Design as Action

I was reading part of Stanley McCrystal’s book, Team of Teams, yesterday and was surprised to stumble into a discussion of the Action Office in the middle of a book about fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq. It comes up as part of a discussion of the design of the HQ for Task Force 714 of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) McCrystal led in Iraq. The book is about JSOC’s radical transformation as an organization: making it the eponymous exemplar of McCrystal’s Team of Teams paradigm.

The Action Office was (is?) the brand of Herman Miller’s cubicle system, originally launched in 1964. It was intended by its lead designer, Robert Propst, to change the dynamics of work by creating an adaptive (and adaptable) environment, literally breaking down the walls of the American office. He claimed that, “today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”

It was intended to change the dynamics of work by creating an adaptive (and adaptable) environment
Herman Miller Action Office II in 1968

Ironically, the cubicle design of modern offices, far from giving rise to a whole new model of interactions at work, has now become synonymous with the very kind of corporate wasteland that Propst was designing against.

All of this put me in mind of the idea of action and how this idea is implicated in some of the most interesting thinking about design today, but is rarely made explicit as “material of design”

For some years now, I have been talking, thinking and writing about ideas of practice and change. Design has provided a compelling terrain on which to explore these ideas. But it has just lately occurred to me that one of my principle concerns all along has been the design of action.

Back in 2007, for instance, I had an idea about designing a practice, which I imagined as a mind-body discipline, sort of like a yoga practice, that would teach/train people to be more innovative. The notion was that this practice would be the core of a discipline for shaping and reshaping thinking, perception and interacting. I called the imagined practice, Innovation Parkour.

I was lucky to have just recently met Matthew Milan and, one day early in 2008, over lunch, I shared with him some of my reckless and sloppy thinking. Fortunately, Matthew grasped my intuition about Parkour right away, and was intrigued, as I was, about the possibility that it could open up new ways of thinking about reshaping design practice. Together (and sometimes fellow travelers like Erin Liman) we spent several years doing experiments, creating and running workshops, and writing about how action could changing thinking and practice.

I became intrigued by all kinds of designs for collective action, from the small operations of guerrillas and commandos to large scale protests and movements

Then, in 2011 I started thinking about insurgency. Initially my thinking on this was sparked by the Occupy Wall Street actions in New York late that year. That got me thinking back to 9/11 and to turning the lens of design onto the actions of al-Qaeda. I became intrigued by all kinds examples of designs of collective action, from the small operations of guerrillas and commandos, to large scale protests and movements, from the United Farmworkers marches I had been on as a kid to the more recent proliferations of the Occupy movement.

As I started writing about these things, I went looking for someone who could help me think far beyond my own experiences. I remembered that Roger Martin had written a piece I’d read in 2010 about the adoption of design thinking by the US Army. I reached out to him and asked if he could connect me to any of the people who had been involved in the writing of the chapter on design that had become part of FM 5–0, the Army’s Field Operations Manual, a core element of Army doctrine.

Roger introduced me to an Aussie named Alex Ryan, who was then teaching at the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He was working at Booz Allen, a management consulting firm, which had been contracted to teach complexity science, systems thinking and design to elite leaders in the American forces establishment.

I reached out to Alex and asked if he’d be interested in joining me on a panel I was putting together about design and insurgency. He agreed, and soon after the panel, we decided to collaborate on writing something together on the subject. We were both intrigued by the way insurgent actors could both serve as unexpected exemplars of designing in action, and about the political impulses of insurgency, and how design of several kinds was at work in the actions of insurgents. It was a productive collaboration, and one that has deepened and advanced both Alex’s thinking and practice and my own.

So when I read Kevin Slavin’s piece, Design as Participation, in the newly minted Journal of Design and Science, last week, what most struck me was the presence (and absence) of the concept of action. In particular, I was surprised the absence of any explicit mention of a research approach/method that has become foundational to user and human centered design practice, namely, participant observation.

Pioneered by anthropologists like Branislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead, participant observation eventually became synonymous with ethnographic research, which in the 90s started to show up in design practice as “ethnography.” The initial design of the research practice was intended to facilitate the study of cultures through the immersion of the observer in the action of the lives s/he was studying; living among the people and by the rules and codes of the culture being investigated.

I was surprised Slavin didn’t take up participant observation explicitly because it is one of the most important roots of the theory and practice that are the focus of his article. It makes me think that the Journal of Design and Science should pay more attention to historical work on the intersection of theory practice, particularly work in the sociology, history and philosophy of science. And lest anyone think I am dumping on this new platform for thinking about design, let me say that I am overjoyed at this initiative of Joi Ito’s. It has great promise, and I am absolutely aligned with the impulses that led to its creation (more on that here).

designers need to recognize and orient themselves to intervening in the design of adaptive complex systems

I also don’t want to leave the impression that I am completely critical or dismissive of Slavin’s arguments. To the contrary, I think he is on to something of critical importance: that design and designers need to recognize and orient themselves to intervening in the design of adaptive complex systems. His main point is right on, and it’s a perspective that is being amplified and echoed by people like Dave Gray, Alex Ryan, Matthew Milan, Allan Chochinov, Stuart Candy and a growing number of others, which is that we are ill-equipped and poorly prepared for doing this kind of design work.

It is not “how designers think” that is important for us to better understand, but how designing and designers can create change through action, and what does and might happen when they do that deserves more of our focused attention and investigation.

For the last decade, I have used the name and idea of Unfinished Business as a rubric and conceptual umbrella for my investigations and engagement with the thinking, culture, practice of design. For the next decade (taking a cue from Larry Lessig, about changing up research programs), I intend to explore the idea of the future of design as action.

It is not “how designers think” that is important for us to better understand, but how designing and designers can create change through action, and what does and might happen when they do that deserves more of our focused attention and investigation.