Design for Place Matrix

Erica Dorn
Nov 27, 2019 · 11 min read

+Imaginative Labyrinth as Homing Device

Humans are increasingly displaced and distance-enabled. Without a sense of connection, knowledge, and commitment to geographically-bound places over longer periods of time, we design out of context and relationship, abstracted from the direct experience and consequences of our actions.

Design for social innovation often seeks to make systems-level change towards more sustainable and equitable futures. However, longevity and embeddedness in a place is often absent and projects are left un-stewarded towards their long-term intended aims. If we are to transition towards a living future, awareness of our own orientation to ‘place’ is important for designers of all kinds to grasp, understand, and embed in our design work.

This article explores the concept of place and its role in design through a pilot project conducted for Design Theory and Seminar at Carnegie Mellon University. It offers a ‘place matrix’ with four potential lenses of human orientation to ‘place’, informed by the fields of human geography, urban planning, anthropology, and philosophy. Building off of the ‘place matrix’, a prototype of an imaginative ‘Place Labyrinth’ offers experiential exercises and prompts to grow knowledge, connection and affection towards the places we inhabit and design.

A Place Orientation Matrix

‘Place’, defined for this article, is the human habitat created through an ongoing process with the human and more-than-human world. ‘Places’ might include towns, cities, and settlements where humans create a collective home. ‘Place’ differs from space in that place is finite and holds meaning, space is infinite yet becomes place through built and social human and more-than-human interaction overtime (Tuan, 1974; Watts, 2013; Mortan, 2018). ‘Places’ are made up of many forms of infrastructure, some more visible than not. Our actions and more specifically our intentions, spontaneous or not, are often translated into designs that form the places we inhabit and relationships therein. In that sense, what we design, designs ‘place’.

Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in his 1974 seminal book titled ‘Topophilia’, explored the human relationship to place historically and into the modern area. His work greatly informed the fields of human geography, architecture and urban planning, as well as this research. Topophilia refers to ‘love of place’ and place attachment theory which suggests that ‘places’ like people, operate as living systems. Positive attachment to ‘place’ can result in pro-social and pro-environmental behavior. However, humans are increasingly displaced, over many thousands of years. Detachment, especially from ancestral lands and traditions has instilled a disconnection from the places we inhabit, often out of fear of future loss of connection (Tuan, 1974).

How can we experience a deeper sense of connection and commitment to a ‘place’, once we’ve adopted, chosen, or been forced into a globally dependent and networked system?

The following the ‘place matrix’ explores four orientations to place — to be ‘on-place, ‘with-place’, ‘of-place’, and ‘for-place’. By categorizing these potential orientations to place, designers and practitioners of social impact might better understand how we inhabit and create the world around us.

On-Place Orientation

To be ‘on-place’ is to see and experience the earth as something that humans dominate. In this orientation, the earth and places within it are more like destinations, or projects, than relationships or even living beings unto themselves (Auge, 1995).

In our modern era, design and business have often aspired and aimed towards one global and homogeneously designed planet. The perpetuated abstraction of human beings from other life forms has accelerated and manifested in ‘non-places’, ‘placelessness’, and ‘geography of nowhere’ (Auge, 1995; Tuan, 1974; Kunstler 1993). A planet made-up of places that look almost identical to each other and the purpose of visiting them is to put a pin in a map, is just another symptom of the accelerating loss of biodiversity of many forms on the planet (Auge, 1995).

When we design from a place of being ‘on-place’ we tend to see ourselves as superior to everything else. Most humans on earth today experience ourselves as abstracted and deeply separate from the other forms of life that we surround (Auge, 1995; Watts, 2013; Mortan, 2018). This way of being and communicating manifests in our built environment, how we interact with it, and how we experience it, and how we care for it, others, and ourselves. There can be an assumption made that most designers working towards social change are not interested in perpetuating colonialism in any of its catastrophic forms, therefore being ‘on-place’ is no longer viable as a sustainable way of inhabiting the planet.

With-Place Orientation

To be ‘with-place ‘offers an orientation that aims to restore an ecological balance. However in this orientation, the designer may still sees themselves as separate from other earthkin — the human still dominates and is believed to hold superior agency (Mortan, 2017).

The sustainability movement, among others like it, has brought a more ecological way of thinking about the human role in a complex web of life. However, in our aim to bring humans into better relationship with all life we may have cast ourselves away as an invasive species on the planet. There may be trouble with believing we can build a better future by operating out of a sense of shame for being human. Furthermore, to be able to think and act ecologically today can often come from a position of privilege. Ecological consciousness can often manifest in an urgency to ‘save the planet’ and perpetuate a cycle of acceleration, quick decision making, and hence the colonizer mentality all over again. In our efforts to repair and restore, we yet again deplete and degrade in a vicious cycle of unintended consequences (Brown, 2017;Mortan, 2017).

In the film Examined Life, philosopher Slavoj Zizek is seen at a garbage dump professing that if we are to think ecologically, we’d have to love even our waste. What’s important about this image and this message is that, if we are to truly love the earth we might also love the parts that we wish to castaway. In this sense, to be ‘with-place’ may still be entrenched in older notions of the human as separate from nature, and therefore we must look into other orientations that embrace more radical forms of ‘place’ love.

Of-Place Orientation

To be believe that the human is made of humus and interconnected with all of life expresses an orientation ‘of-place’. To be ‘of-place’ is often associated with an indigenous way of knowing and being and sees the human as of the earth and interdependent with all of life (Watts, 2013).

Much can be said about the importance of indigenous ways of knowing and being, and the crucial significance this knowledge plays in a living future.

Indigenous scholar Vanessa Watts describes how in indigenous knowledge thoughts are inseparable from the ground and place from which they come. She goes further to say that ‘our truth, not only Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee people but in a majority of Indigenous societies, conceives that we (humans) are made from the land; our flesh is literally an extension of soil’ (Watts, 2013 p.27). In this sense, to be ‘of-place’ is not an abstract statement, instead a complex truth about the human relationship to the earth. To deeply believe and operate as inseparable from the soil offers a profoundly different experience and intent for design and our connection to place.

To be ‘of-place’ is often the result of many generations of direct ties to land, and certainly longer term commitments to a place. In that sense, the experience of indigeneity and ‘of-place’ orientation may be inaccessible, at least in the short-term, for many designers today.

For-Place Orientation

Many humans on earth today may possess a sense of deep interconnection with all of life but may be unable to fully access and live out this way of being in the day-to-day modern existence. If the orientation to be ‘of-place’ is inaccessible in a modern western-mind, then what might being ‘for-place’ orientation offer us?

To be ‘for-place’ offers an orientation that sees the modern human as de-centered and in interdependence with all other life and operates from a place of service to other lifeforms.

From a design perspective this means that we de-center the human as the superior being and operate from a place of being in service to the more-than-human beings with which we co-create and inhabit the earth.

‘Modern man has conquered distance but not time. In a life span, a man now, as in the past can establish profound roots only in a small corner of the world’ (Tuan, 1974 p. 64). If we are to assume a relationship to ‘place’ that is in service to it, we might scale it appropriately and develop a longer-term relationship to it. When we operate from an orientation ‘for-place’ we specify our sense of place while enlarging our sense of community. That is to say that we can begin to include the more-than-human world in the places that we root.

Knowing, loving, and designing ‘for-place’ doesn’t have to require big actions, in fact it is in the everyday awareness of our relationship to place, the trees, the weeds, squirrels, rats, people, empty cans, and soil beneath our feet that can bring about affection and it’s benefits.

‘Place Labyrinth’ as Homing Device

The digital ‘place labyrinth’ is hosted at Its purpose is to support designers of all kinds to apply the ‘place matrix’ and offer experiences that help to reconnect to place. Viewed through the lens of the ‘place matrix’ there are corresponding exercises in the ‘place labyrinth’ that offer insights into the embodied experience of the various ‘on/with/of/for’ place orientations.

As one moves through the four stages of the labyrinth there are instructions offered for participating in self-guided reflections and experiences, including journaling, gazing, pondering, lingering, tracking, meandering and creating. Prior to entering the Labyrinth there are guidelines that include:

  • Once inside the Labyrinth visitors imaginatively remain there until exiting the labyrinth by drafting a ‘place manifesto’. Visitors may decide to spend a few hours, a few days, or longer (remember just imaginatively) in the labyrinth exploring the various orientations via individual own place contexts.
  • At various points you will be given a ‘place’ research question that will provide you with the ‘password key’ to access the experiential exercises.
  • Practice appreciative inquiry and deep listening to optimize learning and reflection.

Once imaginatively inside the labyrinth, the exercises in each quadrant are intended to build on each other and deepen the level of experience and complexity as visitors move from ‘on place’ to for-place’. Some of the exercises include:

  • Reflections on all the places one has visited in the world. Which ones evoke the most positive or the weakest memory?
  • Write an ‘ecoduction’, an autobiography told through landscapes and places that have formed who you are today, rather than what you’ve done. (Recommended 500 words)
  • Grieve and mourn any loss of connection to place. Write a eulogy for a place and/or create a ritual real or imaginative to mourn.
  • Write a letter to an ancestor.
  • Interview an elder that has lived in the same place over a long period of time.

To imaginatively exit the ‘place labyrinth’ you are prompted to draft a ‘Place Manifesto’. The manifesto includes prompts and questions such as:

  • Reflect on what brought you to the place you currently inhabit and whether you intend to continue inhabiting it for a longer period of time and why?
  • What are three places on earth that you could imagine inhabiting for extended periods of time in your life?
  • Consider that longevity in a place be important for designing for systems-level change. What period of time would be necessary for you to develop knowledge and relationships, and to experience and iterate on outcomes of your work?
  • What guidelines might you give yourself for staying connected and committed to place?
  • How do you continue to reduce your carbon footprint or offset it in the place you inhabit?
  • How might you continue to deepen and grow your relationship with your place?
  • How might what you do and design for your place to leave it better than had you not been there or done nothing at all?

Designers who complete the labyrinth will have entered into an exploration intended to deepen understanding of ‘place’, orientations to it, and how this might better inform design for ‘place’, towards living futures.


We have to account for the fact that most design work is embedded within a capital-driven system that prioritizes short-term profits. The ‘wicked problem’ that is late capitalism and its hierarchical and highly imbalanced ownership structure, means that there is tremendous amounts of slow untangling required for a notion of ‘designing for place’ to be viable and in its fullest integrity.

My hope is that this research serves the growing population of digital nomads and designers, often who design for social change. The ‘place matrix’ may supporting designs for various lifestyle, business, and economic models that support globally networked and locally placed existences.

‘Possibly, in some ideal future, our loyalty will be given only to the home region of intimate memories and, at the other end of the scale, to the whole earth’ (Tuan, 1974 p.100).

Hyper-mobility via the internet and cheap flights, has afforded many a globally connected community and access to knowledge, information, and interactions that have also become enhancing, if not essential for survival. We might imagine into a world that is biodiverse, living, and equitable. To do so we will need to operate as if we were dependent on the earth and in service to the more-than-human world with whom we inhabit ‘place’.


  • Auge, M. (1995). Non-Places, An Introduction to Supermodernity. London, New York: Verso.
  • Brown, A.M. (2017) Emergent Strategy. Chico: AK Press.
  • Jacobs, J. (1961). Death and Life of a Great American City. New York: Random House.
  • Kunslter, j. (1993). Geography of Nowhere. New York City: Simon and Schuster.
  • Mortan, T. (2018). Being Ecological. UK: Pelican.
  • Relph, E. (1976). Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.
  • Taylor, A. Examined Life. Documentary.New York, NY. Zeitgeist Films. 2008.
  • Tuan, Y. (1974). Topophilia, A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  • Watts, V. (2013). Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!). Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol. 2, №1, 2013, pp. 20–34.
  • Wicks, J. (2013). Good Morning Beautiful Business. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.
  • Wicks, J.,Witt, S. (2006). Exuberant Episodes of Import Replacement: Two Tributes to Jane Jacobs. Schumacher Center for New Economics. 2006 Essay.

Research for/into/through design(ing)

PhDs from Transition Design and Graduate Design Students…

Erica Dorn

Written by

Erica is social choreographer and doctoral student in Transition Design at CMU— she locates with her itinerate play about Last Chance, CO.

Research for/into/through design(ing)

PhDs from Transition Design and Graduate Design Students from CMU share pieces of research for/into/through design(ing) and their connections with design theory. An invitation for other designers and/or researchers to — potentially — build on these studies.

Erica Dorn

Written by

Erica is social choreographer and doctoral student in Transition Design at CMU— she locates with her itinerate play about Last Chance, CO.

Research for/into/through design(ing)

PhDs from Transition Design and Graduate Design Students from CMU share pieces of research for/into/through design(ing) and their connections with design theory. An invitation for other designers and/or researchers to — potentially — build on these studies.

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