Design Stance

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Rob Knapp
Evergreen State College

Conscientious social or environmental activists try to understand the issues or problems they confront, and not just act blindly. However, significant issues are typically intricate, ill-defined,, and conceptually complicated, to the point where whole careers are devoted to sorting out small portions of them, and action is delayed indefinitely or activist energy dissipated. But the alternative of rushing to action, substituting passion or outrage for understanding is counterproductive in its own well-documented ways.


This pattern is for people, on their own or within organizations, who are ready to initiate meaningful action. They have done enough analysis of whatever issue or problem they are concerned with, and have developed enough conviction to be sure that action is needed. Their question is, What action? or perhaps, How can I focus the notions, wishes, and urges that surround this issue into specific, meaningful steps? This pattern does not give detailed answers


The complexity of significant issues in the present time is overwhelming. This is obvious for national issues such as health care, outsourcing of jobs, or energy policy. But small scale problems, such as a derelict lot, are often equally complex (think of drug dealing, vandalism, invasive plants, liability, and city departmental turf battles) in relation to the energy and good will available to deal with them. Seemingly obvious moves ("Let's all clean it up!") get blocked in unexpected ways ("Who are you to order us around?") or generate further issues (the lot becomes a better place to play hooky). The activist has to escape the "paralysis of analysis," but also must be accurate about the effects and costs of actions, which can radiate far beyond the immediate zone in which they occur.

Large and small scale social and environmental problems in the U.S. have come under concerted assault before, most notably in the Progressive era of the early 20th century. The great successes of that time, in clean water, safe housing, conservation of natural areas and much more, also established dispassionate expertise as the preferred approach to such issues (at least by liberals). Gather enough data, include enough considerations, weigh it objectively, and sensible, legally defensible decisions will emergeĀ—or so goes the argument. However, as the complexity of issues has increased, and as affluence has permitted many more parties to mobilize their own experts, the ideal of dispassionate expertise is becoming unreachable. Technicalities breed sub-technicalities, and the latter sub-sub-technicalities, in a fractal process of escalating delay and cost. And it turns out that many of the actors have more uses for the delays than for smooth functioning.

There is a way forward, embodied in the long tradition of physical design. Buildings, ships, bridges and dams, water systems and waste disposal are objects of transcendent complexity, if one tries to assemble in advance all the knowledge and technique that might be required to make them, but yet do come into existence, and serve their very diverse tasks effectively.

The process which generates buildings and bridges, namely "design," is quite different from expert-based decision-making, even though expertise plays an enormous role in it. Instead of assuming that the answer can be deduced definitively from the evidence, the designer takes a different stance: The designer constructs, in imagination, an intervention in the world, and then uses powerful representations of the world, such as drawings, mathematical models, or simulations, to assess the ways in which the contemplated intervention would change the world. Usually, modifications are indicated, and the process goes round again, often numerous times, before the design settles into final form.

This design stance can be used for many different kinds of problems, from housebuilding to social activism. Houses are a straightforward example to start with. The early stages of designing a house are typically to have some very general ideas about its features and character, to choose a location, and to make some rough sketches or diagrams about how the features might be physically embodied. (By the way, many houses are not designed. They are copied or cut-and-pasted together from previous buildings and unexamined assumptions. Such houses are not under discussion here.) Already at this point, constraints and limitations begin to show themselves, such as high cost or the difficulty of all rooms having the same dramatic ocean view. Client(s) and designer(s) re-imagine the house in ways that address these challenges somehow, and may also reveal opportunities, for example a convenient location for storage. New drawings emerge, often with labels as to sizes, materials, and the like.There may be several rounds of imagining and drawing. Eventually the drawings have become detailed and definite enough to guide construction. The dream has evolved into a reality.

Social activists often use much the same process to establish a program or campaign for a reform. The locus of action is societal, say a budget decision, rather than physical; the constraints may have more to do with politics or social history than with drainage or carpeting; the number of people affected may be much larger than a household; there may be spreadsheets or maps or organizational charts rather than sketches or blueprints. But the same cycle of construction an intervention in the world, using imagination aided by concrete representation, is there.


Therefore, approach issues with the stance of the designer: construct, in imagination assisted by concrete representation, ways to intervene in the world for the better. More specifically, choose a client, a locus of action and a form of intervention; use static or dynamic simulations to indicate how the setting will react to your intervention; gather information and make analyses (but limit the scale to the smallest allowed by your setting) to shape the details of your contemplated intervention; modify, adjust, and refine repeatedly, evaluating effects at each round. Assume few limits at the start, and use the iterative process of modifying and evaluating to teach you which real limits exist and how to cope with them. When the right balance of timeliness and effectiveness presents itself, follow Samuel Mockbee's advice: "Proceed and be bold."

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How can people or organizations focus notions, and wishes into meaningful steps? Adopt a productive mode of thinking using the stance of the designer: construct, in imagination assisted by concrete representations, ways to intervene in the world for the better. Assume few limits at the start, and iteratively modify and evaluate. When the right balance of timeliness and effectiveness presents itself, follow Samuel Mockbee's advice: Proceed and be bold.

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Rob Knapp

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Rob Knapp