Design Research Studio Fall 2017

What is this?

This medium post tracks my thinking and work during my senior studio which focused on transition design and futures thinking.

If you only were to read one post, I would recommend reading my last entry at the bottom of the post: 12/6: The “Science Fair”.

Design Research Studio: Transition Design and Systems (8/28)

I had attended a couple “lunches with Terry Irwin” before and discussed the nature of Transition Design, so the ideas during the lecture shouldn’t have been particularly foreign. However, the degree to which I am blind to the systems and norms of contemporary society was exposed when I remember Terry saying, “you know, we won’t be able to fly around the world like we do now.” This simple prediction and likely fact, which I had heard before, resonates with me as I fly at least four times a year back and forth to California, my birth-state, without thinking about it. Equally thought-provoking was the theory of “Peak Oil”, which states that eventually, it will take 100 barrels of oil to extract 100 barrels of oil. These ideas, which when one realizes that fossil fuels are finite, seem obvious, are strangely surprising and difficult to reconcile. Perhaps the discomfort in confronting an absence of fossil fuel is indicative of how systems are difficult to detect, especially when you are embedded within them.

Seeing that the coming shortage of fossil fuels and our current reliance upon them is a wicked problem, I found two frameworks/methods touched on in the lecture to be helpful in addressing such problems.

The first method was a timeline of the wicked problem, including the past, when the wicked problem hadn’t existed yet. I appreciated Terry mentioning that bringing up the past may bring the critique that looking backwards to solve a present issue is romanticizing the past. I will now be more aware of that mindset and thus be more suitable to provide reasoning for the examination of the past. Also, Terry highlighting that causes are often linked to the dominant belief system piqued my interest; framing these beliefs as simply as, “what should a car look like?”, was even more interesting. These dominant societal archetypes for how different objects and actions in life should be are clearly interwoven, and it seems daunting to chip away at such an established block of what is considered normal. I hope we will delve further into how to address the dominant understanding of how life should be, which the second method answers to some degree, although it seems as though it may not be enough.

I appreciated the cyclical methodology involving reframing the present and future, performing a design intervention, and waiting and observing, although I wasn’t sure if this method would be enough. The “waiting and observing” stage was emphasized as essential to the process in order to avoid too many interventions, but at the rate the world is moving, it seems too slow. I understand that design professors have referenced suburbia as an example of when the dominant understanding of how life should be was redefined quickly and disastrously. Yet, for some issues, such as climate change, the consequences are dire and approaching at an alarming rate. It’s currently debatable as to whether or not world leaders can come together to keep the temperature increase of the Earth under two degrees celsius, and with the United States pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, such a scenario seems even less likely. I’m not advocating hand-wringing, but given the state of the world, it would seem as though more drastic action is necessary.

Class 8/30: Themes

We were assigned wicked problems present in Pittsburgh and my team’s focus is gentrification.

Leverage Points Places to Intervene in a System: Donella Meadows

I found the reading provoking in claiming that a shift in mindset was what truly inspires change; I found this argument to be strong in some ways and weak in others.

The strength of the argument was primarily in the structure of the intervention points and how they lead into each other in my opinion. While I thought the progression in scale and also abstractness was an interesting idea, I found it difficult to believe that an intervention could occur at the higher level without first engaging the supposedly “less effective” methodologies. It seemed like a flow diagram for systematic change, thus making it difficult to access higher intervention levels apart from edge case scenarios such as another advisor similar to Rasputin with a centralized government.

Ojai Briefing Book: Terry Irwin & Gideon Kossof

I had taken the class: Principles of Social Innovation last semester and was surprised that most of the curriculum focused on how to facilitate group discussions and create a safe space for expression. In reading about the approach towards Ojai, I feel more confident that my learning in relation to “warm-up” exercises and icebreakers will come to use. While bringing together diverse and conflicting stakeholders, the idea that envisioned future must work for everyone, including the environment, resonated with me. Making that idea a rule acknowledges that the upcoming process will be difficult and that everyone will be heard and involved, two general truths that seem essential for success.

I was slightly skeptical of presenting the future in terms of a story, although I realized later that this medium would allow for a more realistic depiction of a possible future. Using story to explain a potentially abstract and confusing future scenario is effective as stories rely on characters and plot, thus engaging audiences with new elements in a known structure.

Starting Research: 9/6

The class consisted primarily of looking over the research other groups had done and re-evaluating organizational style and individual post-its. I found it amusing that when Stacie asked what the prompt she gave was, the room was silent, albeit the room is large and general student disengagement seems to prevalent unfortunately. Also, the struggle to write post-it notes at an accessible and useful level of scale while maintaining clarity was interesting; there was moment in which I “got it”.

Another thought that went along with writing post-it notes at this higher level of detail was, “I don’t know what I’m talking about”. It seemed as though much of what I was claiming wasn’t backed up by hard evidence, instead being anecdotal or disparate statistics.

Worldview & Stakeholder beliefs: 9/11

Community Structure of Belonging: Peter Block

The Block reading reminded me of how Terry mentioned on the first day the danger of referring to the past as a reference point for the future. Her argument was that using the past in such a way would appear to be unrealistic and nostalgia driven. I remember a line that lamented the contemporary culture of playdates by glorifying “the day[s] of kids walking home from school and casually seeing who they run into”. This specific line, I had issue with, as it seemed to be hearkening back to the “good old days” where systematic racism and oppression were the norm.

Design Research Studio: Stuart Candy Lecture (9/18)

While taking notes on the lecture, a recurring idea and fear kept creeping into my consciousness. Did any of my projects I had previously worked on actually take into account any degree of futuring? Although I hadn’t specifically addressed a wicked problem before, some projects involved envisioning what the future could be. A project which immediately comes to mind is a heating system designed to replace steam generators through the user pedaling and generating electricity. While I didn’t include or think about restrictions due to handicapped people, I realize the primary failing point is probably assuming that current building structure will even exist in the future.

I found the tri-axis graphs to be helpful in wrapping my mind around the expanding degree of possibilities of the futures. Also, the chess example was powerful in using a supposedly well-known game as a metaphor.

My haikus were:

“A day in my life in 2047”

Drink my super meal

Taken to my work center

good work endlessly

“My community in 2047”

greet foreign friend ghosts

send family body scents

instant scheduling

Jim Dator Reading

I enjoyed the Dator reading more than any of the other readings for its powerful examples from history and accessible writing style. I did notice an interesting point in which Dator mentioned that, “futures should appear to be ridiculous”. He later mentions the challenge for futurists is to make this alternative future seem plausible and actionable with evidence and alternate scenarios. However, it would seem that most available evidence would be bound to current assumptions and environments, an issue with futuring Stuart Candy mentioned in his lecture. Still the idea that any “useful” depiction of futures would seem ridiculous due to the inevitable paradigm shifts which await seems to support Candy’s points.

Hawaii Scenarios

I thought the level of detail was compelling and found the technique of describing the future scenario as the current world effective. By merely stating how Hawaii functioned without pomp or circumstance, it was far easier to believe that this future scenario was possible. Although Stuart mentioned in class that the four scenarios: collapse, transformation, growth, and discipline, aren’t mutually exclusive in themes, I did have trouble distinguishing two of the scenarios listed.

Studio: 9/20

I remember hearing about the idea of backcasting in Futures a year ago and thinking that such an idea was unfeasible. In being exposed to the idea of futurism and backcasting, I became more aware of the idea that the normative future would inform the present and vice versa. The analogy of a future scenario acting as a compass, guiding the present towards where we want to go was helpful.

Studio: 9/25

I found creating the “collapse” scenario was easiest when starting with one specific point, for example, the population of Pittsburgh in 2050. After determining one aspect of the future, it was easy to leap-frog to the next aspect. It again seemed as though each person in the group had a different idea of what our version of “collapse” looked like. This didn’t end up being too problematic, although our non-harmonious narratives for the different STEEP forces made the job of the tying together each thread more difficult.

Studio 9/27

Unfortunately, my team and I focused on a high level what a preferable future might be, thus setting us back in working on the 3 horizon futures assignment. Focusing on specific points in time was helpful in bringing up more points of confusion within the group that no one either wanted to bring up or knew existed.

Studio: 10/2

In creating the timeline for the 3 horizons, my main focus was on the micro-level, primarily the presentation of a singular sticky note. When we walked around, I began to realize that for someone to even begin to interact with one sticky note, they would first have to be engaged by the timeline as a whole. This isn’t the first time I’ve “caught” myself focusing on relatively less important details; I looked forward to the individual assignment next week about identifying Max Neef’s needs for individual products of services.

Homework: 2 ideas, 1 service & 1 DSI

In conceptualizing a potential social innovation intervention, using the 2x2 Matrix introduced by Cheryl Dahle was incredibly helpful. Narrowing my scale of focus helped ideas flow much faster and helped reinforce the “needle size intervention” mantra.

Studio: 10/4

Going over the different Max Neef model in class was exciting! Many of the issues with certain products, for example: texting while driving, were in my opinion environments issues. The context for use wasn’t understood and potentially still isn’t understood, despite the ample degree of remotely possible features which would increase safety. Determining which Max Neef Needs were most pertinent to gentrification led to a discussion over who we would be addressing, longtime residents or incoming gentrifiers. Potential further divisions within these two categories may be necessary as roughly 40% of longtime residents are homeowners. I also postulated that gentrifiers with children would have the need for Protection, being satisfied through a high quality education.

Although I had data to back up this claim I was quickly challenged by a team member to provide ample evidence. I pointed out my data was from the Pittsburgh Census and knowledge that I had about IQ tests. Even so, the amount of data I have access too is more limited than I would prefer. I coined the name, “Assumption Town” in relation to some of the exercises we would participate in.

Studio: 10/9

Dr. Steenson gave a guest lecture and led activities on service design. I found the explanation of the design blueprint slightly confusing, although I liked the emphasis on messy storyboards for a specific scenario. Storytelling is an effective way to communicate information, so utilizing this for pitching or modifying a service is important. The issue of whether or not a certain music sharing service was feasible reminded me of an interview I was a part for UX Tools. Nikolai, who is in HCI, mentioned that the role of the designer in futuristic scenarios is to depict a future which is preferable in order to inspire the technical side to make it happen.

In contemplating what my role, as a designer, in work concerning the future was, I found this idea particularly helpful. I’ve heard a wide range of ideas as to what a designer can contribute to future products while having minimal technical experience, but I found this goal of inspiration to be the most realistic and viable given designers focus on the visual.

Studio: 10/11

This is potentially the first class where the ideas of Transition Design truly began to sink in. Between the two studio classes I wrote a long email to the professors about the potential impact of Transition Design interventions. Thinking in class about their response and contemplating the concepts on my own, I came up with a summary of the Transition Design methodology: “short term victories for a long term vision”.

My perspective on gentrification and transition design before that class can be summarized by this excerpt of an email I sent to the professors:

“My second struggle, was to separate gentrification from income inequality. Most neighborhoods that have been gentrified or are being gentrified are primarily African American. African Americans nationwide, and in Pittsburgh, disproportionately represent low socioeconomic households. Being in a conducive environment for learning (low outside stress, available resources) is correlated with higher IQ and higher IQ is correlated with almost all positive long term success (income, etc). Providing tools for a reasonably quality education, to me, seems to be the best option for a long term solution to gentrification. Albeit this may take an entire generation for the effects to be seen, but is this a reasonable solution for gentrification? I’m feeling a bit confused and stuck, my current perspective is that almost all interventions which don’t address income inequality are merely band-aids for the problem.”

My thoughts were inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s quote:

“The main weakness of the Negro’s position is that since emancipation he has never had an adequate economic foundation.”

Practical Service Design Blueprint

One question I still had was from whose perspective the design blueprint was from. The perspective of the actor driving the design blueprint determines which touch points are front stage or back stage.

Social Innovation Readings

When I was initially ruminating over how to effectively address gentrification in a long term sense, I found myself constantly directly contradicting capitalism. Acknowledging that the premise of capitalism, according to Matthew Manos, the author of Towards a Preemptive Social Enterprise, is to “maximize certain outcomes at the expense of others” was helpful.

This made learning about the potential of a circular economy far more promising for a true “transition”. Perhaps this is the real transition, or one petal in a flower, that the United States will undergo in transitioning from a capitalist economy to a circular economy. The fact that I had trouble fathoming how this shift would occur was promising in a sense.

Studio: 10/16

One of Dahle’s statements which resonated with me was that people will do what makes sense for them. The next step to that statement was asking how designers can change what makes sense for a person.

I thought this simple idea encapsulated a lot. For instance:

  • how design is all about communication
  • how the “frictionless” design has implications beyond consumerism (the Amazon dash button)
  • what is a base line scale of intervention given the expertise of designers

Studio 10/23

Solutionism: “The belief that all difficulties have benign solutions, often of a technocratic nature.”

The idea of solutionism which Stuart brought up was quite interesting and I thought a perfect concept for designers to come to terms with. It seemed to me that the most of the confusion regarding what transition design was revolved around what to solve and who the solution would be for.

Studio 10/25

Listening to the different projects proposed were interesting, as the range of specificity and scale for the potential intervention varied greatly between groups.

The topic our group is focusing on is walking the line between financial policy and design in my opinion, leaning more towards financial policy. The proposed intervention can be broadened by focusing on the latter part: “have less barriers to home ownership”. I think this will be important in order to scope the project within our abilities and time frame.

Project Plan V1

In converging towards the “problem” of home ownership, our group has decided to diverge from that specific intervention. We came to this conclusion after a couple of revelations: the lower middle class population we are targeting may not exist and the scale of this problem and solution is too large. In pin-pointing home ownership as the “solution”, I believe we have stepped far beyond a needle of impact, following the acupuncture metaphor.

As a group we also had a useful moment of reflection on how much we were prioritizing this project. The consensus was that this project was probably not going to be going on our portfolio sites. This is exciting to a degree for me, as I will be able to use the extra time in order to make sure Transition design and Futures thinking will be in the senior show, a process/project which I am planning on putting on my portfolio.

10/30: Project Plan V2

We’ve now considered many different issues surrounding home ownership including micro-mortages, shared equity, and bad credit. The more I research and learn about poverty, it seems highly infeasible to have home ownership as a method for preventing displacement. In a way, “skipping a step” in addressing gentrification. I think focusing on improving lower income students’ credit from a younger age would be a appropriate scale of intervention.

A theory on poverty is that due to being cognitively preoccupied with concerns that richer people do not have, poorer people have lower cognitive performance in many tasks. Reducing the cognitive load for poorer people, though a smaller scale of impact, seems to be a better small victory towards mitigating the negative effects of income inequality and gentrification.


In class, we further fleshed out the shared equity housing model within a community. I thought that this was at too high of a scale, bordering on trying to solve gentrification, but after our group talked to Stacy I realized my perception of the scale of an intervention was also too large. The first step in transition design seems to be the testing of assumptions that a potential later step and solution would rely on.

11/4: Project V3

After scaling back the scale of the intervention we were brainstorming, the specific problem area we were making in became far more familiar. By familiar I mean that the research we were working towards was scoped within the realm of human centered design instead of the real estate market and capitalism. However, despite being in more familiar territory for our intervention, the specific facets of our intervention seemed vague and surface level. We plan to address what we intended to learn through the study, however the general vagueness of each facet was unsettling.
 It seems that the initial hurdle of establishing trust and building a relationship with the community of stakeholders we are focusing on is the largest hurdle. The class of 2017 may be a useful example for how to approach a lower income community as designers from an expensive university.

In class 11/6

Our initial intervention was based around an app which seemed at a surface level to be about providing qualitative answers to our questions. The initial obstacle was creating a design probe which was provoking in it’s depiction of the future thus creating dialogue. It seemed later that the real obstacle was a lack of communication in the group about what the intervention even was.

My initial qualms about how the intervention process would begin still haven’t been answered. I suppose beginning the intervention at a common assembly area such as a church to present a piece of the future might be effective. It seems that much of the intervention process is based on having assemblies of people from the community on a regular basis in order to truly achieve dialogue. I’m not sure if this means that the designers role in this process is purely about creating conversational cues for these assemblies.

In class 11/8

Working in class, we came to agreement that we would be working on a game/activity that would simulate the equity sharing we were hoping to encourage. To me, it seems that a game may be more trouble than it is worth, due to a game requiring a large degree of knowledge on game design.

11/13: Speed-dating feedback

This deadline was helpful in two ways, forcing us as a group to be on the same page and giving valuable feedback. One of the most helpful pieces of feedback we received was a question asking about the context that the game existed in. In response, we decided that the game would be part of a larger workshop, which would need supplementary materials to be effective.

Also, it seemed like people were more interested in the sharing equity model than the game itself which would simulate it. This could mean that we should make the sharing equity model more explicit within our game as a potential future. However, the system we are proposing would probably not be a first step along our timeline, so making it more prominent may just be a distraction.


In discussing on how we would approach framing the workshop, we came away with two approaches. The two approaches were that we would say we were from 2050 and that this board-game was a staple of society similar to monopoly and to tell people to imagine this game was reality.

Acknowledging that this game didn’t represent reality currently was an important step towards how we ended up framing the workshop for participants.


For the name, we decided on The Common Wealth. The name was meant to sound similar to “The Commonwealth” while separating out the two parts to generalize it’s purpose. While the community isn’t meant to exclusively be political, the idea behind forming together for a public good is what we are focused on.


To have a complete picture of what our intervention was, we decided it was necessary to have a rough idea of the sharing equity model we were proposing. I think Stuart mentioned that an exact model might not be the best approach for communication as there wouldn’t be enough for personal interpretation. As in, if the idea for the intervention is clear, but the specifics are vague, more people will see the intervention as viable. Thus, we decided that the level of specificity for our sharing equity model didn’t need to be at much of a greater fidelity than what is below.

12/5: Before the Show Playtesting

Play testing the game itself was an interesting process as only half of the group had been tasked with creating the gameplay itself. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the gameplay was simplified, making learning the rules a far quicker process. While play testing, I did my best to “cheat” and didn’t donate, to see if there were consequences. Since there weren’t any consequences within the game apart from group friction, I think the workshop could be structured differently.

Within a workshop of 16 people, the game could be played in rounds, with each player having a different income level each round. Each group of four would represent a community whose goal was to earn the most number of chips. A cash prize or other reward would go to the group which prospered the most, thus incentivizing sharing throughout the entire process.

12/6: The “Science Fair”

In reflecting on the semester, I think I enjoyed the first half of the semester more than the second half. I overheard some classmates that mentioned they were disheartened to learn that most of the class didn’t get anything out of the class, based on the concluding discussion in A11. Hearing that peoples’ perception was that most people thought the class was a “waste” was also disheartening, as my thinking was significantly stretched by the course. That in itself was an interesting and valuable process. Why I didn’t mention that for my comment in the after-show reflection, I’m not sure. I think with sufficient time to reflect and enough initial commitment to learning the frameworks, most of the class will realize the value in the class. Even as writing this now, the importance of these medium posts are beginning to grow in my mind. Maybe if at least every other week, we were to directly try to define transition design, that would help with people seeing the value of reflection and the class. I’m slightly annoyed I didn’t realize this earlier and block out the time to reflect and try to define transition design myself. I suppose I do have somewhat of a record of what I thought transition design was, based on a long email I wrote to my professors, my initial misguided attempt to encapsulate transition design within the senior show, and sporadic medium posts.

I believe there was the potential for this project to be a portfolio piece, although there would’ve had to be more dedication and better communication from the group as a whole. Also, the focus would probably have to be more on thinking, or potentially the communication of what we did this semester, versus the artifacts we produced. As a whole, we didn’t have the motivation to begin work on what seemed to be a “brand new” project. That may have been the main issue that held our group back. When I mean better communication, I mean several aspects of communication between our group and for our final. If I could’ve communicated the grounding of our intervention in our earlier transition design and futures work, that may have increased motivation. The second aspect of communication is more important and is about how we presented our work at the “science fair”.

I wish as a group, we focused slightly less on the game during the “science fair”. To an outsider coming in, it would probably look as though we designed an aesthetically pleasing, mechanically unbalanced, chance based game. However, explaining that our game was testing the social underpinnings of a potential system that would vastly increase home ownership was in my opinion, the most interesting aspect. We had a vision of what home ownership could look like in 2050, and the testing mechanism to begin the journey to get there, but I believe that information was lost in translation. That missed opportunity was disheartening to reflect upon, as the thinking behind transition design and futures thinking excites me.

In conclusion, I enjoyed the studio and the frameworks I wrestled with. I worked hard to understand the frameworks and stay up to date with my readings, which I believe paid dividends in my learning and appreciation of the class. Staying up to date with recording my thinking and staying engaged during the second half of the semester were self-inflicted setbacks, but I realize my mistakes and understand how to address them. Somewhat paradoxically, being disengaged from the studio (and not updating medium) can be solved by taking a moment to stop, reflecting on medium, then reengaging with the studio.