In the fourth episode of our second season of With Intent, Jarret Fuller asks ID Associate Professor of Healthcare Design and Design Methods Kim Erwin and Associate Professor of Civic and Community Design Maura Shea, Why Is Design Always Talking About Complexity? Kim and Maura discuss making change in large communities and systems through asset-based community development, the value of modeling complex systems, and what a designer’s creative output looks like today. Jarrett Fuller, host of Scratching the Surface, is the 2022–23 Latham fellow at the Institute of Design and hosts With Intent this season.
Hi. Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from the Institute of Design at Illinois Tech about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. My name's Jarrett Fuller and I'm your guest host for With Intent's second season. This season I am turning the mics back on ID's faculty for a series of roundtable discussions and interviews that explore questions facing designers, design educators, and design students today.
Over the last two decades or so, design has found its way into increasingly complex systems, moving from something that at times could feel superficial, something that came at the end of the process, to something that is core to the development of organizations, processes, and systems.
What does it mean to be a designer when the thing you are designing isn't always a clear physical object? How does a designer find their place and their purpose within a system where what they are asked to do isn't always clear? How does the role of the designer change when design's role moves from object to system?
Thankfully, I'm joined by two ID faculty who have not only worked within and around these types of complex problems, but have also thought deeply about design's role in them.
Kim Erwin is an Associate Professor of Practice at ID and an expert in healthcare design where she applies design methods to complex systems, and develops novel solutions to address healthcare's frontline problems.
Maura Shea is also an Associate Professor of Practice at ID, where her work and research focuses on evolving community-led development methods and approaches. She's interested in how human-centered design can support equity and inclusion through the experiences of belonging and community wellbeing. At ID, she also co-leads the Food Systems Action Lab that explores ways to make local food systems more visible to the networks of organizations, institutions, and individuals within them.
This is a really fascinating conversation that tackles the role of the designer in a complex world while offering practical insights on how to move into this type of work. So I hope you enjoy this conversation with Maura Shea and Kim Erwin.
So Maura and Kim, welcome to the show. I'm very excited to talk to both of you. The theme of this episode is design's role in complex systems. And I think the thing that I'm really interested in speaking to you both about is how the evolution of design has changed design's role and the sectors where design can live. And both of you are doing a lot of that work. You're working in ways that are thinking about design very expansively, and you're working in systems that are very complex and complicated systems. You're working on this inside massive challenges and massive teams.
And so to frame the conversation, I would actually like to begin by hearing a little bit about both of your work and the type of work you're doing, and then how you think about design in that work.
And so Maura, let's start with you. You've done a lot of work on thinking about things around belonging and community and collaboration. Can you talk a little bit about your work and research, and the types of classes that you're teaching?
Yeah, sure. So at the Institute of Design, I'm teaching some core research courses, but I'm also teaching a course that focuses on how we can actually scrutinize the design process and the role of designer from an approach that's come out of the School of Social Policy, actually at Northwestern University and is currently at the DePaul University Steans Center, and that is Asset-Based Community Development.
And I came across a guidebook that was published in the early '90s, I think, when I was nosing around the YMCA of the USA's archives. And it resonated with me because I recognized, in my work, in national nonprofit networks, how important the position of design needs to be so informed by the assets that exist in any community. So that's a long answer, but I'm really interested in being influenced by other fields and other ways of thinking about the human experience beyond what human-centered design has offered me.
So this Asset-Based Community Development is a way to recognize the assets that already exist in a community, how can we start there? And rather than looking at a community or in a group of people around a problem, that's very deficit-minded.
And so to instead be asset-minded, it helps us to actually say, "What are the conditions for change, and where are those voices within a community that actually can drive, direct, and ideally, sustain, whatever changes they want to make? How can design build a context, build support for, and enable, in whatever way is appropriate, the kind of conditions for social impact and social change?"
Oh, that's so interesting and connects to a lot of the other conversations that I've been having for the show. And so I think we'll come back and talk about this idea of assets in a bit.
But Kim, I'd like to hear from you. You've done a lot of work around healthcare design. Can you talk a little bit about that work in the classes that you're teaching?
Sure. So I stumbled into healthcare in 2013. I was invited to participate in a randomized clinical trial to help develop the core intervention in that trial, which turned out to be a piece of communication that is supposed to be delivered by doctors to patients in the emergency department, especially if it's a pediatric patient population.
I really didn't know why I was involved. I went to the first meeting. I was in a meeting with 45 other people, which in my history as an innovation consultant, I was like, "That's not really a promising start to have that many people involved." But they passed the intervention around that was pulled from a Canadian study. And I took one look at it. I was like, "Okay, I know what I could do here."
It was just something that had maybe a lot of technical and thoughtful information from somebody who thinks about things in a medical sense, but wasn't really even remotely usable from an information design, a human factors perspective; but also just from a cultural perspective, of "How do you give this to parents?", especially in the low-income communities that we were supposed to be targeting.
That was the introduction, and it snowballed from there. And the way that I have been incorporating that into coursework at the Institute of Design, I just finished teaching my first ever Healthcare Design class. And the focus of that course is really introducing them to, especially in the US, the complex, invisible, living web of systems that hold current practices in place. And so the reason I do this is because pretty much anyone with four fingers of forehead can walk into a health system and go, "We could do better than this."
But there's a reason that it's the way it is, and it's not for the lack of knowledge. No one more than healthcare providers understand how poorly structured the care delivery system is in the United States. It's not willful. It's not intentional.
Right, right, right.
It just seems intractable. So that particular course is really about introducing students to how to apprehend the multi-system that is healthcare, as well as what is design's role in impacting that, because it's different. Designers don't own the agenda in healthcare, and shouldn't. We're not qualified. But you need background knowledge, you need domain knowledge, and that is what I attempt to do.
And then I also run healthcare workshops, which bring in sponsored projects, because the real world conditions for design... It's just designed for constraints. It's not blue sky thinking. As I like to tell my students, "The problem in healthcare is not the lack of ideas. It's getting anything to happen at all."
I think that's really interesting, especially in thinking about this idea of identifying assets, because like you said, you go into a healthcare system, it's really easy to point out all the problems with it. Anybody can do that.
And so Maura, I wonder if we could go back to this idea of asset identifying. For so long and for so many different types of design, whether we're talking about design generally or my background in graphic design or I work closely with industrial designers and user experience designers, the sort of cliche that we always hear is that "design is problem solving". And that leads to particular types of practice, particular types of processes. What changes when we shift from being problem solvers to asset identifiers? How does that change the role of the designer, or the way the designer works within these systems?
Right. So it's not that problems don't exist. It's not some overly-optimistic stance. It's starting from a position of acknowledging and actually inventorying the assets that exist. And when you're working within social systems, which are communities or health systems... Are social as well, or university systems, any of these systems that have social dynamics that include people, are complex. And so by visualizing those assets across multi-layered systems, we can begin to perceive the context we're working in, in new ways.
And that inherently will affect the ways we define what opportunities there are for design, who should be involved, what kind of objectives and outcomes we're after, and how we would possibly measure any results that we're pursuing. And it does pick up a little bit of what Kim was saying about designing for constraints: it's taking a very feet-on-the-ground approach. When I was at IDEO, we would say, "Design is about keeping your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground."
Oh, right. I've heard that. Yeah.
And that's cute. But what we're trying to do is make positive systemic societal change. And so we have to be reality-focused, and we have to also know who is owning any intervention, any solution, any shift of the context or the conditions for the system to function within. And that's not the designer.
Right, right. Can you talk a little bit... And Maura, I'm going to ask this to you first, just because you just said it, but I want to hear Kim's thought on this, also. Kim mentioned earlier that designers can't solve healthcare. Designers aren't qualified, they do not have that knowledge. And I think that's what I see often, is what's complicating for designers is, "Well, what is our role? What do we bring to these complex systems? What are the ways we can identify our set of skills and match those to the issues at hand?"
How do you think about that? Or maybe to be more specific, how do you work with students to give them the tools to be able to enter into a diverse, complex, complicated community, and find their place, or find where design is helpful? And maybe in finding where design is helpful, it's also identifying where design is not helpful and not needed sometimes, also.
Yeah. Well, like Kim just said, we as designers, we're not qualified to really impact the health system from a health practice standpoint. And so in terms of what roles design can play in these complex systems, I think a lot of it I've seen in the work that I've done both here at ID and previous, is about helping to build capacities to see what alternatives are available. So you’re role modeling alternative ways of doing things.
So I'm co-leading a Food Systems Action Lab here at ID with Professor Weslynne Ashton. And what we're really trying to do there is help to facilitate how food waste is prevented, or often upcycled or directed in the right directions. And that's workflow process. And just like Kim said about the health system, those workflows are designed in very specific ways over many, many years and for good reason. And so students or designers generally have to get acquainted with those workflows.
Those are considered, also, an asset. A workflow is a way of connecting nodes. And so understanding how players, actors in a system, and those interactions between those actors exist. It's really taking an inventory of how are those things interacting. What does the system look like today? And then we can understand where might those shifts in the system work differently, what would the outcome be if we took a different way.
And that's an imagineering role. That's taking a different approach and saying, "I'm willing to question these norms," what our colleague Larry Keeley has always called "orthodoxies", these operational orthodoxies, and saying, "Let's try it differently." That is very hard for the folks who are doing the day-to-day work. They're very committed to keeping the trains running on time. And so to shift operations like this takes some courage, and not everybody has that creative courage.
Kim, how does this play out in your work? And in healthcare, perhaps more specifically, how do you think about how designers find their place in a system like that, that is cultural, political, there's expertise on the healthcare and medicine side? How do you think about how to help designers find their place in a system like that?
That's such a great question, and I think that's emerging. I don't think there is a solid answer to that yet. So in the course of teaching ID students, I really focus on this idea of the multisystem. And if I could just digress for a moment here, Jay Doblin in 1987, before he passed away, left us with one last brilliant piece of writing that he called, in true Jay Doblin terms, "A Short, Grandiose Theory of Design."
And in it, he outlined something that I use today, and I think it's part of the DNA of the school. And he said, "The designers have to understand that there's at least three levels of complexity." And he said, "Products is one level and products are pretty tangible." Well, at the time they were.
We'll get to that. That was my next question for you, Kim, actually.
But at the product level, there's a finite number of features and performance features that somebody needs to manage and these sorts of things.
And he said, "Now we're moving into systems level design. And systems level design puts a product into a context and says, "There's many more forces at work that this product has to be situated in." So if you're designing an airline seat, you have to start thinking about, "Well, how do people order food, and where do they put their luggage, and how does the seat fit into the temporary communal aspect of taking a flight?
And he said, "But there's a third one that's coming." And he was prescient. The third one he called the multisystem and he said, "The multisystem is a system of systems." And he compared it to not just an airline seat in an airplane, but in an airline system where there is baggage check and TSA and retail and scheduling systems.
And he said, "That's a different role for a designer." He didn't necessarily have answers for it, but he saw it coming. And so when I work with my students, I talk about the multisystem and I say, "Healthcare's too big to know." It just is. It's ginormous. So you need new tools, especially questions, frameworks, checklists, to help you manage the sheer volume of factors that are going to affect your thinking. And that's what we do.
We've developed a few in-house, and I am borrowing from other fields, systems engineering has got a long history in dealing with complexity. So to me, it's a mindset: on the one hand, of thinking about things as a multi-system; and being aware that your design has to be systems-aware. You have to know what's upfront, what's downstream, what's adjacent, and you need things to help remind you of that. So that's where the frameworks come in.
That perfectly leads into what my next question was going to be. And so Kim, I'm curious, your thoughts on this. As I was thinking about this conversation, as I was thinking about both of your work and as I was even just thinking about the history of design, generally, one of the big shifts over the last 5, 10, 15, maybe we can say 20, 30 years, is designs move away from objects to systems. And that increasingly, the designer's role, the thing the designer produces, is increasingly immaterial. It is the system, it is the visualization.
And I think that's what's complicated design's role in a lot of these types of processes now. Because before you could say, "Oh, well, we're designing the chair." That's what the designer does. Or "We're designing the logo, the building, or whatever." And that that's harder to do, because a lot of times it's not that anymore. It is imagining new ways of doing things, it's imagining systems, it's suggesting alternatives.
How does that complicate the role of the designer? Or maybe that's even... I'm assuming too much. How does that change the role of the designer when the thing the designer is producing is maybe not always something that you can very clearly point to as the thing the designer is producing? You know what I mean? Does that make sense?
Yeah, and I actually... Maura has a more developed answer on this, but Maura is very promotive, and Maura, if I can speak for you since you're on the phone, Maura is really focused on the value of modeling, modeling complex systems. And I think she's right. We have to be able to describe a system before we can think about how to impact it. And so I'll let her develop that more fully.
I think that one of the challenges, and this is going to feel like it's not a direct answer, but I want to build on Maura's other point, which is this idea of regular operations being in the way of doing anything at all, that the designer's role, then, has got to shift from just being about the problem solving and the solution, to being about all the human beings and the organization involved in launching that solution. And pushing yourself as a designer. I do this: I spend a lot of time building the relationships, going through and having conversations about what is and what... There's a current state, and then there's a preferred state, and asking people about their preferred state. Because so much of what you're doing is not designing a solution; it's preparing the organization to implement. And that is a different skillset.
So not only is that not designing an object; it's people-focused. And not people in abstraction or people as users; that's your implementers. You've got to know your implementers. And I think there used to be... One of the things I do think carries over, and maybe we lost in the interim, is that when you were a pure product designer, you had to think about the mechanism of implementation. That was part of your job. And then we moved into front-end planning, and people had stopped immersing themselves and developing the skillset to know what questions to ask about implementation. I think we need to go back to that part.
I'm trying to understand what are the contextual influences we're in right now. At ID, we talk about how we're in an era that we aren't sure yet what to call it. And I think that's quite right, because just hearing your question, it was reminding me of when I would work side-by-side with mechanical engineers. Design was about making not only one prototype, but multiple types of prototypes: works like prototypes, appearance prototypes, material prototypes, because it was like Kim saying, about what's the manufacture ability of this concept. And that, of course, was another constraint to consider.
And then with digital, with the experience economy, as manufacturing was essentially moving away from the US, and the digital economy was on the rise, and we were, as we said, focused more on upfront planning and on product portfolios and the variability that digital design has offered a whole generation of designers... What's next with the context that design is trying to function in?
So much of it, I appreciate Kim saying it's relational, because that's absolutely right. We are decolonizing design, human-centered design, and reckoning with the privileged positions that design has always claimed. And so that's one absolute and important influence.
And the others are, as they have been before, economic. How are we going to be influenced by the ways of the context we're working in, and trying to even feel out for some of those is very interesting. My theory about visualizing them is that it gives us a way to try and make tangible and shareable, and hopefully thus democratic, the systems we're working within. And the democratic component is that it's a collective meaning-making. It's not up the designer to interpret and conclude and summarize and present; it's rather this much more facilitative, interactive interpretation that is led by the folks who will be impacted most by the solutions they devise.
I think that's exactly right, and really well said. And I like this idea of collective meaning-making. I think really connects to what Kim was saying about the relational aspect of this.
And what this makes me think about is how this completely just flips the script of what we should and could be teaching designers and teaching the next generation of designers. This is a tension that I think about all the time, is I feel like I never know when I'm throwing the baby out with the bath water. What are the things we need to keep and what are the new things we should be teaching? And so it would be really easy to say, "Well, we don't need to teach... I don't know, rendering, drawing anymore. It's not about that." Or in my field of graphic design, it's like, "Well, what are the principles of typography that are still important? Do you still need to learn how to print something properly?" And these are all debatable.
I'm wondering how you both think about this in this broader design context. What are the new additions in a design curriculum that are needed, and what are the things from the past that are still important? And I think this idea of prototyping that you're talking about that maybe we've lost, is that something that needs to stay? I realize this is a big question, but do either of you have thoughts on how these ideas are brought into existing curriculums?
I'm a graduate of the Institute of Design from the previous millennia, and I graduated with a Master's in Design as one of the last photographers. Now I was using photography as a social design research tool, and I was presenting my graduate thesis at the Conference of Visual Sociology, and I was way into it as a method, storytelling and visual storytelling. But one of my students recently was talking about AI-generated imagery and was just able to, within seconds, of course, just construct an image that reflected the keywords that he insert, input. And there we were.
And now it's a totally different process and a different experience, et cetera, et cetera. But I was really fascinated by what the artifact itself was able to provide our discussion. How are images used as a communication tool both in generative discussion and in summative discussion? And the photograph really did a great job, actually, in covering its intended use in that context. And that left me numb for a little bit, because I really was trying to figure out, "Okay, so I'm going to stand by craft and production and making as a core skill of design, but are the tools now shifting that relationship so tremendously that I don't even recognize that process?" It might still be the same process. I haven't thought enough about it, but that was one moment that I thought I'd share.
I haven't thought exhaustively about this, but I think maybe the skillset that I think we should keep teaching, but maybe teach it more expansively, is this reliance on user research. And the user research has ethnographic roots. Most ethnographers would cringe at the fortune of their practices in design. But let's, for a moment...
An ethnographic perspective says you're going to look at functional aspects of an activity system. So if I'm going into an emergency department, I'm going to look at all the users and all their activities and all their interactions and objects, blah, blah, blah. It also says that we would look at that as a human system, that maybe an appropriate lens that we are failing to stress is that it's a workplace. And as a workplace, it has culture. And as a culture, it has relationships.
And those are things that I think that our general skillset around user observation and other exploratory mechanisms that we call user research, we really should be also teaching people how to turn that on your organization that you're working with, and make your organization use your skillset to equally be open and curious and understand the human interactions in your organization. They will help you be a better designer. They will help you understand who needs to see what. All of those skill sets transfer, but we don't teach them that way. We are always focused on end users, without thinking about the organization as being a stakeholder that we should be considering.
I actually want to go back to Maura's notion of systems modeling. I think that that's such an important skillset when you're dealing with complex systems, and I want to clarify that. I think it's less about the visualization and more about the visualizing. Much of the craft or creative output that we are asking about is still relevant, but it's not the user research, it's the researching. It's not the prototype, it's the prototyping.
And I think it's similar for systems modeling. It's not maybe the model, though, that has... It's nice to think that everyone's all thinking about the same system model. That's a big assumption to think that everybody's thought bubbles contain the same visual or set of references. But I think it's the systems modeling that causes a lot of analysis and decision making to happen. What belongs in the model? What are we leaving out of the model? How do two things connect in a model? And so it is the modeling that I think is a really important thinking tool.
And then the last one, only because you brought it up, Jarrett, is I believe we still have to teach print. Here's why. First of all, I'm really tired of students sending me files that don't make any sense. But that aside, a lot of work in low-income communities, you cannot assume digital infrastructure.
Right. Yeah. It's like nothing... This is a digression now, but that's what I always tell my students, too, who are complete digital natives at this point, is that we can't assume that that the way that you interact online is universal. It's not universal. And each new technology doesn't replace what's previous; it just changes what's come before or how we interact with what's come before.
What strikes me in this, and I'm hesitant to ask you this question, because I'm not totally sure I know how to frame it correctly, is it makes me question the value of designers. And I don't mean that negatively, but I mean that in these ideas that you're talking about, these ways of working that you're talking about, when I hear them, I wonder, do these need to be limited to people who self-identify as designers? Or are these actually principles that are more widely helpful? And do we even need to think of them as design, or can these ideas actually be expanded, so different types of people and different types of industries who would never use the word design can actually apply them in their work, in their communities, in their organizations, in their systems?
How do you think about that? Are you thinking that the people that you're teaching will become designers? Or is there some sense that these are ideas that are maybe more broadly valuable? You know what I mean?
I left ID and spent almost a decade at IDEO. So innovation was really the work. We were talking about it from a human-centered design practice, or a human-centered design methodology. But in my work in the real world, I was able to encounter all kinds of innovationists or innovators who came from different fields. So people who came from creative problem solving, or group facilitation experts, or business perspectives or et cetera, et cetera.
And so design is one approach to addressing the challenges that we're talking about and to engaging across sectors to solve some of these problems. I don't know that design has a monopoly on anything, but it does have some skillsets that can be brought in to be contributive.
I think building on that, Herbert Simon defined design as the mechanism that takes something from a current state to a preferred state. That's designing, not necessarily designers. And what we saw in the nineties was this proliferation of the term "design thinking" and a dissemination of basic design, like "Design 101" strategy into the population.
And people have different points of view on that. I think it's nice that people actually know that that's a term now, so it's definitely broadened the target market. I, for one, struggle with running into people who took a weekend IDEO course or a [inaudible 00:33:43] course calling themselves designers.
And so do I think design has a distinctive role? Yeah, I do. And it's called a field of practice and a field of knowledge. And it's why it takes two years in a graduate program to actually come into contact with all that knowledge, because, like medicine, design has developed specialties. And part of, at least in healthcare, the discussion I have with people is they keep calling us all designers. And I'm like, "Yeah, you're not going to like that as a hiring strategy. You're going to want to know... If you've got somebody in a strategy, if you're going to put somebody in the org chart in a strategy unit, you're going to want a design strategist, and you're not going to be happy with your UX designer there." If you're staffing an innovation group, then a UX designer and a service designer are a really good idea.
So I think that design does have... There are aspects of it that a normal human could practice, and frankly, maybe always has. But I think that there are, for especially more complex problems, there are strategies that you can't learn on a weekend or a week. And I think that that is what we should be calling design. Some people argue and say that's design process. It's not design, and that's a whole other conversation.
Why'd you bring this up right at the end of our conversation, Kim? That's a whole other episode. I love that. I would love to do that episode. Maybe we should.
Okay. I have one more question that just builds on that, that I'm curious what your thoughts are, and maybe this is what I was trying to get at in the last question, or maybe it's an addendum to the last question.
I think, Kim, you hit on something interesting there, with just this word "design" has become so broad, even, and I think design thinking as a part of that is just sort of raising the consciousness of design for people. But there is a difference between a design strategist and an interface designer and a graphic designer, and I think there's this move to be multidisciplinary, which I am, I'm very supportive of, and I like this idea of a generalist designer. But that's so hard to actually do now.
How do we think about organizing design, while also being multidisciplinary and generative and not territorial? What is that balance between being a part of the team, having these different roles, while also not entrenching different fields of study, if that makes sense? Do either of you have thoughts on that?
I think that a designer who wants to work in the fields like Maura and myself, so in food sustainability and healthcare, you have to assume you are one of many people at a table, and you need to be curious about those adjacent fields. So if you're a designer working in healthcare, you probably want to understand what epidemiologists do. You probably want to understand what statisticians or health service researchers do. You don't need to be a leading expert in health economics, but you need to know when to turn to them and you need to know what they are, what their role is likely to be. So I think that looking at different specialties and being adjacent-aware is something that has to be taught. I don't think it's necessarily native for designers.
And then it would be really nice to come to some kind of consensus about how many forms of design there are. I wrote down 21 on a list and I handed it to somebody because they were so confused. I was like, "Look, historically, design has been taught and organized around output. So you had interiors, you had communication, you had product." And I think the modern era is better served by maybe stepping away from output as being the focal point of the training.
Yeah, that's actually very helpful in my thinking, and what I was arguing in that question. That's really smart. Maura, did you have anything?
Yeah, the only thing I would add to that, because I totally agree with how Kim's discussing it, is really what is it that you're looking for as a designer? What's not only the curiosity you bring, but the lens through which you're observing the world? What's your way of learning and thinking about a given environment or context?
And to me, I'm always looking for what are the incentives that are activating or catalyzing a system? Where are the barriers, whether they're intentional or not? How can players or actors in a system find purpose, and how does that context of interaction play out?
That's different. That's not an output. I think that's why Asset-Based Community Development is so interesting to me, because I'm looking at the pieces and interactions of the contexts. Kim and I both were students of Chuck Owen, who was all about the structures and elements and functions of systems, and so we were educated to look at the world that way. And I think that's really the legacy of ID, is in thinking about our world in those detailed parts, and recognizing how intentional or unintentional those were all designed.
Yeah. I love that. And I think that's a great way to wrap up this conversation.
Kim and Maura, thank you so much for doing this and talking about these ideas and wrestling with a lot of these thoughts. I think this was a really fascinating conversation, so thanks for doing this with me.
It's been a pleasure, Jarrett.
Yeah, it's been a lot of fun.
With Intent is a production of the Institute of Design at Illinois Tech. This season is produced in collaboration with the school's 85th Anniversary as part of the 2022–2023 Latham Fellowship. A special thanks to all of our guests this season and everyone at ID for their support. My name is Jarrett Fuller. Thanks for listening.