Sprinting Towards the Long Term: Teaching Design Futures at SVA


How might interaction designers working in industry begin to address “long view” problems like climate change, income equality, or biodiversity — while working in professional settings that all too often tend to prioritize short-term gains and incremental wins?

This summer, Erica Dorn and I explored that question along with a group of nine students at the School of Visual Arts’ Summer Intensive in Interaction Design. Participants included a mix of professional designers working in a range of in-house and agency roles in New York City, as well as two undergraduates interested in exploring interaction design as a career path.

Experiential futures and speculative design practices have been gaining traction in the design world lately, fueled by a growing interest in futuring methods at high-profile agencies like frog and IDEO, and design schools like Stanford’s d.school and CMU (see: Dunagan). The last few years have also seen the emergence of speculative design work taking shape with in-house teams at places like Google, Apple, and The New York Times.

For all this well-intentioned investment in sustainable design thinking, the sobering reality is that most working interaction designers still struggle to incorporate long-term perspectives into their work, constrained as they are by pressures to hit short-term business goals, and by neo-Taylorist management methods that shoehorn them into “production” roles with limited agency to influence long-term business strategies (let alone tackle the complex, multi-dimensional concerns of Transition Design).

Our goal for the course was to introduce a set of methods designed to help professional designers explore how to integrate long-term thinking into their work (see syllabus).

Over a five-week period, we tried out several techniques drawn from the realms of futures studies, Transition Design, and alternative economics, to gauge how well participants might be able to put some of these practices to work in their current roles — and, at least as importantly, to explore what kinds of obstacles they might encounter along the way.

To ground the course, we worked with the students to identify two so-called wicked problems to serve as focus areas for our project work. Starting from a list of eleven potential problem spaces (including racial discrimination, air quality, obesity, adolescent depression, homelessness, opioid addiction, crime, and lack of affordable housing), we worked together to narrow the list to two that seemed personally resonant for most participants, and germane to the experience of working as a design professional in New York:

  1. Waste Management
    Consumption culture, fast fashion, and on-demand ordering are just a few of the contributing factors to the wicked problem of waste management in the United States; and the evidence is everywhere around us in NYC. Local recycling programs are proving ineffective, while other countries are refusing US refuse and recyclables, and public vs. private management poses a growing dilemma. What role might designers in professional settings play in addressing the problem of waste management in the city?
  2. Age Discrimination
    As the U.S. population continues to age, the population of older workers will continue to grow over at least the next fifty years. Yet age discrimination remains an endemic problem, especially in the tech industry that increasingly shapes our economic, cultural and political lives. What role might designers in professional settings play in mitigating the prevalence of age discrimination in the workplace?

Taking these two problem areas as starting points, we split the class into two working groups and challenged them to begin exploring a few focal questions:

  • What are the effects and root causes of this problem?
  • Which stakeholders are most affected?
  • Where do you see opportunities for systemic interventions (using Meadows’ leverage points framework)?
  • How might you approach this wicked problem in the context of your own work or personal circumstances?

As the course progressed, we introduced a series of in-class exercises and individual assignments to give students broad exposure to a range of tools and techniques to frame these problems and explore potential design strategies.

A few of the techniques we introduced included:

  • Wicked Problem Mapping
    A technique drawn from the Transition Design curriculum, this tool enables groups to approach a so-called wicked problem by drawing out the root causes and consequences, and mapping out the interrelationships between them in search of opportunities to intervene in the system.
  • Forecasting
    Taking these wicked problem spaces as the terrain, we then began applying a few different forecasting techniques, including a headline-writing exercise (“News from the Future”) and a signals-based forecasting technique adapted from the Institute for the Future, in which participants gather “signals” based on secondary research and begin to cluster them in a way that reveals new patterns and possibilities (the latter exercise was moderated by our week 3 guest speaker Lauren Sherman).
  • The Futures Wheel
    Using the trendlines and implications developed in the “News from the Future” exercise, we asked each group push further on the systems-level impact of these potential developments by using this well-established framework for visualizing next-order effects.
  • Scenario Planning
    Drawing on Jay Ogilvy’s popular 2x2 matrix approach for imagining future scenarios we worked with each group to identify a set of “critical uncertainties” that we could use to map out a range of possible future scenarios for further exploration and prototyping.
  • Personal Theory of Change
    This exercise challenged participants to identify and articulate their personal values, to help them begin to situate their work within a wider context of interdependent systems “dancing” together. By grounding the class in first-hand experience, we hoped to align the curriculum with the overall Transition Design focus on posture and mindset.

Finally, each student built on the in-class group exercises to shape an individual project in which they would bring a given scenario to life by designing a set of artifacts to illustrate the felt experience of living in one of these possible future environments.

A few examples of student work:

Waste Management: News from the Future, by Danielle Lee

Waste Management: Hybrid Wicked Problem Map-Futures Wheel diagram, by Danielle Lee

Waste Management: Instagram product tags for environmental impact — Melinda Chen

Waste Management: Mapping the Fashion Waste Problem — Melinda Chen

Scenario mapping, by Karina Tristandy

Poof! (an app for UV-based composting), by Karina Tristandy

Language-agnostic book, by Tery Hung


Inevitably, a 5-week course constrained our ability to go into much depth with any of these methods. The best we could hope for was a process of exposure to encourage further exploration.

During the final class, we invited participants to share their reflections on which aspects of the class resonated most strongly, and where they felt it could be improved. Students particularly liked the emphasis on in-class exercises over extended lecturing (a.k.a. the “flipped classroom” model). They also responded positively to structuring the class around a single wicked problem and sticking with it from beginning to end, allowing participants to scaffold their knowledge and build up domain expertise over time.

In terms of opportunities for improvement, participants felt the course could be strengthened by offering more lead time on the individual projects (an inherent challenge with a five-week class), and by weaving the reading assignments more tightly into the contents of each week’s exercises.

The course seemed to resonate particularly well with students looking to make a career transition from in-house design roles to non-profit or more social and environmental justice-oriented work.

Looking ahead, we felt that a more productive approach might involve giving students the chance to go deeper with a given framework, rather than taking a “survey class” approach and trying to cover such a wide range of techniques in a short-form course.

Ultimately, this class felt like a productive foray into how working designers might begin to approach incorporating some of these methods into their work. Using the lens of Bloom’s taxonomy: we might reasonably hope that we were able to create a scaffolding for students to remember and understand something of these techniques, but it remains to be seen whether they will apply, analyze, evaluate, and create in real-world situations.

If we hope to shift interaction design towards more sustainable, long-term focused practices, it will likely take more than “one-off” interventions like individual workshops or courses. Rather, we need to start thinking about how to build more longitudinal approaches — with ongoing engagement and repeated interventions — that might yield deeper, measurable shifts over time.

It is a tautology to say that long-term change takes a long time, but nonetheless it feels important to acknowledge that the wide-angle success or failure of this kind of undertaking will not be measurable in the near term, given the inherently long-term and uncertain terrain of wicked problems.

Using Kirkpatrick’s four stages of learning outcomes in training programs — Reaction, Learning, Behavior, and Results — we might reasonably assert that this classroom interventions can lead to measurable reaction and learning outcomes, but we face inherent challenges in assessing long-term behavior changes and their efficacy in addressing wicked problems with complex interdependencies and long-term time horizons that may last for centuries, or longer.

This then seems like the central conundrum of Transition Design: If we aim to shift design practice towards sustainable long-term outcomes — and if we accept that the future is essentially unknowable —how will we ever know whether we’ve succeeded? The short answer is that we may not ever know. Yet in the face of a culture increasingly predicated on measurable outcomes and quantifiable certainties, we may need to grow more comfortable with working with a mind of “not-knowing.”

I am reminded of W.S. Merwin’s famous dialogue with John Berryman about how to approach the act of writing (from Berryman):

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

Further Reading

With special thanks to Lauren Sherman, our guest lecturer in Week 3.

Head of UX at Google News; Doctoral student at CMU Design; formerly at Instagram, Etsy, and the NYTimes.

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