Tag Archives: community

“Design Is Culture” Presentation at HXRefactored 2016

Earlier this year, I participated in a panel discussion “Designing within a healthcare system: challenges and strategies” at HxRefactored 2016 on April 5, 2016. This post is rather late, but here are the slides to my talk “Design Is Culture,” which builds upon my earlier article “Design Tools for Social Engagement in Organizations”:

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 #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.

Evolution in the Neighborhood

Green bug on a brown leaf

Green bug on a brown leaf

wrote a few weeks ago about The Neighborhood Project, an interdisciplinary effort to affect positive social change in Binghamton, NY by applying evolutionary science. The underlying philosophy and story of this ongoing work is wonderfully recounted by its lead instigator, David Sloan Wilson, in his book of the same name, which I’ve just finished reading. I confess that reading about his work is the first time I’ve really explored evolutionary science since a very superficial introduction to evolution in a college humanities course. (Strangely, I don’t remember a thing about the actual science of evolution from high school. I have a sneaking suspicion that my biology teacher was a creationist and skipped over that evolution part in the textbook!) Sloan’s writing is exceptionally readable, and the territory he covers in establishing his and others’ research on evolution is expansive, cross-disciplinary, and without jargon. I also found his demeanor in the text to be humble (when faced with the experience and knowledge of others), generous (when debate those who disagree with him), and full of conviction and integrity (when secure in his own knowledge and methodology).

While there is a great deal of interest in Wilson’s projects, two ideas in particular have been most striking for me in this reacquaintance with evolutionary science through his work. First, understanding the degree to which evolutionary science can be applied to the socio-cultural milieu has been fascinating and helped to fill in certain gaps within a larger framework of changing human behavior. I think I was ignorant of this potential application in the social field because of a confusion between cultural evolution and that most reactionary and base (mis)understanding of evolution espoused in social Darwinism. The second insight — and it is this that makes the human cultural application so compelling — is the importance of context and environment in natural selection, which is the process by which certain biological traits become more or less common. (Duh, I know.) Evolution is site-specific. And so, when Wilson and his colleagues systematically study the residents of Binghamton, using both qualitative and quantitative information, they are approaching that analysis through a granular look at how blocks and neighborhoods function according to a wide range of data. The goal is to determine how urban environments shape attitudes and behavior so that targeted interventions can be implemented with community partners to create the environmental conditions (social, cultural, spatial, political, economical) for positive social change. As someone reaching for this same goal in my own city using the tools of socially-engaged art and design, there is quite a lot to learn from in Wilson’s project.

As might be expected in such an urban project, Wilson at times touches on educational issues — and the environmental aspect of evolution clarified, or rather expanded, some of my thinking about the importance of learning environments. Particularly, what if, amid all of the contentious politics and noise of the education “reform” debate, we focused more holistically on the environments in which kids learn? What if we looked at the question of educational environments as specific, particular contexts that needed to respond to very specific groups of people and their communities? With very few exceptions, it is difficult to claim that any school is an optimal environment for learning to flourish. Schools are mostly overcrowded, lacking resources, authoritarian and coercive, socially disfunctional, anxiety producing, homogenous. Yet, society needs places, environments, where kids can be safe, nurtured, challenged, and loved. Might Wilson et al’s evolutionary perspective with its nuanced study of environment help us cut through the politics of education and design learning spaces appropriate to a diverse range of people and communities?