for people to develop solutions based on shared insights. Through a process that employs proven tools and techniques for affecting change, people can be empowered to address environmental and social problems on their own. Building infrastructures that propagate the active use of design methods by individuals from all backgrounds and disciplines, designers can enable localized change at a global scale.

A key development in our contemporary conception of design methodology is seen in the practice of co-design. Based on methods that support user-participation in the design process, co-design levels the relationship between the solution-providing designer and solution-receiving user. Co-design suggests that everyone has the capacity to design creative solutions. Building off of the work of Scandinavians during the 1980s, psychologist Liz Sanders and design engineer Pieter Stappers, describe the important implications for co-design: “Future co-designing will be a close collaboration between all the stakeholders in the design development process together with a variety of professionals having hybrid design/research skills. These team players will vary across many types of culture simultaneously: disciplinary culture, company culture, ethnic culture, worldview, mindset, etc.” (Sanders and Stappers 2008, 13). Co-design focuses on democratizing design activities to achieve greater insight during problem solving.

While co-design presents the opportunity for non-designers to actively contribute to the creation of alternative futures, it often takes place in small groups, organized and led by designers. Scaling the practice of co-design is essential to facilitating solutions to wicked problems—a very real possibility in a globally connected world. Consider two examples of socially driven design that take different approaches to complex problem solving. In The Open Book of Social Innovation, a comprehensive overview of methods and tools used to create social change, authors Robin Murray, et al. describe an organization that promotes innovation through one of the simplest and most accessible activities known to humans: walking.

“The Shodh Yatra, organized by the Honey Bee Network, is a journey of discovery and exploration. In one week, walkers (farmers, scientists and researchers) travel hundreds of kilometres across rural India to unearth, share and disseminate sustainable solutions to local issues including conservation, organic farming and biodiversity, as well as health and nutrition.” (Murray, Caulier-Grice and Geoff 2010, 25)

The Shodh Yatra helps people disseminate information to support change at a grassroots level. In grassroots led innovation, people share insights through word of mouth, driving larger social transformation as more and more people adopt new behaviors. Bottom-up, grassroots design methods require accessible means of communication and participation among many different types of people. Another example of social innovation, also involving walking, occurred recently in my own city of Raleigh, North Carolina. The “guerrilla wayfinding” project titled “Walk Raleigh” demonstrates how networks enable grassroots initiatives to drive change quickly from the bottom to the top of a community. The project, implemented in January of 2012 by a small group of action-oriented citizen, sought to change people’s perceptions about distance:

“Walk Raleigh started as a group of 27 unsanctioned signs installed at three different intersections around downtown Raleigh. The signs are basic; they include an arrow, general destination, color, QR code and text stating how many minutes by foot it is to walk to said destination (the destinations are made up of commercial areas, civic landmarks, and public open space).”(

After gaining popular support through the Internet—with coverage coming from major national and international media outlets—a project that began as a small gesture in a local community, was adopted by the City of Raleigh as a way to promote healthy lifestyles and community cohesion. Now called “Walk [Your City]” the project has successfully raised funding through Kickstarter campaign to develop resources that aid similar initiatives in cities across the country and throughout the world.

These examples provide important insights of how design methods can facilitate problem solving with people across multiple environments. Operating on principles of connectivity, participation, and scalability, the Shodh Yatra and Walk Raleigh facilitated social innovation through different channels. However, while these models describe how people—non-designers and designers alike—drive change through creative solutions to the problems in their lives, they do not provide a specific process for identifying problems and creating solutions. In order to deliberately target wicked problems, we cannot rely solely on solutions generated through a few creative individuals adapting to or altering their physical environment. By packaging design methods and tools that have a proven history of effectiveness, designers will be able to provide a transferable framework for people to solve complex problems. Such an endeavor requires a thorough understanding of both the overarching principles guiding social innovation, as well as an intimate knowledge of the techniques and instruments involved in the design process.

If our focus is to enable people to use design to positively change their environments, then we need structures to promote, teach, and support the many facets of design methodology. Unfortunately, design methods do not fit neatly into a predetermined box. Every design project unfolds in a unique setting. Thus, designers must customize their process and tools to fit the needs of the context in which they are working. While there are no cookie-cutter procedures for the mass reproduction of the design process, designers have started to build toolkits that help people implement design methods.

For instance, the international design consultancy IDEO publishes several resources that promote design methods and tools for use by people outside of design professions. In the introduction to their Human-Centered Design Toolkit, IDEO answers the question of why a toolkit is an effective means to support the work of NGOs:

“Because the people are the experts. They are the ones who know best what the right solutions are. This kit doesn’t offer solutions. Instead, it offers techniques, methods, tips, and worksheets to guide you through a process that gives voice to communities and allows their desires to guide the creation and implementation of solutions.” (Human-Centered Design Toolkit 2011, 5)

The toolkit then goes on to describe step-by-step instructions for using design methods, including: the duration of activities, the material tools they require, and the purpose behind their use. Resources such as the HCD Toolkit take an important first step toward specifying the qualities of design methods. People who understand design methods gain the power to use them in generating alternative futures to social and environmental problems. As more people gain access to design methods, greater opportunities exist for social innovation, and ultimately, for solving wicked problems.

Design methods come in myriad forms and operate across many different contexts. Rather than focus on a single method or tool that supports complex problem solving, designers interested in addressing wicked problems need to understand the organizational and operational principles that connect our methods to social innovation. Current strategies for social change suggest that innovation does not come from a single source. As Murray ,et al. describe “most social change is neither purely top-down nor bottom-up. It involves alliances between the top and the bottom, or between what we call the ‘bees’ (the creative individuals with ideas and energy) and the ‘trees’ (the big institutions with the power and money to make things happen to scale) (Murray, Caulier-Grice and Geoff 2010, 8). Clearly seen through the practice of co-design and the emergence of resources like the HCD Toolkit, designers have recognized the means to support the “bees” of innovation. Additionally, in the example of Walk Raleigh we see the capacity of bees to influence “trees” unlike ever before. If , as designers, we hope to apply our methods to bigger and more complex problems, we will need strategies and structures that connect people and enable them to use design methods to solve wicked problems that impact their lives.

As a design researcher, I am interested in finding new ways to connect people to design methods. For my graduate thesis, I focused on understanding the characteristics of design methods and tools, in order to integrate them into the educational strategy of service-learning. Connected by a need to develop solutions in a specific context, both designers and service-learners seek an understanding of the social and environmental factors that affect peoples’ lives. While my investigation began with an intense focus on the qualities of methods, I soon realized that simply delivering descriptions of design methods to service-learners would not sufficiently aid them in reaching their goals. Methods alone do not make a project successful. Rather, for people to truly benefit from incorporating design into their work, they need a structure to plan, use, and evaluate design methods based on the specific demands of their specific context.

Throughout my thesis, design methods operate as an integrated system for students in service-learning. In my particular project, students gain access to skills that empower them as citizens and members of a global community1 through the implementation of multiple design methods. Embedding these methods in a widely supported instructional approach like service-learning provides the essential connection between the bees (students, teachers, and community members) and the trees (educational institutions, government agencies and non-government organizations) of local communities. By creating infrastructures that spread design understanding, designers have the opportunity to facilitate problem solving for both individuals and communities. Citizens with an understanding of design will seek the collaboration and communication necessary to drive change in their communities. Additionally, through design people not only have the agency to deliver solutions to their immediate communities, but are able to understand their relationship to other people and places around the world. Empowering people to take action at a local level is a vital step toward generating change at the scale needed to address wicked problems.

With the knowledge I gained through my graduate research, I am prepared to pursue new possibilities for defining, implementing, and disseminating design methods. I have taken preliminary steps in investigating how design methods can be integrated into an infrastructure (e.g. university-level class), but many other institutions and networks offer great opportunity for promoting positive social change. Moving forward, I will continue to analyze the role design methods play in problem solving on multiple scales. I will also continue delving into ways to connect structures for social innovation with my research into the practice of design methods. Through my work I hope to partner with community members and organizational leaders in developing new models of design methodology. Finally, evaluation will play an essential role in the successful development of design methods for social innovation. New design methods require rigorous testing at multiple stages during the development process. Indeed, empowering people the implementation of design methods will only occur through constant community participation and feedback. Looking to the future, I see design methods as the link between individual innovation and systemic change. Through continued research into the characteristics of design methods and the organizational structures that support their use, I plan on developing methods that empower people to generate creative solutions to some of today’s most difficult challenges.

1. My thesis argues that outcomes of design and service-learning contribute to the development of skills essential to democratic engagement in the twenty-first century. See more details in the selected work attached.

Works Cited

Brown, Tim. “Design Thinking.” Harvard Business Review, June 2008: 84-92.

Ideo, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation The, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Human-Centered Design Toolkit: An Open-Source Toolkit to Inspire New Solutions in the Developing World.” 2011.

Jones, Christopher. Design Methods. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992.

Murray, Robin, Julie Caulier-Grice, and Mulgan Geoff. The open book of social innovation. London: Young Foundation, NESTA, 2010.

Sanders, Elizabeth, and Pieter Jan Stappers. “Co-creation and the new landscapes of design.” CoDesign, 2008: 5-18.