Tag: designer

art & designenvironmentpublic health

Design Space in Public Health

EmabarcaderoFountainIf design is everywhere humans are and shapes our interactions in the built environment, which dictates how we interact with the world around us should it not be considered important enough to be a part of public health?

I recently picked up a copy of the architecturally-inspired Arcade Magazine because of its theme on Science, Art and Inquiry. Inside was a piece by Andrew Dannenberg, Howard Frumpkin and Daniel Friedman. The first two are MD’s and the last author an architect and all are from the University of Washington . In that article, they outline a case for why design and public health should go together. The audience for the piece are those interested in architecture.

Indeed, Arcade’s purpose is to “incite dialogue about design and the built environment”. It makes me wonder why we don’t have something that “incites dialogue about design and public health?”.

Yet, I couldn’t help but think that same piece should be published in a public health space. In the article, the authors outline a few of the key areas where design can contribute to public health.

Among the first of these areas is promoting physical activity and the role that design can play in building and planning for spaces that encourage people to move in healthy ways:

Working together with public health professionals and planners, designers can help remedy what urban theorist Nan Ellin calls “place-deficit disorder,” starting with the basics – stairways, sidewalks, landscapes and contiguous urban spaces – which they can compose to attract greater pedestrian use.

Designing for resiliency is another of the areas where good design can benefit the public by creating a solid urban infrastructure to literally weather the storms that come upon us:

Evidence-based design can help reduce vulnerability and enhance the resilience of buildings and infrastructure, but most importantly, the communities who depend on them.

They also look at the role of design in enhancing sustainability and as a means for assisting environmental health while shaping the demand for sustainable products:

Designers possess the unique skills, knowledge and practices to specify the use of benign materials across scales based on life cycle analysis, energy conservation, carbon management, and environmental and health impacts. As designers expand these practices, they educate their clients, inform the public and shift the market.\

Lastly, they focus on how design can contribute to reducing social inequities by drawing on evidence looking at the connections between space and wellbeing for those in low-income neighbourhoods:

Recent studies demonstrate that links between greater access to green space and lower mortality are more pronounced among the poor than the wealthy. Housing initiatives that offer better homes for low-income persons, workplace design that protects workers, and universal design that improves access for activities by persons with disabilities—these practices benefit vulnerable populations and offer designers unlimited opportunities to help foster fuller, healthier lives.

Expanding the discourse of design and public health

It was refreshing to read a ‘conversation’ between public health and design and some taking the issue of space and health seriously from a design point of view. Some, like Emily Pilloton and her Project H design others have sought to use design as a bridge to social wellbeing by looking at space as being about communities and economics. Her video below explains how she has taken a design-driven approach to her work in promoting new sustainable ways to engage her adopted community of Bertie county.

Both of these examples of design in public health take a place-based approach, however there is much that can be done with designing the experience of health beyond place. Jon Kolko’s group at AC4D looked at design and homeless in their book Wicked Problems.  Andrew Shea has looked at the link between graphic design and social good in his book, which is explained further in his TEDX talk below. The design firm IDEO has been working on social good projects now for a few years through its IDEO.org platform and program.

  Bringing public health in

What seems to be missing and that the article in Arcade did and that was bring public health in. Emily Pilloton, Jon Kolko, Andrew Shea and many other terrific socially-minded designers are changing the way the public thinks about public health. Public health needs to be doing this too. It is striking that we have so few public health professionals — Drs Andrew Dannenberg and Howard Frumpkin as exceptions — doing the kind of design-oriented research and publishing in this area. It is ripe and public health and design both need it.

I don’t expect a lot of public health folks read Arcade, but maybe they should. And maybe we should be reading more about design in public health publications too.

design thinkinginnovationresearch

Design Thinking and Zombies

Stopping to sip the brains of sloppy design thinkers

The concept of design thinking has been much maligned in some circles; declared dead, brought to life, and now, or like a zombie, walking in a state somewhere between. If the concept is to live or die it must do so based on evidence from research and practice, not rhetoric as it’s been up until now. 

The FastCo Design blog has posted an article proclaiming: Is Design Thinking Dead? Hell No!  by Grant McCracken from C3 at MIT. McCracken’s post was in response to the oft-cited editorial by Bruce Nussbaum a few months ago that I’ve commented on many times in this blog space about how design thinking is a failed experiment; basically dead.

According to McCracken, DT is still alive, or at least undead.

Few concepts have engendered such a strong reaction from so many. Writing in the Harvard Business Review blog, Peter Merholz made the case that design thinking has been an oversold concept and is not the tool some think it is.  The Design Sojourn blog went so far to suggest that design thinking kills creativity. These articles run counter to a series of books, special issues and conferences that have sought to promote design thinking widely.

The concern I have for much of the discourse on design thinking — its life, death and zombie-like undead state — is that it is nearly all based on rhetoric alone.

Definitions of design thinking tend toward: Design thinking is what I say it is and I am a designer, therefore I know design thinking. While maybe true for an individual designer, such claims to a concept become problematic when, as McCracken points out, entire programs of activity from U of T Rotman’s b-school to Stanford’s d-school to IDEO and Jump have embraced this concept wholeheartedly and focused their business around it. The stakes are getting higher for design and design thinking with little attention being paid to what designers and non-designers actually do or think about what they do.

As an academic, I don’t declare something alive or dead until its been thoroughly examined. A concept like design thinking, if it is to have worth, must withstand scrutiny through both theoretical and empirical examination. A review of the literature (academic and grey) so far, suggests that neither has been done sufficiently. What is the theory of design thinking? We don’t really have one. It appears to be a set of strategies and a stance that are loosely connected to the process of exercising creative, intentional control in the pursuit of a useful problem solution. Does this set of processes or the stance produce good solutions or better solutions than other ways of doing things? We don’t know. In part, this is because we really don’t know what it is. That is the first step towards answering the bigger question about what it does.

Some, like Nigel Cross, have sought to do studies looking at what designers do, while others like Roger Martin, have tried to articulate how design thinkers think, but neither have done so in a systematic way that extends beyond a few case studies. A true, synthetic and empirically supported evidence base is what is missing. It is time to change this if the concept of design thinking is to have a future or is to be rightfully put down.

My colleague Andrea Yip and I are seeking to change this. Our project, Design Thinking Foundations, is focusing on a synthesis of the literature and interviews with leading professionals from different fields within design, branding, media, and business. Combined with observations and reflexive practice within our own design work, we intend to bring more than just rhetoric to design thinking, but data.  Our stake is less in the name design thinking, but more to determine what it is, how it is practiced, and what value it brings in an empirical and theoretically robust manner. Through research we hope to answer the question about whether design thinking is alive and well or simply the walking undead.

** Photo by Dance Photographer Brendan Lally used under Creative Commons License from Flickr.

art & designdesign thinkingpsychology

The Shadow of Design and Creative Work

Light and Shadow

Designers seek to put their best forward in their creations, but sometimes it is the dark rather than the light that provides an impetus for good design. Carl Jung’s look into our darker nature might provide a means of understanding the lighter side of what we produce. 

My work and related inquiry into design has led me to Carl Jung’s doorstep on many occasions, and this week his concept of shadow was brought into focus through a series of conversations and reflections. In interviewing designers the past few weeks for the Design Thinking Foundations project an initial point of interest that has emerged from the data is the importance of the designer’s connection to the designed product, something I wrote about earlier.

If one is to consider design, the act of making something with intent, as something of an act of personal expression it follows that it be subjected to the same moral and ethical scrutiny that other such acts are put to. This becomes particularly important when one considers the potential impact that our designed creations can have on the world around us. The manner by which we, as designers, shape this artificial environment of human-made objects has profound implications and thus, the factors that shape the designers are important.

Jung’s shadow of the psyche mirrors the qualities of the darkness created by objects standing in the light. It is that part of a person that is often unrecognized, unspoken, or unconscious that reflects aspects of a person that may be perceived to be less desirable to others or to the person themselves.

As Jung states:

There can be no doubt that man (sic) is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. Jung, C.G. (1938). Psychology and Religion”. In Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131

Jung believed that shadow requires confrontation, or at the least acknowledgement. For the designer, this means being self-aware to ensure that their motives are clear when they approach a project and the people connected to it.

This is not just an issue for personal development or the protection of others, it is about doing the best work. For design, this often means doing work with others. For the designer, it means doing the work on themselves, which includes an obligation to learn, develop and grow.

There is a deep gulf between what a man is and what he represents, between what he is as an individual and what he is as a collective being. His function is developed at the expense of the individuality. Should he excel, he is merely identical with his collective function; but should he not, then, though he may be highly esteemed as a function in society, his individuality is wholly on the level of his inferior, undeveloped functions, and he is simply a barbarian, while in the former case he has happily deceived himself as to his actual barbarism. Jung, C.G. (1921) Psychological Types, P.III

Psychologists and Social Workers might be used to integrating deep self-work into their professional roles, but designers typically are not. Creation on its own is a scary subject that terrifies artists and designers alike. It takes courage to put one’s work “out there” for people to see, critique and explore. It exposes our potential weaknesses, our vulnerabilities and our aspirations in ways that few encounters can. When design is done with passion and integrity, not just intent, it means putting a piece of ourselves into the product.

What we might not be aware of is that the self that is reflected in our work might include both the light and the shadow. As a designer, the fear of being under the gaze of others is amplified by the fear that such inquiry will reveal parts of our shadow.  To reveal one’s shadow, is to expose one’s truest self in its entirety, not just part of it.

To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle. Jung, C.G. (1959) Good and Evil in Analytical Psychology”In CW Civilization in Transition. P.872

The shadow introduces what Jung calls “a moral problem” to the enterprise of design. The products of design are intimately tied to the designer. It is perhaps for this reason that the field is often known for having practitioners with large egos and star-like status. But if one is to consider the manner in which the shadow is — or can be — expressed through design, the possibility for a design process that is overwhelmingly ego-driven is lowered.

It also presents the opportunity for a more authentic, if risky, form of design.

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. Jung, C.G. Aion (1951). CW 9, Part II: P.14

And isn’t design about taking risks? Perhaps to create the very best work in the light, we need to embrace the shadow’s that it helps create.

design thinkinghealth promotionpublic healthsocial systems

Design for Sex, Gender and Health (Celebrating International Women’s Day)

Woman, (1965) Oil on wood by Willem de Kooning, American, born Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 1904 - 1997.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day prompting some reflection on how we design for sex and gender in a world that often fails to consider either seriously enough.

Sex is important and it deserves attention in designing for health. Today the global community recognizes one half of the world’s population, their challenges, struggles and successes and I can think of fewer causes more worthy of such attention. Although sex is biological and brings its own issues with health, gender has social overlays incorporating role and identity that create more complex determinants of health, that require attention when designing programs and policies.

This attention to sex, gender and health requires problematizing the issue in the first place and recognizing that one-size-fits all approaches to social planning and policy do little to address the complexity of how these social determinants manifest themselves and interrelate. Gender is one determinant that is highly knotted up with other health issues such as economic security and employment (PDF), safety, and education. It’s complexity and pervasiveness demand that we consider this as something worthy of attention in our design and health promotion work if we wish to create a more equitable, healthy society.

Designing for health requires that we pay attention to these issues and consider them deeply in all of our work. Sex issues manifest themselves in ways that are unacknowledged, unconscious, or may be at odds with our intentions for promoting better health. It is rare that I’ve seen designers speak of sex and gender in discussing their work. And while health promoters bring sex and gender issues into prominence in their work, yet do not explicitly refer to design principles in such discussion, missing an opportunity to more intentionally shape their actions.

Design is taking some steps to make this a bigger priority. Yesterday’s announcement that global design leader IDEO was creating a non-profit arm that would focus on developmental issues, many of which are related to women’s needs, is a place to put hope for design. Health promotion’s foray into design issues has been on the built environment and on promoting equitable policies for access to health care, which is itself a start.

Bringing both of these fields closer together has the potential to do women and everyone better by considering the locations — social and physical — in which sex influences health and wellbeing and consciously designing situations that improve it. Doing so also means acknowledging where both design and health promotion knowledge come from, ensuring gender equity not only in society, but specifically within the fields of health promotion and design. Can you think of many “rock star” designers that are women? Those numbers are few. And while women are well-represented in the field of health promotion, the key texts and theories largely are male-authored. How this translates into equitable policies and practices for both genders is unclear, but the absence of discussion of these issues in much of the design and health discourse is less so.

While ensuring better design for health equity and promotion it is important to also add health equity and promotion to design through an empowered woman-friendly environment for learning and practice in these two areas.

So as you celebrate this International Women’s Day, consider ways to make sex and gender more conscious in your work and how we might design for both at a foundational level and not just as a means of ameliorating problems that manifest from poor design.

** Picture of Woman, (1965) Oil on wood by Willem de Kooning, American, born Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 1904 – 1997. by Clif1066 used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

complexitydesign thinking

Complexity is to Difference as Simplicity is to…?


Today continues the discussion about the role of simplicity in relation to complexity with my look at the work of John Maeda and his Laws of Simplicity. I this Maeda’s on to something, but I also disagree with some of his Laws and today I look at the 5th Law: Differences.

Differences: Simplicity and complexity need each other.

Some have argued that differences create. Keith Sawyer addressed this issue in his recent blog post looking at the various commentaries published over the years on ideas around innovation, self-organization and diversity and particularly the recent work of Matt Ridley and his work on the Rational Optimist. In his review of a review, Sawyer writes:

the new portion is Ridley’s emphasis on archeology and the fossil record, to support his claim that human advancement always happens where trade brings together more ideas from more people. (That reminds me of another recent similar book, The Medici Effect, where Johansson calls it “the intersection”.) Ridley argues that the key innovation in history was trade, and when humans started trading about 45,000 years ago, history and cultural change suddenly accelerated.  He rejects previous explanations of this sudden burst that appeal to individual-focused explanations, like a sudden genetic mutation that resulted in greater individual creativity, and argues that individuals didn’t change at all–what changed was social organization.

I agree completely, but that idea isn’t really new either. It’s long been a fundamental tenet of economics that trade makes everyone better off and accelerates innovation.

The above quote might be a long way of getting to the point that differences matter and exposure and interaction of diversity is what creates innovation and complexity in complex systems. Maeda’s comments about simplicity and complexity needing each other might be partly true, but like my previous critique, it is problematic enough to be questioned as a Law and explored more fully.

In The Laws of Simplicity, Maeda deftly illustrates that:

The more complexity there is in a market, the more something simpler stands out.

While I agree, the idea that simplicity is gained by adding more complexity tells me that we have more complexity — and that’s problematic when you’re trying to make sense of something. True, it makes those efforts to simply things more noticed, but those efforts must be affixed to the most useful things (which is no guarantee) otherwise one has a lot of simple things that are less useful and complex things that are confusing.

It also somewhat reduces the potential benefit that diversity brings, despite the challenges it also brings. For a great analysis of the role of diversity in complex systems, I suggest you look at my Library Section to find the reference for Scott Page’s excellent work The Difference.