Workshop "Research Through Design in Situ" at the DIS 2020 More Than Human Centred Design

We have participated at the DIS 2020 Conference which had the topic "More than human centred design". In the workshop "Research Through Design in Situ: Discussing the Domains and Impact of Design Research" we presented the theoretical framework of 'Reconfiguring Artefacts'.

With the title "This is a design imaginary" the extended abstract sought to provoke a discussion on the research foundations of design. It was a lively debate and we enjoyed the exchange.


I propose to research design as the object of research. We may as well start with researching ourselves, the designers and our practices, as we acknowledge that methods and research objects constitute each other, just as material worlds and our imaginations reconfigure each other. I draw on 15 years of design practice to argue that the thorny issues of the world can be tackled by a design (research) that is an epistemological device, sensitive to itself changing in practice alongside the issues it is tackling.

Read the extended abstract: This is a design imaginary - DIS Extended abstract

Design as a speculative process

We spent a day with Marianne Pührerfellner exploring design fiction (Bleeker, 2009) and how it might help us in the design process.

Using fiction to think about the future sounds more unusual than it is. Fiction is present in everyday life: We see the example of NASA taking carefully curated human data records to space (on gold plated disks) with the vision that they might be picked up by life in another dimension of time or space (1). Also, in film and TV the future is a common trope, with examples such as video phoning in Metropolis (2), gesture-based interactions in Minority Report (3), or artificially intelligent cars in Night Rider (4).

Design fiction is a tool that offers a new perspective on the future, giving us the space to generate awareness, raise concerns or challenge values about social or technological developments (Pührerfellner, 2020). The Globes, 2019, is a project by Dunne and Raby, showing all the possible and impossible shapes of the Earth as a planet, reminding us, and illustrating that there is more than one concept to explain our world. It reveals design as a tool to inquire and open up our views on the world. (5)
In contrast to traditional ways of analysing and projecting futures, design fiction offers a broader context. Through developing speculative objects, we are able to enlarge the space of alternative contexts and possible futures enormously.

In our workshop, we used the tool “The Thing from the Future” to explore this way of designing (Candy and Watson, 2015). The Thing from the Future is an imagination game, which guides designers by setting certain parameters towards coming up with their alternative futures. The parameters are set out to give constraints about the ARC of trajectories of the future (will it grow, collapse, be ordered and disciplined, or transformed), a TERRAIN describing the contextual landscape, a particular OBJECT the designer should focus on, and the MOOD that describes the experience of that future.

Design fiction was a fantastic instrument to explore design and its capacities.


Bleeker, J. (2009). Design fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction. Near future laboratory, 29.
Candy, Stuart and Watson, Jeff. (2015). The thing from the future. Accessed at
Pührerfellner, Marianne. (2020). Design fiction, Workshop MxD @ New Design University.


Design as a strategy of organisational reconfiguration

James Box supported Management by Design (MxD) in exploring design as a method. The following text is based on the workshop with James and students and teachers from MxD.

As a design practitioner and consultant, James has been thinking about design as a “learnable, repeatable, scalable” process (Box, 2020), that organisations can adopt in order to stay viable, and to even thrive on the challenges of changing conditions.

Design has long been held responsible for the novel and the innovative and it has been romanticised as the skill of genius, or as a special leadership skill. However, aspects of serendipity and practical tinkering are also part of the characterisation of design. Just how design really works remains mysterious (Kolko, 2011).

In his talk on “Venture design”, James describes design as a toolkit for successful innovation by organisations. Venture Design is a method which he uses in design practice. It combines design & entrepreneurship to quickly identify and capture viable market opportunities (Box, 2020). It leans on several established areas of design – Design thinking, Lean Startup, Agile Product Development. As a method it seeks to achieve “preferable futures” by design.

Design as a reconfigurable posture

James refers to Rita McGrath, who writes on “transient advantage” as the modern, fleeting remains of what was formerly called “competitive advantage” in organisational strategy. Because of uncertain societal and environmental factors, she argues, it is not possible anymore to stick to a strategy that is adopted once and then may lead to continued successful initiatives. Instead, it is necessary to work with “transience" and to create an organisational approach that systematically reacts to “amorphous” conditions.

“Often, the very success of the initiative spawns competition, weakening the advantage. So the firm has to reconfigure what it’s doing to keep the advantage fresh. For reconfigurations, a firm needs people who aren’t afraid to radically rethink business models or resources.” (McGrath, 2013)

This quote emphasises “reconfiguration” as an important concept in dealing with change. If changing conditions require continuously adapted responses, the ability to reconfigure oneself, alongside the changing conditions, is the key to adapting successfully. Reconfiguration is the ongoing renewing of one’s position in relation to new conditions.

There is an opportunity to think of change as an ongoing condition of an organisation. Change is a permanent state. Design would then be the posture to adopt as an organisation in order to remain reconfigurable. As requirements change, with design as a posture, the organisation can be reconfigured. Innovative postures are reconfigurable - they are responsive to changing conditions.

Design provocations as the material of innovation

Through a reconfigurable posture, the organisation can remain open for change and innovation. But how to meaningfully participate in reconfiguring change? James uses concepts, drawings, or the business model canvas as “provocations for preferable futures” (Box, 2020). These provocations are representations of innovative ideas which invoke change. It is not unusual to use conceptual materials in design innovation. But here these materials are not treated as a mere ‘representation’ of the innovation, like a well-defined production plan, but it is understood as the idea-generating tool itself. The conceptual provocation is the active impulse for innovation within the reconfiguring process unfolding, in which the organisation itself is reconfigured and changed. “Provocations for preferable futures” are not the representations of innovation, but the very material that makes innovation.

The nature of innovating that this workshop inspires, uses the material of provocations and the posture of reconfiguration in order to be and stay innovative as an organisation.


Box, James. (2020). Venture Design, Workshop MxD @ New Design University.
Kolko, Jon. (2011). Exposing the Magic of Design. New York: Oxford University Press.
McGrath, Rita. (2013). Transient Advantage, /2013/06/transient-advantage.

The hybrid presence of mapping: From individual to shared imagination, and from fluid activity to material object

Mapping is a technique in design and innovation management, which can be used by teams collaboratively. It is a device that allows teams to get from one place to another place, while pointing the way. In design practice, maps can have a variety of shapes and formats, for example, a map can exist on a wall as post it notes, or it can exist digitally on a digital board such as Miro.

The map allows a team to negotiate a design space, and it is a means to innovate together within this space. The map is an artefact that facilitates shared understanding through visualising practices, activities and tasks that are sought to be innovated. It is a visualisation of the design space and of the design ideas within it.

In the collaborative work of visualising, the map takes shape, and continues to change shape as the work progresses. It is the map's taking shape and changing shape in collaboration, that contains its capacity and potential, enabling teams to materially and imaginatively negotiate a design.

We used mapping to visualise the life cycle of clothing production, in order to identify areas of sustainable innovation as part of a student project in Management by Design. Before we dived into the mapping of our project, we explored the power of mapping. What is the use of mapping?

"All maps are wrong, but some maps are useful”.

Wrong? If a map is wrong it won’t bring us where we want to go. And why is it still useful? This quote from innovator and book author Simon Wardly (1) is a play on the dictum from statistics that “all models are wrong, but some are useful”.

From individual to shared understandings

The assumption is that we know where we want to go. However, the “we know” and the “we want” are not harmonious conditions of collaboration, but they are the very stakes that need to be negotiated. Some might know where to go, and others might not, or disagree. This is an important discrepancy to resolve. Many stakeholders collaborate on successful designs, as it is the multitude of experiences and imaginations that inform a good design. We do not want one person to decide for all. Neither do we want to design by committee - which might bring us to some coordinates where nobody wanted to go. We want an interdisciplinary design where everyone can be heard, and can have a stake in the outcome. It is the process of mapping that will create the shared vision of where we will be going.

Students voiced concerns that it seems contradictory to represent the understanding of where we want to go in a map, at the same time as developing the understanding while we are mapping. Do we need to have the understanding in order to make the map? Or do we develop the understanding while making the map?

These questions reveal precisely the nature of mapping. Each of us has a particular knowledge, experience and imagination. It is this individual understanding about a certain topic, that is the precondition for taking part in making the map. But the shared understanding is developed while mapping, and thus the map facilitates this change from my understanding to our understanding. This transformation is key, and is enabled through the map.

From the map as an activity to the map as an object

A map is a living artefact that actively contributes to collaborative design. It is not the thing in itself that is useful. The map is a communication device that enables teams to have conversations. It enables teams to have discussions and to move towards something that the team wants to create. The map is not useful as an object, it is useful in its coming into existence. We propose to rephrase the above quote in saying that maps are not generally useful for designing, but mapping as an activity is highly useful. A shared vision can be brought into being through collaborative mapping.

The map might also be useful as a device for measurement and accountability. If we can visualise as a team where we started off and where we are going, the map is a good indicator for who contributed where at what stage. It might also indicate if a contribution is missing, or if someone’s input is missing. The map as an object – as a representation – can thus be useful, it can serve as a visible account of what is there and what might be missing. So, it is not only the activity of mapping, but also that map in itself that does have some function.

The key capacity of mapping is the activity, but there is some capacity in the object. The map is a materialisation of a design vision as it shapes from individual ideas to shared experiences. As a material thing, the map is a hybrid artefact that has a material presence as an object in its incorporation of imaginations about possible future existences. The map as an activity, as a fluid design artefact, changes, and in its changing it changes designs.

*This blog post is based on a research workshop with Hayden Slaughter, in which we developed practice-based knowledge about “mapping”.


Design thinking as the culture for innovation


Last week, before the world went on lockdown, and before anyone could imagine it happening, a design practitioner community event took place in the UK: “How to create a culture for innovation: A Design Thinking Approach”, organised by Ladies that UX, hosted by Samantha Whittaker from the Human Change Agency and Sarah Corney from the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development. We gathered at “68 Middle Street”, which is a community hub for the media and design industries in Brighton.

In their talk, Samantha and Sarah gave an overview and introduction to culture and innovation in organisations, showing that the “soft” factors matter when working with change. They took us through theoretical concepts and practical exercises, exploring with us the cultural problems that organisations encounter in innovation, and how the design thinking process can help overcome these problems. The design thinking process is represented as the UK Design Council double diamond (Design Council, 2015). In their work, Samantha and Sarah explore how the “magic” inherent in the design thinking process can be widened in order to embrace organisations entirely, and thus enabling design as the “collaborative muscle” within that organisation. Samantha and Sarah presented their own extended version of the double diamond. Their aim is to reinterpret design thinking as an approach to innovation that creates a lasting organisational culture for change.

Extending the design process as a way of thinking in organisations

When an organisation seeks to innovate, in the process, the organisation itself is likely to change. There needs to be reflection on its own state of thinking about problems - before they can be solved. “The problem” is not a defined spot. Therefore, the path to solution cannot be represented as a straightforward line from spot A to spot B.

“The problem” is likely too narrow a space, and in the jump to solving we can all be tempted by the first 'shiny' (usually technical) solution that presents itself, but that's rarely the best one. Sarah and Samantha used an example from the Design Council's work with the NHS to illustrate this point. There was a rise in incidents in patients acting violently towards staff in Accident and Emergency departments. The Design Council team conducted an ethnographic study, and found that 'violence' was actually patients' reaction to a combination of things they are faced with, such as frustration with long waiting times, confusion over lack of information, or fear for loved ones. Simply putting more police on the ward would be a straightforward thing to do, and it might bring some improvement on the surface (although it could also easily inflame matters and make it worse). The most obvious solution is probably not the best and most sustainable solution that could be found.

Designers in organisations commonly experience this simple problem-solution view as the prevalent understanding of design. But using design only for “shiny” solutions does not tap into the full potential of design. Design can function as the “glue” to facilitating the defining of a problem and the activity of solving it. Design can investigate problem spaces by diverging on present factors first, before converging these to a problem definition. Instead of jumping to a conclusion about rampaging patients requiring police force, we might look at what the present factors are, that contribute to a situation. This might be confusing signage, lack of information, long periods in waiting areas, and the high emotions that play out in emergencies involving relatives. Seeing these contributors to the problem can help us find a more creative solution.

Design can also facilitate questions, such as, “Who gets to define a problem?". Is it the management of an organisation? The expert on user experience? The technical expert? Or the sales department? There is an emerging need to democratise the design process, as "design has become too important to be left to designers” (Brown & Katz, 2011, p. 381, echoing a quote attributed to industrial designer Raymond Loewy). If organisations are serious in including many viewpoints – those of customers’ and of different experts – in order to find a solution that works, then the problem cannot remain a singular spot, defined by an individual actor. The problem space needs to be negotiated. After defining a problem, work can begin on solving it.

The design process by the UK Design Council (2015) is a representation of design thinking that supports the negotiation of the problem space and the solution space. Design thinking can be seen as more than a process, but as a "way of doing things" that can be cultivated within organisations. This culture – this approach – is what matters when organisations try to innovate.

Creating a culture for innovation

Samantha and Sarah explored how the design thinking process can influence the wider culture of an organisation. They aimed to answer how can a design process be translated to the complex relationships within an organisation? With lots of experience in helping organisations change, Samantha and Sarah report that “things like hierarchy and politics are being put aside when doing a design thinking workshop”, that design thinking can “make sure everybody is heard, has an equitable voice”. They explain that in facilitating a design thinking process it is possible “to deal with the dominant voices” and “to give people space when they are shy”. Design thinking can be a space of "shared meaning making”. These are the elements that should be brought forward into a culture for innovation within an organisation. Using design thinking to foster a culture of innovation does not only influence spaces outside an organisation, but is likely to shape the experience of the innovators themselves.

Samantha and Sarah explained their extended version of the double diamond as a way of amplifying a culture for innovation, introducing an initial “set up” phase, and a “close down” part at the end.

The idea behind a “set up” space is the making of a contract between the participating people, as individuals within a team. Making a contract means to reflect on how “I” want to participate in a team (“WE") in a shared project (“IT”). Setting up a project, that is likely not only changing users’ lives, but also mine, and ours as a team, requires reflection on how I want to participate, and how I find a place in the team and in the shared goal. This reflection touches on identity, and on a translation of individual identity into an identity as an organisation where everyone has a place. This process goes on implicitly in every organisation - the negotiation of places. The "set up" idea is trying to make this negotiation an explicit part of design thinking. This strategy should enable a person to find her place in the team, and to find her place in the shared goal of the project.

The “close down” part is a reflection on the past project, and should represent a “lessons learnt” for the next project. The closing down part follows the question in what ways everyone was able to participate. This phase is the creation of a safe space for talking about experiences. Ideally, it is a conversation where everyone participating feels seen and heard, and where these experiences inform the next project.


This blog post was written based on a talk Sarah Corney and Samantha Whittaker gave at 68 Middle Street.

Samantha on Twitter: @itsSamActually |
Sarah on Twitter: @corney_sarah |


Brown, Tim, & Katz, Barry. (2011). Change by Design. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 28, 381–383.
Design Council. (2015). The Design Process: What is the Double Diamond? Retrieved from, accessed February 11, 2019

Design practice - the place of knowledge about design

For the research and innovation of design practices, we need to go to the places where the knowledge production takes place. These are the design practitioners who work on a daily basis with the demands of digital innovation. According to Dan Lockton from Carnegie Mellon University and Carine Lallemande from Eindhoven University of Technology, it is necessary for research to overcome the “industry-academia divide” by attending industry events and by running workshops with practitioners (Lockton & Lallemande, 2020).

We share this view, and seek to collaborate closely with practitioners in the work of finding better ways of making visible how ideas materialise in the design process. The authors of this blog post are Danny, a long time UX designer, and Ruth, a design academic and design teacher. For our research project, we came together at UX Brighton, a small meetup style community event, in Brighton last week. The style of the event requires attendees to sign up in a public Google document to the 12 places available, and then arriving on the day with food, drinks, and a topic of concern. People come with design concepts and other questions they seek to run past others in an attempt to gather ideas, inputs, and help, in order to move forward strengthened by the community feedback. So, on the day participants arrived with prototypes of half finished projects, questions that were thrown into the group to go round the table, problems in the design process, and some even brought solutions to problems in the design process.

It was particularly interesting to hear the problems from design practice. One participant reported about the different teams in her organisation all working with different personas. In collaboration, the teams then need to 'translate' personas into each others’ settings (“I think your Josh might be our Elaine”), which makes it hard to design the product in a user-centred way.

Another problem raised by a participant was the slow turn-around time between user tests, writing up findings, and iterating the prototypes based on these findings, making the process of improvement complex. Others suggested that remote testing tools might be useful to get test results returned immediately, allowing team members to begin reviewing the tests and deriving improvements quicker. However, this requires either one person to be in charge of both - testing and iterating - or a close collaboration between the people responsible.

Several participants mentioned that their organisation was “development-led” (led by the software developers) as opposed to “user-led”, and that there exists a strong "engineering culture", whereas a culture of user-centred design was desirable. These questions pose the challenge for the designers to introduce and “sell” the concepts of user experience to their organisations, and why UX matters to the success of a product or service. We discussed whether, in order to do that, it was necessary to have “evangelists” for UX among the “higher ups” in organisations, or if there were ways to work from the bottom up. It seems even harder when there are many software engineers, far outnumbering the few/singular UX designers within teams. A possible solution suggested was the demonstrating through user tests how people fail to use products, and showing in this way the need for user-centred design. Another possibility, if user tests are not part of the budget, is the exploiting of existing routes to gathering user feedback such as customer-facing support staff and sales personnel, who know the strengths but also the weaknesses of the product well through ongoing direct exposure to the everyday problems and the delights and frustrations of users.

Danny (one of the authors) introduced the concept of “Top Tasks Management” by Gerry McGovern, which can “reduce complexity by identifying what really matters to customers” (McGovern, 2015). The key purpose of using Top Tasks is to make sure there is a focus in design work on what people do, rather than on who people are.

At the end, Ruth (one of the authors) presented the current state of the “reconfiguring artefacts” research project. Immediately there were protests against the shiny format of a keynote presentation, but the group was very welcoming towards hearing a little bit from the academic world. Also, there was interest in the concept of the research which seeks to include practitioners in researching approaches to design that work better. Ruth explained the research, and showed how in order to understand our design processes better, we need to make visible how we work with the material constraints of prototypes, drawings, and maps in order to get our ideas across. Calling these material helpers “imaginaries”, she asked the designers about their experiences, and whether they had seen certain materials supporting them better in realising their ideas within organisations. The response revealed that there are many thoughts on the ‘material format' of getting ideas across. One participants said that “fancy drawings” do get a better response when suggesting solutions. In other situations "real code” can have a lot of impact in getting a suggested solution accepted, because it shows tangibly and reliably how something can work. Mentioned was the example of the - now best practice - solution to use images for the visual representation of a user interface on screen, and to replace the “img tag” with text in the code for web crawlers or technology assisting visually impaired users.  This idea was shown by building and demonstrating it. There was also the controversial idea that there should be a “level playing field” created for idea generation and implementation. However, we agreed that while it was important to give everyone opportunity to shape a design, it should not happen by curtailing someone’s means to show an idea. For example, it wouldn’t be helpful to prohibit a person to visualise an idea only because she is great at drawing. However, the need to manage the input into the shaping of designs emerged as an interesting topic. We hope to continue this investigation with the design community and to ask these questions in more detail.

The UX Brighton community meetup is an important site of knowledge for design. The meetups are there to support individual designers, but it also cultures critical discourse within the community. To be “disagreeable” is a good thing, according to two members who had a disagreement. It means to be able to look closely, and to shape a view that can bring a conversation further, can help someone else rethink their own viewpoint and get to a new position from where a problem might be better solvable.

Lockton, Dan, & Lallemand, Carine. (2020). Meeting Designers Where They Are: Using Industry Events as a Research Venue for HCI and Design Methods Development.
Gerry McGovern. (2015). A List Apart., accessed 20th March 2020.


Workshop with Katharina at MxD

Our first workshop takes place with Katharina and the students from the 4th Semester of Management by Design (MxD). Katharina is a Service Designer from Vienna, and she is also part of the Service Design Network (SDN). At first she introduces us to the idea of Service Design as a mindset. She explains that in order to make change happen through design, we need to consider the human relations, instead of focusing on products alone. The human experience of the world matters in design, and not only the technologies used to facilitate experiences.

Experience is a key factor in design, both in considering the users and in understanding the design activity itself. An important quote is that of Nigel Cross, who describes the skill to design as "designerly ways of knowing", and so demarcates design as a particular way of understanding and intervening in the world.

In a following blog post we will reflect on the activities of the workshop:

  • We split into groups of 3 to 4 People.
  • As a group, we randomly chose an area which we would redesign
  • Everyone introduced themselves and provided words or sketches about three things how they felt connected to the chosen topic.
  • We conducted interviews about the topic with interview partners from other groups, and made notes.
  • We switched roles and conducted more interviews.
  • We defined the problem by distinguishing between what was said by the interviewees, and by what we though was meant.
  • We created a drawing of our solution to the problem we had discovered.
  • We proceeded to prototype our idea as a tangible object which we could show and explain.
  • Each of these activities was timed, and time limits were short and strict (5-15 minutes per task).
  • There were materials provided for each task, ranging from paper print-outs, pens, post-its, and craft materials.

Questions we want to explore are: How did we experience these activities? Which things worked for us and which didn't? We will reflect on how materials influenced us in proceeding with the design activity. 


Questions from design practice

When investigating the situations in collaborative design practice within organisations, it becomes evident the that design processes do not work as intended.

There are a range of problems:

  • Production processes are far from user-centred
  • There are technical challenges
  • Successes and failures are unpredictable
  • Negotiations between organisational silos are taxing
  • High turnover of personnel

Strategies such as UX design, Service design, Design thinking, or Lean/Agile Methods attempt to improve these production processes. However, they are often not successful, and they bring up more questions than answers.

Collaborative design processes remain opaque. It is not visible how situations change from possible futures into reality. Designerly agency remains invisible and it is therefore an impossibly difficult concept to work with.

The aim of this research is to explore the design process, in order to shed more light on how design works.

The following will be our research questions to guide this project:

We want to know how innovation works. We want to learn design, so we can do change.

Because we work collaboratively we need to know how artefacts enable and constrain us. How do artefacts reconfigure situations?