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.

01

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.

02

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.

03

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.

04

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.

References:

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.