Boundary Objects and Social Design

Boundary object from the project In a state far from equilibrium

Boundary object from the project In a state far from equilibrium

Below I share a proposal for a design research project that I am beginning in earnest this spring. The goal of this project is to research and define the concept of the ‘boundary object’, and then use a nuanced understanding of this framework to prototype new co-design tools for application toward complex social and organizational design problems.


The boundaries and scope of problems addressed by designers has continued to expand over the last half century. Designers increasingly have applied their creative problem solving methods and “design thinking” process to issues beyond the realm of more conventional products and visual communication to encompass non-traditional design problems concerned with processes, systems, services, strategies, and culture. Even more recently, a finer distinction has been suggested by those designers who primarily take on complex social entities, relationships, and systems as a problem space in which to work; call it social design, design for social impact, or transformation design, to name a few of the new designations.

In this contemporary social context, designers require more developed skills of emotional intelligence and organizational adeptness along with appropriate tools focused on facilitation and collaboration with a variety of different stakeholders, most of whom are non-designers. This co-creative, participatory design approach is now often referred to as co-design, and it depends upon an open, invitational ethos that privileges the inclusion of various stakeholders throughout every step of the process, from the earliest stages of design research through rough prototyping to testing and evaluation of design proposals and outputs.


Within these expanded contexts for design and while using a process that is highly social and collaborative, designers have come to rely on design tools to support any number of activities at any stage of the design process where different stakeholders are asked to participate. While it is conceivable that nearly any physical thing might be such a design tool, the utility of the tool is judged by the degree to which it can make visible aspects of the design process to its participants and create clear pathways for designers and non-designers to share knowledge, build trust, and learn from each other to meet the stated goals of a given design project. In light of this, a design tool might be a matrix of key questions about a routine service experience onto which participants place a set of predetermined cards with different qualities, or it might be a large format map of a neighborhood on which residents identify important assets, issues, or locations. (See examples at the end of this document.)

In my own design practice and teaching, I create tools that are highly visual and physical in nature (and public) which activate participants in an embodied mode of thinking and learning. And while the data and insights obtained from such tools are genuinely valuable to a purposive design project, these social tools often reveal their greatest value as frameworks for conversation and building shared understanding.


A few years ago while teaching a graduate design studio, I discovered a body of research from the fields of information sciences and sociology describing boundary objects. Essentially, a boundary object is a means of translation existing at the intersection of multiple social worlds (communities of practice) and may include such things as documents and models, common languages, and shared routines and processes. As a more concrete example, consider the role that a set of architectural drawings plays in facilitating the collaboration of a range of stakeholders in the construction of a building: designers, engineers, builders, building inspectors, local zoning boards, and so on.

Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. These objects may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. (Star and Griesemer 393)

Clearly, for me there was a strong connection between boundary objects and the types of design tools I and my students were creating to facilitate the most social aspects of our collaborative work with many diverse participants. The terminology quickly become a part of the culture within Design for Social Impact (at that time MID), most notably for its descriptive power and expediency: our social design tools are objects that operate at the boundaries of different individuals and social groups and serve to build shared understanding across those potential divides.

While the terminology has been useful and added a needed dimension to the development of design tools in my work and the work of the graduate students, I do believe that a deeper dive into the original body of research is needed for two primary reasons. First, there are a number of subtleties within that scholarship that are ill understood by designers (myself included) and are specific to their originating fields. These nuances must be better marked and then translated for application by designers. Second, the utility of the concept of boundary objects for design is very exciting, yet the articulation of the framework needs to be more formally adapted and defined within the context of design. This application of boundary objects will need to retain the initial outlines of the concept but augmented with a more detailed explication of how it functions within a collaborative design process.


The ultimate goal of this research on boundary objects and its formulation within a design context is to prototype new co-design tools for application toward complex social and organizational design problems. I believe that there is value in adapting the boundary object framework because it will lead to a more rigorous theorization of the particular elements of these design tools including the structure of how multiple stakeholders from often very different social groups interact, share knowledge, and participate meaningfully in social impact and organizational change initiatives.

In order to accomplish the project goals, I will build upon existing partnerships with practitioners working in the fields of organizational development (OD) and community-based social change work. Within the Design for Social Impact graduate program, I have partnered with organizational development consultants to provide more focused instruction for students on leadership and facilitation, emotional intelligence, and organizational cultural change. In conversations with them, we have identified key areas of overlap between social design and OD, and I have developed relationships with several willing partners who are interested in co-developing and testing design tools in support of organizational change initiatives.

The goal is to work with OD practitioners to iterate bespoke design tools as boundary objects, evaluate their effectiveness, and develop a set of case studies for sharing the efficacy of this framework. I will then translate documentation of this body of research and case studies into formats suitable for publication and presentation within various design, organizational development, and social innovation forums, as well as on this blog.


Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Design Issues 8.2 (1992): 5-21.

Cottam, Hillary et al. RED Paper 02: Transformation Design. UK Design Council, 2006.

Margolin, Victor. “Expansion or Sustainability: Two models of development.” The Politics of the Artificial: Essays on Design and Design Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 78-91.

Sanders, Elizabeth B.-N. and Pieter Jan Stappers. “Co-creation and the new landscapes of design.” CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts, Volume 4, Issue 1 (2008).

Star, Susan Leigh. “This is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 35.5 (2010): 601-617.

Star, Susan Leigh and James R. Griesemer. “Institutional Ecology, `Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39.” Social Studies of Science Vol. 19 (1989): 387-420.

From the Archives #5: Miscellaneous (September 2008)

The Poet

In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings—one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The fifth writing I’ve selected, titled “Miscellaneous”, was posted on September 20, 2008. At the time, my wife and I were anxiously awaiting the birth of our first child (who had nearly been lost the prior month at week 24 of the pregnancy), and it’s strange to read the content and tone of this writing with that as the backdrop. There’s an energy here that feels palpably connected to that experience.

Today is Friday, September 19, 2008. The miscellaneous preoccupies my mind. An onslaught of fragments, non-discursive missives from the ether, synapses popping like fireworks after our team wins the series. Thinking in terms of Twitter and status updates, most of which are never committed to the Archive at all, yet linger in the halls like boys late locked out of homeroom. Simply, I am mixed. Not mixed up — mixed. It is the drawer in the corner cabinet in the back room into which we throw…

“(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”

Borges, how wonderful it is to make a list! For what, for why? The most basic of organizational structures. A student reminded me today that even the analog reduces to the digital at a certain microscopic scale. Or was it vice versa? My brain feels digital, appears a thing separate, a digitized, pixelated representation of a thing we thought so smooth, of such fine resolution. A thing that should not be a thing at all, not something separate, not something to behold, to regard from a distance. Cleaved from consciousness by the Enlightenment and doomed forever to walk anti-animistically from point to point to point to point to point in Descartes’ denuded grid space. Then the gray beard emerges from the forest of Brookland — and why would I think of him now, after so long? — and his voice is familiar. We used to nod to each other on the ferry. It’s nostalgia doubled-down, I know. The swollen afternoons in a languid institutional classroom, a coolness on the faux wood laminate, the boisterous barks of an impassioned educator who gives you the bird, you bitch, cuz you just wouldn’t drive on through!

“The past and present wilt – I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Personally, I would have ended with an exclamation point, but my sense of timing is really so bad. A list is digital; it contains discrete elements. Patterns emerge. Provisional patterns. Patent, or tacit. I’ve looked for patterns, for meaning. The miscellaneous is lazy. The miscellaneous is a myth. One cannot escape the luxuriousness of the semantic web. With points for correct punctuation.

(What is — what has been — the voice here until this point?)

Whitman was an American poet, maybe the first. Melville was an American novelist. Near perfect contemporaries, they understood space. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy” wrote Charles Olson in Call Me Ishmael. The story of the white devil VS. the demon savior Ahab is the story of America. America the abyss. When he spiked the gold doubloon on the mast, our fate was set, our free will annihilated — we would all go down in the sinking ship. All except one: the one who lives to tell the tale. Ishmael. “God listens” — what perfect literary symmetry.

So, who you gonna vote for? Everything I’ve ever read I regurgitate and spew forth. A chewed cud of vile taste, formless and without color. I can imagine the fluid scrape of the pen on bleached and blue-ruled notebook paper, an endless itinerary of ascents and descents, loops and crosses, but all I hear is the dull and plastic tick tack of branded backlit QWERTY keys. Could someone possibly have made this for me? An exercise: let’s make a list of everybody in this place. Tens of millions of people — people beloved, genuinely beloved, by Whitman — millions of ideas and loves and hates and all the rest. Now let’s organize our list according to two categories so that we can really understand these folks. Strawberry cola drinkers or blueberry cola drinkers but we all like cola of course. I know you, you drink blueberry cola. But in that other place they only have blackberry cola to drink and only drink it in small draughts in between shifts working at the branded backlit QWERTY keyboard factory. Honestly, I don’t drink cola much these days…

Patterns of coercion. Square pegs in round holes. A worldview we did not choose infected us and made us trust it implicitly as the natural order of things. (We fancied ourselves so sophisticated, so savvy, so cynical as to be unmoved but the paradigm was fused with our very fiber.) The great tumultuous accumulation of everyone who ever said “No!” beckons us to break those patterns, to suggest provisional patterns, other ontologies. Chop down the main-mast, shred the sails, melt down the gold… embrace the waves, the thrill of being tossed to and fro. Seasick at first, but finding sea legs soon enough. Again, the poet sings:

Here are our thoughts, voyagers’ thoughts,
Here not the land, firm land, alone appears, may then by them be
The sky o’erarches here, we feel the undulating deck beneath our
We feel the long pulsation, ebb and flow of endless motion,
The tones of unseen mystery, the vague and vast suggestions of the
briny world, the liquid-flowing syllables,
The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy
The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here,
And this is ocean’s poem.

Nothing is arbitrary. Nothing remains miscellaneous.

From the Archives #4: What (Where) Is An Unmediated Space? (November 2007)

The Cruise

The Cruise

In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings—one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The fourth writing I’ve selected, titled “What (Where) Is An Unmediated Space?”, was posted on November 12, 2007, and was written during my first semester teaching at The University of the Arts. At the time, I was teaching a web design studio and assignment the students to explore the urban environment and translate that experience into a web-based project. The film referenced in the post has been a key prompt for getting students to think about their relationship to urban space.

We know this to be the case: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation” (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle).

I recently watched The Cruise again, the near perfect showing of a nearly unmediated (yet crafted, I think) experience of New York City as performed by Timothy “Speed” Levitch. Then, I watched it again (twice, for good measure). In one particular scene, Speed embraces — unfolds himself upon — one of the great stone piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, gently patting it, touching his forehead to it, communing with it. (Years ago we talked about licking buildings in architecture school. I think Hillary actually did it.) There’s something about the way he settles into the city, the restless comfort, the awkward sensuality, that confounds a mediated relationship to his world. Watching it now, I feel that that moment must have passed and he can no longer relate to the place in that way.

Aaron (aka Director of the Dept. for the Investigation of ReHumanization) has described his experience as a soldier in the Iraq war as being unmediated — or at least as close to unmediated as he has ever witnessed. It follows, then, that the shock and stress (often diagnosed as PTSD) which soldiers feel upon their return home has everything to do with the transition back into the mediated existence of our “civilization.”

Is mediation a buffer from trauma? Is mediation a barrier to being fully human? I’m curious about the relationship between mediation and dehumanization. Here’s Paulo Freire in the opening chapter of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as a historical reality. And as an individual perceives the extent of dehumanization, he or she may ask if humanization is a viable possibility. Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion.

Mediation implies a distance, the “separation” that Debord finds perfected in modern industrialized societies. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.There must be gradations embedded in this notion of mediation. Can a distinction between mediation (ontological) and media (technological) be discerned? Does the latter necessarily determine the former? Is there any essential difference between a jug and a handheld computer, both technologies of utility which mediate our experience of the world? Gradations and scale (hello McCluhan) present complications…

Is there a post-spectacle society? Within this paradigm, are we unable to imagine something beyond Debord’s critique? And to what degree is Debord’s critique dependent on teleological, historically and technologically determined trajectories of human evolution? Is there a post-mediated existence? (Is there a proto-mediated existence, for that matter?) Not an existence without mediation, but an existence absorbed fully by mediation? Such a prediction feels apocalyptic, dystopian. It suggests a time of post-feeling, post-human, a world populated by cyborgs whose dreams are filled with memories of archived material pulled from the master database of text, images, sounds, and videos that we are now building on the Net.

The image of Speed Levitch persists: he hurriedly crosses a street and enters an urban plaza space. He spins around several times, arms outstretched until dizzy. He lies down on his back, equidistant between the two World Trade Center towers, and carefully extends his right leg up and out, as if maintaining equilbirium between himself and the buildings. “The buildings look like they’re falling down,” he muses. (A few years later, they would say that watching the towers implode and collapse was like watching a movie.) The Cruise reminds me of the angst of mediation, of being less than fully—. Of being behind the lens, behind the glass, separate. It reminds me to go outside and be there.

From the Archives #3: Not Utopia… (April 2006)

Planning the Delaware Riverfront in Philadelphia

In the spirit of reflection that often accompanies the turn to the new year, I’ve decided to cannibalize my blog and repost several writings—one from each year beginning in 2004. I created my first website with a blog just as I was finishing my graduate thesis in the fall of 2002. The third writing I’ve selected, titled “Not Utopia, or a Statement Regarding the Proposed Development of Slots Parlors on Several Post-Industrial Sites in Philadelphia”, was posted on April 13, 2006, and was written less than a year after my partner and I had returned to Philadelphia to live in the Fishtown neighborhood. At the time, we were just learning details of several proposed casinos in the neighborhood and were ramping up our work as community organizers in the effort to oppose them.

M. mentions boundaries—and she’s right. It comes down to boundaries, the objectification of the land, the measurement, the quantification, the reduction of space, the reigning in of the imagination (necessary, at times, in order for our small minds to combat the vastness of space). It’s how man imposes his dominion over the land. Control. And, then, who has control? Who has the right to ownership? A political body? A collective group of land-users? A moneyed individual? And, then, is the ownership of land transferrable? Usurpable? Or, indomitable? (One wonders if a collective group of land-users might propose its own brand of eminent domain?) What right does a group have to the land, in the interest of the common good?

Land ownership was/is the myth of the inalienable right, of existential certitude. To own land is to be—fully. It is the dream. A dream, however, built upon the foundation of sand (not of rock). The American myth (space is ours to divvy up and a small slice is available for all who can obtain it). Quick sand, quickly dispersed like sifted silt. Gold remains. Gold to gamble. Fortunes found. But I digress—what I meant to say was: Land cannot be owned unless it can be measured, described, and sold. The land of many controlled by an elect few. Where is the common good in all of that?

This is somewhat abstract. More precisely: What if we claim the land for ourselves, we the collective land-users? How might we stake such a claim. Before time, the land was not owned. Once, there was a time when the land was still not owned, but the land was used. Not used; tended, cared for, felt and understood. (Oh, this is an ecological issue, too!) Those people who tended the land were coerced and cajoled. One value system came from across the great waters and corrupted, displaced another value system. Then, the land was owned. And it was exploited, and it was abused. But it provided some with a livelihood and it provided even less with great power and wealth. The subjugation of the land and of the land-users became unnaturally natural. And we’re still paying down that debt.

From where do we draw our strength? The American myth of land ownership has coupled wonderfully with the other great American myth—the myth of the (empowered and determined) individual. (It is who we are; I feel it even now, writing this.) Alas, so was born a great schism in the American consciousness: I am an individual, I have a voice, yet that voice is no more (or less) significant than the voice of my compatriots. (This does not sit well with many of us. So we inflate our meager voices with shouting, kicking, bribing, hating, stealing… the list goes on.) One voice, one vote; not quite enough it seems. Many voices, many votes—the collectivization of individual wills. (Are we moving left or right with this?) Maybe democracy, maybe socialism, maybe even anarchism—all depends on the particular form. Not monarchism, not totalitarianism, not even oligarchism (I’m talking to you, Dick). The collectivization of individual wills. For the common good. (Not for the State.) A collective action with common cause.

Back to boundaries, because that’s where I started. Put them aside—hypothetically, of course–and imagine a boundless space free of trespassers (because there is nothing to trespass upon) and open to meaningful use. I’m thinking of a place, a place of openness, of enjoyment, of respect, of debate, of disagreement, of frustration, of comraderie, of trust, of accountability. (Hey, it’s a place where your dog can take a crap—and you want to clean up after it.) It’s a place of cyclical occurrences, where things grow and pass away, and as many things flow in and out. It changes, because we change, because everything changes. It’s a symbolic place, but we use it like we use our front yard. It’s a place we want to be. It’s a public place. You know this place.

In 2004 the State of Pennsylvania passed legislation allowing slots gaming in Pennsylvania, and two gaming licenses have been designated for Philadelphia. Three of the potential sites are located on the Delaware River, approximately 1-2 miles from where I live in the Fishtown section of the city.