Design Research Studio

Noah Johnson
Aug 29, 2017 · 14 min read

This is a running story containing work from Design Research Studio.

>> posts become more recent as you scroll down <<

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Dream Team after a long journey. (from left) Me, Adella, Hae Wan, Carolyn

Section 8+ Intervention/Research Tool Creation

Week 9: Social Innovation

October 23— Mapping Intervention Ideas
We reviewed what we have learned thus far and began working on a new diagram, Mapping Intervention Ideas. We put up our 3 Sv interventions (Section 8 Redesign, Housing Restoration Program, Sustainability Workshops) and 3 Si Interventions (Ai SmartPittsburgh Plan, Accessible alternative energy start up, Mixed Income Community Project). We began mingling with other groups by putting our names down on other team’s intervention diagrams. We saw that we had a lot of relations with all teams, particularly gentrification, food, air quality, and transportation.

Oct 25 — Group Formations
We formed groups for the remaining half of the semester! Our team: Adella, Carolyn, Haewan, and me.

Week 10: Planning the scope and scale of intervention

Oct 30 — Group Projects Begin
We wrote out our first version plan moving forward and shared our findings with professors to clarify our thinking and approach. We came up with the following investigation question:

How can we lower the barrier for low-income residents to afford housing through improving the Section 8 voucher program and shift the stigma in discriminatory housing options?

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We mostly stumbled with how we can design for both the short-term and the long-term. We felt tat the immediate action we could take is to improve the user-interface of Section 8’s voucher program, but our team agrees that this only a surface level intervention that doesn’t address the greater systemic issue of gentrification. We found it helpful to think about how our deliverable could be an

- immersive experience in a future scenario
- role playing
- timeline comparison between 2050, 2050, and now
- infographic narrative

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Stuart helped us think about how we can design artifacts from the future just like props from a movie set.

Nov 1 — Meeting with the Gentrification Team, Tent vs. Ownership
Today’s goal was really to see if we could still work with the Gentrification team even though we were in separate groups. Today’s workshop helps both teams understand how our wicked problems relate and how we could work off each other. We created a user persona, Bob who is looking for affordable housing. By the end of the day, we realized that each of our team’s interventions could affect Bob at different stages in his life. We also learned about the differences between renting homes (Section 8) and home ownership. Our team will be focusing on renting homes while the gentrification team will be focusing on home ownership. We thought about a narrative where Bob could begin in our Section 8 redesign program and move forward to the other team’s community investment plan for Bob to own a home. If there system fails, Bob could revert back to our renting system.

Week 11: What is our narrative?

Nov 6 — Designing for Short-term and Long-term
We were still stumbling with designing for short and long term futures. Today’s class was to continue flushing out narratives. We identified that our final deliverable should include

- section 8 interface improvement
- partnership between pittsburgh and an organization to address funding and shortage of houses
- jump to a future vision where stigma has been addressed

We’ll need to make
- diagram maps
- immersive experience that allows role-playing
- explain our narrative and hold conversations with important stakeholders

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By the end of class we were more solid with our narrative. Our user Bob is a low-income man with a family who wants a nicer home but needs help affording it. He will enter information into a replacement service for Section 8, an intelligent system that confirms his eligibility and matches him with possible homes.

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Nov 8 — Finalizing our Research Question

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Today we worked on our 2050 VISION. We took another stab our at research question:

If we can address the stigma surrounding section 8 where low-income tenants are discriminated against for their race and socioeconomic status, can we tangibly increase the baseline for standards of quality living?

Our 2050 vision is for Pittsburgh to represent the highest possible standard of living for low-income residents, to use design as a medium to end discriminatory stigma against residents seeking affordable housing.

Our sub research questions include:

1. What are appopriate forms of quality living for section 8 low-income tenants?
2. How can creating an immersive experience positioned in 2050 help specific and targeted stakeholder groups change their views surrounding Section 8?
3. Why is design an effective medium to end stigma?
4. What happens after? what are the consequences?

Our making plan:
- website that houses the Section 8 service (immersive experience, role-playing)
- poster that communicates the narrative

How do we know if we have addressed this question? How do we know if we are successful?
- Ideally we can show our project to stakeholders in positions of influence. This group includes landlords, city mayor, city planning director, professors conducting academia research etc.
- Depending on the responses and reactions, which can take forms in questions, comments, critiques, etc. we can gauge how successfully design can be used to impact their perspectives on low-income residents.

Our stakeholders include
- tenants
- future tenants
- landlords
- policy makers
- homeless people
- developers
- non-tenant pittsburgh residents
- low-income residents

Week 12: Speed Dating

Nov 12 — Speed Dating
We listened to other groups present and pitch their design concepts, then provided crit. Our group split so that we were in different rooms. This ended up being a bit frustrating because when we got back together, it seemed like we were in vastly different rooms. Adella’s speed dating focused more on designing an intervention in the real world while … (you can talk about your experience talking with people doing research tools while I had a room focused more on design interventions)

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Nov 15 — Re-aligning
Our group re-aligned in articulating our service design by thinking about how it could be a research tool. We flushed out a service that equally includes the perspective of a landlord with a landlord package. We want to answer the question, why do landlords accept or deny section 8 tenants? Would a landlord package that includes a notification that a landlord’s property has been suggested to a section 8 tenant improve the chances that a section 8 tenant would be accepted?

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I experimented with a few delivery methods for the tenant package. This package didn’t survive our pivot in which we went forward with the landlord package.

Week 13: Pivot + Thanksgiving

Nov 20 — Pivot
Talking with Stacie, we realized that it was more important to create a research tool that probes if landlords hold a stigma against section 8 tenants rather than testing a new design that would improve a user’s experience applying for section 8.

Week 14: System Flow Map

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Nov 27 — Add more complexity
We sketched out the system that our research tool will be situated in. It was important to sketch this out so we can see where the new landlord package is and the stakeholders involved.

Nov 29 — Framing a research tool and not a game
We learned that it’s important to be careful in framing our project as an activity and not a game. We will frame our project as a first pass in designing a possible research tool that will help us discover how and why people make decisions, based on contextual, situational information, and personal biases. Depending on how the science fair goes, we’ll see whether this is an effective tool to bring to real landlords and if it will inform a appropriate design intervention if we all continued to work together.

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This was our first mockup of the simulation board. It worked well, so it was time to dress it up.

Week 15: Final Week + Science Fair Presentation

Dec 4 — Prototype
We brought in all our prototypes to see the feel of our activity. We determined the revisions we need to make, namely a visual brand that ties everything together. We divided up tasks.

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100917 Molly Steenson Service Lecture

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100217 Terry Irwin Transition Lecture

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Studio 092717 Notes +Stuart Candy Futures Lecture

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Studio 092017 Notes

# Studio, Wednesday 092017

— -

## Generating Alternative Futures

What have we done so far?

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context.”

map/axis/graph of context layers

But what is the future?

There are understandable responses, but not helpful ones.

the first two are dodging the question and the third one is a trap.

Why. is a purely predictive or linear stance a trap?

1. Our own diverse conceptions of the future.

2. The nature and shape of change over time itself.


Any single image of the future, no matter how compelling, is incomplete.



The mistaken assumption that if only one future /can/ happen, only one future /will/ happen.

How do we get from this insight to something that’s helpful for our work?

Karma Vertigo — the sense of guilt from looking too far into the future.

There must be a ‘sweet spot’ between not caring about anyone/anything, and taking it upon yourself to solve all of the world’s problems.

Strategy of Tragedy —to — Strategy of ________

Delay between when we take actions and when we see results/changes.

could be years before we see effects of significant changes we took now.

Can we design for sustainable futures without taking part in the practice ourselves, in our every day lives?

Moving the needle in the system.

Toggling between the individual sense of responsibility an the systems-level design lens


“The future” cannot be “predicted” but “alternative futures” can, and should be “forecast”.


systematically and creatively imaging in alternative ways that the system could unfold over time.

Dator’s Insight

although there are countless stories you can find in media, there are actually only so many plot lines.

There are only so many types of stories, even though there are tons of stories.

So what are the basic future “plots”?

There are four.

  1. Grow
  2. 2. Collapse
  3. 3. Discipline
  4. could be power from above /or/ peer-to-peer agreements.
  5. 4. Transformation
  6. the possibility of human intelligence being eclipsed by machine intelligence.
  7. what about a spiritual shift?
  8. what about a change of consciousness?

Key thing —

There are two relationships we need to grasp

  1. between the archetypes of generic images themselves and
  2. 2. between the generic images and specific scenarios
  3. Between the archetype and others
  4. Maximizing difference, diversity.

The significance is to cover our bases.

We need to give ourselves permission to explore the bounds of possibility.


Often it’s the technically possible scenarios which are treated as implausible, and therefore ignored, that will most probably screw us up.


2. Between the archetypes (sets) and scenarios (instances)

Classifying framework can also be used for generating.

usefulness: the way this makers a complex landscape more tractable.

Studio 091817 Notes


Doing skits as different stakeholders of a problem, then talking between stakeholders within a problem.

Many of these issues are between PGH residents and local govt/ state govt/national govt.

Complex groups of stakeholders that usually have more than one point of difference between them.

Unbalanced power relationships between stakeholders.


What’s Next? Re: studio

Sustainable futures in more ways than just environmental sustainability. Re: Aff. Housing — a future in which affordable housing exists and flourishes.

So what should we be doing next?

. What do we need to have thought about in order to propose successful designs?

. –constraints we may be working in

. –identify the scale/scope of the future proposals

. –context for intervention

Argument saying to think of every designed object in it’s next larger context

. –chair in room, room in house, house in environment, environment in city plan.

What about when applied to our problem domains?

. –what would that look like?

. Some kind of wicked problem-web, extending out to the highest level system/largest scale of context.

. We need to think about the ‘next larger context’ of our problems

. –Aff. Housing in PGH, PGH in a state, a state in a nation, a nation in a world, a world in the universe. (?)

. Actually no. I’m thinking about it to literally.

Stuart: temporal zoom levels*

. Considering how a context itself may change over time.

. How might the broader system/context of our wicket problems change over time?

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Inside-out thinking: extrapolation of the present

*designing interventions in a complex system* – — what we’re doing

Most people when designing something are thinking about day-to-day life and not life in a far future.

. But there is usually some kind of plan that controls the day-to-day life in the context of a future goal or plan.

How Far Into The Future?

What are the different ways we experience thinking about the future?

. –does anyone experience it like *blank slide*. Have no idea.

. –or this *slide with scribble lines on it*. Chaotic.

. “wicked problems are wicked.”

I never knew a ‘generation’ is around 25yrs.

Future Mapping Exercise: ______ in 2047.

We met in person

To feel emotion again

We’ve lost that lately

Learnings from poems

. Not optimistic — dystopian

. Focus on technology, humans ruined their planet.

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090517 Terry Irwin’s Briefing on Ojai California

I think it’s very cool that the School of Design helps real people around the world with their cutting-edge knowledge and perspectives. The water shortage in Ojai seems like a perfect issue for someone like Terry to tackle with something like Transition Design. What I appreciated most about the reading was the multiple scales of information that were presented. Like what Stuart said in class about a gps zooming in and out on information, showing turn-by-turn directions as well as a map of the whole world. It made sense to me to start out with the facts of the shortage, and defining it as a wicked problem from the start.

This type of work requires leaders to maintain a meta-level view of the system and observe its dynamics and ‘shifts’ much as accupuncturists do after inserting needles in a patient’s meridians.

Terry Irwrin, Mapping Ojai’s Water Shortage

I think it’s crucial to bring this up— that these kinds of projects might start changing parts of the system now, but the problem itself won’t be ‘solved’ for years or even decades. Especially today when companies, and people in general demand instant-results, I think this aspect to transition design work could be kind of daunting for some clients. I like how Terry phrased it here, making the accupunture analogy which works so well. It seems like Terry takes the ‘edge’ off also by emphasizing the Near-Term Vision, which seems more immediately attainable, at least compared to the Long-Term Vision.

Lastly I like the format of a workshop to express this material. Workshops that lean on easy-to-understand visuals and make use of hands-on activities help clients understand and work with even the most ‘out-there’ concepts or, in this case, the most far-reaching timeline and the goals that come along with it. To me a workshop is the perfect medium for this kind of transition design work, and this briefing to go along with it only strenghtens the clients’ understanding.

091717 Block & Jungk Readings

“[A workshop] can be used anywhere people have problems in search of solutions, where they can come together and discuss with one another.

— Robert Jungk, Future Workshops

What I like most about this reading is Jungk’s emphasis on helping people on the planet in general, not only a certain group. I think this uniformed approach to design and especially futures mapping is the right way to think about problem solving on a global scale. When designing a product or experience it makes sense to narrow the audience down to a group of users, so you can design with them in mind. However on a larger scale and especially when mapping future scenarios, it helps to consider the world as a whole, as a human race who must survive as long as we can.

The medium of a workshop can adapt to all types of problems to be solved and the people having those problems. Careful and thorough facilitation of a workshop greatly helps people to fully understand a problem at multiple depths and through multiple lenses, and have an open space to ideate freely.

I really understand what both Block and Jungk say about most processes, systems and experiences in the world are of “social invention”, having needed someone to come up with the idea and maintain it through history. A shared thought between both authors is the idea that as designers and futurists we must let the preservation of future generations guide us in our day-to-day lives. I think this is a powerful idea that most definitely will be the key to ensuring life on this planet continues into the distant future.

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