I (heart) PR

Complex concepts like evaluation, design and even complexity itself provide insight, strategies and applications that provide usable solutions to real-world problems, but also suffer from widespread misunderstandings, confusion and even derision. If they are to take hold beyond their initial communities of interest, they need to address their PR problem head on. 

This past week was Design Week in Toronto. As one works extensively with design concepts and even has a health promotion-focused design studio, one couldn’t be faulted for thinking that this would be a big week for someone like me who lives and works in the city.  Well, it came and went and I didn’t attend a single thing. The reason was partly due to timing and my schedule, but largely because the focus of the week was not really on design writ large, but rather interior design. Sure, there were a few events that focused on social issues (what I am interested in) like the Design With Dialogue session on Designing a Future for our Future, but mostly it was focused on one area of a large field.

And thus, interior design was left to represent all of design.

So why does this matter? It matters a lot because when people hear the term design, most of what was presented this week fits with that perception. The problem is that design is so much more than that. It is about making things, creative thinking and problem tackling (design thinking), social innovation, and responsive planning for complex situations. Architects, business leaders, military strategists, social service agencies and health promoters all engage in design. Indeed, Herbert Simon‘s oft-quoted and often contested definition fits nicely here:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones

If one accepts that we are all designers and all of what we create and use for change is design, than a week devoted to the topic should offer much more than innovative concepts in furniture or flooring. Yet, this high-concept style showcase is what most people think about when they first hear design. Give people a choice between a Philippe Stark Juicy Salif citrus juicer and creating a trades-based, social change curriculum for low-income kids such as the work by Emily Pilloton as the example of design and they will probably guess think Stark over Pilloton, when both are equally valid examples.

Evaluation (another area I focus my work on) is equally fraught with perception problems. If you want to raise someone’s blood pressure or heart rate, tell them that either they or their work will be the focus of an evaluation. Evaluation may be the longest four-letter word in the English language. Yet, tell someone that you have a strategy that can enable people to learn about what they do, its impact, and provide intelligence on ways to improve, adapt and outperform their competitors and you’ll find an inspired audience for evaluation services.

Lastly, complexity presents the same challenge. It’s very name — complexity — can make people shy away from it. As humans, we crave the simple in most things as it is easier to understand, manage and control. Complexity offers none of these things and, if anything, reveals how little control we have. Entire fields of inquiry have been established around complexity science and its related theories and practices. Complexity can help us make sense of why things don’t work as we think they ought to and allow us to better navigate through unpredictable terrain with greater resilience than if we tried to tackle such problems as if they were linear in their cause and consequence.

In all of these cases — design, evaluation and complexity — there exists a PR problem. The advantages that they pose are tremendous, yet these concepts are frequently misunderstood, dismissed, or inappropriately used . When this happens, it creates even greater distance between the potential benefits these concepts offer and their real-world application.

This distance is partly an artefact of poorly articulated definitions and examples, but also by design (no pun intended). There are those who relish having these concepts appear opaque to those outside of their social cluster. Thus, we have the ‘superstar designer’ who seeks to create products and personas that are built upon their rarity, rather than accessibility. There are evaluators who exploit the fear that people have of evaluation and lack the understanding of the methods and practices of evaluation (vs concepts like research or innovation consulting) to gain contracts and social influence within their field. Complexity, with its foundations in physics and systems biology, can appear to the layperson as otherworldly, making its practitioners and scientists seem all the more powerful and smart. These tactics benefit a small ‘elite'(?) number of professionals, while robbing a far larger audience of the potential benefits.

In 1969, then president of the American Psychological Association, George Miller, implored members to “give psychology away“. His message was that psychology was too important to be left just to the professional, graduate-trained practitioners to use. If psychology was to confer social benefits, it was necessary to ensure that everyone had access to it — it’s theories, methods, models and treatments. It is perhaps no surprise that psychology remains one of the most popular undergraduate degree programs in the arts and social sciences and the focus of television shows, magazines and and an array of services. Miller was commenting on the need to change a field that he perceived was becoming elitist and not serving the needs of society.

The same might be true of design, evaluation and complexity if we let it. It’s not a surprise that these three concepts are intimately tied together, as those training to apply design thinking and strategic foresight learn. Perhaps its time to start giving these ideas away, but to do so we first need to rehab their image and apply some design thinking and brand development strategy to all three ideas. As practitioners in any or all of these fields, giving away what we do by educating, reinforcing, and ensuring that the work we do is of the highest quality is a way to lead by example. None of us is likely to change things by ourselves, but together we can do wonders.

For those interested in evaluation, I suggest catching up on the AEA365 blog sponsored by the American Evaluation Association, where evaluation bloggers and practitioners share ideas about how to practice evaluation, but also how to communicate it to others. For those interested in design, I would encourage you to look at places like the Design Thinkers LinkedIn group, where practitioners from around the world discuss innovations and way to promote and apply design thinking. A similar group, and opportunity, exists with the Systems Thinking LinkedIn group or by joining the Plexus Institute, which does considerable work to promote complexity and systems thinking in North America.

Photo: I (Heart) PR by The Silfwer used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr.

Posted by Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.


  1. Thank you for your share your reflection. Indeed, we need to contribute to create awareness of our design thinking capabilities in more areas than interior design. Inclusive beyond industrial design, architecture, graphic design…. there is a wide scope of areas we are able to design and develop our marvelous way of thinking. Perhaps we are starting to figure it out how to actually raise that awareness…. I do not know, I am a new one on this. Also, thank you, I appreciate the links you share with us.

    One question, what do you actually mean with this sentence: “Evaluation may be the longest four-letter word in the English language.”, maybe because English is not my mother tongue or because I am half sleepy, but I did not get how is a four-letter word.

    1. Carolina,

      Thank you for your comment on my post. The sentence “Evaluation may be the longest four-letter word in the English language” is meant to be a bit fo a joke, because many English swear-words are four letters. Often the phrase “four-letter words” refers to one of these and you might be able to guess what some of them are. The reason I chose to use this sentence was to try and illustrate how people often get offended, afraid or concerned when they hear the word “evaluation” because it often suggests judgement. Most of us don’t like to be judged and, too often, evaluations are used to judge things alone, rather than help improve them.

      I am glad you have found the links and commentary on design thinking useful, too.

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