Tag Archives: research

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 #2: On Browsing (April 2005)

Photo: New York Public Library Archives

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 second writing I’ve selected, titled “On Browsing”, was posted on April 6, 2005, and was written while I was living in Champaign-Urbana, IL. At the time, I was teaching part-time at a community college in a town just on the Illinois-Indiana border, and I recall fondly spending down time in the college’s tiny library browsing in the manner described in this post.

Browsing is one of several activities that have been reinvented in the maturation of the Internet era (think sending and opening mail, buying something at a kiosk, posting a notice on a bulletin board). Open up your web browser of choice and just follow the mouse, browsing your way through the vastness of cyberspace into the far reaches of information oblivion. Of course, browsing is never as unstructured and limitless as we might assume. There are frameworks in place which constrict the range of our reach and guide our virtual paths. The web becomes increasingly smaller when we fall into habitual routines of use — we visit the same news sites and web portals and read the same blogs (in my own private blogosphere, I’m always amazed that the same handful of blogs link to the very same factoids and all link back to each other — the circle is rarely broken). Recently, I’ve found del.icio.us

 to be an increasingly engaging point of departure for more expansive browsing, but even there you find the same kind of conglomeration of particular locations on the web.

Browsing the book stacks in the library is limited as well, although in different ways. A single library lacks the near-infinite scale of possibilities of the web (that said, though, go ahead and try to exhaust the resources at your local library) and one is always subject to the practical organization of its material holdings, a system of classification grouped by subject matter and ordered alphanumerically. You pop into the 800′s or maybe the ND’s (depending on which system is used), crane your head to the side, squint your eyes, and begin to decipher the titles and authors and editors and volumes and editions. Cloth-covered hardbacks with frayed and faded spines may have the call number penned in some long-dead librarian’s neatest script, or plastic-laminated trade paperbacks with their machine printed call stickers so easy to read shimmer in the florescent light. Then, one spine in particular piques your interest and you place your index finger on the top of the binding, tentatively tilting the book out of its place so that you may view the cover. A quick glance later you have either pushed the book back or pulled it entirely out, fanning the pages with your thumb or scanning the table of contents. You might even sit down in the aisle to read a few pages before borrowing the text.

My tactile appreciation of book browsing may suggest a bias against web browsing and a trite sentimentality. This may be true, but the fact of the matter is that I am a perpetual computer user and web browser. Since finishing my graduate degree a few years ago — a time during which I made daily trips to university libraries and spent long hours in their assorted institutionalized interiors — I am at best a part-time academic (pseudo, at that) who doesn’t have the freedom or necessity to spend so many hours in the stacks. A wireless laptop and a broadband Internet connection have compensated this change in my scholarship status for the most part, and replacing my wonder at having access to countless rare and under-exposed texts is the ease at which I can instantly conjure up information in response to literally any query that occurs to me. There is a distinct sensual element, though, in my computer use — I do appreciate the tactile and aesthetic qualities of browsing the day away on my iBook (Apple is betting on that, too).

A recent layover in a nameless airport recently has had me thinking about the journey from desiring information to possessing information, which speaks to the notion of “browsing.” Airports have become — out of necessity — informational nodes where travelers may reconnect with the world in between the strangely disconnected and isolated experience of flying in planes, riding on trains, and driving in cars. The compressed nature of waiting in the airport (psycho-spatially, it seems) along with the saturation of information highlights two kinds of access to information: the colloquial and the technological (my terms feel inadequate, but I’ll do the best I can with them). Technological access to information is the most obvious: with computer on lap and cellphone in ear we are empowered by the pervasiveness of information and feel confident in the control we have in obtaining it; information is ubiquitous and seemingly democratic. On the other hand, colloquial access to information is generally super-local, face-to-face, handshake-to-handshake. This process involves quite a bit more work and is never entirely in our control. We may have difficulty finding a person both in possession of the information we desire as well as willing to share that information. We may have questions about the reliability of that information or the subjectivity of the informant. In short, physically walking up to an individual and asking him or her a question can be ripe with uncertainty.

Back to browsing. Information is information, whether a PDF on a website or an article in an anthology. Putting aside the question of authority or legitimacy, the information contained in each form is identical. However, it is the path followed to obtaining that information which is so markedly different in each case. I ask: Specifically, what is the character of that journey from not knowing to knowing? Who is met along the way? What distractions or dérives reshape our initial questions and open up unforeseen doors leading to unexpected answers? We need not place one mode in opposition to the other–virtual vs. physical–but can embrace difference as just that: difference.

So, today I am browsing in the library and my gaze stumbles upon a title, God’s Own Junkyard,which strikes some chord with me and I grab the book from the shelf–a slim, hardcover with lots of interesting photographs of things I’m interested in: the built environment in the US. Next to one of the photographs is a brief quotation of Gertrude Stein — ”In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is” — someone who I’ve always wanted to read more of, and then I’m on Google searching for the reference. It’s from her book A Geographical History of America which this library doesn’t own, but I venture into the 800′s where a few other books by Stein are shelved and I pull down a compact but thick volume of her collected writings and then leaf through the pages; it’s one of those perfectly sized little Modern Library books from the 50′s. And this is the little gem I find:

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system of pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

From her piece entitled “Tender Buttons.” The difference is spreading — the journey from not knowing to knowing is a remarkable passage.


‘Value’ is one of those terms—like ‘community’ and ‘sustainability’—that I feel I hear more and more in our contemporary lexicon, and as a term that is used often enough and in several different contexts, its invocation is somewhat vague and its meaning even less clear. But like ‘community’ and ‘sustainability’ and any number of other fashionable terms we might come across in political speeches or keynote addresses or advertisements, it is this lack of definition that makes the word ‘value’ and its attendant concept all the more compelling as a subject for consideration. Continue reading