A squiggle line converting toward a straight line
It’s rarely a straight line.
Chapter 2

How to design

by Amy J. Ko

How do you design “good” design? Does it come from lone genius? Is it luck? Is it the result of hard work? Where does all of this stuff that humanity makes actually come from? Here’s one (somewhat glamorizing) articulation of what design is:

Design is a fuzzy, fundamental word

The video gets a lot of things right: design is a way of thinking, a mindset, a form of optimistic approach to imagining better worlds. The video argues that it is something fundamentally human. But what makes design  good ?

To answer that, we have to delve into the history of design. Starting in the 20th century, people started to think about these questions and come up with names and definitions for “ways” of designing we’ll call  design paradigms . Some of these paradigms are things you might recognize from your own practices and some are things you might have already encountered in classes or in industry. Each paradigm has its strengths and weaknesses. Let’s talk about some of the more notable ones and how they differ.

Let’s start with one of the most basic approaches to design:  appropriation 6 6

Dourish, P. (2003). The appropriation of interactive technologies: Some lessons from placeless documents. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW).

. This involves simply taking some object in the world and using it for some purpose it was not intended. This is actually something that every human does. Some might even consider it a defining human characteristic. For example, you appropriate when you take a broom and use it as a sword; you appropriate when you cut down a tree and carve it into a boat. The process here is a  abductive leap  from a simple observation about some object to a different vision for how that object might be used to achieve a goal 8 8

Kolko, J. (2010). Abductive thinking and sensemaking: The drivers of design synthesis. Design Issues.

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A cousin of appropriation is  bricolage 9 9

Louridas, P. (1999). Design as bricolage: anthropology meets design thinking. Design Studies.

, which is the act of creating new things from a diverse range of other things. Whereas appropriation is about reusing something in a new way, bricolage is about combining multiple things in to new designs. One of the most salient modern examples of bricolage is sample-based hip hop or electronic dance music. Much of the production in these songs is grounded in recordings from existing music, sometimes from disparate parts of recorded history. Bricolage uses appropriation, but goes beyond it, assembling novelty through recombination. Like appropriation, it is not an explicit process, but a kind of activity that humans engage in that can arrive at new designs.

In modern design education (found primarily in schools of design and art) we see another form of design process that some have called  “designerly ways of knowing 5 5

Cross, N. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies.

. Here, the idea is that trained designers arrive at knowledge through  synthesis —forming coherent systems of ideas from disparate parts—whereas other kinds of thinking involve  analysis —taking a coherent system and deconstructing it, as scientists do with nature. Synthesis is similar to divergent thinking in that they both focus on new possibilities; analysis and convergent thinking are similar in that they both reduce possibilities.

This takes us to more explicit design paradigms, which arguably combine all of the skills above. One of the most common in the world today is  human-centered design 1 1

Bannon, L. (2011). Reimagining HCI: toward a more human-centered perspective. ACM interactions.

 (sometimes called  user -centered design, but many people find the word “user” to be too limiting). In this paradigm, the idea is simple: before doing abduction, bricolage, synthesis, or any of these other lower level activities, first try to analyze the problem you are solving,  then  generate ideas, then  test  those ideas with the people who have the problem you are solving. Then, repeat this process of analyzing the problem, designing, and testing (which we call iteration) until you converge upon an understanding of the problem and an effective solution. The premise of this approach is that by modeling a problem, and verifying solutions to it, the design one arrives at will be a better solution than if a designer just uses the pre-existing knowledge in their head.

One critique of human-centered design is that it narrowly focuses on people and their needs rather than a systems-level view of the activities that people engage in, and the multiple people and systems involved in those activities. For example, consider the activity of driving a bus: it’s not just the driver that matters, but the dispatchers that communicate information to drivers, the other drivers on the road, and even the riders occasionally. One paradigm that addresses this more directly is  activity-centered design 12 12

Norman, D. A. (2005). Human-centered design considered harmful. ACM interactions.

, which focuses less on problems or people’s needs and more on what they  do , ensuring that what you design integrates well into the complex fabric of an activity.  Contextual inquiry  is a more systematic process for investigating activities, and the people, processes, and artifacts that support them 2 2

Beyer, H., & Holtzblatt, K. (1999). Contextual design. ACM interactions.

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Some design scholars have questioned whether focusing on people and activities is enough to account for what really matters, encouraging designers to consider  human values 7 7

Friedman, B., & Hendry, D. G. (2019). Value sensitive design: Shaping technology with moral imagination. MIT Press.

. For example, instead of viewing a pizza delivery app as a way to get pizza faster and more easily, we might view it as a way of supporting the independence of elderly who do not have the mobility to pick up a pizza on their own. Or, perhaps more darkly, instead of viewing TSA screening at an airport a way of identifying potential terrorists, we consider it through the value of power, as the screening process had more to do with maintaining political power in times of fear than it did with actually preventing terrorism. This shift in framing can enable designers to better consider the values of design stakeholders through their design process, and identify people they may not have designed for otherwise (e.g., people who are house bound because of injury, or politicians).

Some design scholars are skeptical about human-centered design because they don’t believe modeling and verifying people’s needs through a few focused encounters is sufficient to actually address people’s problems, or systems of activities 12 12

Norman, D. A. (2005). Human-centered design considered harmful. ACM interactions.

. These and other critiques lead to a notion of  participatory design   10 10

Muller, M. J., & Kuhn, S. (1993). Participatory design. Communications of the ACM.

, in which designers not only try to understand the problems of stakeholders, but recruiting stakeholders onto the design team as full participants of a design process. This way, the people you’re designing for are  always  represented throughout the design process. The key challenge of participatory design is finding stakeholders that can adequately represent a community’s needs, while also participating meaningfully in a design process.

Participatory design, of course, has the risk of overlooking key stakeholders, and therefore producing designs that do not work for everyone.  Universal design 3 , 11 , 13 3

Burgstahler, S. (2009). Universal design: Process, principles, and applications. DO-IT..

11

Nesmith, M. (2016). Why we need universal design. TEDx Talks.

13

Story, M. F. (1998). Maximizing usability: the principles of universal design. Assistive Technology.

 attempts to address this, arguing that designers should  assume  that there will be a vast diversity in the types of people that want to use what you design, and so designing for diversity from the outset will maximize how many people can access your design.  This paradigm emerges out of studies on accessibility and disability studies, which focus on how to empower people with diverse physical abilities to access technology, the built environment, and other designed things. Related to universal design is  ability-based design 14 14

Wobbrock, J. O., Kane, S. K., Gajos, K. Z., Harada, S., & Froehlich, J. (2011). Ability-based design: Concept, principles and examples. ACM Transactions on Accessible Computing (TACCESS).

, which goes even further, arguing that the designed artifact  itself  should self-adapt to a person’s abilities and contexts at any given moment. For example, imagine a touch screen keyboard that detects and models a user’s physical ability and mobile context, and adapts the keyboard to suit a person’s needs in the moment. Both of these paradigms respond to the inherent diversity of human abilities, needs, and contexts.

One critique of all of these approaches, however, is that no design, no matter how universal, will equally serve everyone. This is the premise of  design justice 4 4

Costanza-Chock, S. (2020). Design justice: Community-led practices to build the worlds we need. MIT Press.

, which observes that design is fundamentally about power, in that designs may not only serve some people less well, but systematically exclude them in surprising, often unintentional ways. Consider, for example, Black Americans, whose darker skin is often not recognized by hand soap and water dispensers in public spaces. This is not a natural limitation of technology—it is a consequence of designers choosing a sensor technology that must necessarily be calibrated for particular skin tones, and then calibrating it for white skin. Design justice argues, then, that some designs, when they cannot be universal, should simply not be made. And if they can be universal, then they should be made in ways that 1) center power inequalities, 2) center the voices of all directly impacted by the design outcomes, 3) prioritize impact on communities over designers’ intents, 4) view designers as facilitators rather than designers, 5) ensure designs are sustainable and community led, and 6) build upon and amplify the solutions that communities have already found.

You can think of all of these different design paradigms as simply having a different  unit of analysis .  Whereas human-centered design focuses on an individual, activity-centered design focuses on a system and the activities in it, value-sensitive design focuses on human value tensions amongst diverse stakeholders. Universal design focuses on all of humanity, whereas design justice focuses on power structures, oppression, and communities. Each different unit of analysis exposes different aspects of a problem, and therefore leads to different types of solutions.

If you’re engaging in design, how do you choose from these paradigms? If you have the freedom to choose, you have to consider your values: if you’re concerned with social justice, it is hard to recommend anything but the design justice perspective, as it places justice at the center of design. Other paradigms might be easier, since they involve giving up less power, working less with affected communities, and therefore taking less time. But that just means designing something that may be less effective, sustainable, and successful. In most professional design contexts, however, you might be forced to work within design paradigms that are less justice-focused, with more attention towards profit and speed. In these contexts, you’ll have to decide whether to compromise on just and effective outcomes to optimize speed and profit, or whether to advocate for change.

References

  1. Bannon, L. (2011). Reimagining HCI: toward a more human-centered perspective. ACM interactions.

  2. Beyer, H., & Holtzblatt, K. (1999). Contextual design. ACM interactions.

  3. Burgstahler, S. (2009). Universal design: Process, principles, and applications. DO-IT..

  4. Costanza-Chock, S. (2020). Design justice: Community-led practices to build the worlds we need. MIT Press.

  5. Cross, N. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies.

  6. Dourish, P. (2003). The appropriation of interactive technologies: Some lessons from placeless documents. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW).

  7. Friedman, B., & Hendry, D. G. (2019). Value sensitive design: Shaping technology with moral imagination. MIT Press.

  8. Kolko, J. (2010). Abductive thinking and sensemaking: The drivers of design synthesis. Design Issues.

  9. Louridas, P. (1999). Design as bricolage: anthropology meets design thinking. Design Studies.

  10. Muller, M. J., & Kuhn, S. (1993). Participatory design. Communications of the ACM.

  11. Nesmith, M. (2016). Why we need universal design. TEDx Talks.

  12. Norman, D. A. (2005). Human-centered design considered harmful. ACM interactions.

  13. Story, M. F. (1998). Maximizing usability: the principles of universal design. Assistive Technology.

  14. Wobbrock, J. O., Kane, S. K., Gajos, K. Z., Harada, S., & Froehlich, J. (2011). Ability-based design: Concept, principles and examples. ACM Transactions on Accessible Computing (TACCESS).