Category: Reflections

Daily Reflection 17: Questions On Questions

A large part of the last two weeks has been asking myself questions. Almost every time I write a reflection I wind up ending with questions at the end of the post. I am not quite sure what to make of the practice, but today I tried a short exercise related to my constant questions. As I was considering ways to approach the study of design methods focused on “non-designers” I found that I simply posed question after question after question. Without knowing exactly what to expect, I decided to print off the list of questions and hand-write responses to them — almost as if I were critiquing someone else’s work. Some of my responses included further questions, others were comments or explanations regarding the original prompt. With work, I think this could become a valuable work process, but in the future I think I need to set a deliberate focus for what I am responding to. Today I wound up having responses to many topic questions in a row, and then I hit a few for which I didn’t have an immediate reply. I initially thought that I landed on a topic question that I couldn’t respond to without learning a great deal more about (which seems quite promising in searching for an area to research). Although, it is also possible that I just hit a mental speed bump. Either way, I think I am going to try and develop it further as a process for reflection and critique.

Some of the questions that stumped me were:

What role does visualization play in strategic planning among non-designers?

Does participatory visualization affect organizational sensemaking?

Do visual artifacts impact long-term innovation in an organization of non-designers?

How do designers and non-designers experience the co-design process?

It seems like there might be something about the way these questions are written that a more experienced researcher could identify as a reason for why they tripped me up. I am a little self-conscious because I have had my fair share of education in the art of crafting a researchable question, but at the same time I am pretty new to the process still and I don’t mind admitting that I have a lot of learning to do.

Daily Reflection 16: Topic Feedback

Today I had the chance to sit down with Thomas Nilsson, the Director of Human Factors here at Ergonomidesign, to discuss some of my research interests and the topics I hope to explore. I have only presented my progress a few times and the meeting was a great chance to get feedback from an experienced design researcher. To begin I described my application essay and the development of my thoughts over the last couple of weeks. For me, the meeting today was a great exercise in getting out of my head. Thomas brought up some interesting ideas and reinforced some feedback I had gotten from Malin.

Primarily I came away feeling that the relationship between “non-designers” and design is a fruitful area to explore. We talked for quite some time about how people who don’t necessarily identify as designers often partake in design activities. For instance, Thomas described online forums where someone poses a question and different roles emerge as people respond. Sometimes there are people who help clarify or define the problem, others who solve it or refine a solution, and more passive observers who learn by watching from the sidelines. These are roles that designers routinely engage throughout the design process, but the people in the forum may have no knowledge or interest in design. We also discussed how people perceive design, and how that might affect their participation in the design process.

We ended the meeting with some open-ended questions about roles of “non-designers” that may be closely related to design. There seems to be quite a bit of potential to explore here and it relates closely to some of my previous work. Additionally, I think it involves aspects of organization and sensemaking, roles among designers and non-designers, and the techniques and skills involved in front-end design methods. Thomas also presented a gateway for starting my research: talk to people who aren’t designers about what they think of design. But then as we also discussed, what group of people do I start talking to?

Daily Reflection 15: “Embedding” Design Methods

As usual I am not satisfied with my progress for this week. I am far enough along now that I know that part of my difficulty is inherent to the process, but another part is that I need to develop a good working routine. Of course, it will be a constant battle, and I have some good things in place — such as my semi-daily reflections. This weekend will be a good opportunity to set in place a good plan for next week. Perhaps outlining some daily milestones will help me move forward in a productive and focused manner.

My major accomplishment this week came in the rough topic chart above. I only made some minor additions over the last two days, but I think they are important and reflect my evolving attitude toward design methods. The topic highlighted in red starts to get at an idea about the connection between design methods, physical space, and long-term community development. Over the last few weeks I have grappled with my own concept of design methods, what about them is unique, and what about them I might study. I haven’t come to any conclusions, but I do have some thoughts that are leading me forward.

a) Design methods never play out the same in two projects
b) Designers are constantly adapting, revising, expanding their methods
c) Designers develop a specific attitude and skills toward the design process
d) Design methods are often used for in a narrow scope or for a short length of time

When I compare these thoughts with my understanding of complex social problems a few issues arise. The problems facing neighborhoods, cities, and the world have deep roots in the habits, cultures, economic systems, et cetera, of people. Any method aimed at understanding, let alone providing solutions to these problems needs to have a sustained impact that reaches large numbers of people at level deep enough to alter perspectives and behaviors. It seems like much of the literature I have read on participatory design highlights moments of people coming together for short-term problem identifying or problem solving activities. For me, such practices seem valuable for developing interactions or new products — of course, many of which can have a dramatic impact on the way people interact, behave, learn, live — but if the aim is to address “wicked problems” then many participatory design practices still seem too focused on developing solutions for components of systems or parts of systems. Even many well-connected, research-grounded social entrepreneurs seek to drive change from a very narrow perspective. How many organizations with a social mission does it take to change a city?

Of course, there are certainly emerging examples of successful positive development (and/or revitalization) efforts in neighborhoods and communities throughout the world. Perhaps they will provide some interesting case studies (I’m thinking of a project in Oakland that I will have to look up). And so, the question arises: what are the characteristics of the people/organizations leading development at a community level? At the moment, my feeling is that they are actively engaged with local businesses, have diverse interests, are highly visible, maintain faith/trust in the people they invest in, and are invested in the long-term healthiness of their communities. So maybe I should ask, what about design methods can aid people who have started this process already? For me, there still seems to be a lot of potential for design methods to help people collaborate in building and sharing “community models” that can serve as a guide for development based on a holistic perspective of what the community is and what it hopes to be.

I am aware this is starting to turn into a pretty big discussion, but I am hopeful that I am developing a more established frame for my research as I continue down this road.

Daily Reflection 14: Topic Progress

Thanks to the help and inspiration of Malin Orebäck, my advisor here at Ergonomidesign, I think I made a few steps forward today. Recently I have been sketching and jotting down ideas, but without much of a system or a clear aim in mind. Arriving this morning, I found a few books on my desk that Malin brought in from her time as an MBA student. Most importantly for me was a book with some helpful hints on identifying a research topic. I am still a ways off from finalizing my topic, but I found some guidance in clarifying my thoughts and understanding the direction I am heading.

Here is an image of what I came up with today. I have identified three main areas that I have been thinking that are related to design methods: Organizations + Design Methods, Non-designers + Design Methods, and Designers + Design methods. Right now they are presented in order of my interest level, but there may be overlap among them. A lot of questions still remain about my usage of terminology, but at least I have some order now to my thoughts. I wrote a little bit yesterday about my emerging interest in organizations and how organizations might integrate design methods into their structure. After making my topic chart, I spent some illustrating my conception of a system based around design, but I will refine and post it tomorrow.

My primary idea is that design activity involves reflection (which I should learn more about as I read Schön, and pragmatism in general), and that if there could be a specific location embedded within an organization that enables actors in the organization (or system) to externalize, analyze, and synthesize information (the design process) about the organization, then there would be a public model of what that organization is. The public model of the organization can be a guide for how people interact in the organization as well as for the development/progress of the organization.

I do have some ideas how this could be studied at a small scale, but that is on the agenda for tomorrow as well!

Daily Reflection 13: Innovation & Location

Yesterday I wrote briefly about my need to continuously step back and compare my daily work to my initial research proposal. Today I think I have a little more clarity on where I stand now compared to when I started. I am piecing this together as I write, but it might be better described visually. I’ll put it down in words first and see if I can diagram it later.

Step 1: My application essay

  • My essay described basically the democratization of design methods to enable social innovation for positive development without the emphasis on the designer-hero.

Step 2: Getting a grip on methods

  • Initially I talked about “scaling design methods”
  • First step was to “map out” the landscape of design methods. This may still be possible, but I never accomplished it
  • Instead I got wrapped up in trying to figure out what constitutes a design method in the first place
  • I tried to position methods within the larger map of design as a whole
  • Even without a clear definition of design methods, I suggested that each part of the design process engages methods
  • Which helped articulate an interest in front-end methods: analyzing and synthesizing information (intentionally vague) to identify design opportunities

Step 3: The role of the designer

  • Considering design methods led me to question: what makes design methods unique?
  • Design methods at the front-end are often visual and iterative (these characteristics are unique to design, but are a staple of the design process)
  • Not everyone is comfortable with visualizing or the failing/revising of iteration
  • Two options emerge: designers facilitate the use of methods (co-design) or teach people to become more “designerly”
  • Designers as “facilitators” still maintain a central role in social innovation; “designerliness” takes time to develop, not everyone thinks or works like a designer
  • Therefore the concept of “scaling” design methods becomes problematic

Step 4: Structures of innovation

  • Refocus on concept of social innovation: “connecting the bees with the trees” — a quote I used from my application essay describes a focus on structures supporting social innovation
  • Embedding design methods in structures that relate problems at the “human scale” to organizational/community operations
  • Designing for social innovation is different than designing a product or service
  • What are some models of structures that support social innovation?
  • What structures are in place that could promote positive social development at a community level?

Step 5: Propositional Idea

  • Spaces/places can serve as hubs for the design process (e.g. innovation labs)
  • School buildings are connected to the geographic communities that surround them
  • Students are both connected to the school and the community
  • Education through discreet areas of subject matter is failing
  • Projects that engage community problems connect many components of the community system
  • Schools have a “memory” or “model of the current community” that remains after students move on from a project
  • That “model” can be refined, reshaped over time as new students enter the school
  • Schools can become hubs for social innovation

This idea actually echoes my graduate thesis work on design methods in service-learning. The key difference is in perspective. Rather than focusing on how students use design, the question is how the people using design affects the community. My focus then shifts from how methods work to how those methods fit into organizations and structures. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean I will build my research around schools or education. Rather the student-school-community relationship provides an example of the importance of the relationship between design activity (people, goals, methods, etc.) and the organization or community. Hopefully walking through my progress so far is helpful. I think my current direction has potential and may lead to some interesting, albeit daunting, research.

Daily Reflection 12: Social Innovation

Another day spent primarily reading, thinking, sketching, refocusing, reading, thinking, sketching…I continue to place trust in my process and pursue breadth over depth. My primary concern is how long is too long to continue defining my question? I am still early on in this process, but I am anxious to know my focus. Thus I continue to battle as I try to get a grip on what I am researching. Today I took another step back and reflected on my original proposal in my application to DESMA. A major part of my argument focused on design and social innovation. I tried to make the point that in order to address wicked problems, we need to scale the design process to actively engage large groups of people (neighborhoods, cities, regions, countries) in problem solving social issues. As I started to consider my argument I realized that it depends much on a view of how to drive social development or social innovation. My perspective has been that people can use design methods to design positive developments for their neighborhoods or cities collectively. This might sound naive, but I am starting to understand that this concept is problematic for a few reasons.

Design methods often involve a set of skills, dispositions, and knowledge that can be “tacit” to the designer. Some methods that designers use are adapted from other disciplines (ethnography, etc), however, others are developed over years of training and practice in a design profession. Additionally, it seems that some methods that are considered co-creative or participatory are hybrids of the explicit, well-articulated methods used in the social sciences, and the more abstract, intuitive methods of design. For example, generative methods used in co-design can reveal user needs and desires, but may also serve as a prototypical solution to a design problem. In these hybrid methods it seems that the results are left for inspiration or interpretation by a designer, and leave the participant with little knowledge or insight gained into the process in which they participated. Such a scenario maintains focus on the designer as the central driver of the design process — an approach to design that is one-to-many or few-to-many. While co-design may be valuable in many instances, it doesn’t quite follow the argument I was trying to make in my essay. It seems I have found myself situated between the specialized skills and tacit knowledge of the designer and how I think those skills and knowledge can contribute to democratic social development.

I find myself often considering the following notions:

a) Not everyone wants to be, or should be trained as a designer

b) Design processes and methods can be incorporated into education to foster creativity, problem-solving, communication skills — but how long will that take to have a positive impact at a societal level?

c) Distributing or scaling design tools does not ensure that large groups of people will produce good design

d) Designers as facilitators place the designer in a pivotal role that limits the scalability of the design process to a level of social innovation

Weekly Update 03: Early Readings

This week was a little less productive than I was hoping it would be, but I made progress on a few things. I spent some time reading about epistemological perspectives on design. My understanding of the terminology and theory is still pretty limited, but I think I will be approaching the study of design from a constructivist standpoint. Right now I am waiting on two books that seem relevant to this point in my research: How We Think by Dewey and The Reflective Practitioner by Schön. Without any full texts to read, most of my week was spent collecting and reviewing a variety of shorter articles, spending most of my attention on three articles which I have summarized below. I also worked on specifying the type of methods that I am interested in studying, however I don’t have much to show for that yet. By the end of next week I hope to present a much clearer picture of where I am going.

Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking
Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld, 2005

My first reading on sensemaking per the recommendation from Anna. The topic seems very relevant to design, especially in group work and the role design practice plays in an organization. I believe sensemaking has a history in HCI, and there are a few popular designers who have written about it or adopted it as a way to describe their practice (e.g. John Kolko, Still a lot for me to learn here if I am going to use it.

Design facilitation as an emerging Design skill: A Practical Approach
Body, Terrey, Tergas, 2010

My interest in facilitation came out of an article by Sanders and Stappers Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. This was a pretty shallow article, but I was digging around for work specifically focused on facilitation and the design process. As I was reflecting on co-design, the role of the designer as facilitator seemed pivotal to the process, yet I couldn’t think of much literature on the topic. If designers are acting more and more as facilitators — often without formal training in the activity — is it important to understand how they choose methods, work with people, evaluate their performance, etc? The authors do a little work on defining what a “design facilitator” is and how that differentiates from a “general facilitator” based mostly from reflections on their personal experience. After a bit more reflection and a few comments from Malin, I am not sure I want to delve too deep into design facilitation. Mostly I am hesitant to focus on analyzing the role of the designer. I am more interested in the perspective of non-designers.

Rethinking Design Thinking: Part II
Lucy Kimbell, 2012

This article relates back to my epistemological stance on design. I only read it last night, but I am interested in the way she deals with “design thinking.” I have had troubles with the phrase for awhile and she describes a theory of design practice that seems like a more specific way to look at design. She suggests two concepts of design practice: design-as-practice and designs-in-practice. I believe theories of practice is related to Lave and Wenger’s “communities of practice,” but I have some more reading to do on the topic. Kimbell cites Andreas Reckwitz in her explanation: “Practice theories shift the unit of analysis away from a micro level (individuals) or a macro one (organizations or groups and their norms) to an indeterminate level at a nexus of minds, bodies, objects, discourses, knowledge, structures/ processes, and agency, which together constitute practices that are carried by individuals (Reckwitz 2002).” Again I have more to learn, but this perspective seems informed by pragmatism, which aligns with my view of design. Overall, I thought it may be a valuable way to maintain perspective in my research and avoid the ambiguous meaning of the phrase design thinking.