Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Design 'Sets' — The Movie

Read the book (The Design Way) before watching the movies;

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Many, Many Faces of Design

Narratives are finally emerging that make the case for discernment (see below) rather than negation by assumption or assertion which is too often the case. This is a healthy trend.

For example see Donald Norman's focus on the term 'product design':

Forwarded Message -----
From: Don Norman <>
Sent: Sunday, December 15, 2019, 01:31:56 PM MST
Subject: Product Design means too many different things to be a useful description
There is product design, and then there is product design.

The request for lists o product design courses is understandable, but not
only not useful, but it is not nearly specific enough. A financial product
is very different from a medical one, which is different than a bridge, or
building, or automobile. These are different than kitchen
appliances. Engineering design courses tend to focus on, guess what,
engineering aspects. Etc.

If taught in Mechanical Engineering or Civil, they will tend to be about
the physical, mechanical aspects of the design.

If taught in bioengineering, they will often be about the chemistry,
biology, sensors, and other medical components with little attention to the
physical components.

If taught in computer science they will tend to be about software products.

In almost every one of the above areas, what they tend to lack is any
discussion of people, especially how people might interact with the system,
how to design it so that it is understandable and usable, and how to design
it so that when things go wrong, the people involved can understand what
happened and how to respond. But in courses that focus on human
interactions, there is often very little instruction about some of the
standard tools of engineering design. or the standard concerns in
Industrial Design courses about shape, form, materials, ... Design for
manufacturing courses will focus primarily upon physical devices on how to
source the parts, and design in a away to minimize cost of components, of
manufacturing, and shipping. Supply chain management is critical here as

Many universities now have entrepreneurial courses, which include product
design. These courses will mostly concentrate on the
financial feasibility of the idea, on concepts such as Minimum Viable
Product (MVP), on funding, team structure, marketing, and such critically
important things such as explaining the concept and elevator pitches.
(Seriously -- if you can't master this, your product is doomed).

Courses in business schools vary a lot, from consideration of operations,
team selection, creation, and management, costs, pricing, margins.
Competitiveness. MVP. Marketing. Sales. Handling returns. etc.

If taught in Design Schools, who knows what they will cover.

Terry says that engineering courses tend to be stable because

worldwide, engineering programs are typically linked to professional
engineering registration processes and the national and international
institutions that provide such registration. It takes years for a course
to attain registered status and the amount of change that can occur without
reregistering is typically small - so engineering programs curricula (and
hence their product design courses) tend to be relatively unchanging at
least at the macroscale.

My experience differs. I have taught and taken courses at MIT, Northwestern
University, and the University of California system (which has 10 campuses.
I have never experienced the issues that Terry talks about (this does not
mean that he is wrong -- it does mean, however, that his comments do not
apply universally). In the United States, licensing is required only in
some of the older disciplines. That term is NEVER used or discussed in the
UC San Diego engineering school. Moreover, product design courses pop up
everywhere, changing monthly. We have them in the medical school, business
school, and at least 5 departments in the school of engineering, and in
non-credit courses taught by the multiple entrepreneurial services on
campus (who are tryng to synchronize and cross-list their offerings so as
not to compete -- but even though they try, it is difficult for them to
keep track of all their offerings.)

Getting a professional license is only required in some life-critical
disciplines. I have two degrees in Electrical Engineering and have worked
as an engineer in a number of companies (I am also a member of the US
National Academy of Engineers). Of all the hundreds (thousands?) of
engineers, i work with only a handful have professional accreditation.

In most work, it simply is not needed. Even in medicine, where programming
or design errors can (and do) kill people, no license is required.


Don Norman, UC San Diego
Director, Design Lab <>
Executive Assistant:
Olga McConnell, +1 858 534-0992
PhD-Design mailing list <>
Discussion of PhD studies and related research in Design
Subscribe or Unsubscribe at

Monday, December 9, 2019

U. Montana Innovation Factory presentation

Design is a term growing in frequency of use in public and private discourse for good reasons although the term is used to designate a diversity of activities that may or may not have anything in common with one another. Students, academics and the public are asking with some insistence; “what the hell is design?” This presentation will initiate a conversation that begins to answer that question. 

Innovation factory presentation

Monday, September 16, 2019

Ranjan's history of NID

I recently reviewed a time line of the history of NID (India’s National Institute of Design) developed by my friend and colleague, Prof. M P Ranjan.
 It is a wonderful history of the many forms of design that have unfolded not only at NID but in many places around the world as well. In particular it is a marvelous story of the development of NID as a leading design institute that serves both India and the world. 

At the time of his untimely death Ranjan was working with me to see if there was a concept/term in Sanskrit that described the relationship between those who were served by those who served them. In my work with C. West Churchman, the term ‘client’ was often used to describe such a relationship—which was unsatisfactory to both of us. It sounded too legalistic and did not capture the ‘conspiracy’ (i.e. breathing together) of the intimate relationship between designers and those they serve. We were always looking for an alternative descriptive term. 

The terms ‘customer’, ‘consumer’, and ‘user’ are used by transaction designers—those who create things or services to sell to others—but those terms described relationships that were quite different from the relationships of agency, service and fiduciary contracts present in social systems design. Terms like ‘end user’  are used by designers who create things as ‘change agents’ effecting other’s lives. None of these terms describe the complex relationships formed in design cohorts created to serve others.

I was very excited to see what Ranjan would find for our consideration but unfortunately it was not meant to happen. Ranjan was the ideal scholar-practitioner and understood, as well as appreciated immediately, what my quest was and why it was important. His energy and intellect is very much missed.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Russel Ackoff videos

Russel Ackoff was interested in both systems and design. 
The Deming Cooperative
Through the cooperation of Bill Bellows, John Pourdehnad and the Ackoff family, we are pleased to offer these videos for your viewing.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The recently held Russell L. Ackoff Centennial Celebration at Thomas Jefferson University was a great reminder of how valuable and durable Russ's ideas have proven to be. As was said at the celebration, he did not suffer fools and did not hand out compliments lightly which reminded me of one a the great moments in my professional life. Russ congratulated me on an article I had written:

From: Harold Nelson <> 
Date: April 6, 2006 10:56:33 AM MDT
To: Russell Ackoff <
Subject: Thanks 
Dear Russ;
Thanks for your note. I appreciate comments on my work, especially positive ones. Hope you are staying well. I will not be at the ISSS meeting this year but hope our paths cross again at some point. 
-------------- Forwarded Message: -------------­From: RLAckoff@aol.comTo: nelsongroup@worldnet.att.netSubject: Your 1994 article on DesignDate: Wed, 5 Apr 2006 19:21:31 +0000 
Dear Dr. Nelson: 
I am ashamed to admit I have just come across yout 1994 article on 'The Necessity of Being 'Un-Disciplined..." I should have done so long ago. It's great. Belated congratulations. 
Russell L. Ackoff 
I am glad to say that the article (The Necessity of Being Undisciplined and Out of Control) has received a lot more attention since that exchange.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Promise of Systemic Designing

Chapter just published: 
The Promise of Systemic Designing: Giving Form to Water 
Learning, Design, and Technology pp 1-50 | 
Cite as Harold G. Nelson (1) Email author (
1. Computer Science, University of Montana, , Missoula, USA 
The world is understood to be more complex and dynamic than previously thought. Design is understood to be a deeper mystery than previously assumed. Design creates reality. Humans have engaged in design activities – designing – from the beginning of history, but little is known of its true nature or full potential. Familiar approaches to design and design education no longer match the real-world necessities and expectations of modern societies. Everything is connected, and it is difficult, or it seems often impossible, to determine what course of action is prudent when designing within such complexity. Systemic design is an emergent means for creating desired change that takes a broader stance and deeper approach to designing than is the norm nowadays. Creating educational experiences that prepare designers for competent professional practice in the world today requires a systemic design approach.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Design in the 21st Century video

Design in the 21st Century video. Talk given at the University of Idaho.

Friday, June 21, 2019

The New Age of Design? Welcome to the Anthropocene

There are no natural systems left on Earth. Everything, everywhere shows the traces of human activity. It is time to take responsibility and become accountable for our actions. We need to own the Age of Design - Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Breadth AND Depth – The Interactive Space for Leadership

There are ongoing discussions about the value of generalists versus specialists. The discussions are long running, only occasionally morphing into discussions championing people who are both competent generalists and able specialists—what businesses calls ‘T’ people. However the discussions quickly self-correct back to the debate between the value of generalization versus specialization. ‘T’ people display competency in both breadth and depth of knowledge and skills—but interest in them primarily remains academic. You don’t actually see many advertisements and hiring campaigns for people with ‘T’ skills but the rhetoric declaiming the value of combining such skills remains popular. 

‘T’ people have been occasional objects of interest in government and the military, but nothing serious enough to actually cause changes to be made to accommodate them. Agencies and military branches remain primarily committed to siloed organizational designs. Structured differentiation and specialization remain the rule. For example, when there is serious command and control work to be done subject matter experts are sought rather than the advice of generalists. 

Despite education straying occasionally into generalist territory, it remains highly structured in disciplinary tranches. There is only an occasional interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary foray into pedagogical redesign. Consumers of education continue to prefer siloed structure it seems. “Stay in your swim lane” is the unofficial motto for advice to self and others.

The debate between the value of a specialized or generalized competency should not to be confused with interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary educational designs. That is something different altogether. Combining categories is not the same as putting distinct understanding together.

Rather than debating whether specialization is better than generalization, or vice versa, or even whether both ought to be utilized together, there is a third conversation that needs to be taking place. This conversation is important because it affects how creativity, innovation, enterprise and leadership are enacted in the world. This conversation focuses on the conjunction of depth-of-knowledge and breadth-of-knowledge—specialization and generalization. It is not about knowledge aggregation but about a high order synthesis of understanding. It is not about aggregating data and information for the purpose of describing and explaining reality—it is about inquiry for prudent action followed by wise action in the real world—the leader’s ultimate challenge.

To help show what this looks like we will cautiously borrow the graphic structure of a schema from the mathematicians to be used as abstract ordering systems. We can relate specialization to generalization—depth and breadth—using the familiar two axis coordinating system. But rather than forming a coordinate graph—as would be the case in mathematics—we will use the graph schema to bring focus to the conceptual space defined and enclosed by the two scalars of breadth-of- knowledge and depth-of-knowledge (see Fig. 1). This is the space where the interactions appear that relate, link, connect and bond a diversity of types of knowledge. 

Fig. 1   Space

Rational inquiry based on depth-of-knowledge and breadth-of-knowledge—specialization and generalization—can be presented in the context of traditional academic disciplines, professional fields and their specializations (see Fig. 2). Although a familiar example, it is not a sufficient exemplar for the challenges facing modern day leaders. A good leader’s appreciation of, and need for the combination and integration of, breadth-of-knowledge and depth-of-knowledge far exceeds the limits of traditional academic categories and taxonomies that may suffice for managers and administrators but not for 21stcentury leadership.

Fig. 2   Breadth and Depth of Knowledge

The unflattering division between people who are generalists and those who are specialists is often characterized as the difference between shallow dilettantes and out-of-touch specialists. But in actuality there are people who are generalists—polymaths—who have a firm grasp of a wide spectrum of knowledge that extends across traditional categories of knowledge taping into varying levels of depth. There are specialists who have a grasp of the details, particulars and permutations within a narrow range of inquiry that provide fundamental insights into the building blocks of reality. Both are valuable to the human enterprise (see Fig. 3). However there is something even more valuable when the differences are transcended by a systemic conjunction of the two.

Fig. 3   Polymaths and Specialists

The intersection between a particular level of depth-of-knowledge and a particular place in the breadth-of-knowledge spectrum, forms a conjunction that is a compound-of-knowledge, unique in its makeup and character. It creates a particular or ultimate particular formulation of knowledge based on its coordinate bearing in relationship to breadth (category of knowledge) and depth (granularity of knowledge). In academia the conjunctions are usually taken as given—assumed. But the ability to intentionally form a conjunction is an essential cognitive skill that enables responsible leaders to meet the challenges of navigating change in a complex and dynamic world. 

Fig. 4   Knowledge Compound – Conjunction point

The next level of cognitive ability in exceptional leaders is the facility to look for and see, or create, relationships between compounds-of-knowledge that are missing, broken or securely in place (see Fig. 5).

Fig. 5   Seeing and Making Relationships, Links, Connections, Bonds Between Conjunctions.

This process of ‘connecting the dots’ is a transitional activity for leaders and not the end point as is the case for big data consumers (see Fig. 6) where the point is to discover patterns in the interactions of data or information. Big data becomes useful when a pattern reveals itself among all the interconnections. The purposes for big data are assumed and patterns are discovered in the connected dots. Intentionally choosing how to connect dots to create patterns is a very different challenge for leaders. Purpose is not fully disclosed in the beginning but emerges by design through intention. Patterns are formed on purpose and not merely discovered.

Fig. 6   Big Data Example: Connected Dots – Discovered Patterns

The pattern or patterns that emerge, through the intentionality of the leaders who are creating desired connections between knowledge compounds, are complex and emergent. As a consequence there is a very different quality to the patterns themselves because they are not deterministic but the result of human intention; there are no ‘correct’ patterns, only ‘desired’ ones. Additionally, they are different in quality and kind because different perspectives are also considered in the formulation of knowledge compounds—a third axis (see Fig. 7).

Fig. 7    Creating Patterns of Knowledge

Leaders, as they relate differentiated understandings, weave a pattern from which an emergent particular pattern begins to make itself visible (see Fig. 8). A dense, rich, substantive understanding that goes beyond discrete understandings or knowledge compositions, emerges from the influence of an attractor pattern—an aspiration—that affects and is effected by leadership’s inquiry. An ultimate particular insight may suddenly make itself known or may reveal itself in bursts of contributor insight over time. The insight as a whole is essential for taking action while maintaining the direction and purpose of change—assuring wise action. 

Fig. 8   Attractor Pattern and Ultimate Particular.

You may have recognized this space of interactions as the same as that used by good designers. This is the reason good leaders are also good designers.