In design, futures do not happen, they are made. Or at least this is how design likes to think about itself.

Design processes are invented and applied in order to solve the gaps in production processes. We center the user in order to bridge production and use. We think about technology and experience through a holistic view on the tangible and the intangible. We seek to closely tie together thinking and doing in rapid iterations. Within the design process we integrate different expert knowledges located with individuals and their practices. Design processes are very good at pointing out unnecessary gaps in the work around creating products and services, and the issues that might follow. Design processes suggest new orders in organising this work, so these issues can be overcome. Design processes therefore serve important goals and principles in changing realities and creating futures.

However, one aspect in design has not received the attention it deserves. Design processes, as they are conceived and used in organisations, are based on the tradition of knowing in design. But this particular treatment of knowledge – as designers use it – has largely been ignored. Design practices appreciate the dual nature of knowledge. Designers work in reflective conversation with the materials (Schön, 1983). When designers change worlds from what exists now to future realities, they do not do this alone. This work is mediated by material artefacts, such as sketches, models, and forms of making. Knowledge does not exist within the designer alone, it is located within the conversation with the materials. Design knowledge is entangled in both, materials and ideas. This is an integral part of how design works. It is often left aside, when thinking about design processes, but it is an important aspect to consider when trying to make design processes work better.

Finke, Ward, and Smith (1992) used the concept of “preinventive structures” in order to describe material representations of creative processes, serving the visibility of the current state of thinking and evoke collaborative creativity. In the words of Ball, Linden, and Christensen (2020), “preinventive structures are like partial solution insights or fragmentary solution ideas that have the potential to form full-blown solutions for the creative task at hand. The properties of preinventive structures can be exploited during the exploratory phase, during which one seeks to interpret them in meaningful ways” (p. 27).

I propose to go one step further, and to treat these preinventive structures not only as material representations of collaborative creativity, but also as material collaborators. According to the traditions of design, design knowledge is located in the collaboration between the designers and the materials. Therefore, close attention needs to be paid to the materials and the ideas that bundle into material artefacts, which are then used to negotiate projects.

Such artefacts can be informal plans and intentions, or formal plans such as design processes, user journey maps, experience maps, …  Many ideas are floated and voiced. Some ideas disappear, and some ideas bundle as a plan. These plans are “imaginaries”, and products of temporary alignment in creative collaboration. Imaginaries collaborate in design. They evoke a possible future to come true.

It is the making of plans in design, which is interesting, and I propose to view these plans both as representations and as collaborators (according to the traditions of design). These plans – imaginaries – are made and deployed into collaboration, where they exist as both, an idea and material artefact.

An imaginary is the material deployment of an idea. It participates thus in collaboration. In the ongoing negotiation around the future, an imaginary stepwise helps change material worlds. Material reality changes, and the imaginary changes with it.

When collaborative design work is viewed like this, design can be reformulated as an approach to collaborative innovation.

Question that emerge for this research, are the formulation of this approach, and the concept and visualisation of an ideal imaginary. How does an imaginary participate in collaboration? How do we need to work with it? What do various formats and properties afford?


Ball, Linden J., & Christensen, Bo T. (2020). How sticky notes support cognitive and socio-cognitive processes in the generation and exploration of creative ideas. In Sticky Creativity (pp. 19-51). London: Academic Press.
Finke, Ronald A., Thomas B. Ward, and Steven M. Smith. “Creative cognition: Theory, research, and applications.” (1992).
Hutchins, Edwin. (2005). Material anchors for conceptual blends. Journal of Pragmatics, 37, 1555-1577.
Schön, Donald A. (1983). The reflective practitioner how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.