Integral Design Thinking, Guessing the Future

March 2012 / Feature Articles

Lisa Norton

Design is focused on solving problems, and as such requires intervention, not just understanding. Whereas scientists describe how the world is, designers suggest how it might be. It follows that design is a central activity for the military profession whenever it allocates resources to solve problems, which is to say design is always a core component of operations.

 Colonel Stefen J. Banach, U.S. Army (105)

Project H Design

(Photo credit: Project H Design)

Lisa Norton

Due to its ability to order, configure, synthesize, and enact consciousness at multiple scales, practice-based design, whether of a running shoe, political campaign, or a climate change adaptability strategy, is complementary to applied integral leadership. Understood as the dynamic agency of transformation enacted, design is of crucial importance to the thriving of all life. I have drawn examples from the work of two types of leaders whose actions and/or theories model the potential inherent in the conscious application of design in service of leadership challenges. I have chosen these leaders because the meanings and values that motivate their work seem, in my limited expertise for making such judgments, to derive from the high-average to highest action logics. One group is comprised of those leaders who are professionals in any specialty of design, or design researchers drawn from the two top peer-reviewed journals in design studies. The other group consists of leaders whom I characterize as designing catalytically, albeit within another professional domain of expertise.

What is design thinking and how might theories of design relate to and contribute to integral leadership capacities? I will offer answers from various contextual frames throughout this article. Design artifacture, the cultural manipulation of the physio-sphere, is older than language. It is transcending and inclusive of matter and bare life through the higher levels of the Great Chain of Being. Design is a species behavior and thus every human being exhibits designing agency. The propositional nature of design invites human being into the co-creative dynamic. We are all makers of worlds.

On the other hand, in our immersive, post-natural and hyper-mediated world, what if anything is not design? If we understand all that surrounds us (e.g. soft drink cans, cities, postal services, highways, weapons) as “design,” then human causality is implicit. The built environment is our societal inheritance and our lifestyles leave traces that become normative and inscriptive. Our designed and built environment concretizes our collective values past and present, for better or worse. In this sense everyone has a practical and ethical stake in the affordances that structure and limit the built world now and of the future.

A sense of separation from our designed world reifies the mind/body split and offers us no leverage point from which to effect change. From the higher perspectives, design, as human values enacted, mirrors consciousness. As Ken Wilber has said, our environment is a reflection of our collective consciousness “because the startling fact is that ecological wisdom does not consist in understanding how to live in accord with nature; it consists in understanding how to get humans to agree on how to live in accord with nature” (268).

Defined more pragmatically within the context of the design professions, the meanings of the terms design, design research, and design thinking are contested and fluid. For this brief exploration of design as it relates to integral leadership, a general definition will serve to map the various disciplines that comprise the professional field of design. Highly influential design theorist and educator Richard Buchanan defines designing as a fundamentally rhetorical space of dynamic praxis. He describes design as a liberal art pertaining to propositional discourse in contingent contexts he has termed “the four orders” of design. In the framework of Buchanan et al.,

First-order problems focus on communication and the delivery of information through images and symbols. Second-order problems focus on the issues surrounding the construction of tangible artifacts of any scale. Third-order problems focus on the planning and implementation of actions, interactions, processes, and services, Finally, Fourth-order problems focus on the issues of how we organize the complex wholes that surround us and provide the systems and environments of human culture. (The Designed World 2-3)

Effective leadership over the short history of the mature design professions has originated with high action-logic leaders who, in articulating how design operates, have set important models into play. These leaders, in addition to establishing professional standards, have proposed more inclusive articulations of the civil and cultural scope and role (LL) of design. Thus, they have had decisive impacts on the perceived agency of professionals in the applied design specialties such as planning, visual communication, product development, architecture, fashion, integrated systems design, interaction, service, process, and experience design. Methodologies such as user and human-centered, ethnographic, appropriate technology-driven, performance-driven, and discursive approaches, to name just a few, produce dynamic scripts for tangible and intangible objects, systems, technologies, services, processes, and experiences.

Our common notion of design as a professional domain is itself a product of Modernity. The dignities of Modern industrialization as manifest in the designed world are innumerable, yet they seamlessly envelope us in ways that sometimes prove disastrous (Wilber 196). Modern standards of hygiene, power, security, progress, comfort, and privacy were the pre-conventional and conventional drivers of the designing imagination of the Modern Era. The design professions have thus been instrumental in the delivery and evolution of technology and industrial production. The Luddite Rebellion by British textile workers, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the simultaneous emergence of Romantic leaders like William Morris and John Ruskin constituted an early reaction to the unintended consequences of industrialization, asymmetrical population growth, pollution, urban poverty, and alienation. Morris was an early proponent of craft (proto-industrial design) as a palliative to industrialization (Kemp). Morris, having witnessed the growing ennui of his times and sensing the collapse of the depth and values of the left-hand quadrants, committed the pre-trans error[i] in advocating a return to proto-industrial handicrafts of the Middle Ages. Ironically, with time, Morris influenced a school of thought that wedded designers to service of the luxury market. This tension around how Modernity manifests in the built realm continues the Romantic/Progressive dialectic through present times.

Linear, Fordist logics of assembly line mass production yielded the new professions of industrial designer, graphic designer, and stylist. In these limited early roles, designers were organizational tools relegated to form-giving and superficial aesthetic surface treatments at the back-end of the production process. The role of the designer, circumscribed due to normative professional roles, involved leadership limited to aesthetics and styling (UL) with little integration with other phases of the development process. Guiding assumptions and decisive factors were determined before the designer had any influence. In the post-World War II prosperity this function/form, performance/aesthetics schism reached its epitome in streamlined appliances, cars, and homes which were understood as housings for apparatus.

In the Modern era, the Bauhaus School exemplified the innovative educational embrace of science by design, then positioned as a type of scientific exploration in and of itself. Through the early 1960s, R. Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic structures and Dymaxion car and home concepts still embodied the technocratic utopian vision. Emphasis was on the quantitative and objectifiable right-hand quadrants, on form/objects in space (UR) functional fit within systems of engineered efficiencies (LR). Late Modern design was influenced by systems science and macro-economic theory. The orderly, utopian city was tuned like an engine by experts in Keynesian fashion; however, real life testing by real human users was still a long way off. A decade later, Herbert Simon’s influential work on artificial intelligence and his book, The Sciences of the Artificial, further helped to position design as a type of scientific activity.

Throughout the industrial era into the information age, leadership in design has revolved around fluid shifts of professional identity and role, agency and scope, power and ethics. As the design professions reflected various societal transformations, the designer’s limited role of form-giver eventually yielded to more comprehensive, expanded roles and increasing opportunities for leadership and influence. Designing came to encompass not only beautiful and seductive objects, environments, graphic identities, and imaginary worlds, but also multivalent forms of public communication including graphic user interfaces, human interactions, systems and product platforms, strategies, processes, services, as well as experiences.

The impact of designing for The Good and its ethical dimensions has been a focal discussion of leaders who view the precautionary principle and foresight of both the intended and unintended consequences of a design as part of the designer’s responsibility. Not coincidentally, each has been singled out as targets of criticism. With centers of gravity at Second Tier, such leaders they tend to operate in, but not of, the system.

An iconic case of political design action and advocacy was British design campaign/protest organized by designers First Things First, originally spoken at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and subsequently published in The Guardian and other newspapers. A revised version of the manifesto appeared in newspapers as well as leading consumer advocacy channels like Adbusters in 2000.

The manifesto was a reaction to the staunch society of 1960s Britain and called for a return to a humanist aspect of design. It lashed out against the fast-paced and often trivial productions of mainstream advertising, calling them trivial and time-consuming. (Garland)

By the early 1970s, a very ancient idea re-emerged among speculative design theorists; the proposition that to design is to know and to approach the world in a way quite distinct from that of the sciences and the humanities (Saikaly 2-3) After Plato, many thinkers (Archer, Buchanan, Cross) argue that design is a distinct discipline, a “third area” of knowledge, design, and technology, alongside the sciences and the humanities. Bruce Archer first argued for a “designerly mode of inquiry” (Cross 221-222). Seeking to redirect design education from an instrumental to a values-led ethos satisfying the criteria of a general education, the Royal College of Art conducted a research project, “Design in General Education.” The RCA study found this “third culture” to be that of the technologist, the maker. If numeracy is the language of the sciences and literacy the language of the humanities, it asserted modeling as the language of design. Where the sciences study the natural world and the humanities the human experience, the subject of design is the artificial world. In terms of methodologies, where science rests on validation, classification, and analysis, and the humanities rely on analogy, metaphor, and criticism, design best discloses via the methods of modeling, pattern formation, and synthesis. The values in each of the three cultures named in the RCA study seem to correlate with Wilber’s truth claims of the Big Three, with science oriented toward objective truth, humanities toward justice, and design toward appropriateness (Cross 222-226).

The design professions, as they evolved in relation to society, transcended and included their former more partial roles while still hungry for greater wholeness and more meaningful contributions to society. In integral terms, the RCA study positioned design as The Beautiful (UL), negotiating the demands of The True (UR, LR) and The Good (LL) quadrants with respect to functional fit and justice. In the intervening 50 years, our understanding of design has become much richer. Through an integral lens we see that design necessarily spans and bridges the Big Three. Designing agency is fundamentally the negotiation of tetra-arising phenomena. For this reason, I would assert that designing is by nature integrative, although not necessarily integral theory informed. In his landmark research, design theorist Nigel Cross of Open University expounded on the RCA study via his research on “Designerly Ways of Knowing” (222-224) describing the work of the designer as resting

on the manipulation of non-verbal codes in the material culture; these codes translate “messages” either way between concrete objects and abstract requirements; they facilitate the constructive, solution-focused thinking of the designer, in the same way that other (e.g. verbal and numerical) codes facilitate analytic, problem-focused thinking; they are probably the most effective means of tackling the characteristically ill-defined problems of planning, designing, and inventing new things. (225)

Design research from the 1960s forward has shaped our contemporary understanding of design as a non-linear, non-verbal activity surprisingly appropriate in a complex world. With publications like Limits to Growth, along with the influence of systems theory and ecological economics, the “man-made” environment of design culture was explicitly linked with environmental health and safety. Grasping the disasters of Modernity, the unintended consequences of prosperity, activists advocated for systems views (LR) that would capture externalities and allow one to apprehend the world in a bigger albeit flatland frame. Industrial designer and planner Tomas Maldonado published Design, Nature & Revolution, hailing designers from a rational, socio-political systems vantage point (LR). The influence of disciplines such as psychology, cognitive and behavioral science, systems science, sociology, and engineering yielded important new, mostly right hand, quadrant models for design.

Relativistic Post-modernity and the Information Age increasingly called into question whatever high-art status the designer, as author and tastemaker, may have had. Digital technologies like personal computing and Photoshop hastened this trend by democratizing the tools of the designer’s trade. The products of design in the Postmodern era functioned primarily as signifiers and surfaces but lacked depth. Full conscious awareness of the holarchic, patterned nature of reality was still largely absent.

In the self-reflexive, Postmodern period, the left-hand quadrants, the experiential and cultural aspects of designing, and its impacts began to be researched and theorized in more integral ways, as design researchers consciously attempted to account for and reconcile the various epistemological, hermeneutical, ontological, and methodological aspects of designing. The designer’s vision was further tempered by increasing cognizance of the ongoing impacts of a given design in contingent experiential, environmental, social, political, and cultural realms beyond her control. Design ethnography, and user-centered design, borrowing methods from cultural anthropology, began to emerge in response to a need for the meaning, depth, cultural voice, and values disclosed by qualitative analysis. Social science and technologies studies offer four frames or perspectives for deepening our understanding of human-artifact interactions: “The biography of things, the social shaping of technology, actor network theory, and the ecology of goods” (Buchanan et al., Designed World 10).[ii]

Victor Papanek’s, Design for the Real World, asserted that mitigation of harm was the designer’s responsibility. Calling for a code of ethics analogous to the Hippocratic Oath, he characterized consumerist design as “comparable to what would happen if all medical doctors were to forsake general practice and surgery and concentrate exclusively on dermatology, plastic surgery, and cosmetics” (Whiteley 99).

Slowly but eventually reaching that tipping point in the 1980s, individual designer-leaders at all levels of the product development process were not merely accepting accountability, but in some cases advocating for changes in their industries. In Do Good Design, David Berman, a Canadian visual communications designer, calls for a global professional ethical standard for design professionals. Designers Accord and Architects Without Borders typify newly established professional organizations demanding that designers pledge to uphold ethical standards of conduct, materials specification, and client relations.

Design for the Other 90%, a publication of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Citizen Designer and Design Like You Give a Damn, are  among the many recent book titles pointing to this new social/ humanitarian space for design. Project H Design founder Emily Pilloton’s Design Revolution: 100 Projects that Empower People, similarly challenges designers to step out of predetermined professional roles and participate in demonstrating the power of the designer to make a difference in society. Bruce Mau’s Massive Change is a high-end rhetorical public information campaign that positions design as the face of social change.

Where science tends to be problem-focused, analytical, and deductive, design tends to be synthetic and solution-focused. But what exactly are “designerly ways” of knowing, thinking, and making? Nigel Cross’ term “constructive thinking” has been compared to C.S. Pierce’s definition of abductive reasoning. Various authors (Morello, Cross, Simon, Martin) have characterized design as demonstrative of C.S. Peirce’s abductive reasoning model characterized as guessing in contexts of limited information. My curiosity is piqued as to how an in-depth AQAL analysis of existing research on abductive reasoning might revise the language we use to describe it!

Our inadequate understanding and appreciation for the value of constructive thinking, better known as guessing, can be attributed, according to Cross, to the dominance of other, qualitatively different types of cognition (the formal and operational in Piaget’s terms). Cross asserts that the concrete/iconic (Piaget/Bruner) modes of cognition are highly developed in the designer. Cross suspects that these are not ladder-like developmental stages, but are rather “different kinds of innate human cognitive abilities, all of which can be developed from lower to higher levels” (Cross 225). Although it is unclear whether Cross is familiar with Wilber’s work, his speculations point to individual lines of capacity that may be developed independently of one another throughout life.

Cross’ research seems to point to capacities of design thinking as distinct combinations of developmental lines. Design seems to elicit development of the interpersonal, emotional, ethical, kinesthetic, aesthetic, spiritual, empathic lines. Design involves non-verbal synthesis of ordering principles, or patterns, from within apparent disorder through series of divergent and convergent stages of propositional feedback phases. Its predominant means are sensing, conjecture, proposition, modeling and iteration. Speaking of how designers “read” and “write” in the codes of material culture, Cross quotes from Brian Archer’s essay, “The Mind’s Eye: Not So Much Seeing as Thinking” in reference to a designer’s reliance on cognitive modes of the right hemisphere, stressing non-verbal thought and communication “from ‘graphicacy’ to ‘object languages’, ‘action languages’ and ‘cognitive mapping’”(Cross 227).

Where pattern recognition is an analytic capacity that looks for governing rules, pattern synthesis works heuristically from an instantiated context, via conjecture, toward holonic gestalts. Douglas and Isherwood, while eschewing any possible role for intuition, affirm this code reading proclivity,

For too long a narrow idea of human reasoning has prevailed which only accepts simple induction and deduction as worthy of the name of thinking. But there is a prior and pervasive kind of reasoning that scans a scene and sizes it up, packing into one instant’s survey a process of matching, classifying, and comparing. This is not to invoke a mysterious faculty of intuition or mental association. Metaphoric appreciation, as all the words we have used suggest, is a work of approximate measurement, scaling, and comparison between like and unlike elements in a pattern. (Cross 225)

A key design capacity is sensing of the deep orders, the patterns of nested holarchies within apparent chaos and involution. Depending on worldview and action-logic, this capacity may look like planning, configuration within constraints, synthesis, being the change, pattern, rhetoric, sensemaking, meshworking (Beck, Hamilton) or co-collaborative Presencing (Senge). In The Handbook for Teaching Leadership: Knowing, Doing and Being (Snook et al. 4-5) the authors describe sensemaking as dynamically toggling between right and left brain capacities with a disposition of courage and flexibility. They reference economist Brian Arthur’s gambling casino analogy because it illustrates the need for multiple cognitive capacities to understand the rules that govern the behaviors and probabilities of the game, to discern the patterns at play, while tolerating states of contingency. Problem space comfort and adaptability is in fact a key leadership capacity of the designer because it is inside this process of reframing and reiteration of the “problem” that solutions are actually co-generated.

Nobody wants to be called a design thinker, but everybody wants design thinking. In the last ten years design thinking has gained mainstream visibility, especially in the corporate and business sector. The decoupling of design thinking capacity from typical and narrowly conceived applications, along with widespread adoption of corporate environmental standards and protocols such as Triple Bottom Line, has increased overall awareness of the role of design in strategic “greening” of production and supply chains. This has resulted in a greater demand for post-conventional and finely tailored approaches to leadership and strategy. A number of top schools such as IIT, Parsons the New School for Design, and Columbia University, are launching new Masters of Business Administration in Design (MBAD) programs. This seems to be due, at least in part, to the mainstream recognition of the value and interdisciplinary transferability of pattern synthesis skills having appeal for high action-logic leaders in many fields.

The (The Hasso Plattner Institute Of Design) of Stanford University is a successful hybrid of physical prototyping labs for mechanical engineering and industrial design combined with business administration and strategy. A lean operation, project focused, the ethos is user-centered, humanitarian design. Under Roger Martin’s leadership as Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, design thinking and business strategy are geared toward breakthrough social innovation. The core of Martin’s philosophy is the general educational value of the integrative thinking capacity of the designer and its transfer and adaptation for the business context.

Richard Buchanan, Professor of Design, Management, and Information Systems in the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University is a key contributor to the development of the field of design studies. Buchanan is Past-President of the Design Research Society and co-author of numerous books on design including The Idea of Design. A scholar of noble rhetoric and its applications to purposeful design in contemporary society, Buchanan’s aim is to strategically leverage the authentic organizational potential of design through “collective interactions” in organizational change and reform of management education from the hierarchical and transactional to the interactional and relational. Buchanan argues that as a form of rhetoric, design is best understood as “a new liberal art of industrial and technological culture . . . directed toward the empowerment of individuals in exploring the diverse and common qualities of community experience”(Buchanan et al., Discovering Design xvii).

Design Violence and Design Remediation

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”[iii]

First used in perceptual psychology by James Gibson, the term describes latent action possibilities that can be for good or ill. Yet, the notion that typologies are given rather than made remains a cherished fallacy. As philosopher Thomas Kasulis puts it, culture “teaches” gestalts. To design is to proposition otherwise, to reference and version culture, to put creative or destructive agency into play. As is true of any tool, design may be lent to the service of any values including pre-conventional, conventional, or post-conventional. This is the formidable challenge inherent in designing. Nazi death camps were, from a rational instrumentalist perspective, very well designed to high performance standards, however unthinkable.

In “Ontological Designing – Laying the Ground,” Anne-Marie Willis describes the designing of the world from a hermeneutical perspective based on the work of Heidegger and other philosophers of technology (Ihde, Zimmerman, Mitcham, Fry, Borgmann) who have pointed to the manner in which technology discloses the world as available for use. The disposition of our designed artifacts inscriptively teaches us how to be human and how to relate to matter and to life (UL). Typologies thus function as phenotypes with characteristics that accrue over time and are shaped by, and in turn, inscribe us (LL). This anthropocentric disposition is a great blind spot and cause of catastrophic environmental harm.

Willis’ essay synthesizes key aspects of her work with design theorist Tony Fry. They co-founded the Eco-Design Foundation and later the online peer-reviewed journal Design Philosophy Papers, and Design Philosophy Politics targeting a general audience. Their crucial work, Re-directive Design, stresses the formative and conditioning nature (UL, LL) of the built world and conventional design pedagogy, which Fry terms “education in error” (Fry 140). In his prescient books, Design Futuring, and Design as Politics, Fry articulates strategies for would-be designers of the future including designing-in-time, designing for elimination, platforming, re-coding of typologies and metro-fitting, the designed moving of whole cities in advance of an era he envisions as the age of post-settlement requiring of a new “Urmadic”[iv] (ancient + nomadic) way of living, and being and designing.

The consumption patterns of the developed world and the lifestyles and behaviors that we export have made the distinctions between desires, needs, and wants a matter of global civic concern. Consuming has become a primary way of expressing our human being.  Cultural theorists and design practitioners have long debated whether the “unsustainable” lifestyle of the developed world is in fact designed to be so, either intentionally or unintentionally. As tangible material manifestations, the “objective wing” of The Atman Project (Wilber, Atman Project 125-129), these symptomatic crises actually constitute something closer to collective egoistic suicide.

Albert Borgmann, writing on the philosophy of technology, demonstrates an integrative view of design that includes spirit, equating it with engagement as “the symmetry that links humanity with reality” (Buchanan et al. xvi). Borgmann, in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, argues for supplanting the ubiquitous technological “device paradigm” with “focal things and practices” that bring sustained engagements with the depth and qualitative discernments of the left-hand quadrants. They elicit our relationality, developmental evolution, and integration.

The “disqualified universe”[v] is the unintentional result of unconscious designing agency. This world is a value-free, transactional space where objects exist as glib, superficial signifiers having little depth. Due to the pervasive nature of design, and the prevailing flatland, monological objectification of things, we tend to discount the formative impact of the built environment upon the nested ecologies of body, mind, psyche, and spirit. Yet, from an AQAL perspective, objects are inscriptive non-verbal scripts that we come to know and to see ourselves reflected within.

In a post-conventional approach, marketing consultant and author Augusto Morello hones the distinction between user and consumer, the user being an actor who conceives of products within the context of an individual action project. He envisions design as aiding the common good by means of “an ennobling product culture” (Buchanan et al., Discovering Design 69-76). Envisioning a product culture inscribed with cues that encourage psychological and emotional durability means establishing relationships with our belongings. Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy (Chapman) connects addictive consumer lifestyles void of connection to the scale of our landfill waste. Industrial Designer Gianfranco Zaccai, views designing in psychological terms as a balance of forces among the Super Ego, Ego, and Id (Buchanan et al., Discovering Design 3-12) and offers design injunctions for product, system, and service development that take their cues from the UL quadrant.

Leadership in design often relates to accurate discernment of the structuring logics that govern a given context coupled with the ability to operate on or as the system from Individualist or higher action logic. The ability to skillfully transcend the wasteful, malevolent, or dogmatic, and break through to new possibilities is the way of the integral designer. For the product designer in our oversaturated world, knowing what not to build or knowing what technology or behavior to make redundant is work of the highest order.

In the absence of leadership, designers tend to mistake tangible outcomes for success. Design for Elimination, a high action-logic design methodology that solves for redundancy, is still under-utilized but holds enormous strategic potential for mitigation of harm and reduction of excess. A type of reverse process engineering, Design for Elimination, has potential at all scales including critical concerns such as armaments and nuclear waste. The Dialectic of Sustainment is Tony Fry’s term for being-as-design as the decisive lever of creation and destruction. Designing backwards in time from a vision of a future at risk, we are making time, making a future (Fry, Design Futuring 204).

Former Head of Research at Royal College of Art and founder of Doors of Perception, visionary design leader and author John Thakara published “Make Sense Not Stuff,” an appeal for design educational reform, away from a productivist ethic and towards a values-led ethic. As industrial designer Gianfranco Zaccai puts it

Actual physical form, in many cases, may cease to be the outcome of the design process, which could result, for example, in the elimination of a mostly unnecessary object, or the substitution of a series of electronic signals for a complex mechanical assembly. (Buchanon et al., Discovering Design 10)

Red Herrings and Future Designers

Design can and does “make hope visible,”[vi] but young designers today are dazzled by a glut of glossy and breathless books hyping design as the “it” career while reducing designing to simplistic formulas or serving as promotional vehicles for firms. The potential of design is often lost in a myopic vocational training and the confusing hype around design makes it hard for young designers to extract transferable life principles. They enter the professions faced with the difficult choice of reproducing the tactics of the under-performing green design trend, or developing the skills and courage required to advocate for the kind of transformative shifts in awareness that a truly integral design would engage, and to tailor those designed objects, messages, and experiences to the varying worldviews of clients.

The designer/client relationship imposes a great ethical responsibility on the part of the designer. Designers face a choice to either specify stock “green” solutions that ultimately don’t make a difference (or sometimes worse than taking no action), or to courageously invite clients into an innovative (and risky) co-creative partnership aimed at achieving truly sustainable positive change. Fortunately, designers often excel in human-centered methods such as deep listening, keen observation that discovers unexpressed needs, non-violent communication, and explicit interviewing techniques.

Most working designers still conceive of themselves as form givers. The disaster of contemporary design pedagogy is evidenced in professional designers’ continued enmeshment in the status quo and its unsustainable structures. A conformist perception of the designer’s role as one of driving demand for fabricated wants has tended to relegate designers to the servile or ignoble provision of substitute objects of desire.

“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my very life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”[vii]

Russell L. Ackoff described complex problems as “messes” while the term “Wicked Problem” was coined by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in the context of social planning in 1973. Such “problems” are ill-defined, with multiple, inter-dependent causes and impacts that may be distant in time and/or space. They cannot be “solved” using linear operations. These dynamic conditional spaces that we label “crises” are ever-evolving, having no end-point. These problems worth solving are the sort we most frequently encounter in real life. Contemporary global crises such as hunger, inter-generational conflict, and environmental contamination fit the definition of Wicked but “problem” is an insufficient framing. Design thinking, being dynamically iterative, has evolved in creative response to our collective stage of evolution. Where science is problem-focused, design thinking is solution focused. Design thinking is a disposition toward continuous testing, iteration, and synthesis that allows creative reframes to emerge from the process itself.

High functioning means holding this problem space of contingency. Courage, hope, compassion, and resistance to distancing in apathy and futility are key. Designing is very complementary to integral leadership development and to scalar change in general.

Image courtesy of IA Collaborative

Design is now emerging as a mature discipline capable of contributing to and being enriched by other disciplines, and as might be expected from a dynamically iterative, process-discipline, the nature and identity of design is constantly being reinvented.

Design processes consist of divergent-convergent feedback loops, so contributions of design tend to be most profound on the front-end of the process where decisive framings occur. The best design thinking methodologies yield profound reframes, often by inclusion of human wellness factors or longer timeframes that anticipate the needs of future generations, or keen contextual discernments that nurture the thriving of all life.

Opportunities Afforded by High-Stakes Challenges

Designers are tolerant of complexity and of working within the contingent contexts of complex problems. Climate change is the crisis of our era, a mirror on our collective consciousness, and a problem space ideally suited to design thinking. As has been noted (Hulme xxvi) such crises are usually publically framed in ways that create fragmentation, divisiveness, and lose/lose scenarios. These problem framings begin with flawed assumptions and tend to magnify and distort differences between worldviews. Species Extinction and Climate Change are two arenas of crisis wherein design thinking could play a more decisive role in altogether reframing of the problem. The Climate Change debate and the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol are examples of processes wherein design-informed integral perspective taking is urgently needed.

Corporate Social Responsibility, Humanitarian Design, Social Innovation, or Social Entrepreneurship? What we call it may depend on our worldview. Global Warming or Climate Change? Are we seeing chaos and failure of the sustainability movement? Or just different responses to a message that needs more sophisticated tuning? Green Design, Eco-Efficiency, and Sustainability are three different ways of describing a change platform as resonant with the values of different worldviews. Because adoption and incorporation into daily life (inscriptive behavioral change is the observable UR dimension of transformative insight), a key aspect of successful design is correlation of the designed artifact with the felt needs and values of the user.

Worldviews and action logics serve as helpful lenses, especially in brief general assessments such as what follows. Rather than assessments of the developmental lines and levels, or even action logics of individuals, the categorizations below are based strictly on the public impact of the designed artifacts put into play by these leaders. I am concerned only with the inscriptive force of their designs and the manner in which they are deployed in language, time-based, or material codes. In other words, not what the design is, but what the design does. Due to our inability to perceive the nuances of action logics above our own, it seems that in general, the designed artifacts of a given action logic appear to be most compelling to audiences/users/consumers of the same worldview or below, although I did find exceptions, and more research is certainly needed.


In “Design Thinking Comes to the US Army,” Roger Martin of The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management reported on the adoption of design thinking for core operations. As of 2010, the German Armed Forces had followed suit by fully integrating design thinking into its operational core. Design thinking influenced the very structure of the “New Army Field Manual FM 5-0, The Operations Process,” published under the supervision of Colonel Stefen J. Banach, U.S. Army. The five documents that were approved for public release are authoritative, erudite, and concise. They evidence a subtle, comprehensive grasp of design theories. In Expert/Achiever language, the reports inspire unwavering confidence in the value of design in tactical and strategic operations. The tacit message seems to be geared toward retaining the advantage by all available means necessary, especially well-articulated procedural means.

Where merely complicated systems require mostly deduction and analysis (formal logic of breaking into parts), complexity requires inductive and abductive reasoning for diagnostics and synthesis (the informal logic of making new wholes of parts),” which in turn “implies a new intellectual culture that balances design and planning while evincing an appreciation for the dynamic flow of human factors and a bias toward perpetual learning and adapting. (Banach 3).

At the intersection of design and policy, Elisabeth (Dori) Tunstall heads of the U.S. Design Policy Initiative geared toward raising mainstream civic awareness of the value of design. “Redesigning America’s Future” was published as part of the 2008 U.S. Design Policy Summit held in Washington D.C. to leverage national awareness of the power of design in governance, for competitive business advantage and to advance benefits to society at large. This included Achiever language directed to a nation-state with content related to safety, innovation, competitive advantage, America’s future, America’s ingenuity legacy, and America’s track record of entrepreneurial success.

EXPERT/ACHIEVER – Inscriptions, Language and Codes

The functionalist, efficient, and transaction-driven vantage point of the Expert/Achiever worldview excels within the system and its rules, retaining controlling interest in the built environment, and prioritizes industrial product platforms. The designer’s inputs would be seen as a strategic component that adds value and differentiation in the market, helping to avoid commoditization. A rock star architect raises the investment value and naming opportunities of a property, for example. Or, as in Daniel Pink’s Drive, intrinsic motivations are harnessed for their profitability.

This action logic takes a leveraged approach aiming to influence billions of dollars of purchase orders to speed changes to whole industry segments. Contracts with transnational corporations, national governments, or international organizations to effect large-scale change, are on Achiever agendas. All are fluent in the skillful means of the Diplomat/Expert/Achiever. They are able to negotiate the contingencies of the present while envisioning future consequences and possibilities for health, well-being, and prosperity.

The Conscientious Achiever-centered slogan, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” proved too partial to inspire sustained compliance even from the conformist populations. Architect William McDunough and Biologist Michael Braungart first described what they call The New Industrial Revolution in Cradle to Cradle. McDunough Braungarten Design Chemistry (MBDC) takes a top-down approach, developing long-term relationships with Ford Motor Company and other TNCs, and numerous regional-scale initiatives in partnership with the Chinese government among others. McDunough’s “Waste Equals Food” and “Waste is Obsolete” slogans land powerfully with the Expert/Achiever. Coming from the standpoint that how we make things is antiquated, their message is incredibly powerful with the kind of industrial game-changing power demonstrated by the late Ray Anderson at Interface FLOR.

As the design entrepreneur exemplar of our time, there is so much to say about Steve Jobs’ leadership of Apple and its varied inscriptive designing impact. Leaving the complex appreciations of the late genius Steve Jobs aside and speaking about Apple more generally, I feel that on balance the Apple brand lands in the culture at Expert/Achiever. The brand identity, product aesthetics, and architectures of the product platforms, as well as the production logics are squarely, reductively, and timelessly at Orange, yet with a wink. Minimalist, modern, clean, modular, neutral, but with an unexpected, vital, sexy animated quality typified by the iconic “breathing” Apple sleep indicator LED (Magenta). Innovative marketing strategies famously driving consumption for the next generation of product in fetishistic or even cultish manner seem a unique hybrid of (Magenta + Orange) the “special sauce” of the Apple brand identity. The impact, scale, and influence of the production model, especially in terms of materials specification, packaging standards, and global manufacturing and labor impacts, although highly intelligent and innovative for our times, have inscribed the planetary ecology as a kind of “shadow” aspect of the designing agency of Apple corporation. Because of the inscriptive power, recognition, and influence of the Apple brand, this functions as a kind of industrial shadow phenotype, normative of protocols for the entire industry in the future.

INDIVIDUALIST and STRATEGIST – Inscriptions, Language and Codes

The relativistic Individualist values contextual thinking, flexibility, social progress going beyond the purely transactional or allopathic, to embrace ethical challenges, user-centered, humanitarian, and social design approaches. The work of this action logic has been transformative in the re-design of product platforms, systems, and services for the healthcare and educational reform process. As would be expected, a predominance of sustainability design leaders can be considered together in this group given their use of Individualist/Strategist-oriented values.

Humanitarian and Social Design includes all the emerging human-centered approaches to design oriented toward understanding of the multiple contexts of use (LL, LR) and user experience (UL). Collaborative, relativistic, and pluralistic, this group is demonstrating a concern for justice, they excel in working on, making an object of, the system as a whole or wholes, and its operations. Tim Brown’s Change By Design describes how IDEO developed its global brand presence. IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit is distributed free through a Creative Commons license.[viii]

Design historian, educator, and humanitarian, Victor Margolin, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, Chicago, as founding editor of Design Issues, has made a tremendous leadership contribution in the study of human-product relationships. He coined the term “product milieu” (Margolin 45) to describe the dynamic social space created by active agents including designers but also users and other stakeholders in the LL and LR quadrants influenced especially by cultural studies and sociology. A sociological and social service orientation sensitively grounds Margolin’s leadership in relational, situational perspective taking. Anticipating the democratization of design tools from Photoshop to Steam punk, Margolin positions design as a proto-hacking culture, “the project of living is also a project of design.” (Buchanan et al., Discovering Design 121-145)

Influential designer, educator, and theorist Ezio Manzini of Milan Polytechnic has developed successful design for sustainability methodologies under the rubric of Scenario Design. Centered primarily in the lower right and left quadrants; systems theory, biology and economics, behavioral science and behavioral economics, as well as sociology and cultural theory, Manzini has developed, tested, and documented thousands of “Cosmopolitan Localism” scenarios stressing the performative dimension of the designed world through storytelling, choreography, convening, and collaborating. His injunctions for designers: “read the signals,” “get the story” and “cue the user” – interpret the patterns and respond with compelling, contextually apt affordances. Manzini (with Carlo Vezzoli) published the UNEP Division of Technology, Industry and Economics pamphlet “Product-Service Systems and Sustainability: Opportunities for Sustainable Solutions.” It details the outcomes of design scenarios conducted through his organization DESIS, at Milan Polytechnic and with partner schools in Brazil, China, and India and makes a mainstream Expert-Individualist case for win/win lifestyle scenarios of the future. His “Prometheus of the Everyday” and “Systems Capable of Evolving remain influential essays addressing diversity, redundancy, and resiliency in relation to design for sustainable living systems.

Design Collaboration (photo by Chen Yong Peng)

On the theme of access for all, Project H Design has built their brand on leapfrog technologies. Being a new start-up, they stand on the shoulders of the research of others, always on the lookout for designs that can be optimized via retrofitting or process integrations. They redesigned the Hippo Water Roller, a water storage and porting device originally designed by South African engineers Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker. Project H Design redesigned not the performance of the ingeniously simple barrel with handle but rather they rethought the workflow for production of the plastic barrel and organized distributed networks for the molding operations thus reducing transport costs. As a result of this design reiteration, Hippo Roller became affordable for those families that needed it. UNICEF is currently studying the efficacy of their large-scale distribution in Namibia.

Project H Studio has been designing transformative new models for public high school education in collaborative partnership with their teenaged students in forgotten, poverty-riddled Bertie County, North Carolina.

Social Entrepreneurship and Disruptive Innovation demonstrates great synergy between problem-focused, convergent thinking of the engineer (UR, LR), and the divergent and synthetic thinking of the designer. Breakthrough innovations surely also require preparedness, trusting intuition, and validation, as well as testing and refinement. Only a few of the following social innovators are trained as designers.

Janine Benyus is a science writer and educator who exemplifies a designing mind in science. Benyus’ key contribution was to grasp the opportunity and popularize the ideas of biomimetics for a broader audience including designers and architects in her book, Biomimicry: Design Inspired by Nature. She is thus a key figure in the emerging field of biomimicry. Founder of the Biomimicry Institute, she is developing a massive interdisciplinary translation project, the Biomimicry Design Portal, a public-domain resource that will cross-categorize biological data according to function for ease of accessibility and collaboration by engineers and designers enabling knowledge sharing and catalytic collaboration formerly impossible. The potential benefits of Benyus’ work are beyond our capability to imagine.

Sugata Mitra’s Hole-in-the Wall experiment is an example of design thinking in the deployment of educational technologies. Mitra’s research on learning styles has resulted in delightfully successful child-driven educational experiences and also breakthrough disruptive innovations that make technology accessible to the rural poor. Keen empathic understanding of how children’s needs differ (UL) and places differ (LL) combined with appropriate technologies that accommodate to patterns of behavior (UR, LR) raises IT deployment to a virtuoso level of skillful means, raising the standard of expectation.

Paul Polak’s Out of Poverty and the late C. K. Pralahad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid have taken hybrid innovation for The Good one step further by conceiving of disruptive business models that treat the poor as co-collaborative partner-stakeholders. C.K. Pralahad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid controversially linked frugal engineering with user collaborative design and innovation, plus profits.

MP Ranjan, Independent Academic, founder, Design for India, Ahmedabad. Governing Council of the IICD, Jaipur, Professor Emeritus of National Institute of Design – Ranjan is a global pacesetter in catalytic social design, policy design, and educational reform. Innovating in local enterprise, renewable resource, and crafts synergy, available technologies, inclusive design, a highly influential thought leader and teacher of teachers.

Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child initiative. The wide disparity between criticism and praise perhaps says more about how the project goals were messaged and received by the various worldviews that constitute the general public than the project itself. Because these factors are dynamically influential, however, public criticism will continue to co-shape the outcomes of the third version of OLPC. Humanitarian design in the “developing world”, like humanitarian aid, is controversial and requires a high level of consciousness in action. In this arena the most powerful and effective design interventions exhibit respect, inclusivity, empathy, contextual awareness, and transparent power relations.

Mohammed Bah Abba, a Nigerian engineer, won the ROLEX Award for Enterprise in 2000 for his redesign of the zeer: a type of evaporative food cooler, basically a double-walled style of clay thermos used for centuries in hot climates, for use in contemporary Nigeria. Hailing from a family of ceramic potters, Bah Abba earned all his degrees in engineering. Returning to his birthplace he observed the arduous daily process involved in gathering and preparing fresh vegetables. This inspired him to update an appropriate technology for modern use and he was resourceful enough to embed full integration of locally sourced clay and labor into his concept. The comprehensive sustainability of his scheme would have been enough to illustrate the genius combination of empathic observation and a prepared mind. But the astounding beauty of the Pot-in-Pot Cooler is not that it keeps fresh vegetables fresh for a number of days, or that it engages local enterprise and resources sustainably, but that it does all that while enabling a whole generation of young women to attend school for the first time instead of porting food. Bah Abba readied the concept for the market by means of a Shell Award for Sustainable Development in 2001.

MAGICIAN and IRONIST – Inscription, Language and Codes

From the perspective of this worldview, the design leader merges with and becomes the system and often innovates in the creation of conditions by which the system can transform. In a process of designing-as-becoming, so-called “unsustainability” is understood as a collective design, compassionately held as a mirror of collective consciousness. These leaders share the ability to hold the tensions and complexities of the present while sensing into the emergent future. They have a transpersonal set of motivating visions from which they motivate others. These initiatives inspire the heart-mind while engaging audacious regional and global-scale social, economic, and ecological change.

G.K. Van Patter is transforming transformation. He innovates in the intangible, human, and organizationally centered design arena. Co-founder of Humantific and the NextDesign Leadership Institute, he heads a Global Sense-Making and Change-Making consultancy. Drawing on cognitive science (LR) but then integrating meaning-making with the relational (LL) and human-centered (UL) capacities of design thinking, Van Patter is prototyping new dispositions toward change for clients and organizations. Interestingly, Van Patter characterizes contemporary design in the United States as retrograde, operating nearly exclusively in product and service design.

We recognize that many challenges facing organizations, societies and ultimately planet earth cannot be solved by creating more products and services. At Humantific, we are already working on the other side of that realization that is rapidly emerging in the global marketplace. Our human-centered work includes innovation research, strategy co-creation, visual sensemaking and cross-disciplinary innovation skill-building. (Van Patter)

Integral architect and educator Mark DeKay, in his impressive new book entitled Integral Sustainable Design (DeKay 239-240) explicates the career contributions of Sim Van der Ryn architect and author of Ecological Design and Design for Life, as exemplar of integral thinking in design, noting his synthetic sensibility. “The grand project of Integral Level Sustainable Design is the synthesis of cultural and natural orders, interpenetrating, as reflective of a singular underlying structure revealed paradoxically through many views” (DeKay 390). DeKay also notes the high action-logic evidenced in the extraordinary master of nested order, Christopher Alexander and his visionary A Pattern Language:

Because the theory of pattern languages is the only truly process-based theory of building, it is possibly the design theory with the most potential as the basis of an ecological architecture, and perhaps also as a major aspect of Integral Sustainable Design Theory. (DeKay 296).

Also influenced by systems science as well as permaculture, visionary eco-entrepreneur and adaptive leader Gunter Pauli is the architect of The Blue Economy, founder of ZERI (Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives). Although not a designer per se, he is a powerful exemplar-maker. Pauli has designed and tested industrial ecology adjacencies based on principles of permaculture at functional scale. Pauli is keenly interested in the long view and in cultivating leadership of the future. His magical sustainability parables, written for youngsters, have been translated into many languages. Transcending and including relativistic Green to the Teal or higher mass requires structural change making exemplified in the concise yet weighty message of his Blue Economy animation for YouTube. Building on the work of visionary colleagues like Lester Brown, Amory, and Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken, Gunter Pauli has led corporate sustainability initiatives at Daimler-Chrysler and Seventh Generation, and contracted with the governments of Japan, Columbia, Namibia and Fiji Islands, among others. His book Upsizing is fundamentally optimistic and reflective of a vast transpersonal vision. His Regenerative Design initiatives are concrete and experimentally iterative, having evolved constantly in response to global changes. His industrial ecology prototypes will continue to yield data to be further expanded upon by future collaborators in an open global network of shared research.

Industrial designer Tufan Orel synthesizes interdisciplinary findings of design, marketing, psychology, and sociology in defining “a new product category which he calls “vital self technologies,” wherein care of the self and human well-being take precedence over convenience, speed, or price point” (Buchanon et al., Discovering Design 77-104). Prominent Italian industrial designer Gianfranco Zaccai, like renowned architect Christopher Alexander, also redirects our consciousness to the soul-deadening or soul- enlivening affordances of artifacts, spaces, and protocols (Buchanan et al. 3-12). All are advocates for a new breed of industrial design that figure and enhance our energetic and sacred connection to life.

Co-creative design intelligence applied from a global transpersonal perspective is a human potential more than an actuality at present. As members of complex relational hierarchies, designer actors, professional or otherwise, can demonstrate that even the subtlest of our impacts matters. Design is visionary, focused collective world making, the making of thriving cultures by means of caring artifice. We are the process; the being and the becoming of care.

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[i] see pre/trans fallacy in Wilber, Ken. Introduction to the third volume of The Collected Works of Ken Wilber. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc., Web.

[ii] Pantzar, Mika in Buchanan et al. Designed World, The. p. 10

[iii] J. Robert Oppenheimer, Trinity Test, White Sands Proving Ground, 1945.

[iv] Fry, Tony. Urmadic University from “Design Action, Leadership and the Future”

[v] Mumford , in Wilber, Brief History of Everything 194

[vi] Brian Collins, former head of brand innovation at Ogilvy & Mather.

[vii] Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841 -1935)


About the Author

Lisa Norton, Professor, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects. Professionally she consults with educational organizations, facilitates organizational development and integration of design thinking in the US and Asia. She teaches ethical practice geared toward leadership and change in the design educational and professional contexts. Courses include Design Denied: The Withholding of Good Design and Its Ethical Implications, on social justice and applied ethics in the built environment; Economies of Sustainable Practice, on the inextricable relationships between design for environmental sustainment and economics, Design for Exchange, on aspects of relational exchange, interaction and transaction, and Design Advocacy, on development of platforms for making change designs actionable.