Month: August 2011

complexitydesign thinking

Design Thinking and the Metaphors of Science

The Chemistry of Creation

There is a certain way in which things come together to create a successful design (or relationship) that is often chalked up to “chemistry”. But design chemistry could mean something both literal and evolving just like biological organisms if we take the concept to its fullest. 

Metaphors are commonly used in tackling complex problems. The uniqueness of the situation, the level of detail of the manner by which the influencing factors coalesce, and the multidisciplinary ways of seeing the problem in the first place all present a problem of language, thus using oblique comparators can often fill the gap.

Science and mathematics have the advantage of being closer to ‘universal’ languages than many of the other forms of communication we share as a species (Leibniz’s ideas notwithstanding). They are less (not completely) influenced by cultural variations and local differences and can be shared globally. It is for this reason that the the prospect for a means of communicating concepts like design through science has appeal. As Andrea Yip has pointed out, design itself can be transformed into chemistry using the periodic table as a guide to serve as a more universal metaphor for understanding the way design thinking is experienced and practiced.

Chemistry is the study and creation of the bonds of the universe. More specifically, it is:

the science of matter, especially its properties, structure, composition, behavior, reactions, interactions and the changes it undergoes.

As a metaphor for design thinking it works beautifully. Through the Periodic Table of Design Thinking we see an attempt to lay out the properties of design thinking, map out the structure and explain their composition. Through practice and reflection we will see how these compounds play out in the design process.

Another scientific metaphor that takes up the charge from where chemistry leaves off is from developmental biology:

 the study of the process by which organisms grow and develop

In the case of this metaphor, design thinking is the organism. Just as an organism, made of chemical compounds interacting over time, evolves, so too does the design process and the thinking that comes with it. In this case, metaphors like those proposed by Ms Yip and the concept of developmental design fit harmoniously.

Designing for and with complexity requires attention to a dynamism that can be lost if one takes the approach that product development happens at only stage of its life cycle. For many products this might be appropriate, but it falls short when we describe social design issues such as creating policies or social programs such as those found in health and education. I’ve referred to this concept as developmental design. Developmental design, like developmental evaluation, implies an evolved, dynamic approach to generating knowledge or outcomes and while I only loosely conceived of it in a way that matched developmental biology, it may be time to revisit that more intently. Designing developmentally means working through the design process on an ongoing basis, like perpetual beta in the software industry. It means evolving strategies for adaptation rather than solving problems because true solutions to wicked problems are often more dream than reality.

Taking the chemistry metaphor, it means that the ingredients, dosage and combinatorial mixes change over time in the production of a new compound or design. They may require catalysts — such as the inclusion of new perspectives or a particular discipline — to provoke certain reactions and move ideas into new space. It may also involve the same type of intervention from the designer to bring these chemicals to life. The chemist is not removed from her creation.

All of these are metaphors, yet they provide us with a means of taking the messiness of the language, something discussed in previous posts, to a new place until we can find the language that is most appropriate. Until that time, science might offer one of the better means of conveying design, complexity and the creativity that comes when we apply them both to generating products and services.

Photo Chemistry! by matfred used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr.

art & designdesign thinking

The Science of Design Thinking

My colleague and design collaborator has proposed a way of viewing design thinking as something akin to a periodic table of elements. Beyond just posing a brilliant way of explicating and organizing the multiple facets of design thinking, Andrea Yip has shown the world that there is much we can learn from science, visualization and how they both apply to design. 

Last weekend a group of design thinkers got together to discuss the concept of design thinking and what it means. The conference, summarized in another post, explored the language of design thinking, the need for visual thinking, and the importance of understanding the context of design and design thinking.

While this was going on in Vancouver, another designer (my colleague, Andrea Yip) was back in Toronto taking these same ideas independently and transforming them into an organizational structure that should create much room for thought among those interested in design thinking. The model she has developed is one not based on areas that are familiar to design — architecture, art, graphic design, business strategy, or engineering — but science.

Designers often speak of a need for multidisciplinarity in their work. While laudable, this commonly refers to the inclusion of multiple perspectives on a design problems from within the broad field of design. It is indeed rare to find such multidisciplinary teams comprised of scientists. Andrea has turned that upside down by proposing a model of design thinking based on the periodic table of elements. The table, shown below, is a first draft, but a highly sophisticated one and something that ought to be taken seriously.

Periodic Table of Design (version 1.0) by Andrea L. Yip on DrawedIt

By using the structure and format of a bedrock of science, Andrea has shown that there are ways of thinking about design that transcend the boundaries that we often unconsciously bind around it. This new model inverses the terms posed by the creative arts or the applied disciplines of engineering or architecture, each that have made enormous contributions to the field, yet all rely on a level of subjectivity, and replaces them with a model based on a more universal language: science.

Science and design are uneasy partners. Some, like Nigel Cross, have pointed to the challenges with the use of terms design science and the science of design, while others, like Buckminster Fuller,  use the term design and science in ways that are open to challenge from those who identify as practicing scientists. Ms Yip, a designer trained in science (biology) and social science (health promotion) fields, sees things in ways that transcend these perspectives to propose using science as a guide to inform the way we understand design.

In doing so, she provides a bridge between the worlds of science, with its emphasis on evidence and strict adherence to protocols, and design, with its flexible, rapidly evolving, yet often non-specific methods. Indeed, Andrea’s blog showcases many examples of how design and fields like health promotion fit together and differ. It is time for both designers and scientists to listen more intently to this conversation.

By using methods, theories, analogies and conceptual models that extend our thinking beyond the realm of conventional design and science, we offer opportunities to make things better — and in doing so shape our world for the greatest benefit for us all.

Andrea’s blog is called Drawed and can be visited at: . She welcomes feedback on her ideas.

And if the Periodic Table of Design is not enough, Andrea’s also developed a prototype set of trading cards based on the table for those more inclined to school-yard forms of collaborating around design that are also up on her blog.

For more dialogue on design thinking, stay tuned to this space and the Twitter feed @d_bracket for the upcoming launch of the Design Thinking Foundations project and corresponding site. And wouldn’t you know? Andrea Yip is the coordinator of that project.

design thinking

Design Thinking: Reflections on an Unconference

Reflections on the Language and Process of Design Thinking

From August 19-20th, dozens of design-oriented people from different backgrounds came together in Vancouver to meet and discuss the concept of design thinking: its meaning, its application, and its future. These are some reflections on what I took away from the two day event. 

Design thinking is becoming a hot topic — or term — and while there are those who argue that it has jumped the shark (i.e., outshone its utility and over-reached — see Bruce Nussbaum’s thoughts on this) the past two days showed how clearly this is not the case.

A cluster of passionate people from various worlds of design, architecture, education, business consulting and even public health came together to listen to examples of how design thinking is being applied and conceived of (day 1) and work through the issues in small discussion through an unconference (day 2).

Throughout the two days a few patterns emerged from the Design Thinking Unconference 2011, which I will summarize here.

1. The language of design thinking is ripe for evolution. Bruce Nussbaum aside, there has been much written on the concern with the term “design thinking”, most notably that it focuses on thought and cognition and not action, which is what design is also about. Rather than re-ignite this discussion, a more interesting turn was initiated by Sudhir Desai, an innovation strategist based in Cambridge, MA, who noted the problem of using terms that were intended for something else to mean what we mean with design thinking. Quoting the work of Management scholar and pracititioner Dave Snowden (of Cognitive Edge):

We cannot use the same words to describe our solution with those used to define the problem

Through his brief presentation on Friday and the unconference session he convened Saturday, Sudhir succeeded in inspiring dialogue on whether we need a new term altogether — something that might not even be one that we know of at present. Terms like ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ were thrown out, but they met with criticisms and a sense of dissatisfaction. No viable term was proposed, but the seeds for a contemplative discussion on what that should be, whether we need one, and what the challenges of language are for design thinkers was made clear.

2. Design thinking and design tools are not the same thing. Another strong theme was a railing against the popular held notion that design thinking is all about what it does. This is another twist on the argument about design + thinking, but one that instead focuses on the way of approaching problems, not just the tools to solve them. Although there was much interest in tools and strategies, there was also agreement that design thinking is about practice, a way of approaching problems, and manners by which tools and strategies bring them together as a whole, not as a series of parts.

Which brings me to the next point…

3. Design thinking is (very often) systems thinking. This is something I noted even if it wasn’t made as prominently explicit among the discussions. Design thinkers might be one of the best groups I’ve been associated with at systems thinking; that is part of what they do. Whether it was something about this group or something about the discussions that took place, there was a real, palpable sense of looking to the past, the present and future of any design project and exploring the wider system of where design takes place. On Friday, Trevor Boddy, a Vancouver urbanist and author (PDF), took a group out on a walking tour of the city to show how the landscape was changed and transformed over time through a series of successive steps and interconnected actors and policies. This way of seeing Vancouver permeated through the ways in which the attendees saw their issues as part of systems, not just isolated activities.

4. Context is everything/designers have to be excellent listeners. The resistance to the idea that there is a recipe — something that many attendees voiced wanting to get at the start of the two-day event — for design thinking was made visible and loud. Context counts more than almost anything else and designers cannot succeed with cookbook strategies to generate solutions to design problems. Context, context, context was plastered all over the place during the summary session yesterday after the unconference.

At the same time, there was a quieter, but equally powerful push for designers to be good — indeed great — listeners.

The need for design thinkers to engage in deep, contemplative listening was something that permeated a lot of the sessions at the unconference that I was a part of (and not necessarily because I brought it up). The challenges and ironies associated with deeper listening were also noted as many noted that there is such a push, particularly for those working in corporate environments, to do more and do it faster instead of slow down and think. To this end, I am reminded of the work of Ezio Manzini and his push towards a culture of slow in support of sustainable social innovation and the work of the Centre for Contemplative Mind in Society who work to promote mindfulness in academia and education.

As we wish to speed innovation, sometimes slowing down is the way to go faster.

5. Design thinking is best done visually. Visual communication — sketching, digital rendering, mock-ups, art in various forms — was presented repeatedly as a means of conveying the complexity of the information that is often generated from tackling the problems design is called on to address (see below). Thankfully, a room filled with creatives generated a lot of visual media to support ideation and synthesis. Sketching on notepads and craft paper, model building (literally, with fruit and food sometimes!), and graphical presentations featured prominently in the conference; not by design, but by necessity. Building on the points raised earlier, it was evident how challenging our current language is in describing design problems and situations. I’ve elaborated on this in previous posts, but these two days only served to strengthen my conviction that we need more creative means of expression introduced into our work and people who can render ideas in visual forms on our teams.

6. Design thinking is wicked. The conference began with a discussion of the wicked problems that designers are frequently employed to tackle and over two days it was obvious that not only are the problems wicked, so too are the design thinkers involved in those problems. By wicked the reference is to a set of conditions that are unstable, non-directional, dynamic, context-sensitive, and in need of diverse, coordinated, flexible responses. This is design thinking to a tee.

To paraphrase the great Winston Churchill:

This is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

Much more will come in the months ahead and the networks forged and extended because of this event, for which I am grateful for the opportunity to attend, will advance and so too will the ideas for what is design thinking.  For readers interested in engaging in this discussion and learning more, check out the Design Thinking LinkedIn group that is the hub and the source for this entire two-day event.

art & designpsychology

Extra-Sensory Knowledge Translation and Design

A new type of extra sensing perception

There is a myth that we only use 10% of our brain, but we certainly don’t use the fullest array of creative means of communication at our disposal. What if designers, health promoters and those seeking to communicate better started considering a more sensory-forward way of sharing what they know to each other? 


“Pheromones?” I said.

“Yes. Think about how much we convey by pheromones?” my colleague said. “Imagine what we could explain if we knew what they told us?”


So started a conversation between three of us faculty at the annual Center for Contemplative Mind and Society annual faculty curriculum development program.  The conversation was prompted by a performance by New York-based dancer and fellow contemplative Yin Mei the previous night that we found bereft of words to fully explain. The performance, and our conversation,  The dance and movement performance blended film, sound, music, dance and kabuki-style masks in an interactive dance studio environment. If I wrote any more and I wouldn’t be doing the performance justice.

Here were three people who were literally involved in a performance virtually unable to share a common description of what they saw, even if it was the same thing. We three were stuck trying to come up with words to describe what we had experienced. Words, feelings, text all failed. And that is how we came up with our conversation.

Our discussion has inspired reflection on how much information we neglect and the types of information that we privilege when we design things and communicate what we know to the world around us.

Pheromones are a means of communication available to us to use. Yet, we don’t, nor have the knowledge of how to use them. We might develop an instantaneous connection with someone — even fall in love (or lust) —  for reasons that make no rational sense to our brain, but it happens. We don’t have the sensory intelligence to make sense of the signals we receive, but we nonetheless transmit and receive a lot more than we are aware of.

When we seek to develop a design for something, good practice involves engaging a diversity of perspectives to generate ideas that create new knowledge, best suit the communication of those ideas, and develop those ideas into products, services and policies that best help people. However, our means of communicating these still remain with spoken and written words.

A touch can convey information that is immeasurable. A look, a feeling, a smell, a brush of a hand are all sensory means of conveying information and learning about our world. As we seek to tackle the kind of ineffable, yet persistent and pernicious problems that complexity introduces, new ways to express and share our understandings are necessary. There are simply times when words won’t or cannot do it.

The practical application of this sensory-based approach to design is not a simple venture. Western culture is not very kinesthetic making a lot of touch-based collaboration problematic. Add in the very real issues that those who’ve experience physical trauma or abuse, and such application of touch must be handled with care. But just as words can be weapons or means to joy, so too can touch if done with compassion, skill and sensitivity. Artful methods like dance, sculpture, or video could be means of communicating ideas that simple words cannot.

What if we could cultivate the means to be intimate with these methods in the service of better design and communication? What kind of design would that look like? Could we engage a much broader range of people into the discussion? Right now, we privilege those who can write and speak well, those who are forward (i.e., extroverted) and verbal, at the expense of those who might have as much to offer, but for whom writing, reading or oral communication might not be their strongest method of communication, yet that is all they are given.

We are more than our words and we can be more than what those words convey. It seems time to start taking this a little more seriously and seeing where it goes. Who knows? Maybe the best ideas are just a painting or dance away.

art & designcomplexityemergencehealth promotionpublic health

The Art of Complexity and Public Health


“Art is an intimation of the fundamental reconciliation of contradicting possibilities” – Joel Upton

Without contradiction, there is no art. Art itself is about juxtaposing ideas, tensions, concepts and working with form and space. The artist, whether consciously or not, is balancing contradictions in space, medium and form to challenge themselves and their audience to explore an idea, a feeling, concept or all three.

Engaging with art is about beholding. To behold requires focus, attention and some enthusiasm for the subject matter (knowledge doesn’t hurt much either). It requires time to contemplate the elements above and explore the contradictions and the perspective of the artist and the beholding audience. Health promotion and social change is full of contradictions. For example, how to promote freedom and self-determination while ensuring appropriate regulation to protect those who’s self-determined choices put others at risk? How do we create community and common space while respecting diversity and uniqueness — including those perspectives that don’t support commonly held values?

The list can go on. Art and the art of beholding can offer some ways to address this complexity through contemplative inquiry and learning about perspective and perspective taking.

Claude Monet in painting the Maintee sur la Siene did so from the river in his boat. By being on the river Monet was able to gain a perspective that is fundamentally different than had he painted from the shore, which he also did in other works. To behold Monet’s painting yields insights that cannot be gained by simply passing the image over.

Spending time before the work yields perspectives that cannot be obtained through mere casual observation. One is immune to the overlaying circles, the misty cornering of the Siene, or the fact that nearly all of the painting exists in reflection. When one looks at the painting in the context of others using the same angle and different colour shades, we see that this is a work that is distinct. Searching through the various forms of the work, one sees new layers of possibility and complexity emerge as the tones change, the textures shift and the intensity of the work alters. The version held at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, where Professor Upton teaches, is particularly complex in how subtle the reflections and use of colour and texture are parlayed on the canvas.

Learning more about Monet at the time he did this painting, his life, the fact that it wasn’t like he painted it from the water, he DID paint it from the water.

But we might have known that had we not spent the time in contemplation of the painting. Got to know it, and understand it deeply. Submitted ourselves to the work with a level of intimacy that can only be obtained through the act of contemplation and engagement with the art. The longer one beholds the work and sees the various forms within it, the greater the complexity that emerges — qualities unknown or unknowable without the contemplation of the work in depth.

Monet knew that he had to survive, to produce a work of art that was in demand and could sell. He had to survive, but also did art to ensure that people were inspired and challenged. His wrestling with contradiction, his application of knowledge to a medium, and the expression of his creativity through both is what made him one of the most widely renowned impressionist painters who ever lived.

Health promotion is about contradiction. It deals with complexity all the time. How do we inspire change in others and still support self-determination? How can we change a system when that system has no single voice? How do we get individuals to do what we want, yet simultaneously respect what they want?

Health promotion also seeks to respect diversity, but at the same time, what does it do to truly understand this diversity? Do we take the time to get to know the communities it deals with. Really, truly know these communities. Do we give the time to be intimate with them?

My experience is sadly, no. In public health we use focus groups — which were initially designed to focus a research question, not serve as a means of research unto itself — to generalize from a group-think scenario to an entire community and then claim that we know them. Really? Is this beholding? Is this the kind of contemplative inquiry that makes sense for public health.

Could we learn more from artists? Our methods certainly could (see art of public health), but perhaps the way of the artist is also something we could learn more from.

behaviour changedesign thinkinghealth promotionsystems thinking

Design for Social Norms or Social Change?

Social change or social norm?

Designing for how people live is part of good design practice, but what about designing for the way people could be? What does it mean to design for social norms and what role does design have in changing them?

Media scholar and youth researcher danah boyd recently wrote on the need for designers to consider social norms as part of their media creations. The post received a lot of attention in the mediasphere and came on the heels of another interesting post by Keith Sawyer on Chinese social norms and the Tiger Mom phenomenon (that I also wrote on a while back). Returning to boyd’s argument, she makes the case that designers don’t dictate the behaviour of people in the systems they create, the people tthemselves do:

Social norms aren’t designed into the system. They don’t emerge by telling people how they should behave. And they don’t necessarily follow market logic. Social norms emerge as people – dare we say “users” – work out how a technology makes sense and fits into their lives. Social norms take hold as people bring their own personal values and beliefs to a system and help frame how future users can understand the system. And just as “first impressions matter” for social interactions, I cannot underestimate the importance of early adopters. Early adopters configure the technology in critical ways and they play a central role in shaping the social norms that surround a particular system.

What boyd is arguing (using my words and concepts from complexity science) is that emergence and path dependency shape design’s manifestation in the social realm. In technology-oriented systems, the ‘early adopters’ are the ones who set the stage for how the next wave of users interact with the system and boyd points to examples from Friendster about how attempts to control its community helped drive people away from the site (ultimately leading to its demise).

People don’t like to be configured. They don’t like to be forcibly told how they should use a service. They don’t want to be told to behave like the designers intended them to be. Heavy-handed policies don’t make for good behavior; they make for pissed off users.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t design to encourage certain behaviors. Of course you should. The whole point of design is to help create an environment where people engage in the most fruitful and healthy way possible. But designing a system to encourage the growth of healthy social norms is fundamentally different than coming in and forcefully telling people how they must behave. No one likes being spanked, especially not a crowd of opinionated adults.

The focus here is more on social media and online spaces, but the argument could be made for the same thing in social design. But unlike information technology, which favours a very particular group of people, social design has the potential to intentionally engage specific populations. Using boyd’s argument, one might assert that much of the technology we use from Foursquare to Instagram to the iPhone itself is shaped by the under-40 set of educated, middle class, largely white male hipster knowledge workers as they are typically the earliest visible adopters for such technologies (even if that is changing) .

In this model those with the most power, privilege and social capital at the outset greatly determine what comes next. This might be OK for technology, but is highly problematic for social justice and social inequities. A health promoting social design has the potential to change this by seeding that early adoption cycle with different people with potentially different values to shape outcomes not defined by a narrow set of social groups.

Keith Sawyer’s article points to the social norming around Chinese parenting (as defined through Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom) and how it clashes with a particular type of parenting model that dominates in the United States and our ideas of creativity. In describing his reaction to a recent review of Chua’s book and its contents, Sawyer points to the unease it creates in him when comparing norms and what it means for creativity and innovation:

I ought to be lined up with all of the horrified American parents who hate this book. But I just can’t side with them on this one. Creativity is hard work, and you don’t get creativity without paying your dues. No one magically learns how to play piano or violin (I’m reminded of the old joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I haven’t tried it yet.”) And as Amy Chua points out, there’s nothing like the joy that comes from being able to do something well, knowing that you earned it with hours, months, and years of hard work. As a child, I took piano lessons for eight years, and now thirty years later it’s a major source of joy in my life.

Chua’s parenting is an issue because it doesn’t fit with the dominant social norms, just as the self-esteem-at-all-cost approach that Sawyer rightly exposes as problematic in its own right would be in China.

These are designed systems. Just as we create path dependencies for one set of values, so too can we do the same for others and with other people. The focus on the outcomes of systems rather than their design is problematic if we want change. Starting with design and values at the outset, being conscious of who we invite in and how we engage them and by remaining contemplative about how these systems unfold and the emergent patterns that shape them, designers of all stripes may be better positioned to create social change rather than just for social norms.

art & designevaluation

Visualizing Evaluation and Feedback

Seeing Ourselves in the Mirror of Feedback

Evaluation data is not always made accessible and part of the reason is that it doesn’t accurately reflect the world that people see. To be more effective at making decisions based on data, creating the mirrors that allow us to visualize things in ways that reflect what programs see may be key. 

Program evaluation is all about feedback and generating the kind of data that can provide actionable instruction to improve, sustain or jettison program activities. It helps determine whether a program is doing what it claims to be doing, what kind of processes are underway within the context of the program, and what is generally “going on” when people engage with a particular activity. Whether a program actually chooses to use the data is another matter, but at least it is there for people to consider.

A utlization-focused approach to evaluation centres on making data actionable and features a set of core activities (PDF) that help boost the likelihood that data will actually be used. Checklists such as the one referenced from IDRC do a great job of showing the complicated array of activities that go into making useful, user-centred, actionable evaluation plans and data. It isn’t as simple as expressing intent to use evaluations, much more needs to go into the data in the first place, but also into the readiness of the organization in using the data.

What the method of UFE and the related research on its application does not do is provide explicit,  prescriptive methods for data collection and presentation. If it did, data visualization ought to be considered front and centre in the discussion.


If the data is complex, the ability for us to process the information generated from an evaluation might be limited if we are expecting to connect disparate concepts. David McCandless has made a career of taking very large, complex topics and finding ways to visualize results to provide meaningful narratives that people can engage with. His TED talk and books provide examples of how to use graphic design and data analytics to develop new visual stories through data that transcend the typical regression model or pie chart.

There is also a bias we have towards telling people things, rather than allowing them to discover things for themselves. Robert Butler makes the case for the “Colombo” approach to inviting people to discover the truth in data in the latest issue of the Economist’s Intelligent Life. He writes:

What we need to do is abandon the “information deficit” model. That’s the one that goes: I know something, you don’t know it, once you know what I know you will grasp the seriousness of the situation and change your behaviour accordingly. Greens should dump that model in favour of suggesting details that actually catch people’s interest and allow the other person to get involved.

Art — or at least visual data — is a means of doing this. By inviting conversation about data — much like art does — we invite participation, analysis and engagement with the material that not only makes it more meaningful, but also more likely to be used. It is hard to look at some of the visualizations at places like

At the very least, evaluators might want to consider ways to visualize data simply to improve the efficiency of their communications. To that end, consider Hans Rosling’s remarkably popular video produced by the BBC showing the income and health distributions of 200 countries over 200 years in four minutes. Try that with a series of graphs.