Integral Design Leadership: Personal Introduction

Column / August 2012

Lisa Norton

“Changing, it rests.” -Heraclitus

Lisa Norton

Lisa Norton

When Russ Volckmann posted an invitation to write about design thinking for ILR on a LinkedIn forum, I jumped at the chance. In this introduction, I’ve shared some of my background through stories from life and work. As I begin this column I am hoping that my contributions to Integral Leadership Review will provide a means of interpreting design thinking case studies from an integral perspective, profiling the work of some remarkable firms, and most importantly, developing a space for us to dialogue and develop useful tools.

Part of the appeal of design is its changing definition. Understood as configuration within constraints, design actively models how change happens. As human intentionality made actionable, design can be understood as problem boundary framing and process development. As an instrument of conscious group and systemic change, design, has awesome leadership potential. Too often however, the agentive power of designing is hidden in plain sight as background to the foreground complex of interrelated global Wicked Problems. The crises of our times are the unintended consequences, relationally issued forth, by our collective modeling, being and making. Recognizing and creatively playing in this field of human causality is a learning edge for integral leaders.

Seeking to understand what integralists think not just as individuals but “how we think and how we do” with emphasis on the dialogical and collaborative WE, Russ Volckmann quoted Peter H. Jones in ILR,

“Design thinking is different from systems thinking, at least because the actions of designing that we draw the practice from are tangible ways of knowing and working. Designing is an action-first methodology (dialogue, prototyping) that people in business professions can witness and experience. Systems thinking is abstract in action and representation, and is a concept-first type of cognitive behavior. This is a bigger difference than we might believe. It is the difference between (abstract) belief and (embodied) knowing (Volckmann, 2009).

As the iterative and qualitative how of process innovation, integral design configurations are inclusive, empathic, transparent and contextually aware. Integral design configurations yield profound AQAL reframes, often by means of comprehensive contextual analyses. How would an integral design thinking re-claim responsibility for the built environment? Going beyond conventional planning, non-linear and co-creative ‘post-problem solving’ design methods are transformative in the re-direction of product platforms, systems, processes and services where leading edge solutions transcend and include the purely transactional.

Back in 1991, two years into my first academic appointment at New Mexico State University, I suddenly found myself in a hospital bed in the Cleveland Clinic recovering from surgery for removal of a stage IA ovarian cancer. I now look back on that surreal whirlwind as the most cherished experience of my life in that it sharpened the taste of everything, revealed what is at stake for my life, and reshaped all my life goals. I regained my ability to connect to life with gratitude, a mystical knowing I had as a child, but with an altogether new sense of devotion. Like Alfonso Montuori I have always been a seeker, playing many professional roles — primarily artist, designer, collaborator, colleague, student, educator, administrator, facilitator and consultant. A lover of change itself, I saw each as a process of discovery but not a destination. I hold the BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art and the MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. Like Mark McCaslin, I started out in the shop, doing via the body-embedded tacit knowledge of metalsmithing. Processes like calligraphy and ancient hammering techniques were my entre into the world of cultural production and embodied methods remain a touchstone for me today.

I teach applied ethics of design practice and philosophy of design for sustainability at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), a leading interdisciplinary and trans-media school of art and design where undergraduates declare no majors. Starting in 1991, I taught in the Department of Sculpture, but almost immediately faced the realization that my goals could not be attained within the art world system. Always reading voraciously in critical theory, philosophy and spirituality yet still in search of ‘it’, by 1993 I had already started the long process of shifting my teaching, my practice, and my departmental affiliations from studio art into object and system design. After co-developing and co-founding a new program, I migrated into the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects, in order to engage what I saw as the greater potential of design to engage and mediate social, ethical, economic and psychological relationships.

As any art teacher knows, art cannot be taught. My primary role is to hold the space wherein each student may enact his or her unique brilliance. Objective educational goals include changing existing orthodoxies in design education and articulation of the opportunity for design practice to re-direct the objects, systems and structures of our world toward more caring ones. I currently teach Design Denied: The Withholding of Good Design and Its Ethical Implications, an undergraduate seminar on applied ethics in the built environment; Economies of Sustainable Practice, a graduate seminar on relationships, sustainability and economies, and Design Advocacy, an undergraduate seminar on development of innovative design platforms.

I have always been fascinated with innovations in material and tacit know-how.

My background in the fine arts with research expertise in craft practices and cultural innovation has allowed me to explore topics ranging from traditional ethnic practices to Martha Stewart Living, drawing me again and again through various lenses, to the intersection of craft, technology and place. My indispensible life practices likewise allow the same. They include meditation, journaling, dancing, cooking and fermenting foods, listening to experimental jazz and biking. I practice various forms of somatic and energy work for wellness and personal development. These include Reiki and other no-touch therapies and training of the clairvoyant and other faculties of psychic awareness.

Art historian Lothar Ledderose, in his Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art describes Chinese cultural production as a nimble sensitivity to complex modular systems design whether in language, cuisine or city planning.

Innovation in general and Chinese culture in particular have been a lifelong fascination. Acting on an unexpected opportunity, I ended up living my dream of an extended research leave to work between Xiamen City in southeastern Fujian Province and Beijing. Starting in 1999, and through the period of the SARS epidemic just prior to the Beijing Olympic Games I was a full-time student of Mandarin while occupying myself otherwise with ethnographic study of the informal diffusion of local craft practices that resulted from mass migration of workers from the Western provinces to the coastal cities during that time of extreme economic growth. In China, where the sweep of history feels long, and dynamic novelty is valued above all things, I studied these flows of informal know-how of the vernacular trade specialties with a view toward understanding situated ways and means that point to sustainable lifestyle patterns.

Having grown up in post-industrial ‘rust belt’ Cleveland, Ohio where the polluted Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969, I witnessed and related to the dignities as well as the disasters resulting from the deep transitions unfolding in the explosive growth hastened by Deng Xiao Ping’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. China was and is simultaneously Imperial, Traditional, Modern and Postmodern. It seemed as if every time I found the most amazing acupuncturist or Pockmarked Grandma’s Tofu dish (麻婆豆腐), I’d return back some weeks later and that doctor’s office or restaurant would have been unceremoniously demolished along with its entire city block.

mapo doufu

Mapo Doufu

Due to my ongoing interest in the societal changes occurring as a result of especially rapid change, I continue long-term curricular consulting with educational organizations in Asia on a range of projects in education and hybrid enterprise mostly because I continue to learn so much from China and its diaspora. For three years I served as International Advisor to Ch’An Buddhist monastery, Dharma Drum, in Taipei, Taiwan, as they prepared to launch a new graduate school dedicated to project-based action research in the context of an ecumenical, contemplative education. I helped to shape the integrally informed vision for a curriculum in non-violent design, as well as coordinating the integration of curricula of four colleges: Life and Ethics, Environment, Arts and Culture, and Social Entrepreneurship. As it turned out, the launch was terminated, but the dynamic process and team synergy made it a worthwhile effort nevertheless.

In a very different consulting project, a curricular incubator of Xiamen University P.R. China, was charged with development of divergent educational approaches appropriate for the Chinese educational context and if successful, scalable. A key objective of this initiative was development of curricular prototypes for creative collaborations between ‘math and science’ and ‘arts and culture’ cohorts typically segregated at high-school level. My role involved facilitation of local faculty-driven curricular development for a new program in design thinking localized for South China. Another component of this project related a partnership with nearby Zhangzhou Municipality based on innovation, cultivation of sustainable eco-tourism and renewable urban cultural futures.

Since that time I have assisted with various community-level cooperative design and entrepreneurship initiatives to facilitate resourceful responses to globalization. One project involved a cultural industries model for development to extend the knowledge base of a stone carving community in Fujian Province. I feel so fortunate to have had direct encounters with the ‘Three T’s’, Tibet, Tiananmen and Taiwan. I have had the opportunity in both China and Taiwan to engage with representatives of a full spectrum of economic and regional ethnicities, from esteemed scientists and academics to entrepreneurs to NGO volunteers, migrant laborers and students in settings ranging from public art projects to earthquake relief in Chengdu. I remain interested in the multi-directional flows of knowledge between the developed world and countries like India, Africa and China that represent a heterogeneous mix inclusive and reflective of the full spiral of worldviews and lifestyles. From a sustainability perspective, diverse practices of daily life are living systems holding the potential for innovations retrieved from situated praxis and coupled with visionary futuring.

Design, as the conscious human willing to create and destroy, necessitates constant management of the instrumental-substantive polarity. The tools and processes over which we have choice, as well as their situated and multivalent consequences disclose the fact that civilization is not solid but rather fluid, and the world can be otherwise. Design can cohere community and establish a sense of place, or produce fragmentation and alienation. How might a post-conventional designing agency model change platforms for our emergent future? Whether in the guise of city planning, technological interfaces or process models, designs tetra-arise in situated reciprocity with historical, interpersonal, experiential, economic and behavioral circumstances. As a pattern and process language that can conceal or reveal the patterns that connect, design discloses the world of artifacts as contingent.

The Experience Economy, Wired to Care, and Emotionally Durable Design are titles of three books representing a trend that has captured the imaginations of designers who wish to re-enchant the lived experience by means of heightening awareness of our sacred role in unitive world-making. Emergent realms of designing such as experience design are highly relational, requiring empathic resonance with the subject in space and time.

Design is sense-making — reading and writing in the codes of a given cultural context. As an action methodology, design gives us the capacity to put forward new propositions about our world, to give form to civic debates, to test correlations between edifices and values, and to produce new levels of care and coherence in behavioral and lifestyle domains. Yet the most skillful design methodologies amount to nothing without conscious, heart-centered strategic intention. This is where design dovetails with integral thinking. Design and Integral Theory are synergistically complementary. Integral Theory, in its fluid embrace of everything without reduction, has enabled me to appreciate the collaborative role of designing agency in prototyping any problem worth solving. Anything is possible at the intersection of post-conventional leadership and design thinking. The question becomes why and where. Globally, what key acupuncture points are most skillful in an AQAL sense, and how shall we act now? And now? I look forward to the opportunity to interpret some of the best design thinking through an integral perspective in Integral Design Leadership.


Chapman, J. (2005). Emotionally Durable Design; Objects, Experiences and Empathy. London: Earthscan /James & James Science Publishers.

Ledderose, L. (2001). Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art.Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Patnaik, D. (2009). Wired to Care. Upper Saddle River NJ: FT Press,

Pine II, J. and  Gilmore, J, Editors (1999). The Experience Economy. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Volckmann, R. (2009). “CODA: Integral Thinking”, Integral Leadership Review. August.  Web URL:

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 on development and change in the design educational and professional contexts.