Monday, December 17, 2012

Designing Design Education in India; call for papers

India has taken a leadership role recently in championing design. There is a call for papers for a conference this Spring in Pune India called Designing Design Education in India.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Design Opportunities and New Responsibilites

As a follow up to my last blog on the evolution of design, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Design Firms go Beyond Gadgets as Portfolios Expand, focuses on the opportunities that are arising with traditional design firm's advancing frontiers. However these new opportunities should also signal the need more generally for some serious reflection on the difference between designing 'stuff' or 'things' and designing 'social systems' with the understanding that every design is either a part of a system or a system itself. This understanding brings new responsibilities and accountabilities into the preparation for and practice of design.

In the 60's there was a keen interest in applying the very successful 'systems thinking' approaches (a set of approaches developed beginning in the Second World War for dealing with complex and large scale technical systems) that had worked so well in technical contexts to health, education and business systems etc. After a series of serious failures 'systems thinking' was declared 'dead' (professionals and academics continue making such declarations even now) and was no longer considered appropriate for serious interventions into troubled social systems. It should have been obvious from the beginning that people were different from technical components and that human activity was not the same as technical functionality but it wasn't. Systems thinking has struggled to regain credibility in social domains ever since.

The design approaches and methods used to create consumer products, technical assemblies and other material designs are not well matched to the challenges of designing social systems. The education and training of material designers do not automatically qualify them to take on the role of social systems designers. They are not automatically disqualified of course but there needs to be some very serious reconsiderations of what type of designers and what type of approaches best fit the challenges of designing or redesigning social systems. New types of designers and design approaches need to emerge so as to not repeat the experience of the miss-application of technical systems thinking to human systems design.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Design's expansion into the 'Invisible'


Recently an excellent article by Tom Fisher, the Dean of the School of Design at the U. Minnesota, titled Design's Invisible Century, provided an exceptional frame for understanding the evolving nature of design. The article makes a contrast with science's 'invisible' century, the 20th Century, when scientist thought they had 'seen' everything and suddenly the sciences of the 'unseen' realms of physics, chemistry, and psychology et. al. exploded into 'view' resulting in a scientific renaissance. The case is made in the article that design is now facing the same sort of renaissance in the 21st Century, in the realms of the 'invisible', as did science in the last century.

Most formalized design fields are defined by their domains of 'visibility' but design is expanding into more 'invisible' domains. An example is design's expansion into other professions such as management. A seminal conference was hosted at Case Western's business school titled 'Managing as Designing' which resulted in the publication of a book by the same name published by Stanford University Press. Another example is the Rotman School of Business in the U. Toronto, which has made a serious commitment to design. Around the world there are university programs combining business and design in the planning or implementation stages.

Design is moving into the domains of public policy, business and military strategy, and other 'invisible' domains of human activity. New forms of designing and new types of designers are emerging as well. Some designers from the 'visible' traditions of design are forming up to 'design behavior' or other interventions into 'unseen' worlds but that of course is dangerous without them making changes in their design practices and character. Ones that are a better fit for the task of making the 'invisible' 'visible'.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Design, Wicked Problems & Throwness


Horst Rittel is one of the seminal residents in my 'Berkeley Bubble'. Recently a friend and colleague sent me an article about ‘double-wickedproblems’. I have become ever more aware of the increasing number of references to ‘wicked problems’ in all forms of media that seem to have missed Rittel’s deeper insights. This brought up the concern I have about the use and miss-use of the term ‘wicked problem’. The term ‘wicked problem’, first introduced by Rittel in West Churchman’s seminars at Berkeley, was in reference to his conceptualization of the impossible challenge of dealing with significant social issues using traditional, rational, ‘problem solving’ methods.

In most cases what are miss-diangnosed as ‘wicked problems’ are actually complex or complicated problems that can be simplified or broken into smaller 'tame' problems allowing for a straight forward 'problem solving' approach to be taken. This approach is believed by many to be capable of developing solutions that, in the aggregate, successfully deal with the 'wickedness' of the problems initially attacked. If they were really 'wicked problems' this would not be the case. The problem is (pun intended) that ‘wicked problems’ are not ‘problems’. ‘Wicked problems’ are the result of ‘appearances’ when complex realities are looked at through a ‘problem solving’ lens. Other lenses—other approaches—render a different set of 'appearances'.

Heidegger’s term for the complex reality of existence is ‘throwness’:

Heidegger captures his own version of Rich’s insight by unpacking the word
geworfenheit (werf _ to throw, geworfenheit _ being thrown), which has been
translated as “thrownness.” Heidegger treats being-in-the-world—Rich’s taking
“everything on at once”—as “the prereflective experience of being thrown
into a situation of acting without the opportunity or need to disengage and
function as detached observers” (Winograd and Flores quoted in Weick; Designing forThrowness).

When confronting this complex reality—i.e. ‘throwness’—of the world’s most challenging issues with strategies based on rational ‘problem solving’ the ‘wicked’ nature of the issues make their ‘appearance’, which leads to a paralysis of reasoned action. Horst Rittel avoided the paralyzing attributes of ‘wicked problems’ by taking a political stance towards these issues using a formalized process for managing argumentation—IBIS (issue based information system)—thus resolving any 'wickedness'.

Other stances including aesthetics, morality, and spirituality can and have been used by others to deal with 'throwness'.

My own strategy for dealing with ‘throwness’ has been drawn from a 'design' stance. Erik Stolterman and I have presented some of the foundations and fundamentals of this stance in our book The Design Way. A 'design' stance provides a very different kind of ‘appearance’ when confronting ‘throwness’. An ‘appearance’ that provides frameworks for action rather than paralysis.

How different stances lead to different ‘appearances’ can be seen using the example of how our solar system ‘appears’ from a geocentric—earth centered—point-of-view versus a heliocentric—sun centered—point-of-view.


geocentric viewpoint




heliocentric viewpoint 


The ‘appearance’ of the solar system is much more complex, convoluted and irregular when viewed from a geocentric viewpoint than when viewed from a heliocentric viewpoint. In the same way, complex issues nested in complex realities—i.e. 'throwness'—‘appear’ dramatically different when viewed through different lenses—for instance a ‘problem solving’ stance versus a 'design' stance. The habit of labeling and viewing nearly every challenge in life as a ‘problem’ has obscured the other possible ‘appearances’ of  ‘throwness’ and has consequently inhibited wise actions on our parts. 'Wicked problems' can be dissolved using a 'design' stance allowing for the possibility of wise actions.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Systems Thinking and Design Thinking Seminar



I recently returned from a very successful seminar hosted by the Systems Oriented Design program in the School of Architecture and Design (AHO), Oslo, Norway. The seminar drew together the authors of  chapters to be published in a proposed book edited by Birger Sevaldson (focused on the relationship between systems and design) plus faculty and graduates students at AHO. The hope was that this seminar would be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue among scholars, practitioners and students from around the world on the relationship between systems thinking and design thinking.

Friday, September 14, 2012

systemics - the logic of design

I will be presenting a talk: Systemics - The Logic of Design, at an invited gathering of design scholars and practitioners hosted by the Systems Oriented Design program at AHO (architecture and design) University in Oslo Norway the 1st week of October. I will make the case that rather than looking at a conjunction between 'systems thinking' and 'design thinking' we should look at design and systemics as inseparable from one another: i.e. systemics as the logic of design.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Expert vs. Generalist & The Third Way


A colleague in my linkedin connections  pointed me to an interesting HBR article on the growing importance of the ‘generalist’ vs. the ‘expert’ to business and other organizations. I have experienced first hand the ongoing debate between specialization and generalization since my early introduction to systems thinking. During my graduate studies I was introduced to ‘systemics’ and the challenges of designing social systems. The academic side of the challenge was to avoid the stigma of becoming labeled a dilettante while becoming an‘expert’ in how things were related and connected.

I was warned from the beginning of my studies that there would be no ‘old boy’ network in place for me to fit into because of my systemic or non-specialized background. Even with all the talk about the importance of ‘T’ people in organizations, when it comes time to hire consultants or employees the choices favor domain or content experts. This ingrained distrust of anyone who is a generalist—i.e. not specialized in a field, technology or method works against organizations gaining the necessary competence to deal with a complex, interconnected and unpredictable world.

While working as a professor of architecture I was embroiled at one point in a debate on whether to teach students ‘building types’ or to teach students how to ‘design buildings’. It was a debate between training experts or educating generalists. The debate went on despite the fact that no one could clearly state what they meant by expertise vs. a generalist approach. In other professions the same dual options are opened to those who want to become a narrowly focused expert or a general practitioner. This either-or debate obscures a third option or ‘way’—a tertium quid. An option that is full of potential. This third option can be used to replace all the either-or choices between the expert and the generalist. So what is this third way? Let’s start with the idea of ‘expertise’.

The challenge of dealing with the failing nuclear power plants in Japan after the earthquake-created tsunami, is a prime example of different kinds of expertise in action or that ought to have been brought into action. The predominant kind of experts involved in the situation leading up to the disaster were ‘routine’ experts—professionals whose knowledge is based on the assumption that there are no changes in any context or environment that would render their predetermined solutions ineffective. Routine experts put the conditions in place for a technologic disaster to occur in the first place. However they could not give guidance for how to respond to the disaster once it happened. A common refrain was: “We have never faced this sort of situation before.”

What was needed of course were ‘adaptive’ experts who would be able to make sense of dramatic, even catastrophic, changes by prescribing appropriate, mitigating action—i.e. those who could recognize newly formed relationships and make essential connections in unique situations in the way that generalists typically work—by ‘sweeping in’ relevant disparate domains of knowledge and practice into an inquiry process.

In order to mitigate against future unknown disasters, ‘design’ experts would be needed. Design experts are expert in the third option—the third way. Most importantly for business and governmental organizations, it is essential to not only be successful in reacting to change but to be competent in creating change—desired change—the domain of the design expert. The design expert is not a generalist or a specialist. Therefore the argument about the value or primacy of the expert over the generalist or vice versa is irrelevant. The design expert’s competence is in defining essential relationships and making essential connections in situations (see figure below). The design expert may draw on knowledge from specialists and generalists certainly, but the fruits of this form of expertise are manifested through the compositions and emergent qualities that are created by making necessary or desired interrelationships and interconnections among things in the world.


Saturday, June 30, 2012

The web site for The Design Way 2nd Edition has gone live:


The Design Way site

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Coming soon!




The Design Way
Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World
Second Edition, MIT Press (2012)
Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman

Humans did not discover fire--they designed it. Design is not defined by software programs, blueprints, or font choice. When we create new things--technologies, organizations, processes, systems, environments, ways of thinking--we engage in design. With this expansive view of design as their premise, in The Design Way, Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman make the case for design as its own culture of inquiry and action. They offer not a recipe for design practice or theorizing but a formulation of design culture’s fundamental core of ideas. These ideas--which form “the design way”--are applicable to an infinite variety of design domains, from such traditional fields as architecture and graphic design to such nontraditional design areas as organizational, educational, interaction and healthcare design.
     Nelson and Stolterman present design culture in terms of foundations (first principles), fundamentals (core concepts), and metaphysics, and then discuss these issues from both learner’s and practitioner’s perspectives. The text of this second edition is accompanied by new detailed images, “schemas” that visualize, conceptualize, and structure the authors’ understanding of design inquiry. This text itself has been revised and expanded throughout, in part in response to reader feedback.

Harold G. Nelson was 2009–2010 Distinguished Professor of Design at Carnegie Mellon University and is currently Senior Instructor in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School and President of Advanced Design Institute. Erik Stolterman is Professor of Informatics and Dept. Chair in the School of Informatics and computing at Indiana University Bloomington

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Happy New Year!

I came across an interesting article by C. West Churchman that was published the year I arrived at Berkeley to begin my graduate studies. It is interesting to review the article and rediscover the ideas that were so captivating for me on arrival at UC. It must have been hard for someone like him to work with students like myself who were so new to this kind of conversation and so naive to the consequences of taking his scholarship seriously. I experienced this first hand while doing my field work for my Ph.D. at the Lawrence Berkley Lab. He was the Principle Investigator on the Dept. of Energy's grant that was funding the research for my dissertation. His Systems Design approach (as discussed in the article mentioned above) led him to be removed from the grant and I was cautioned, if I wanted to continue my career in research, to not follow his lead. Of course if I had been a little more savvy I would have realized this was the issue (i.e. the power of 'science' re public good) that should have been the focus of my dissertation rather than the case study of geothermal development in Northern California that I carried out.

His ideas introduced in this article are still timely and fresh in many ways as are all those developed in his other writings. His ideas are still nascent in most formal academic settings which is unfortunate. Although there are many academics and professionals who have found his ideas to be exciting and provocative there are few of us who have found ways to innovate them into the world in the way that Apple brought the technologic ideas of PARC into the consumer world of 'must have' products.